To give a Chinese perspective on independent development, the first day of GDC China closed with a panel discussion about the state of the market by three local industry veterans.
The speakers were Billy Hsu, CEO of DJL Worldwide, Anson Xu, CEO of Purple-Zone Interactive and founder of Dream2 Interactive, and Tony Chen, online business development manager for Take-Two Asia. All have long experience at big Western publishers like Ubisoft and EA in addition to their experience at Chinese companies.
The session was presented in Mandarin and simultaneously translated into English. "We three have in common, that our job is to look at the industry trends. Our job is to look at gaming-related companies from different perspectives," Hsu explained. He opened up the talk by saying, "This probably will be different from what you've heard in previous speeches. Our mindset is quite different from the Westerners."
However, not everything is different: Hsu promised that "we're just gonna talk about the independent spirit." Inspirational quotes included "the independent spirit is free speaking" and "the way of free thinking is very essential for an independent spirit."
The talk was posed as a series of questions from Hsu, which the other two panelists debated. As the Chinese market is concentrated on MMOs, many of the questions revolved around that. The first, then, was: which is more fun? Developing, or operating a game?
Said Chen, "From a development perspective, it's a closed environment. You work with a team of people... you work under the same ceiling, on the same concept. There's a lot of room for expressing yourselves." However, "For operating, it's more iterative. We are interfacing with more people than in the room. We have to cooperate with the QA team and the end users."
"It's hard to say which is more fun, especially as regards to China's current situation," he admitted. However, Chen said, "I think operating is more important. For online games, the development phase's completion is just the starting of the battle. If you let me choose, I think operating is more fun because it's more challenging."
Said Xu, "The most difficult part in operations is that the game is what users love -- you have to be sure about that. You have to realize that and make sure it's what the customers want." Xu, perhaps a bit jokingly, added, "In China you'll see there's no pleasant cooperation between foreign game developers and Chinese game developers. Even within local game developers, it's not that pleasant."
However, operating has its downsides, too, Xu said: "I think, in the future, just operating a game as an operator is very difficult, because you really have to understand the users." But it has its benefits as well: "Foreign gaming companies cannot be operators in China."
Next question: Any recent trends in the Chinese indie scene worth paying attention to? Said Chen, "The local development teams, they have a big dilemma. Whether to develop a game for the money, or work for their dream. This is a big dilemma, especially in the early phase." The solution? Prioritize. "In my opinion, in my entrepreneurial experience, I feel that indie games developers need to ask themselves, what's their ultimate purpose?"
The question of cloning games came up very quickly. Chen said, "When we review local developers, they're all facing a mistake. We always talk about innovation and originality. In my view, copying is a tricky topic. How to copy is a question. You can copy creatively, with originality, as well. You can base it on a previous successful example and add some new creative elements. There are many ways to innovate old games -- in my view, this is a way of innovation."
Chen brought up the example of the game Harvest Moon, developed originally in Japan for game consoles. This title was the inspiration for Happy Farm, a popular Chinese social networking game, and from there, FarmVille, the number one game on Facebook as of this writing, was born. He said, "I think those games look quite similar. But I think they all have uniqueness, and target their local market with fun gameplay, and have adjustments to target their local markets. Those game developers really understand the users' needs and they make proper adjustments, and create a new game experience which satisfies the users."
Xu was more blunt, and more general. "No matter what trends, but you need to grab what are the majority of the users needs in Mainland China, if you target this market."
To prioritize as a developer, cash is the question, he said. "What you do depends on how much money you have." In a tough, competitive market like China, said Xu, it's key. "I think it's better to start safely -- don't go extremely original because it's a lot of risk. In China, I think to survive, first, is the priority."
When it comes to getting ideas, said Xu, "You can see a lot of successful indie games in North America, and that could be a reference. If you just started from scratch, we should really learn the successful experience of foreign game developers." However, he said, "I'm not saying you shouldn't innovate; you have to figure out your capability and budget."
"I particularly like discussing things with my counterparts in the U.S. game industry, like PopCap. I've learned a lot from them." However, it's tough to make PopCap style games work in the Chinese market, Xu noted. Plants vs. Zombies has been pirated heavily; "it's very, very hard for foreign game developers to figure out the model to let them pay," he said.
Next question: What is your motive, a good company, or a game with great success? Chen said, "Before I started up my own business, I would choose a good product." His priority changed to both once he got up and running, however.
Xu focused on the human equation: "[Bringing] together a good pool of talent. This is a thing of urgency in China now. There are many companies that lure people using high salaries, or stock options, but we still think there's a big pool of talent in the industry." Xu has founded his second company, and he's seen the skill of his staff "constantly increasing" as time goes on. "Your team needs to be a stable one with good experience and credentials."
Chen agreed, saying, "New development companies will inevitably meet a constraint in terms of capital, and human capital. So how to gather a good pool of people, especially how to foster those talented people, in the two to three years that they'll gather their experience, and create their value in the company, is of critical urgency."
Hsu wanted next to know if there is still room for copycats in China. He said that "It's possible [to copy existing games] because there are many new gamers in China." It happens all the time in the market, but Xu wasn't sure it always works. "Personally I think there is opportunity, but whether or not you can entirely copy the content, especially the spirit of the game... It's very difficult to copy those famous games, especially their spirit."
Saying "there are also opportunities to have innovate while copying," Xu explained the right way to do it: "You need to be similar to the famous [game's aspects], but you also need to innovate on the core content. Some of my friends also produced a game and copied from [a popular title] but it wasn't a success because the game's selling points aren't really targeted to the same hardcore gamers as the previous famous games. Many previous gamers weren't attracted to this game. So planning must be very detailed, and you need to have a comprehensive understanding of all the games in the genre."
Further down the copy road, or maybe even IP licensing, Hsu asked if the panelists recommend converting successful single-player games to online games. Describing it as "possible", Chen said, "The nature is a single player game. I think the failure chance is very high. We have to pay attention to the interaction between users, and the social behaviors in the virtual world. Whether your game can be a medium for them to make friends, connect with friends, form a guild -- these features are very important to develop a successful game."
Xu said, "For smaller developers, we should not do that." For the games that worked out, Chen said, "I think they picked the right games, because they already had features [suited] to support multiplayer features."
When it comes to conversions, Xu said, "The problem is that they always have the shotgun strategy -- they look for the short-term profit. With that kind of mindset it's hard to modify the games well. You should really have a serious thought on the modification... Personally, I'm against that idea."
So if you shouldn't copy or modify an existing game, asked Hsu, what should you invent by yourself? To determine that, said Chen, "An indie game developer should look at the strength they have." When it comes to gameplay or tech, it's okay to innovate, he said, but "in regards to art, graphics, I think basically those are the stuff we should follow the trends."
Chen warned that you can't ignore certain things because you're an indie. "Big game developers, they have to consider the legal issues and IP issues. As an indie game developer, we have to consider that as well."
The topic of where to get ideas quickly became a discussion of the iPhone instead. Said Xu, "For the iPhone market, you should learn from the developers targeting that market overseas. It's a really a new chance and opportunity for our game developers to look at. I think the iPhone game platform is like a social club -- very, very informal and very new."
At the end of the session, the panel took audience questions. The first questioner said even though there are 100 online games launching every year in China, the big companies don't innovate much.
Said Xu, "As a developer who worked for big companies previously, I'd agree with your view. We'd use the same game engine, and we'd copy the game style. We did that because with the way of copying, the speed would just get faster and faster, and they'd feel like it's a safe option." He named Perfect World and Shanda as examples of this tactic.
"When they recruited a new development team, they'd encourage those development teams to use the platform and resources to develop similar games and retain users," said Xu. But now that he's gone indie, it's different. "As smaller developers we'd like to look at how to enhance the experience for those companies' users."
But with so much competition in the market, is it okay to make an MMO? "My advice is don't do the operation. In the current market, the operation barrier is very high. If you're confident you can develop a good game, go ahead, and find a big game operator and let them operate it for you," said Xu. If you do make enough money from your first title, then consider operating newer games yourself -- but bear in mind, the operator will spend on marketing and server costs on the game's behalf, as well as having a trusted name with gamers.
The next questioner noted that Western indie developers are obsessed with innovation, but that the idea of copying or conversion was prevalent in the talk. Said Chen, "We're not saying we're against innovation. I think it can be represented in many areas. Smart copying is innovation. A good copying is that you really understand the core of the product. It's a good adaptation."
Innovation is safer in the right venue, said Chen. "I think for any game developer it's a risk, especially for MMO game. If you do a web game, it doesn't hurt, and I think you should try some innovative ideas."
Xu spelled out why this is the case. "I think that because there's a big difference between the U.S. and China. In the U.S. there are many angel investors who would like to invest in innovative ideas. To be an entrepreneur in China is very hard. There are not many investors here, and if you have an original idea, they worry about the risks. If you copy a successful game you have a much better chance to get investment in China. It doesn't mean we're not willing to be innovative, it's just that in the current situation you need to have enough money to survive first."
However, said Xu, "I think within two years, it will change." He noted that while "fresh graduates" run startups in the West, veterans from companies like Tencent and Shanda are striking out now, with experience under their belt, and as more get the chance to do the same, innovation will increase.