Chinese browser game Kingory has 70 million users across all territories, and Bo Chen, CEO of its developer Joyport Technology, shared the secrets of its success at GDC China.
Describing his company as a "leader in China's industry, especially at the early phase," Chen said that Kingory is "one of the most successful web games, with the most copycats in China. We were the first to enter the frontiers of Taiwan and Malaysia's market, and we took Malaysia by storm. Recently we just entered Thailand's market, and we also had success."
A Philosophy of Simplicity
"Our game development philosophy is that simple is best," said Chen. "I think that the philosophy behind good products should be very simple."
The simple idea that drives Kingory? "We just wanted to make it fun."
"Before Kingory we thought all of the web games were just very simple, but I think that we did a much better job than our peers of combining the game elements with the web platform. This is the foundation of our success," said Chen.
A fan of Japanese developer Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, Chen was motivated to develop his own title because "many games made by Chinese developers were not good enough, so that motivated me to exceed our colleagues in China by doing a polished strategic Three Kingdoms-type game."
One of the key success factors, said Chen, was the team's decision to make the game "very historical and realistic" by researching the storyline avidly. Chen read the original 14th Century Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel and more.
"I myself, and my colleagues, are interested in history, especially ancient Chinese history, so we did extensive research on the Three Kingdoms period in China, and we read extensively... [Kingory] looks very real and it helps a lot to get our gamers immersed in our historical gaming environment... We use a lot of historical elements; we did a lot of reference checks."
However, that's not enough. "We also talked to many Chinese hardcore gamers to gain their insights and feedback because there are many newbies in china... They may not be very interested in history but they might be interested in the gameplay."
Said Chen, "Many hardcore gamers gave us very positive feedback because they feel it's very real and true and they appreciated our efforts in making it real. Hardcore gamers do pay attention to details in our games. If they think that a game is well-made, they will appreciate our efforts and believe 'this is a quality game developer.'"
That leads to positive community involvement, said Chen. "Also that will encourage them to get engaged with the game by volunteering to be guild leaders, for example."
When the game launched, he said, "We established ourselves as a reputable game developer. We didn't make a lot of profit back then, but we did earn a high reputation in the industry and with our user group. Especially those we call 'gamer leaders', they gave us a lot of positive feedback and they helped us a lot by recommending our game to others."
The developers emphasized both subtle and complex narrative developments and strategic gameplay -- a rich mix, Chen said. The team concentrated on level design to satisfy the hardcore audience it sought. The game's system design emphasizes class systems and military hierarchy, "which enables users to experience an intricate gaming system and get a lot of fun from it."
"We established a very systematic gaming framework, especially the combat system," said Chen. Offering total control over troop deployment "set our game apart. With this simple mode we can elaborate with very many other exciting features in our game; that's why many gamers felt highly engaged with our game. There are so many elements, so much fun for them to experience."
An Emphasis on Speed
When developing a game to be played on the web, said Chen, "Everything should be most efficient. I believe our web game players, compared to a traditional MMO... they are most like internet users, and they may leave your game due to very small reasons."
The team, thus, emphasized speed -- no loading is allowed to take longer than 30 seconds, and in particular, making sure that performing actions took half as long as they do in Travian. "Increase the efficiency, and players will believe your game is better than your competitor's."
Chen also believes honest and speedy community engagement is key to running a game as a service. "You must give an answer within 24 hours." Moreover, "The players are very clever, if you only talk in official-sounding language... I think this feedback is invalid. You can answer like this one or two times and they will leave you anyway, and spread bad word-of-mouth, especially hardcore players. If they express this opinion within the community, it is a very damaging thing."
Conversely, "If you answer players, they will remember what you've done for them. And you can answer them very frankly. If you give them exact feedback, they will get close to you." He noted that "complaining users are looking forward to your improvement, so to those players you must have very good feedback and solve their problems as fast as possible."
Joyport's live development team for Kingory is split into two teams: one does daily updates, which reassure players that changes are always in progress, even when these changes are small.
"On the other hand," said Chen, "we have a team that works on the main version of the game. In a browser game and a web game, you need to have new functions; the players stay with you for new functions. Maybe once a month, we have a main version update and we can continue the tale."
He also noted that "Serious problems need to be solved immediately. Players will lose their patience if there is new update for the game -- so new updates are always the priority."
Moreover, Chen said, "you need to instill this philosophy into your team. Programmers and artists are sometimes against innovation because programmers always complain about game designers' crazy ideas.
"As a producer you need to educate your staff to not blame game designers, even though sometimes their ideas are crazy. They are trying to innovate and make our game better. As a producer you need to act as a very strong leader to facilitate communication."
Spying on Players
"The player experience is very important for me. You need to pay attention to the forums. In the first days of the Kingory launch, the only thing I did was observe the forums and play the game, from the initial level, while reading the feedback from the forums. I followed the fourm very closely; this is the most efficient way.
"You must play your launched game yourself, especially the producer. If you don't play it, the game might be doomed," said Chen. He said that you must play the game to understand why players want the updates they do.
He also suggested that becoming a "spy" on unofficial forums is essential to understanding your game's players ."They will not express their opinions in your game forum, you must join the group as an average player. If you become a spy, you can find the type of decisions they are going to make.
"You can't make someone do it for you; you have to do it for yourself, as a producer. You need the experience and feeling. You need to find out their tastes; this is a detailed work. If you are focused on the feedback, you can know what they are doing and thinking. It's not a waste of time; it's critical," said Chen.
The Perils of Globalization
Kingory has found success in many Asian territories, but not in others, and not at all in the U.S. due to cultural differences, Chen said. The team treats "different language versions as a new game -- or a very different game. We think in this way because we know the local culture and local gaming behavior is very different and very unique."
The studio has not had much success in Japan either, despite player interest in Chinese history-based strategy games, as Joyport hasn't had success appealing to their gameplay tastes.
Meanwhile, Joyport changed the "total theme" of the game's story in the U.S. version because Americans aren't familiar with Chinese history.
The studio assigns a dedicated team of two to three developers to each regional version of the game.
"You need to pay attention to details," said Chen. "Every version has unique and special gameplay targeting the local market. Every country is a unique entity so I suggest we should learn more."