Comment & Opinion

Western devs must get better at F2P before Chinese giants steal their players, says NetEase's Tom van Dam

Great game design can't overcome F2P naivety

Western devs must get better at F2P before Chinese giants steal their players, says NetEase's Tom van Dam

NetEase is one of those perennial top earners in the super-competitive Chinese mobile games market and it's not going away anytime soon.

The Chinese mobile games industry can often feel like one that's completely alien to its Western counterpart, driven by fundamentally different values and processes.

But when met up with the firm's Head of Mobile Business Development Tom van Dam at Gamescom he revealed a company with a deep understanding of the global industry and its place within it.

The Beijing-headquartered firm is increasingly looking West to find new opportunities - both as a source of content and a new target market.


One of the standout news stories concerning NetEase from the past few months has been its deal with Mojang and Microsoft to bring Minecraft to China.

It's a project that fits well with NetEase's existing reputation in the MMO space and, as van Dam reveals, Chinese market trends.

“There's a trend towards simulation, towards MMO, towards sandbox,” he says. “So I think the Minecraft project makes a lot of sense from that perspective.”

Minecraft is currently available in China, but in a less-than-legitimate form with a number of unofficial local operators.

There's a trend towards simulation, towards MMO, towards sandbox.
Tom van Dam

For Microsoft, then, the decision to team up with a local partner in NetEase seems a sensible strategy for the region.

Different strokes

In the Western mobile top grossing charts, Minecraft is one of the only games using a premium model. But it represents a tougher proposition in China where free-to-play much more ingrained.

He attributes this to the fact that, while “slowly maturing”, the F2P model in the West is “still quite young” compared to a Chinese market where it has been de rigueur since the mid-2000s.

“You see some great, innovative experiences across the board,” he says. “But when it comes to monetising [and retention] in the long-term, the West is still catching up a little bit.

“You could almost say that it's a little bit naive. It's not a mature industry in that sense.”

Wake up call

Meanwhile in China, according to van Dam, free-to-play mobile game development has reached the industrial age: “Just pumping out products”.

But those in the West should not allow themselves to become complacent and assume that this does not affect them. They find themselves in a race, van Dam suggests.

“I think Western developers really have to step it up in terms of the monetisation and social aspects,” he says.

Fantasy Westward Journey is NetEase's flagship, top-grossing hit in China

Either Western developers master these systems to complement their stellar gameplay, or Chinese studios will discover the secret sauce for appealing to Western gamers and swoop in fully-equipped to claim them.

And NetEase is already off the starting blocks.

Western ambition

Announced in March during GDC 2016, NetEase is working on a sci-fi game - its first to be tailored specifically to a Western audience and developed by a US team, but built using Chinese tech.

We want to become a more global player.
Tom van Dam

“The Chinese market is very competitive, and needs products that are very specialised for local habits and tastes, but we also want to go beyond China,” van Dam explains.

“We want to become a more global player.”

NetEase already has a US headquarters in Brisbane, California, but this focuses primarily on localising games built for - and already released in - China.

This latest project, however, is an entirely different story.

“What have we learned in the free-to-play area in China, what have we learned in terms of technology from China?” questions van Dam. “We take that knowledge and apply it to the West."

This is evident from the concept alone, he considers, as sci-fi is “not the kind of genre" you would find in the top charts in China.

“Even the genre shows that this is a unique effort for the global market," he says.

A work in progress

But Western games developers are learning from their Eastern counterparts. Staples of Asian free-to-play design such as auto-play and tiered VIP systems for paying players are becoming more commonplace, for example.

Tencent hit WeFire was reborn in the west as Rival Fire, with Chinese-style monetisation intact

Van Dam says he is encouraged by the “more hardcore monetisation” of games like Mobile Strike finding an audience in the West as it sets a precedent for what is already commonplace in China.

“I see those monetisation techniques as signs of a maturing market, because why they haven't been implemented before has a lot to do with players being very anti-free-to-play,” he says.

But conversely, a normalisation of such practises in the West could end up creating an even wider opening for the likes of NetEase to stake a significant claim.

“It's an aspect of the market that Chinese companies are really good at,” muses van Dam. “Does that increase their chances to be successful in the West?

“Well, if they've developed games that revolve around such systems and the Western market is more accepting of these systems, it's definitely not going to decrease their chances.”

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.