Comment & Opinion

Why Marvel: Contest of Champions ditched Android and went auto-play/pay-to-win in China

Kent Wakeford on Chinese changes

Why Marvel: Contest of Champions ditched Android and went auto-play/pay-to-win in China

As recent news has underlined, the Chinese mobile games market is a tricky one in which to operate.

Given that's the case for Chinese-based companies, it should mean it's almost impossible for western companies.

Not that this assessment bothered Kabam.

The US-headquartered company - which granted does have a big Beijing development studio - spent several years thinking about how to engage with a market it hopes will help it see Asia account for 10 percent of its sales in the near future.

First attempt

Like many western companies considering the move, Kabam's first attempt to break into the Chinese market was to partner with an established Chinese publisher.

It already knew the game it wanted to debut in the country was the highly successful Marvel: Contest of Champions: its fastest game ever to $100 million in revenue.

It also knew that the majority of downloads and revenue in China came from its many Android app stores.

For that reason, its partnership with Dota Legend developer Longtu Games was about culturalising the game and gameplay for the Chinese audience, while also localising it in terms of the relevant app stores, advertising, monetisation and social networks etc.

However, as 2015 drew to a close, Kabam's attitude started to change.

Instead of the complex task of publishing and distributing through multiple Android stores, the fast growth of the more valuable per player iOS devices in China forced a rethink.

We added an auto-play option because players wanted to level up faster.
Kent Wakeford

The result was Kabam changed its mind.

It decided not to release on Android with Longtu Games, instead self-publishing Marvel: Contest of Champions - which is known as Man Wei Ge Dou: Guan Jun Zhi Zheng in China - through the Chinese App Store itself.

Not that this was a simple process, legally or technically.

Barriers to entry

"Lots of things came together," explains Kabam's COO Kent Wakeford over the change of approach.

"12 months ago, we saw the rise of iOS, which now accounts for 50% of the revenue in the Chinese mobile game market.

"Ad tech sector also matured, which meant we could spend marketing dollars in a measured way."

He says dissolving the Longtu relationship proved amicable, but that setting up Kabam as an legal entity allowed to publish an online mobile game in China took many months in order to gain the correct licences from the required Chinese ministries.

Even more difficult was the six month process working with Amazon China to add in-country online hosting.

"Hosting outside of China wasn't an option because of the low latency a game such as Marvel: Contest of Champions requires," Wakeford says.

Faster, harder

As for gameplay culturalisation, that raised its own set of issues.

As expected, compared to western players, Chinese gamers wanted a quicker progression.

"We added an auto-play option because players wanted to level up faster," Wakeford explains.

"They're much more about the meta-game."

In addition, Man Wei Ge Dou: Guan Jun Zhi Zheng gained a new gear system - again focused on faster character levelling - and a pay-to-win focus.

Chinese players are more accepting of pay-to-win.
Kent Wakeford

"Chinese players are more accepting of pay-to-win," Wakeford says.

"Of course, you need to maintain a balanced economy, while also making sure payers get special treatment."

Super superheroes

In some senses, these are the changes that would be expected when bringing a well-honed western game to China.

More surprising, however, were some game-specific and Marvel-specific differences in terms of how players interacted with the game.

"We found that characters with specific abilities or differentiated powers such as Black Widow were more popular than characters such as Hulk or Captain America, which have more resonance in the US," Wakeford reveals.

And, more generally, Chinese players were less interested in accumulating a big collection of Marvel characters.

Instead they were happy to sell off more of their characters to focus resources on a smaller group of stronger characters: again part of the faster progression theme.

The results

In terms of those all-important KPIs, "The game has a higher conversion rate in terms of payers in China, but currently a lower retention rate," Wakeford says.

Thanks to UA, Man Wei Ge Dou: Guan Jun Zhi Zheng had a strong launch in terms of downloads

Indeed, download numbers have been solid - over two million at launch, thanks in part to UA marketing through channels such as WeChat/Weixin.

That saw Man Wei Ge Dou: Guan Jun Zhi Zheng enter the iPhone top 100 grossing chart, peaking at #61.

It's since dropped to sit around #130 so improving retention is the current focus.

On the grossing iPhone chart, Man Wei Ge Dou: Guan Jun Zhi Zheng is sitting around #130

And as for the likelihood of an Android version, "We'd need to work with a partner," Wakeford comments.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.