Henry Fong is the CEO and founder of Yodo1, a Chinese game publisher that has helped Western companies like Robot Entertainment and Digital Chocolate localize and distribute games for the Chinese market
China has the world's largest market for iOS/Android games, but for many Western developers, it's a country that still causes a lot uncertainty, trepidation, and frankly, misunderstanding. As CEO of a Western mobile game publisher based in China, here are five points I usually make when talking with my colleagues from the U.S. and Europe.
1. Most of the top paid download games in China's Apple App Store are from the West.
While China has a robust market for locally-produced games, paid downloads are dominated by Western titles. At the time of writing this article, for instance, PopCap and EA's Plants vs Zombies is #1 on China's Apple App Store paid games chart, and Fruit Ninja is #2. In fact, 8 of the top 10 paid apps are Western. This indicates China's strong interest in Western games.
However, note that I say "paid" downloads, because that brings up my next point about the Chinese market:
2. Chinese don't like buying games -- but they spend a lot within them.
While a handful of paid iOS/Android games have attracted a large Chinese audience, they're actually a small fraction of the total market. That's because Chinese are very reluctant to buy games outright. Instead, their preference is to churn through a slew of free-to-play games.
Once they find a title they like, however, Chinese gamers typically monetize at extremely high rates, through in-app payments.
At the moment, all of the top 10 grossing games in Apple's App Store in China are freemium. Unofficial industry sources suggest the top freemium smartphone games in China earn $1-2 million a month through in-app payments -- twice as much as they were making a short six months ago. But why do Chinese gamers spend so much?
3. Chinese gamers not only buy virtual upgrades -- they brag about buying them.
Western gamers typically don't like to brag about the premium items they've bought to enhance their game play, preferring to project the perception that they've advanced in-game solely through skill and long play.
This logic is totally reversed in China -- Chinese gamers boast about game upgrades they've purchased, and enjoy showing them off whenever they can. This fits the general atmosphere of conspicuous consumption so common in the new China, where luxury fashion brands and cars are popular status symbols.
Smart designers can leverage that desire by making it easy for gamers to show off their paid-for items -- for example, through premium virtual items that can be displayed on a gamer's avatar.
Another game mechanic that monetizes well: Items and abilities that guild leaders can buy and gift to other guild members. This behavior leverages the Chinese cultural expectation that "The Boss" pays for his underlings, and thus, is a great way for wealthy players to gain (i.e. buy) more in-game social status.
4. MMOs on mobile are really popular in China.
While Western developers still associate MMOs with PC gaming, China's extremely large audience for the sub-genre is trending toward mobile.
The iOS/Android ports of MMOs like Hoolai's 3 Kingdoms have gained users in the millions; not surprisingly, 10/10 of the current Top Grossing games in Apple's App Store in China are MMOs or multi-player social strategy/simulations of some kind.
Clearly, Chinese fans of games like World of Warcraft (which is still huge here) are turning to their smartphones to get their MMO fix.
5. China's mobile gaming market is still a wild frontier -- but there are ways for Western developers to protect themselves.
To be sure, China's mobile market is still very fragmented, and difficult to navigate. There are over 100 Android app stores, after all. Even more worrying for developers? Piracy of Western games is still rampant. However, there are ways to protect your content and your revenue.
Since mobile games in China mostly monetize through in-app payments, for example, it's a good idea to tie your game's log-in and in-app payment authentication process to an external server. That way, even if hackers manage to bypass the client or Apple's IAP process, they won't be able to bypass yours.
Beyond technical solutions like that, getting a local partner makes all the difference to protecting your games. China's app stores are much more likely to heed the cease-and-desist warnings of a fellow Chinese tech company, than a remote foreign developer. For this, we've developed a methodology for getting app stores to pull copycat games that try to rip off our partners, and replace them with the official versions -- read more about that on our blog.
TL;DR: China may seem like an uninviting place for Western developers, but if you look closer, you'll be impressed by how much the country wants to play -- and pay -- for your games.