Q&A: Cracking the code of China's mobile market with Ubisoft's Palasse
Paris-based Ubisoft is making headway in Asia, and mobile games are a key to the publisher's strategy. In broad terms, Ubisoft takes a popular brand, adapts the art style for local tastes, and leverages local partnerships to effectively promote the game and place it on the many app ecosystems in the country. Such was the case with Might & Magic Heroes: Era of Chaos, a mobile game created exclusively for the Chinese market and published by Tencent.
Gamasutra talked to Aurelien Palasse, Ubisoft's head of publishing and licensing for greater China, about what Chinese consumers are looking for in a mobile title, and the unique challenges of opportunities of the market there.
When you came here, what was the publishing situation?
Aurelien Palasse: So when I came in China eight years ago the situation was different, because the market was mainly PC and free-to-play. It's only in the last five years, I will even say three years, that there's been a shift to premium content on PC. All the casual business has moved to mobile pretty exclusively here in China.
So it was mainly web games and free-to-play, and even eight years ago, Steam wasn't that popular yet in the West. So for Ubisoft, we didn't have a strong free-to-play catalog at that time, so the business was mainly on the gray market for us. And when mobile came through four, five years ago, we directly jumped in the business.
So what were and what are Ubisoft's plans for publishing in China and how are you actualizing that?
"We're developing partnerships to make games in China for the Chinese market with some of the best local developers. We have two Might and Magic and one Assassin's Creed that have been announced."
I can talk on my side, on the mobile side. So the mobile side has two parts: iOS and the rest. For iOS, we go more directly.
We work with Apple and their store here and all the games that you can see that are released in your territories in the West are also available here, fully localized, fully China-ready. So the game has been tested, proofread in Chinese, customer support adapted, social network reframed. This kind of thing.
On iOS, China is pretty -- I won't say straightforward, but for Android we work with local partners because the market is more fragmented into different local players. So that means we need to do censorship approval.
So for example on Hungry Shark, we have to remove the blood. It's one of the things we have to do. All the builds which are localized for the Chinese market are done by Ubisoft, we don't give the game or the source code to any partner. We just team up with them on the publishing side.
On the top of these two businesses, we are developing partnerships to make games in China for the Chinese market working with some of the best local developers here in China. We have two Might and Magic and one Assassin's Creed that have been announced.
Ubisoft removed the onscreen blood from the Chinese version of their mobile title Hungry Shark
In your opinion, what does the Chinese market want? What is it that Ubisoft is trying to deliver to the Chinese market?
"I think Chinese players basically want brands. And I think that's where we are good at Ubisoft. We don't develop games. We create worlds, we create brands."
I think Chinese users basically want brands. And I think that's where we are good at Ubisoft. We don't develop games. We create worlds, we create brands. And it's a different mindset.
On the studio here and in every development, you have brand director, brand manager, that really makes sure all the marketing, the positioning is well done, which China is maybe not as advanced at yet.
But on the other side, to crack the market here, you need good monetization. I think Chinese players that are playing a Ubisoft game, even done and developed by a Chinese developer, they expect the game to have good storytelling, gameplay, with some breakthroughs. So that's what we're trying to do.
What can you do as Ubisoft to make your games stand out on app stores in China?
If you look at, for example, the game we released with TenCent, we put out Might and Magic and we made it more chibi, more cute, so it's more appealing. But they know it's a Western brand, which is important also for a Chinese user because they are not totally out of the world. They know Marvel, they know DC, they know Assassin's Creed. So for us, I think it's a very strong advantage we have compared to non-IP games.
Might & Magic Heroes: Era of Chaos trailer
I think that's is interesting because people think what's successful in Asia is Asian brands, right?
"What Chinese consumers expect from a Western brand is really the storytelling, the quality of the assets, the innovation on the gameplay."
Yeah, but I think Chinese consumers desire western content. HBO series here are very popular. And Chinese consumers are always trying to find this content. If you had time to visit Shanghai, it's full of Starbucks and McDonald's. The thinking is to merge both.
What they're expecting from a Western brand is really the storytelling, the quality of the assets, the innovation on the gameplay. So I think if you adapt the art direction but keep your brand pure, which is what we're doing, then you have a perfect take on the market. It's not incompatible.
Consuming what comes from the West is a bit trendy. Hype. It's good also to know what's happening globally. You feel more part of a global system. At some point consumers also want that and that's the Chinese audience.
So would you say that one of the challenges therefore is just purely the way the government runs things?
I mean, I won't say only there because you know Japan and Korea are also difficult market for Western companies. So there is definitely a cultural difference. But in China business is on top. I do even believe that Chinese users are actually very curious people. The citizens are curious, very open. Embrace change faster than other countries that I've ever seen.
So there is definitely a cultural difference, but also access to the market is more difficult. Maybe it's a kind of a protection for their own businesses; we only hear of the censorship but I can see industry protection. Because it's creating other giants to balance back the global economy. So it's a mix of all that. Ubisoft, we develop content, we develop brands, we are very happy to do local games, adapting with local publishers and we've learned a lot from that.
Aurelien Palasse, Ubisoft's head of publishing and licensing for greater China
One interesting thing is that Ubisoft globally does Facebook, it does YouTube, but in China you have to match that kind of marketing without those tools.
"I think WeChat is even more advanced than Facebook or Messenger. WeChat is more Facebook with Twitter, with Uber, with Amazon, everything you can have inside, you can exchange money with Apple Pay… it's all in one super app. "
Yeah, in China—So YouTube, Facebook, every big format is here, but has a different name. And for every category, there are three to four big players. That's really the concept, so you need to work and do everything here locally.
We basically tried to use the same recipes, the same tone we have in the West. Like fun and very cool tone which is new if you compare with local brands, and I think it's what people like and that's why we have so many followers right now. It's exactly the same method, but you have to work with a local partner. But there's no big change.
I think even in China, with mobile apps like WeChat. I think WeChat is even more advanced than Facebook or Messenger in terms of what you can do with it. WeChat is more Facebook with Twitter, with Uber, with Amazon, everything you can have inside, you can exchange money with Apple Pay… it's all in one super app. So also it's interesting for us to work and develop specific store content because it's going to come to the West. We are pretty sure China is leading the mobile ecosystem globally. I'm pretty sure tomorrow your Facebook will look more like WeChat.
What ideas could you get from China that you could use in the West?
What I'm thinking is probably in terms of monetization right now. You know there is this taboo of "pay to win," but my point is maybe to say they manage to handle data, player records, better than we do. So yeah, we have to learn on monetization in my point of view, because monetization is also linked to another point which is retention. And doing games that are free and people stick with for years, that takes a real expertise.
What separates a Chinese style game design from a more Western one?
"In games that have global servers, you often see that the top rankings are immediately taken by the Chinese users who can spend money to stay on the top. "
Yes, so first you have seen the art style, right? It's a bit different. You can see a lot of cute and Asian style gain popularity, especially Korean and Japanese games. It's still a differentiation. It's maybe also, it has something to be done with the censorship. Because if you go to realistic, you have more chance to have blood and executions than if you are cute, right? So everything is connected.
But I think the main difference, on my point of view, is Chinese user are consuming content faster than what we do. So you often see that, especially in games which have global servers, that the top rankings are immediately taken by the Chinese users who can spend money to stay on the top. And this is what you don't want to happen, so you have to balance this.
But yeah, I think the main difference is you don't have limitations of how much money you can pay to get in the leaderboard. When in the West, you have to balance it better because you don't want the top player represented by the top buyer. I think this is going to be the main difference. Because if you look at the mobile market, which is global free-to-play, it's pretty similar, fast-paced, easy, simple loop. Grinding is not only linked to China anymore.
Might & Magic Heroes: Era of Chaos
You've said that China is currently about 16% of the market share for mobile for Ubisoft, for some games 30%. Is that in line with what you want? Or do you want China to become? To grow and be huge and be the biggest part of your mobile market share?
You haven't talked to my counterparts in the US, but you want to be number one. I'm not sure, but yeah, I think China should be between 30 to 50%. Riot or Blizzard are doing these kind of numbers.
Disclosure: Ubisoft provided Gamasutra’s flight and accommodations for this press tour.