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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.
Hero Academy from Robot Entertainment is a huge hit with U.S. and European iOS gamers. But even though China was the second biggest market for Hero Academy by downloads, it was still only reaching a fraction of China's potential iOS audience. After partnering with Robot Entertainment to create and release a new Chinese version of the game, we went through Hero Academy point by point, and identified several likely problems it was having here:
Time zones and social media
As a multi-player turn-based game, Hero Academy needed a local server presence in Asia. Otherwise, it would take forever for Chinese players to find opponents, and cause long delays in between moves. On top of that, the Western version of Hero Academy has a lot of connectivity to Twitter and Facebook, so players can share content with their friends, and find fellow players on those social networks. Trouble is, neither Twitter nor Facebook are even accessible in China.
Western fantasy theme and game elements
Hero Academy is full of elves, orcs, and other character types that Western gamers are totally familiar with, from Lord of the Rings and other classics. So what if we introduced a China themed heroic team to the game? We thought that this would certainly be a bigger draw to the Chinese gamer audience.
Marketing, gameplay tutorials, and community
While Hero Academy and Robot Entertainment are very popular game brands in the West, they're still relatively unknown in China. If the game launched in China without a new marketing push, we knew it'd probably get lost in the deluge of competing apps. And as a pretty complex strategy game, gamers here would get frustrated if there were no Chinese language resources online, for them to turn to.
So, three big hurdles for Hero Academy - which not coincidentally, are similar to problems other Western games face in China.
Here are the solutions that we worked together with Robot Entertainment to implement:
Integrated Hero Academy with Chinese social media networks
We replaced the original game's social connectivity from Facebook and Twitter to Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, China's Twitter-style social network, with over 350 million users. We also added features that enabled players to share game info in Weibo with a single click, as well as invite/challenge their Weibo friends to play Hero Academy.
Incorporated new Chinese-themed fantasy characters
We're introducing a totally new team of characters based on Jiang Hu, the alternate fantasy world that's basically China's equivalent of Middle Earth. Movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers are set there, and the Chinese audience has grown up on thousands of other movies, TV shows, books, comics, and games featuring its flying swordsmen, supernatural monks, and so on. We worked closely with Robot Entertainment's producer and creative director to ensure the art style of our Jiang Hu Heroic Team fit the game, and that they played well with its original heroes.
New trailer, demos, community... plus cosplay and viral video!
Since Chinese players aren't familiar with Hero Academy's Western fantasy game theme, we created a new trailer with an original storyline just for them. Working with our team of 3D animators, we developed this trailer in 3 weeks, adding Chinese language text and voiceover. We're pretty proud with the results, and super glad it blew Robot Entertainment away too. Take a look:
We also created a Hero Academy mini site on our consumer page, with game info, overview, customer service resources, and course, a link to the game's App Store listing. We added a forum, so players could share game tips, talk smack with each other, and brag about their in-game upgrades (Chinese gamers love to do that).
Since we wanted to give Hero Academy a AAA-style launch in China, we turned our Jiang Hu team into cosplay characters, and unleashed them on the China Joy conference -- sort of like the E3 of China.
We even created a wacky Chinese-language viral video around the game, sort of our own spin on the popular Dollar Shave Club ad from a few months ago.
OK, I'm not the best actor in the world, but the real goal here was to tell the Chinese audience that Hero Academy was a major title, with a huge marketing campaign behind it. To help us on that front, Robot Entertainment CEO Patrick Hudson flew out from Texas to join us for China Joy in Shanghai, and participate at local press appearances.
The overall results were hugely gratifying: Within 48 hours of launch, the Chinese version of Hero Academy made the Top 10 list in free games, and Top 25 iPhone apps overall. Even better, this new Chinese version of the game was downloaded more in its first 3 weeks on the market than the original, non-localized version attracted in its first 8 months in China.
"Western mobile game developers must recognize that China is a very unique market," as Hudson puts it to me now. "And, because of its size and growth, it needs a unique strategy and approach for success. You can't expect your game to be accepted in China the same way it may be in the West."
We learned some lessons too: Though we originally thought the Jiang Hu heroic team would be a priority content update for the Chinese gamers, we quickly learned this wasn't the case, since all of the current Western teams (Council, Dark Elves, Dwarves and Tribes) were also viewed as new content by the Chinese players. And so instead of asking for a new Jiang Hu team, they wanted more features that let them compete and socialize with other players, such as leaderboards, leveling mechanics, and a quick game mode.
As the game continues gaining fans in China, we think they'll start embracing the Chinese heroes and the other new content that we're adding to the game. But it goes to show you how global the world of gaming has already become. And with just the right tweaks here and there, it's possible to get the East and West to love and play the same games.