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Ambitious Chinese publisher YOOZOO on its relentless vision for global success

Investing heavily in AI, esports and India
Ambitious Chinese publisher YOOZOO on its relentless vision for global success

Although it’s been making games for over a decade, it’s only in recent years that Chinese PC and mobile game developer and publisher YOOZOO has become well-known internationally.

But that’s no accident.

As Liu Wanqin, its Vice President of Overseas Publishing, tells us YOOZOO combines an ambitious vision for global expansion with a high level of autonomy so its international teams can make the most of local opportunities.

Of course, with a range of new games due for release, it’s certain we’re all going to be hearing a lot more about YOOZOO in 2020. Can you provide a brief overview of YOOZOO’s history? What are its most famous games?

Liu Wanqin: Founded and headquartered in Shanghai, YOOZOO published its very first title in the Chinese market back in September 2009. Our first foray into the Western market was League of Angels in 2013, our first browser game based on Western mythology.

At present, our games are available in more than 230 countries worldwide, and we’re one of the few Chinese game companies to feature on the App Annie table, Google’s Top Developers list and Facebook’s Top China Brands list.

Some of our most famous titles include Game of Thrones Winter is Coming – the officially licensed strategy PC browser game based on the Emmy® award-winning HBO® show – and Saint Seiya Awakening: Knights of the Zodiac, based on the childhood classic Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Masami Kurumada.

Around the world, some of our other famous titles include Legacy of Discord, Junior Three Kingdoms and Era of Celestials.

In total we’ve published more than 40 titles in the past 10 years, with a plethora of exciting titles set for 2020, including the newest addition to the League of Angels series.

Like many Chinese game companies, YOOZOO previously focused on PC/browser games but is now focused on mobile games. How easy was that transition to make?

That’s right – in the very beginning we started out on browser. However, something that sets YOOZOO apart from a number of other Chinese game companies is our heavy investment in R&D and regional localization.

We have regional offices all around the world, which gives us a competitive advantage in identifying changing market trends and consumer preferences.

Interestingly, we saw the games market mature earlier in the West due to the accessibility of PCs in most households. In the beginning, PC gaming in Asia was arguably a “niche” market for hard-core gamers.

“One of our main challenges was taking the stunning graphics we produced on desktop, and replicating them in a mobile MMORPG.”

When technology affluence hit the many in Asia, it skipped PC and went straight to mobile. The majority of the population did not (and to this day still does not) own a PC, but everyone had a smartphone.

That’s why in the early days our games were on PC/browser for our Western titles, but mobile for Asia. Now what we are seeing is this same progression happening again in the Western and developing markets.

India is a great example - young players today are going straight to smartphone, skipping the PC platform just as they did in China. Even in the West, PC-gaming is now mostly for hard-core gamers, with mobile games catering to the casual-gamers needs.

This transition is also a reflection of the maturation in the game industry. When we started out, the mobile games market was much less sophisticated than it is today.

One of our main challenges was taking the stunning graphics we produced on desktop, and replicating them in a mobile MMORPG. From a business perspective, this transition relies on identifying the right partners to work with, in everything from customer support, to advertising or digital payment solutions.

Transitions like this are of course never easy, but we have great people working for us around the world to ensure only the best quality gaming experience reaches our players.

At present, we plan to continue to release games on both mobile and PC/browser.

Given the Chinese game market is so large, why is YOOZOO interested in international markets?

YOOZOO’s vision is to share simple joy with players from all over the world. To us, games are a form of art – borderless. Currently, our market share is a fairly even 50/50 split between domestic China and overseas.

We do not want to rest on the laurels of our success at home, so the international markets represent opportunities for us to test and develop games across different categories and genres. As we continue to expand internationally, a growing user base allows to work on even more exciting projects that we may not be able to if we remained in China.

When we classify markets by country or region, what we are really doing is grouping the tastes and trends. Whilst some of our hard-core MMORPGs are popular in China, there’s a market in Europe, for example, for casual farming games, that simply wouldn’t take off here.

This is true for all mobile products, not just games. From social media to short-video consumption, technology companies must work-hard to glocalize their platform, or risk becoming irrelevant.

Anyway, once you overcome the immediate language barrier, for example with the instant translation software we implemented in Game of Thrones Winter is Coming chat function, MMOs are truly borderless anyway.

YOOZOO works closely with Tencent, which has published some of your games, while YOOZOO is working with Supercell in China. Given Tencent’s status as the #1 gaming company in China, how do you manage to cooperate with such a large competitor?

As anyone working in the game industry in China will tell you, it is simply not possible to “go it alone” when developing and publishing games. For us, working with Tencent is a win-win partnership. Both parties mutually benefit from each other’s areas of expertise and resources.

Furthermore, competition is what pushes us in every area of our life. Whether it’s in business or playing video games, the thrill and pressure of competing against others pushes us to be better ourselves.

We welcome opportunities to both cooperate with and compete with Tencent.

How do the acquisitions of western companies such as Bigpoint fit into YOOZOO’s strategy?

The 2016 acquisition of Bigpoint fits right into YOOZOO’s global expansion strategy. Hamburg-headquartered Bigpoint now acts as a bridge to the West for us, helping to expand our global reach and enhance our global development and distribution capabilities.

“We would be naïve to think that as a Chinese game company we can be successful in local markets in every corner of the globe without the support and knowledge of local experts.”

Bigpoint has been around for longer than us, and this experience really bear fruits during Western-market projects such as our annual appearance at Gamescom.

We would be naïve to think that as a Chinese game company we can be successful in local markets in every corner of the globe without the support and knowledge of local experts. Many Chinese game companies often struggle to recruit the right foreign talent because of the relatively small foreign labour pool here, but through our globalisation strategy we are overcoming this barrier.

On top of this, working with Bigpoint allows us to play with new categories of games.

Traditionally, our games have mostly targeted hard-core gamers, but take WeFarm for example. This is a great casual game for players who don’t necessarily want to invest as much time in their game, or don’t need as much of fantasy storyline – WeFarm is the perfect escape on their way to work or during their lunch break.

As Jeff Lu said when he took over as Managing Director in June, the main goals for now are to strengthen the Bigpoint brand as well as help streamline their production of exciting new titles to ensure the continuous growth of the company.

YOOZOO is very active in the Indian games market. Why is that important?

We find the Indian gaming market to be an incredibly exciting one. Indeed, it is one of the fastest growing at the moment - a dynamic market with huge potential for mobile gaming.

There are a number of factors at play here which poise the market for tremendous growth very soon: a largely young demographic, rapidly growing digital infrastructure, the emergence of low-cost high speed internet, the rise of digital payments and increasing affluence.

Under the leadership of Anuj Tandon, YOOZOO Games India already has a run of wildly popular games including Poker Champions and Rummy with Sunny, and more recently Ludo All Star picking up “Best Casual Game of 2019” by Google Play.

When we started in India in 2017, less than 30% of Indians were using smartphones. However, research indicates that by 2022, this will jump to more than 60% - accounting for some 829 million smartphone users. The average time Indian consumers spend on their phones has increased by 50% in the past few years, and India is now the largest market on Google Play for game downloads.

There are, of course, unique challenges presented here too, especially in monetization, which is why it is important to have an experienced local team. We strongly believe the next decade will be the golden age of gaming in India.

YOOZOO has been successful at acquiring IP - notably Game of Thrones and Saint Seiya. Why do you think these provide a good basis for games that can be successful internationally and in China?

These two IP titles in particular are perfect examples of YOOZOO’s strategy as announced at Gamescom this year – recreate the classics and bring Asian hits to the global market, and so it is a great honour to be able to work with them.

In fact, no matter what genre or decade it is from, any IP title has the potential to be reincarnated as a successful game. If there was a fan base there for the original, you can be sure they’re going to jump at the opportunity to make that world their own all over again.

Once you overcome the immediate licensing challenges, the trick is to work closely with the original creators to ensure the players get as authentic an experience as humanly possible. That’s exactly what we did whilst working on both of these titles.

Whilst the games industry is doing very well at the moment, we cannot become complacent. The rise of short-video platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are all fighting to grab the time and attention of users, and in-fact simultaneously decreasing their attention-span; meaning we have an even shorter time in which to grab their attention.

So the question is – how can we make our games more interesting and exciting to players? Working with these amazing titles not only helps to stand out from the crowd, but also really digs deeper into offering the escapism players crave for whenever they open our games and enter that fantasy world.

Given Saint Seiya is a very Japanese IP, have you been surprised by its success outside of Japan?

We knew based on our R&D that the title was going to be popular in South East Asia, hence the early release of the SEA version of the game Saint Seiya: Awakening. When it came to the release of the global version Saint Seiya Awakening: Knights of the Zodiac, we knew it would be key to tap into those fan bases around the world.

This is why we did so much work with local social media influencers, as well as invested heavily in localisation and customer support. So no, I would not say we have been surprised that the game was so well received globally, but it is still very rewarding to be able to play a game today that brings such nostalgia of my childhood – I’m not sure whether that’s a feeling many players can resonate with!

YOOZOO recently announced it was setting up an AI Innovation Lab in Singapore. How do you hope AI will improve your games?

The work being done in the Singapore AI Innovation Lab will not only bring a whole new dynamic to our games, but to a whole range of different industries including biomedical development – healthcare, wellness and sports.

AI in games is still in its juvenescence, and for now nobody can say for certain in which direction(s) it will go.

For now, AI is already enhancing the traditional gameplay experience for our players, for example having the option of engaging the AI to complete certain parts of gameplay on their behalf (a hugely popular feature in Legacy of Discord). This improves the experience for those players who enjoy the visual and entertainment value of the game’s storyline and graphics but don’t have the time to invest in “levelling-up” their in-game characters.

“Whilst the games industry is doing very well at the moment, we cannot become complacent.”

However, when we look at games from a business point-of-view – and not just the gameplay itself, AI becomes so much more. From helping to improve our customer service and social media operations through to creating better working environments for our games designers– we see AI as an integral tool all with the end-goal of improving the player experience.

Once all of this is then implemented, the information gathered by AI algorithms can then feedback into our customer analytics, from which we can further assess if our products are meeting the wants and needs of customers and then optimise our internal processes accordingly.

What should we expect next from YOOZOO?

In terms of games, we’ve got three original titles set to be released next year. Heaven’s Fury - our latest title in the League of Angels series - will be out soon. We’ve also got a doomsday-esque car RPG and a fantasy-world mobile 3D MMORPG to be released in the middle of next year.

All of these games will be on show at Gamescom in August, so stay tuned for announcements.

There’s also a huge IP title in the works that we hope to announce in 2020, most likely initially with a China release followed later by the global release.

Furthermore, we’ve also officially entered the world of esports competitions. As an exciting and challenging field that brings games to life, Esports is set to grow very quickly in the next few years - simultaneously blending online and offline in new ways.

As a company, we also feel a heavy responsibility to do even more to fulfil our corporate social responsibility.

The response to our Hunger Heroes gaming marathon this year was fantastic, enabling us to donate 43,665 meals to the World Food Programme’s ShareTheMeal. Going forward, fans can certainly look forward to more charitable work in this area.