Comment & Opinion

4 top tips for publishing your mobile game in China

Tom Van Dam explains all

4 top tips for publishing your mobile game in China

Tom Van Dam is head of mobile business development at Chinese publisher NetEase Games.

China is the biggest games market in the world.

During 2015, it has seen a 2.2x year-over-year growth in iOS revenue, brought about largely by a handful of mid-hardcore titles, which the gaming economy certainly favours due to a lack of consoles and a strong history on PC.

Launching a product in such a climate can seem like a daunting task from the outside if it’s something you haven’t considered before.

But there are a number of elements to bear in mind, which in turn can be modified to fit your product and your ideal model.

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  • 1 Know what you want from the market

    Establishing early on how you want to approach the Chinese market will determine how to act at each of the key stages further down the line, as well as help align your expectations and set your own measurement of success.

    • Are you going all-in and aiming to establish a dominant presence in China?
    • Is your title doing well elsewhere in the world and China is the next step?
    • Or are you just looking to test the waters and see how your product performs in the market?

    A more modest approach, not aiming for the top 100 (which as you can see at any given time across Android and iOS holds few foreign-developed titles), can still yield results and help establish a presence in the country, albeit a smaller one.

    It could also let you act more freely in your design choices, so that you don’t have to bend to the will of a particular pricing structure or gameplay style that the majority of the top grossing games do.

    Will you dominate?

    On the other hand, if you’re coming at this head-on and making plans to dominate, it’s worth considering the game elements that the most consistently downloaded and highest-grossing games possess, such as a free-to-play monetization model, social features and an appropriate art style, along with an aggressive and sizeable marketing push at launch (which we’ll come to in greater detail later).

    Note the art style of chart-topping titles in China and the US, Fantasy Westward Journey and Game of War: Fire Age

    These elements will also let you consider what you want from a potential partner and how you should approach that relationship in initial discussions (again, more of this later).

    On the whole, these decisions will help decide your level of aggression when preparing to head east.

  • 2 Be ready to adapt

    I mentioned earlier that there are very few successful foreign-developed games in China.

    It’s well known as a tough market; one of the reasons Chinese companies are beginning to strike out West is because they believe user acquisition to be so much easier there and they may well be right in comparison.

    So, depending on your choice of what you want from the place, it’s time to adjust accordingly – whether this means changing your existing game somewhat or altering the plans for what you haven’t created yet (unless, like a certain talented and fortunate Finnish studio, you seem to have found that internationally winning formula already).

    Get competitive

    When it comes to gameplay, for example, Chinese gamers tend to enjoy a more combative title in which eliminating PvP opponents is key to victory, whether synchronous or asynchronous.

    They enjoy doing this with a busier, more crowded UI; just take a look at the average Western news site with its newspaper-style format and healthy use of white space, vs the Chinese equivalent in which no pixel goes unused.

    Note the difference in UI across China and the West’s biggest news sites

    Meanwhile monetization doesn’t carry the stigma that it does with Western gamers; free-to-play is now etched into the national psyche and the pay-to-win mentality is not viewed with such contempt.

    Players spend money to quietly show off and are happy to do so.

    New ways to connect

    Parts corresponding to the marketing of your game may need to become a different process too; in-built social systems that rely on the use of Facebook or Twitter will have to go, along with any other online elements that won’t make it past the Great Firewall.

    UI differences are also reflected in-game too, a key cultural difference to take note of

    Marketing your game may become a different process entirely, in fact, as the trend within China if aiming for real success is to put the vast majority of your budget on the launch itself, as we’ll see now in a little more detail...

  • 3 Prepare your launch strategy accordingly

    The trend in the Chinese game charts, in downloads and grossing, is for a title to arrive into a position and either hover within close range of that initial place, or immediately start a decline (however long that may take).

    With the most successful games it’s rare to see a slow build after launch; the product of a gradual increase in hype after a quiet release.

    Launch hard

    So it follows that, depending on your stance, your launch period here is all-important and can dictate the level of success and lifespan of your game in China.

    If you consider this your main territory and are aiming high, it’s important to go all-in immediately before and during the release of the title.

    Make sure the most relevant distribution channels are covered and that your marketing spend is maximized across all available opportunities, from App Store features to in-app advertising and media coverage; this is your chance to go big and it’s unlikely that you will achieve this height again, other than perhaps an extra push around a drop in price.

    Normally anywhere between 50-90% of a game’s marketing budget will be spent in and around the first couple of weeks.

    When it comes to working with a partner, this percentage and the amount itself is also often decided very close to launch, depending on how the final beta goes; if clear and high numbers are reported, your publishing partner will put more spend towards this key phase.

    Beware copyists

    Copycats are also a consideration here. With this more aggressive type of strategy it’s well worth making the effort to ensure a timed global launch.

    This could help avoid the many skilled copycats that can potentially do damage to your game’s chances in China by producing a clone early on and flooding the market with something that isn’t yours, but looks just like it.

    Clash Royale and its clone, Battle of the Three Kingdoms

    As I’ve pointed out earlier though, this level of activity can be de-escalated considering your intentions.

  • 4 Consider a partner that properly reflects your needs

    There was recently a change in Chinese law (link in Chinese) stating that, without special approval, "Sino-foreign joint ventures, Sino-foreign cooperative ventures, and foreign business units shall not engage in online publishing services," and that this applies to "texts, pictures, maps, games, animations, audios, and videos,".

    The full effects of this enactment haven't quite materialized yet, so there is still opportunity at the time of writing to go it alone in China and take your chances should you want to.

    Once again though, be prepared to face the differences in market structure I mentioned earlier and adjust your expectations accordingly (did I mention earlier that there are very few Western-developed titles in the Chinese Top 100?).

    For many, in the meantime, a partner to help negotiate this potentially complex territory may be preferable. That's where we at NetEase come in, alongside other well-known publishers featured in this site's Top 50 Developer's List.

    Who to partner with?

    Different publishers will bring different benefits, whether it's helping you hold onto more of your revenue (e.g. distribution via NetEase's owned media could bring expensive Android distribution costs from 60% down to just a fraction of that), or fully advising on localization and taking care of post-launch customer service.

    The benefits between potential partners may not be immediately clear, however, so it's worth investigating closely before making a decision and making sure you're not just getting a desired amount of money, but the appropriate level of commitment too.

    Simply put, Partner A's offer of $100,000 may not be the same amount of money as Partner B's offer of $100,000. Different milestones might be implemented, partners could invest in low efficiency channels and UA could be approached in entirely different ways.

    That's not to say that everyone will see your product and immediately offer you money, but a Chinese publisher is a great place to start either way.

    Ask around your peers for their experiences in China or try getting in touch with other studios that have gone with your potential options; at NetEase we'll be happy to put you in touch with previous and current partners who can shed some light on how we operate.

  • 5 Conclusion

    There’s opportunity in China: money to be made.

    It can certainly be a challenge if you’re going in with the assumption that a game with a strong chart position and high revenue everywhere else will have the same characteristics here.

    Aside from some notable examples, this is not the case.

    Something different

    That said, if you plan accordingly and manage your own expectations, the barrier of entry is not as tough as it seems and there is help at hand if you reach out to the right people.

    Profit is concentrated in China to a key few, but those few are committed and established. In itself this is a country of the long term; throughout its 4,000-year history dynasties have risen and fallen, while cultures and traditions have built on each other and prevailed.

    Adopt the attitude of the long-term and within time you’ll fit right in. regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.