Comment & Opinion

How to make your game a success in China

How to make your game a success in China

AppInTop is an automated mobile app marketing platform that combines the mobile traffic from 30 countries into a single interface.

It also runs a regular marketing podcast, with PocketGamer.biz publishing transcripts from the most interesting discussions.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here or listen to this episode here.

In this week's article, Evgeny Kosolapov, the CEO of i-Free Asia, talks about how to market mobile apps and games in China.

AppInTop: There are more than 100 app stores in China. Why is this?

Evgeny Kosolapov: Android is the biggest system in the Chinese market but Chinese Android devices don't have Google Play.

This is for two reasons. Number one is that the paid part of Google Play is not open to China. The second is that local manufacturers prefer to install Android without Google Play. This leaves you with a user base without a main app store.

Do developers wanting to enter the Chinese market need to submit their app to all of these app stores or are there specific ones you would suggest working with?

There are different strategies for single player games and for multiplayer games because there are different requirements for the app stores.

Let's consider a single-player game. In this case, you don't need to change the game for each app store. You implement the billing in the game. These are usually operator-based games, which are billed through premium SMS. Then you distribute it to the app stores.

At this point, it's your choice as a developer - Do you want to focus on just one or two app stores, or would you prefer to place your game on all of them?

You also have to decide whether to launch your app on all your selected app stores at the same time or perhaps you have connections with a couple of app stores and wish to give them a preferential launch a week or so in advance?

From the end-users point of view, all app stores are the same.
Evgeny Kosolapov

From the end-users point of view, all app stores are the same. They all have a game section, which has the usual categories within it. Therefore, from the view of the developer, it makes no difference which app stores they distribute to.

Is there anything a developer needs to know in terms of what's illegal for apps in China?

You have all the standard limitations you have in any other country, and there are several specific age limitations. There's also zero tolerance to gambling.

You would probably would want to avoid politics because if you have a game which is based on political issues, it won't be accepted.

In regards to sex, China's standards are quite similar to European standards. Explicit sex and porn are obviously not allowed. Violence is the same. Shooting games and fighting games are okay, but games such as Grand Theft Auto will not be viewed well.

What apps stand a high chance of success in China? Is there anything you're currently seeing trending in China?

China has traditionally loved arcade games because they're the same everywhere in the world. People like to play this sort of game on their commute home because they're easy games to play.

Temple Run 2 has been heavily localised for China

You have a hardcore audience for MMORPG games, which are a different types of game on mobile where the game session won't be that long - perhaps five minutes to half an hour. It's a different type of audience and a great one to find if you can.

In terms of casual games, there are certain waves of popularity - flavours of the month if you will. As an example, we could say that this spring has been the spring of runner games - all types of runners.

Most notably are runners in the style of Temple Run. Other variations are runners in the subway, runners on the street and so on and so forth. Right now, of the top ten grossing games, five of them are runner games. But this will be over in a month, and we'll have another craze.

Does a developer looking to break into the Chinese market need to translate their app into Mandarin Chinese?

This depends on how heavily your game is based on cultural context and how much text you have in the game. For example, right now a very popular game in China is 2048, the puzzle game. For this sort of game, you don't need to translate it; it's a universal sort of game.

This spring has been the spring of runner games.
Evgeny Kosolapov

However, for games where you have text so you can explain to the user what they need to do, if you have any sort of tutorial within the game, even just a two-step tutorial, then you should definitely translate it to Chinese.

Is there anything the developer needs to know about the mentality of Chinese users that may affect the success of their app in China?

The cultural background and knowledge of the cultural background is very important. It's very different in China, I'd say it could be a different planet like Venus.

If your game is based on a story such as knights in the Middle Ages or the American Civil War, people here will not understand that at all. For cultural-specific games such as those, if you had the time and the budget you could probably use the same ideas, but redo all the art and the story to find some Chinese theme within it.

Can you give an example of an unknown foreign app developer who's been successful in China?

Honestly, I can't. I've been based in China for the last four years and I've never heard of the grassroots success story of a foreign company in China.

The reason is if you have a nice game, you will probably have had it pirated. Therefore, you would have local users but do we call it success or not? It's another story because you won't generate any money from that.

If you really want to make money in China, you have to enter China yourself - to open the branch here or find a local partner because you can't get the billing if you are not in China. You have to be connected to the operators and use their billing connectivity to make money from your game. We do have successful foreign companies in China, but their success is due to their local partners.

In regards to marketing tools, the usual platforms such as Facebook are not available in China, so where can mobile app developers buy ads?

As you pointed out, Facebook is not available here. However, for every advertising network that is blocked here, there is a local equivalent.

For Facebook, this is Renren. For Twitter, it's Weibo, and for YouTube, you have Youku and Tudou etc. But some of the advertising networks are universal and do work here, such as Chartboost and AdMobile.

A foreign developer could probably implement their usual tactics, just using the local equivalents. So if you usually advertise through Facebook, you would probably explore how Renren works. You would need to know the language, of course, so you would probably need to employ one or two people who speak Chinese and can do it for you.

There are two strategies to employ for advertising networks. One is to go through international networks such as AdMobile or Chartboost etc, and the other is to explore local solutions or advertising. It helps to have somebody in the market or someone close to you who can help out within the market.

How do you get WeChat, for example, to feature your games?

If we're talking specifically about WeChat, then there is no way to get featured for WeChat right now. This is because WeChat is following the story of Line and Kakao in Korea and Japan.

What they do is create their own game centre and the first games in this centre are their own or from close partners. They're just starting to accept some external games, but only one by one.

There is no way to get featured for WeChat right now.
Evgeny Kosolapov

How you get into this is a whole different story. Right now, out of the hundreds of games in China, WeChat only has ten games on their centre. Currently, there is no simple answer of how to get on there and they aren't letting the secret out of the bag!

It's very competitive too. All the big brands are trying to work with Tencent. Right now, it's very difficult.

Regarding pulling together a PR campaign, do you have any suggestions for publications or where one should aim for publishing app reviews?

There are a lot of bloggers, forums and review sites you can use. However, if you write a message in English, you will not get a response. You need to have at least one Chinese-speaking person in your team if you want to have any kind of communication with the local media.

To have success or progress then you probably need a local person, partner or team who personally knows the bloggers and reviewers etc and how to present the information to each of them.

China is the land of relationships, after all. Personal relationships are everywhere in business.

What algorithms to app stores in China use to establish the top ranking apps?

This is the dark side of the story. One thing is that there are multiple app stores and even if you decide to only focus on ten of them, for example, you have to decide which ones to use. It's much less effective than if you could just use Google Play.

The second thing is that each app store has its own algorithms. Some of them rank games based on just downloads, some of them do it by downloads and revenues, some by reviews. Each app store is unique. There is no single answer, no single algorithm.

If you have connections in China, is there an agency or a person that developers can contact that would cover the full range of mobile app promotion in China?

Most of the success stories of foreign games in China have been through a local publisher.

Plants vs Zombies 2 is one of the first thirdparty games to get support via WeChat

The usual story is to get a partnership with a local publisher and they do absolutely everything: connectivity, local billing, local localisation, adaption, implementation of local SDK, PR, traffic. Everything you can think of that a publisher would do.

How difficult is it to maintain these partnerships?

Usually the partnership is based on the revenue share. The more money the publisher makes, the more money the developer makes. Therefore both sides are interested in promoting the game and making more money.

It's challenging to maintain the relationships, of course. Historically in the gaming industry, it's a love/hate story between the developer and the publisher.

How can you deal with piracy in China?

Let's consider the typical story of the app developer. Usually, the developer launches the app first on Apple or Android, or both. Then they think about China. The problem is that you don't realise until after you've launched your app that one third of your audience is already in China.

Basically, when you launch the app on Google Play, the game will be immediately pirated to the local markets. The analytics will show the audience in China, but you can't do anything with this audience because Google Play doesn't work here.

So then you think you've lost money. You go to the local publishers to try to get them to help you make money. They now have to fight with the piracy. They localise your game, but in the time that takes, you are losing more of the potential audience. Once the game is localised, you go to the market with the publisher and start to get the revenues, yet the publisher has to fight the piracy.

China has to be a primary thought when you launch an app.
Evgeny Kosolapov

The ideal situation is to launch the game in China at the same time as on the global market. When you know your launch date, give the game to your Chinese contacts so they can localise it and apply for the billing. Then the game will launch simultaneously in China and the rest of the world so there's zero piracy.

China has to be a primary thought when you launch an app, especially because in terms of downloads, China is the number one market in the world.

It's behind the US and Japan in terms of revenue, but I can tell you that the top-grossing games can really make one or two million US dollars per month.

Which business model is the most profitable in China; ad based, free-to-play or paid?

The answer is simple; free-to-play. This business model was invented in Asia, in China and Korea. You can't make users here pay upfront for an app. It's impossible.

Advertising still is not working as well in China as in the US and Europe because the mobile ad business is still in the growth stage. You can make some money, but it would be a very small chunk of the revenue.

What's the revenue split when you're talking about the developer, the app store, the telecom company and presumably what you're doing on the local publishing front too?

The revenue split is not usually secret. Everyone is talking about fifty-fifty of the net revenue, which is after the app store and the billing solution take their cut. The billing solution will rise, if you use the operator billing like premium SMS, the operator will take, maybe even fifty percent of the gross revenue.

MMORPG games have the worst payment solution because the big part is taken by the operator and you can't make high level billing price points. For this type of game, you have to use the online payment solution, which is similar to PayPal, but local versions such as Alipay, Upay, Tenpay etc. In this case, the payment price point could easily be up to one hundred dollars.

Where do you think the Chinese market is going and what will happen with it in the future?

The Chinese market performs in waves. There was Angry Birds, then Treasure Plants, now it's Temple Run. China is following the trends of the global market, just a month or so behind, but it will catch up with the global trends at some point.

China embraced Angry Birds

There are local specifics too. The local market is heading towards multi-player games. MMORPGs are where it's going and here you would expect high retention rates.

One last question. Could you tell us three things that any developer should know before launching in regards to China?

Firstly, if China is part of your global launch strategy, do pre-selection and talk with some local companies here and get their feedback. You don't necessarily need to sign a deal straight away but have someone in place that you could sign a deal with if you launch in China. Do your prep work.

Secondly, in technical terms, the Chinese market has yet to catch up with the global market. You need to consider the low-edge package game which is small. It must be 50K maximum. Rich graphically games, even running or racing ones which are as heavy as 200K, will not work in China. Optimise your package.

Thirdly, from the technical point of view, think ahead of localisation because we still have cases where the global developers haven't used Unicode in their games and then when it comes to translating it into Chinese, you have to start from scratch.

This isn't just restricted to China, it's the same for any foreign market you wish to launch in. Have the global mindset from the beginning. That's the most important thing.

This is an abridged interview from the mobile app marketing podcast produced by AppInTop, the automated mobile app marketing platform.

Listen to this podcast episode or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

Generous people who've shared their wisdom with Pocket Gamer

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