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Why now is the time to localize your mobile game for Southeast Asia

Mobile gaming is a growing industry throughout the world, but the growth is not equal in all regions. In this article I explain why Southeast Asia is especially attractive and why now is the right time to enter it.

Why Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia is an area of approximately 4.5 million square kilometers, roughly half the size of the United States. Countries that make up the region are:

  • Maritime Southeast Asia: Indonesia, East Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, East Timor, and Brunei.
  • Mainland Southeast Asia (known as Indochina): Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam, and West Malaysia.

In the 20th century, the countries have seen mixed fortunes in terms of economy and political upheavals, but overall the story has been one of rapid growth. Over the past decade, the region has averaged a growth rate of more than five percent per year. If Southeast Asia were one country, it would be the world's ninth-largest economy.

State Capital Area (km2) Population (2014) GDP (nominal) USD million (2014) GDP (nominal) per capita, USD (2014)
Brunei Bandar Seri Begawan 5,765 453,000 17,105 $37,759
Cambodia Phnom Penh 181,035 15,561,000 17,291 $1,111
East Timor Dili 14,874 1,172,000 4,382 $3,739
Indonesia Jakarta 1,904,569 251,490,000 1,187,962 $4,723
Laos Vientiane 236,800 6,557,000 11,206 $1,709
Malaysia Kuala Lumpur* 329,847 30,034,000 367,712 $12,243
Myanmar Nay Pyi Daw 676,000 51,419,000 63,881 $964
Philippines Manila 342,353 101,649,000 278,260 $2,737
Singapore Singapore 724 5,554,000 289,086 $52,049
Thailand Bangkok 513,120 65,236,000 437,344 $6,703
Vietnam Hanoi 331,210 92,571,000 187,848 $2,072

Until recently, the region was seen as playing catch-up with the developed world, but it’s now achieving a status of a significant market, including for mobile gaming. Southeast Asia’s economic growth prospects, huge population and fast-rising internet connectivity (especially mobile) all point towards solid growth in terms of game spending for many years to come. In addition, for a foreign company Southeast Asia is a region that could be easier to access than for instance China or Russia. Southeast Asia is interesting for one other reason. Many Japanese, Korean and Chinese game companies have had mixed success in trying to conquer the West and have since shifted their attention to Southeast Asia which is closer in terms of geography and (game) culture. At the same time, Western companies have spotted the potential and set up local offices and localized content. Southeast Asia is gearing up to be a key battleground for mobile games, especially since the local market has not been divided up between homegrown players yet.

Why mobile gaming?

According to Newzoo, the global mobile market reached $24.5Bn in 2014, following impressive growth rates of +33% and +57% for (smart)phones and tablets respectively. Growth is expected to continue in the coming years, with the mobile market generating more than $40Bn by 2017. Despite a widely reported slump in new tablet unit sales, game revenues on tablets are growing faster than smartphones, cementing their position as a key gaming device.


The high mobile growth rate is driven by both organic growth, lifting the overall market, and cannibalistic growth, at the expense of other segments. In addition to the initial casualties of mobile growth (handheld console and online casual and social gaming), Newzoo notes signs of slower growth in (online) PC games and MMOs as spending is diverted to mobile devices. Mobile is now expected to become the largest game segment by revenues in 2015. Mobile games continues to grow in terms of players and revenues across regions. An increase in the number of paying gamers and time spent gaming is fueling the Western markets while rising online connectivity, smartphone penetration and the availability of 3G and 4G connectivity drives rapid growth in emerging markets, such as Southeast Asia.

Mobile gaming in SEA

Mobile games dominate in Southeast Asia. In 2015, mobile revenues already account for nearly half the $1.4Bn Southeast Asian games market. By 2017, mobile revenues alone will approach $1.3Bn, growing at an impressive CAGR (2013-2017) of +56%. Underlying this growth is the fast-rising (mobile) internet connectivity across the region.


Six countries in Southeast Asia are responsible for the lion’s share of the region’s mobile gaming market. The “Big 6” are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The Big 6 countries account for nearly 90% of the population of Southeast Asia. Much of the region’s population is young, with the majority in, or about to enter, the working age demographic. This plays a key role in the region’s current and forecast competitive advantage in the world economy.


Revenues of the Southeast Asian games market are expected to double to $2.2Bn by 2017. Thailand will remain the largest market in terms of gaming revenues in Southeast Asia, closely followed by Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore will continue to grow but will lose market share to faster growing countries. Vietnam and Thailand will grow in line with the overall market, maintaining their market share.


Gaming is one of the most popular uses for mobile devices in the region. A Google survey indicated that over 1/3 of smartphone owners in each of the Big 6 Southeast Asian markets played mobile games at least once in the last seven days. The popularity of mobile gaming in the region is reflected in the iOS App Store and Google Play, especially when compared to South Korea, one the world’s largest and most influential app markets. In December 2014, the download volume for games in Indonesia was approximately 90% of South Korea’s. Vietnam, with the smallest download volume in the region, amounted to half of South Korea’s.


While download numbers are high, app store revenues are still in the very early stages of growth, as shown in the second chart.


It is also worth noting that app store revenue is just a part of the overall mobile game opportunity in these countries. Publishers commonly use advertising and other indirect or subsidy-based monetization strategies to supplement the direct revenue that games generate from in-app purchases, paid downloads and in-app advertising. The split between IAP and advertising is growing ever wider toward advertising. Some publishers go as far as offering in-game currency in exchange for watching ads. Like South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand are traditional Asian online PC game markets since the 2000s where people are much more used to paying for online games. Also, according to a series of research conducted in early-mid 2014 by Euromonitor, annual disposable income and credit card penetration are higher in Malaysia and Thailand than in the other three markets. Both the willingness and ability to pay in Malaysia and Thailand might lead to better monetization of mobile games in these two countries.

SEA Mobile Gaming Skyrocketed

It is also interesting to see how quickly the Southeast Asian markets developed. Game downloads on iOS and Google Play combined across Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia grew 45% from 2013 to 2014. Vietnam claimed the highest growth rate, increasing 95% over this period. Indonesia was next with an increase of 85%. Philippines and Thailand saw moderate growth of about 25%, while download growth in Malaysia stabilized like mature markets such as South Korea and Japan.


Skyrocketing smartphone penetration was a major driver of this download growth. According to eMarketer, smartphone penetration in Indonesia grew from 13.8% to 21.3% between 2013 and 2014, and is expected to reach 26.3% in 2015, which translates to more than 60 million consumers. Similarly, the Global Connected Consumer Study 2014 claimed that 36% of Vietnam’s population currently own a smartphone, nearly double previous year’s figure. Historically, Indonesia and Vietnam have lagged behind Malaysia and Thailand on economic metrics, contributing to lower PC and internet penetration in those countries. Smartphones and mobile internet are more transformative in these types of markets because they are accessible even to low-income users who lack access to well-developed landline network infrastructures. Mobile gaming propelled app growth by providing an affordable and engaging form of entertainment which users can access anytime and anywhere. Interestingly, revenue experienced even more impressive growth. For these five Southeast Asian markets combined, the total mobile gaming revenue on iOS and Google Play nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014. Vietnam and Malaysia experienced the highest growth rates, at 150% and 115% respectively. Even Thailand, with the lowest growth rate among the five, saw its mobile gaming revenue grow by a staggering 75%.

Differences between countries

Over the past decade, differing economic conditions and telecommunication infrastructures played a key role in shaping personal computing device penetration and internet access in emerging Southeast Asian game markets. As a result, consumers developed different app- and phone-related behaviors and preferences. Less developed countries like Indonesia and Philippines have drawn less attention from app publishers. Fashion and trends in mobile gaming in these countries have been heavily influenced by Western markets, with inroads from China, Japan and South Korea. In Indonesia, globally popular games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga took 5 of the top 10 spots by revenue and 7 spots by downloads in December 2014. In Philippines, global leaders took an even higher share: 6 of the top 10 spots by revenue and the entire top 7 by downloads. However, unlike in Japan or South Korea, Supercell and King did not rely on massive TV and outdoor advertising campaigns to acquire users and climb up ranks. It seems that the growth in these five emerging Southeast Asian markets was more organic. In Indonesia and Philippines users were acquired more through advertising automation channels such as Facebook.

Blue: Global | Western Games | Yellow: Asia-Pacific Games | Purple: Local Southeast Asian Games | Green: LINE Games
Blue: Global | Western Games | Yellow: Asia-Pacific Games | Purple: Local Southeast Asian Games | Green: LINE Games

The story in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia is different from Indonesia and Philippines. Better economic conditions and infrastructure in these countries enabled higher penetration for PCs and internet access, which laid the foundation for PC online games. Over the past decade, game companies from China, Japan and South Korea entered these markets by establishing subsidiaries or licensing game products to local partners. In December 2014, Asian content-heavy role playing or strategy games like Summoners War, Dot Arena and Castle Clash took 5 of the top 10 spots by revenue in Malaysia, 4 in Thailand, and 6 in Vietnam. Indonesia and Thailand boast the largest percentage of payers – nearly 50% of players there spend money on mobile games. While Singapore has the lowest percentage of paying mobile gamers, in dollar terms they spend more than others per player.


Mobile Messaging Platforms and Gaming

Messaging apps are expanding their ability to serve as gateways to new audiences for games and online services in China, Japan and South Korea. This trend was already evident in Southeast Asia in the past year. Andovar’s client LINE is a market leader in the region. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, it took the #1 spot by revenue among apps outside of games in December 2014, and also ranked in the top 20 on the download charts. In Philippines and Vietnam, even though LINE didn’t rank in the top 10 by downloads, it still reached the top 10 by revenue. WeChat, which made significant progress in Malaysia, could be another major messaging app contender in the country. While there are other popular messaging apps in the region like Viber, Facebook Messenger and BBM, LINE was the only one that has successfully built a large game portfolio. However, in other SEA markets messaging platforms are still in the earlier stage of their product lifecycle. Once they hit a critical level of users to capitalize on network effects, they could roll out games and services to their massive user bases. Western messaging apps are also hoping to cash-in on this trend with popular apps such as Viber and Tango integrating games into their platforms. Tango, which received $215 million in investment from Alibaba in 2014, has over 250 million registered users and a huge selection of games, both in-house and externally made. According to the company, games on the Tango platform have 2-3x Life Time Value than that of the same games off platform. In February, Viber made its game service available to its 236 million monthly active users, following a successful two month pilot in five countries.

How does the region compare to others?

Witnessing the demand for mobile games, many PC and console game publishers from Asia swiftly pivoted to a mobile-first strategy. At the same time, the investor community continued to inject cash into the market and incubate companies vying for mobile dominance. Competition in the mobile game sector has never been fiercer in China, Japan and South Korea, motivating publishers to seek fresh opportunities. Southeast Asia could become that next frontier, and games are set to lead this growth just as it has elsewhere. Southeast Asia is growing faster than other emerging regions such as Latin America and Eastern Europe, as illustrated below.


While China is a very attractive market also characterized by high growth and a huge population, Southeast Asia may be easier to enter for Western mobile publishers. The reasons behind this are lower competition, less regulation and widespread use of established Western distribution channels such as Google Play and iTunes App Store. Half the top grossing games in Southeast Asia are Western titles. Western games are the most popular in the Philippines, where they make up 65% of the top games. Only 35% of the top games in Thailand are Western, the lowest percentage out of the Big 6. King and Supercell are by far the most dominant Western Publishers, with appearances in every Top 20 ranking.


Southeast Asia also shares many of the same preferences for social networks as the West. As high as 95% of those using mobile social networks or chat applications in Vietnam are actively on Facebook. The lowest percentage of Facebook users in the region is Indonesia, and that is still high at 78%. Twitter and Instagram are also popular, with Thailand’s Siam Paragon mall topping the global list of locations on Instagram in 2013.

Android or iOS?

In the five emerging Southeast Asian markets (Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia), Android holds a significant lead over iOS in device install base. The combination of lower purchasing power prevalent in the region and direct smartphone distribution favors the lower-priced Android devices. In 2014, Google Play generated more than 4 times the mobile game downloads as the iOS App Store in the five emerging Southeast Asian countries combined. The largest difference occurred in Indonesia, where Google Play was 9 times the size of iOS. The smallest difference was apparent in Vietnam, where Google Play was 3 times the size of iOS. iOS maintained its lead position in game monetization and was 1.3 times as large as Google Play in the abovementioned five markets combined in 2014. In Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines, the iOS App Store’s lead ranged from approximately 1.3 times to 2 times. Malaysia was the only country where Google Play’s revenue did not trail iOS App Store’s in 2014. In terms of year-over-year growth, Google Play grew faster than iOS in 2014 in both downloads and revenue. In the five Southeast Asian markets combined, Google Play downloads grew by 65% in 2014, substantially outpacing iOS. Meanwhile, Google Play revenues grew by approximately 220% and iOS by roughly 45%. Google Play's growth started from a much lower base point compared to iOS in 2013, but it has exhibited impressive growth velocity in just one short year.


In February 2015, Google released Android One devices in Philippines and Indonesia, promising more were on the way. Android One is a set of smartphone standards designed for customers in developing countries primarily focused on people buying their first-ever smartphones. Android One smartphones run nearly stock Android with Google Mobile Services and can be built on reference hardware designs provided by Google. Google’s deeper involvement in software and hardware standards should reduce manufacturers’ R&D costs to help create more affordable phones, which is key to growing market share in emerging economies.

The languages of Southeast Asia

While all countries in the region are familiar with English as a language of international business and popular culture, actual fluency varies by country. In Singapore and the Philippines, English is an official second language. In Malaysia, English is an active second language, while other countries in Southeast Asia widely use English in business contexts. In China, on the other hand, English penetration is still less than 1%. The below EF EPI English proficiency index by English First shows the differences clearly.


While many players in Malaysia and Singapore will be satisfied with English language version of the game, the same cannot be said about remaining countries. For example, Thailand is one of the largest and most promising markets, but is far behind its neighbors in the region when it comes to English proficiency. At the same time, localization into Thai is much more challenging than into established Western languages, or even Chinese or Japanese due to a complex writing system. The same can be said about Lao, Cambodian and Burmese, which all pose their own difficulties. With offices in Singapore and Thailand and many years of experience with Southeast Asian languages, Andovar is able to advice on the best approach and ensure successful localization into the languages of the region.


Mobile gaming has driven the growth of the global app economy. In December 2014, games accounted for roughly 80% of all revenue and 40% of all downloads generated worldwide on iOS and Google Play. In China, Japan and South Korea, Asia’s largest app markets, mobile gaming already has a strong foothold. We believe Southeast Asia is especially interesting to enter now because:

  • Games is already the largest mobile app category in emerging Southeast Asia. Although mobile game revenues may not be large today, they are growing at a staggering rate.
  • Mobile games experienced surprising growth in 2014 in emerging Southeast Asia. Game downloads across both stores climbed nearly 50%, with some countries showing game revenue growth of over 100%.
  • There are still blue-ocean markets in the region with entertainment-hungry populations ready to consume the next hit game, and ripe opportunities for game distribution platforms.
  • Southeast Asian markets are easier to enter for international publishers than other emerging countries, like Russia or China.

Sources: Free reports published by AppAnnie and Newzoo.

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