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Can international mobile game developers still find success in China?

Is there still a way in for developers from abroad?
Can international mobile game developers still find success in China?

Mobile marketing intelligence outfit Sensor Tower has reported that 75% of the 250 most downloaded mobile games in China in 2016 were developed locally.

It paints a bleak picture for international developers who are targeting China, as their share of the top 250 mobile games in the country has fallen from 39% in 2014 to a mere 25% in 2016. 

China's tightening regulations are likely a factor in this, the most recent example of which is the banning of new games developed in South Korea from launching in the country. 

In an attempt to support developers get through the stringent regulation, Unity has recently struck a deal with Xiaomi, promising "unparalleled access and distribution" to China's mobile market.

So is China still worth targeting for developers from abroad, or is it no longer worth the risk? We put it to our Mobile Mavens:

  • Do you consider China to be a key market for your games?
  • With local studios dominating and tight regulations in place, is it still viable for overseas developers to target China?
Torulf Jernström

Torulf Jernström

CEO at Tribeflame

We look to the West first, since China is so hard to succeed in. You have to focus on one.

You cannot target the West (meaning mainly the US) and China at the same time. Just have a look at the top charts over at App Annie.

Now glance over the top grossing list, and a 25% share for games made outside of China suddenly seems wildly optimistic.

I can only see three non-Chinese flags on the list: Hearthstone (US), Gardenscapes (Russia), and Clash Royale / Clash of Clans (Finland).

Of those, the Clash titles are, of course, ultimately owned by Tencent. Also, note that the top seven titles are all from NetEase or Tencent.

Of course, China is huge. You don't have to be on the top 100 grossing list to make meaningful revenue. But the very top spots are pretty much locked in by Chinese companies.

Devin Nambiar

Devin Nambiar

Head of Product and Partnered Development at Electronic Arts

To succeed in China, a developer cannot view it as a ‘market’ that can be easily targeted and localised for. It has to be viewed as the primary target market, and the development needs to be handled as such.

This means culturalised gameplay, which often means additional development time.

“The Korea bans have more to do with political tensions rather than targeted neutering of foreign game developers.”
Devin Nambiar

While the Korea bans have more to do with political tensions rather than targeted neutering of foreign game developers, it remains that it’s incredibly difficult to succeed in China.

Not only are there lengthy government approval processes with the MOC and MOI (Ministries of Culture and Information) that must be undertaken, but the gameplay and preferences of Chinese consumers, and even the way they like to interact with UI/UX, is slightly different.

What’s more, foreign developers are mandated to engage a local publishing partner in order to launch in China; you can no longer self-publish, which eats into your margins and makes the business case weaker.

That said, the top grossing games in China earn massive amounts of money.

Hero MOBA, the top-grossing game in China and Tencent’s crown jewel, is doing roughly $100M USD per month on Android and iOS combined, and the revenue forecasts for the game in the next fiscal year are upwards of $1.5 billion. With a B.

Tencent and Netease own more than 80% of the mobile gaming market combined. Tencent focuses on the middle portion of the casual-hardcore spectrum, going more mass-market with its games, and accounts for the majority of China’s DAU, leveraging WeChat.

Netease monetises the hardcore userbase and does it with amazing product quality and deep gameplay (Fantasy Westward Journey and Onmyoji are good examples).

Because of the large opportunity, China is still considered a major market that we’re trying to break into. I would also say that it is still viable for overseas developers to target China, as long as you’re in bed with the right partner, so to speak.


If you can partner with Tencent and get a game on WeChat (not every game Tencent launches gets on the platform), you’ll have access to 800 million monthly active users, and millions in marketing spend, thus the fact that you’re only making 30 cents on the dollar - that’s your cut after Tencent takes its share - won’t matter as much.

However, if you engage a lower tier publisher, you may not achieve the scale to make China a viable business opportunity. Either way, get ready for myriad requests from your publishing partner and less control over the product roadmap.

To summarise, China is a huge market with challenges unseen in other parts of the world. Those challenges are navigable, but only by engaging the right partner, giving up some of your creative freedom, and accepting slightly lower margins as a trade-off to the massive traffic upside.

[people id="231" name="Jon Jordan"]

Is the percentage in China really that much different to the percent of top grossing domestically developed games in Japan or South Korea?

Or even in Western markets, if you want to take that as a cultural block?

Yes, China is a different/difficult market compared to non-Chinese markets, but I'd argue that's the same for all.

Developers would be sensible to find success in their local market before worrying about anywhere else.


Torulf Jernström

Torulf Jernström

CEO at Tribeflame

Yes, Jon. China is more concentrated.

The quick way to see it is to go to App Annie and look at the App Store top grossing for games in China and South Korea.

(Using Apple App Store data, as Android data is much much harder to find for China.)

For China, I count four non-Chinese flags among the top 100. For South Korea, I counted 45.

Anyway, I agree with you on finding success in your own market before worrying about others.

Nicolas Godement-Berline

Nicolas Godement-Berline

Head of Operations

Having lived five years in Shanghai, I realise that there are lots of "unknown unknowns" about releasing a game in China.

It's pretty overwhelming. Everything is so different. Localising in simplified Chinese will only get you 5% of the way. But games that Chinese players engage with have a very different narrative tone, UI, art style, progression features, social components and so on.

“Localising in simplified Chinese will only get you 5% of the way.”
Nicolas Godement-Berline

Marketing a game is also a whole different ball game as Android stores such as 360 or Wandoujia are for-profit operations, not platform trojans.

Game publishers have salesmen on the ground handing away discout coupons. They have call centres engaging with their VIPs and onboarding players on creating their guild.

Overall, I don't think I would ever dare targeting China as a key market. That said, it does not mean making significant revenue is impossible there.

For a small to mid-sized developers, you can always partner with a local publisher and try to negotiate a significant minimum guarantee.

Or just release without any particular effort and hope for a happy accident - as a matter of fact, our newly released Cliff Hopper is doing 30% of its ad-revenue in mainland China.

Kadri Harma

Kadri Harma

CEO at GameFounders

China is undoubtedly a huge market, but at the same time a standard deal for a developer means the platform takes 50% and the publisher takes 70% of the remaining 50%.

This means the developer is left with 15% of the revenue. Still, it is a big market and as Torulf said, you do not need to be top 100 to make considerable revenue.

The new rule of getting a publication number is certainly restricting and one needs to consider the fact that the number will be always attached to the publisher (i.e. who applies for it).

This means developers have limited flexibility in changing their local partners.

So far, the genres that Chinese publishers are looking for have been RPGs, but lately we have seen them also looking for more casual games to address the part of the market that is not so crowded already.

This may open up some new opportunities for the Western developers, who previously had less chance to address the Chinese market.