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Chinese Finger Traps: The Four Most Common Failures When Entering the Chinese Mobile Gaming Market

China is poised to be next big mobile frontier. It's 900-million mobile users make it a desirable region for mobile game developers looking to make a profit overseas. Here's four common mistakes Western mobile developers make when taking a game to China.

There’s a gold rush happening in China. As its mobile market shifts from feature phones to smartphones, there’s a high demand for more mobile games that are optimized for Android and iOS. In the U.S., where there’s never really been a legitimate feature phone game market, there’s an abundance of Western mobile game developers who would like to bring their games to China’s 900 million mobile phones.

However, taking advantage of China’s massive user base and high ARPUs is easier said than done. Western developers who don’t carefully export their games can quickly find themselves in big trouble in mobile China. Here are the four most common mistakes Western developers make when taking a game to China.

1. Going it Alone: China’s app market is notoriously fragmented, making it an obstacle course for developers. Unlike in the U.S., where app stores are relatively consolidated and regulated, China has over 100 app stores – each with its own regulations. Trying to effectively distribute a new app through these channels can range from frustrating to impossible for Western developers—not to mention the threat of your game being pirated once it actually makes it to China. Without a local partner to aid in distribution and legal protection, even a great game can suffer in the market. Western developers should always consider partnering with a local distributor when first entering a mobile market as complicated as China’s.

Take Halfbrick for example: their best selling game Fruit Ninja made $6 million in revenue and got over 40 million downloads in China alone—accounting for 30 percent of its global download volume. However, it wasn’t until October 2011 that the title was finally published officially in
China by a local publisher. Before that, a pirated version inflated download numbers while contributing zero revenue to Halfbrick. A local partner plays an essential role in helping overseas developers properly distribute their games and protect them from piracy.

2. Disregarding Local Law: A key part of localization is having a strong understanding of local laws – especially as they apply to game content. Cultural differences aside, a game that is perfectly legal in the U.S. may get banned from Chinese app stores. The usual sticking points are violence and sex; even gambling games such as Texas Hold’em and Blackjack are tricky in China if the content involves transacting real cash. China’s government has also declared increased supervision on mobile games, so Western developers need to double check that their games meet China’s regulations.

3. Peddling Premium: In the U.S. mobile market, premium apps still have a lot of pull. Since most mobile gamers started either on console games or premium apps, they’re accustomed to paying for high-quality content. As a result, the app store is still dominated by titles like Angry Birds and Infinity Blade. The Chinese mobile gaming community is strongly rooted in a free-to-play model. Western developers who charge Chinese gamers for a mobile game, no matter how great, may find their sales dwindling in China. U.S. mobile developers need to recognize that their app will fare much better if made available for free than monetized through in-app purchases or in-app ads.

Singapore-based game development studio, Nubee, has enjoyed a great success in China. One of its most popular game titles, Japan Life, reached a number one ranking and is still among the top-ten grossing apps in the China App Store to date. A major selling point of this game is that it is a freemium game, which users download and play for free but only pay for in virtual goods. The free-to-play model has been well accepted among Chinese PC game users and has proved good revenue stream for developers.

On the contrary, Western developers that peddle premium may find it very difficult to drive sales in China. A top-10 game in the U.S., Temple Run only ranks around 100 in China. One of Glu Mobile’s best selling games, Stardom: The A-List, has consistently been one of the top-10 revenue making games but is only ranked around 200 in the China App Store.

4. Ignoring Culture: The U.S. and China have a lot of significant cultural differences. For example, anyone who has negotiated with a Chinese executive knows it can be a longer process, more focused on the relationships of companies than the business details. The same dynamic applies to mobile gaming. China’s mobile gaming culture is uniquely separate from America’s. This should be considered from the beginning to the end of the development process. A color palette or game character that worked great in the U.S. may be entirely foreign and poorly received in China. When Zynga brought Farmville to China, they completely rebuilt the game to more closely connect with China’s culture.

RPG is Chinese gamers’ favorite genre—they love titles with traditional Chinese history or myth backgrounds. For instance, as of Feb. 2, three of the top 10 grossing apps in the China App store ranking were games of this genre (see graphic below).

Chinese gamers also have different taste from Western gamers regarding art and gameplay styles, which leads to totally different game performance in different markets. For example, Zynga’s famous title Words with Friends performed poorly in China because the gameplay does not fit with Chinese culture. We saw similarly negative results with EA’s title NFL, which ranks in the top five sports games of the U.S. App Store but is not popular in the China App Store due to low awareness and a limited audience base of NFL games in China.

In short, developers who are expecting to take a profitable U.S. game and just drop it in the Chinese market are setting themselves up for failure. It is essential for Western developers to find a local partner, like The9, to provide a comprehensive service--not simply limited to translation--to help them make the greatest impact when publishing their apps in the Chinese mobile market.

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