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GDC China: Keeping Chinese Game Developers Happy

At GDC China, Winking Entertainment founder Johnny Jan discussed the challenges faced by Chinese development teams in the Chinese online gaming market -- high turnover, Chinese patriotism, overly cost-conscious management and local perspectives on art --
At last week's GDC China event in Shanghai (co-operated by the CMP Game Group, as is this website), Winking Entertainment founder Johnny Jan (Arabian Nights Online) discussed the advantages Chinese development teams have in that market -- and the challenges they face. Jan said that the Chinese online gaming market, the largest in the world, is driven by high-quality titles and low-priced (or free) titles. The developers working in this market, however, face two main problems: employee retention and budget overflow. Jan broke these issues out into four main areas. Firstly, he highlighted the high turnover rate, especially of local talent. Chinese talents are highly competitive, but they have little loyalty and are extremely uncompromising, he said. In China, sharing secrets of success --like the conferences in the GDC -- is generally beyond comprehension. The highly skilled usually decide to work on their own, he added, and those without the skills sometimes do not work hard for anybody. Jan said that the three largest job-switching periods for Chinese developers are right after the Chinese New Year, the annual contract expiration period, and following the rise and fall of a known game company. The second issue the executive noted is Chinese patriotism. "Chinese will not forget the pain of the recent history of China, where they were mistreated by foreign countries," he said. "We can even see this in the gaming world, where patriotic games are successful." A majority of Chinese would not like to work for foreigners, and if they do so it is normally because of the higher pay from overseas companies. When there are clashes in the marketplace between Chinese workers and foreign bosses, the patriotic feelings are present, but tend not to be recognized, which makes them more difficult to tackle, Jan added. The third factor Jan cited is cost-conscious management style and the influence of IP protection costs. As a result, the turnover of Chinese developers is 2-3 times higher than the figures for the rest of the industries. This implies a huge additional cost for companies working with them. According to Jan, foreign companies have to be careful not to be too optimistic about possible cost savings, which can be lower than expected. And even if they manage to keep the costs down, it usually happens through a decrease in the quality. Moreover, IP protection is a very big issue, said Jan, not just when the product is launched to the market, but in the very same production process, where having confidential information taken by an employee that is going to change jobs can become a detriment to one's interests. Finally, the Winking founder discussed appreciation of art from a local perspective. "It is related to the costs, but is sometimes overlooked," he noted. "Local artists and developers have different sensibilities and are used to different kinds of art." Localization costs are another factor. So what solutions has Winking found that have worked for them in the past? First, provide developers with a sense of “belonging” and a continuity that they would not like to break. Jan also advised providing developers with a continuous training and learning environment, so they don’t feel like they have hit the limit of what they can learn in a given environment. "This atmosphere of continuous improvement will increase loyalty," Jan advised. He also recommended using overseas Chinese to mix up Western and Eastern thinking. "It will be easier to your local employees to relate and have confidence in an overseas Chinese than in a pure foreigner," he said. However, he also recommended using and promoting local talent. "In Winking, approximately a third of the total number of managers come from the local developers," Jan said. He recommended against using "low-wage, factory-style" management. "Praise and benefit high performance, while culling out low performers," he advised. Provide a cozy, comfortable, laid back working environment -- for example, using big, well-illuminated spaces. Invest in the working place, and provide employees with the best resting area you can, so they feel at home in their jobs. Jan also advised the arrangement of experience-sharing sessions between employees and with senior staff, to establish a culture of sharing knowledge for everyone's benefit. When finishing a project, do not rush developers to the next one, Jan cautioned. Wrap up and let them communicate their learnings, document and share them, and go to the next project when everyone is ready. Build a professional market research team that can collect information directly from the users of your games, Jan said, and put in place a mechanism to receive and use this feedback. Use closed development environments to protect your information from leaking. Use special casing for your computers and protect not just your IP, but your customer’s IP, if you are outsourcing. Lastly, the Winking exec recommended: Remember that a Chinese team will be most effective in developing local games for local gamers.

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