The Unreachable and Enigmatical Land, Also Known as the Chinese Game Market

Many game studios are committed to being successful in China but are also very much aware that access to the land isn’t always straightforward.

Finnish mobile games developer Dodreams entered the Chinese Android market in late 2020. We share some of our learnings: the when, the how and the why. We also talked to industry partners: vivo, currently the 5th largest smartphone manufacturer globally from China; Chinese game market veteran and developer Fingersoft; as well as MyGamez, China market publishing partner for Dodreams.

Getting Started

So what should you know about the Chinese market before starting? It’s common knowledge among the industry that you need to utilize local partners, make sure you have enough time, and localize content. The following issues define what is possible and realistic to achieve for your game.

First, you should consider timing. We waited until 2020 because originally the game industry in China was focused on whale monetization. Also, the industry value chain felt long and was not easy to comprehend as a foreign developer. “Before acquiring users was complicated and monetizing with a hybrid model combining IAPs and ads wasn’t doable”, explains CEO Erik Pöntiskoski. However, today in China we see the same global trend of gaming being mainstream entertainment with masses and masses of different players, including casual.

Second, having a publishing partner is a must for a western developer in China. The industry hub for game studios in Finland Neogames finds in their market study that cooperating with a service provider in obtaining the ISBN license required for publishing is mandatory. Self-publishing is not possible. Finding a reliable partner that can be trusted to help you with all technical aspects regarding payments, logins, and ads as well as back you up with navigating and implementing all the constantly and suddenly changing regulations takes time.

Thirdly, though local regulation may seem a hurdle, it’s luckily also pretty straightforward. But acquiring permission to publish is not automatic. The process will most likely take 9 – 12 months and can only be started after you have a mature game product that can be reviewed. Find a reliable partner that can be trusted to help you with all technical aspects regarding payments, logins, and ads as well as back you up with navigating and implementing all the constantly and suddenly changing regulations takes time.

Fingersoft’s COO Ville Rauma adds based on experience from publishing Hill Climb Racing, the 7th most downloaded game of the previous decade, in China that you should “only consider entering the Chinese market if you already have a successful game elsewhere. It’s a very complicated and quickly changing market and often not the place to go try things out unless there is a very specific reason for it. Of course, many Chinese publishers will also take new unproven games if they are promising, but in that case, you might not have much leverage to negotiate terms.”

Finding the Right Store

The top publishers of 2020 globally according to AppAnnie were the Chinese Tencent and NetEase followed by Playrix. Tencent and NetEase have held the top positions for the past four years. 

One of the most crucial issues to address is choosing the potential and most fitting stores and distribution platforms for your game. The field is vast and fragmented and some of these are unfamiliar to western developers.

Drive Ahead! Chine App Store
Drive Ahead! in the Chinese App Store.

The most important ones are Huawei, Oppo Software Store, vivo App Store , Xiaomi’s MIUI App Store, Tencent My App, and the mobile sharing community TapTap. With these, a western developer is able to reach a multitude of Chinese users. There are a total of at least thirty different stores, so invest time and effort in finding the best ones for your game. Aim to get your game to as many platforms as possible, but consider also is the value worth the while.

We have learned some of what Chinese partners value in games. “In our discussions with vivo, we found that they see market potential for fun-filled physics-based car games based on the popularity of the Hill Climb Racing series among their store users. Their priority is to bring more moments of fun to users, so we have highlighted in our communications how we can help them do that especially for casual players.”, Pöntiskoski notices.

Drive Ahead! in the vivo App Store.
Drive Ahead! in the vivo App Store.

For MyGamez, publisher in China for Dodream’s Drive Ahead! game, it’s important that games have monetization features and a design suitable for the preferences of Chinese players. “Drive Ahead! has been well received for its engaging core mechanics, but when pitching the game to our store partners impact of monetization features such as the Season Pass are important,” says Mikael Leinonen. Also, it’s important to show long-term commitment towards the Chinese market for a game and show more exciting updates already in the works.

The Great Ban Hammer of 2020

At the same time that China has controlled and regulated its market more, it has lost the position as the global leader by revenue. China held the position for the past years, but since 2018 it has been the U.S.’ turn. As a result, the amount of games published in China has considerably decreased.

Both international and local mobile game developers were hit by the banhammer at the change of the year. During the last six months, about 100k games have been removed from the market by the Chinese authorities. The list includes premium games and games featuring in-app purchases, but also popular apps such as TripAdvisor. The vast majority however were unlicensed games. Authorities also stated that apps that had content featuring pornography, prostitution, gambling, violence, and politically sensitive information were removed. This action is motivated by a desire of Chinese authorities to manage the risks of addiction or other negative side effects of excessive gaming. Without an ISBN approval, a game that has IAP or pay per download revenue model cannot be published.

The ban hammer has made it easier for accepted developers to access the competitive landscape. Juha Mikkola from MyGamez analyzes that “since gaining the ISBN from the Chinese authorities is so hard, there are already fewer competitors on the market”. We saw about +20% engagement and monetization KPI’s beyond seasonality. The figures indicate that there is even more potential for growth than before.

The unique strength of Drive Ahead! has been that it grows massively organically, thanks to the virality from the local multiplayer design and video community. It’s a rare example of a casual game that people enjoy sharing and watching game clips. The players are proud of their in-game skill accomplishments and have fun watching the outrageous carnage. They want to spend time with the community.

Localization, Localization, Localization

Remove all western social media and analytics tools from your app. Moving servers inside China ensured for Dodreams that there were no hiccups in connectivity. This was visible as higher retention and DAU.

Once you have managed to acquire users through featuring or paid user acquisition, take continuous care of the local community of players and invest in live-ops. At Dodreams we decided to hire a local live-ops and community manager to improve the chances of reaching the full potential of the game on the market. They optimize the game for local markets and inform players of what’s going on in the game. You don’t need to localize the game, but do localize live-ops events, like the Chinese New Year. The game needs to have something universally recognized, but some content should always be localized. If your gameplay and art style have worked globally, it makes sense to be true to your origins instead of trying to be Chinese. Invest in excellent translations.

Many westerners immediately know who are those pale big dudes with horns on their helmets, but for Chinese players, Vikings might not mean anything. On the other hand, many of us might not understand who are those three kings that you keep seeing in Chinese games. The game needs to have something universally recognized, but some content should always be localized. Gladiators crashing their cars or climbing hills are easy enough to understand, the player doesn’t need to know western cultural heritage in order to enjoy playing.

The same game fields exist also in China and hyper-casual games and racing are on the rise. The biggest genres in 2020 were RPG, Shooting, MOBA, Turn-Based RPG, and Strategy. Traditionally, Hard Core/RPG type games have been very successful. Fingersoft has noted with their Hill Climb Racing that there is a big audience for more casual experiences as well.

Your game’s content should be eligible and suitable. Chinese authorities don’t want bloody gore, skeletons, and zombies. Dead bodies and big amounts of blood are prohibited. In one of MyGamez’s cases, the orange and brown liquids had to be removed from a game, since they might look red on certain screens and hence might look like blood. Either remove all red liquids and effects or change their color to blue or yellow.

Similar Monetization

Monetization also has its peculiarities within the Chinese market, but Dodreams sees it as a casual market, in no real way different from the western one. The market has monetization with ads and user acquisition is professional. Fingersoft has noted that Chinese games were traditionally very aggressive monetizers and pay-to-win was also a norm, even expected. For instance, many top-grossing games implemented monetization loops that might seem brutal to us; complicated gacha systems, peer purchase pressure, and paid progression. All the same, western developers are as capable to implement aggressive monetization systems in their games too. “Battlepass style IAPs have gotten more popular and in Mid/Hardcore games gacha is still strong”, says Mikkola.

Navigating the Seas of Bureaucracy

The new scoring method for obtaining the ISBN license is based on a five-point system. In order to be published your game should have reached product maturity. It should have an original design and high production quality as well as a high development level. Its cultural connotations should align with socialist values. 5 is the highest score, 0 is the lowest score, and 3 is scored. You need at least 3 in all five in order to pass.

Be ready to address ethics issues as the Chinese authorities require that the games have “core social values”. Regulation issues might change quickly. And when they change, they really do change. The process is slow and sometimes full of surprises. Most recently Chinese authorities have announced that games must support real name authentication as part of their online game anti-addiction efforts. Starting June 1, 2021 developers must have users sign in with their real identity. If the player is verified as underage by connecting with a government database, you as a developer must enforce certain playtime and payment limitations. Games that don’t comply cannot operate in China. 

The Chinese ID check for underage mobile gamers.
The Chinese ID check for underage mobile gamers.

Don’t take all restrictions too seriously. The government guidelines are quite easy to follow. A few years back in a MyGamez event in Shenzhen, an elderly government official said “What’s the big deal with blood? Just change the color to blue or something.” In the Chinese version of Knives Out, the blood is blue pixie dust. As developers, we sometimes make things more complex than they are.

See Beyond the Size

China is so much more than just its massive size. Many game developers are fixed on the idea that if they manage to gain even a small fracture of the market, they will be extremely successful. But the game doesn’t grow automatically. Finding users is expensive and can be exhausting too.

A small western studio is very small in China. “With MyGamez we know that our game is a good match for their portfolio and they will dedicate time to growing our business. Even with 150M lifetime downloads globally, Drive Ahead! is small for us to negotiate directly with the stores and famous giant companies like Tencent. Being a part of MyGamez’s portfolio, together with the Hill Climb Racing franchise, we’re a part of something bigger than gets the attention of the stores.”, says Pöntiskoski.

The popular Hill Climb Racing and Hill Climb Racing 2 games have accumulated over 1.5 Billion downloads globally. In China, thanks to Fingersoft’s partnership with MyGamez, the two games and the Chinese edition of Hill Climb Racing have so far attracted more than 500 million downloads on Android. “The android market is very interesting in a good way since it’s so different from Google Play de facto monopoly elsewhere. The competition between the Android stores makes them very attentive towards developers and they can have very different priorities between developers”, continues Rauma. China iOS users can be as valuable as the ones in the US. After launching on Android, Dodreams saw, based on eCPMs that Android uses may be as valuable in the EU countries for some networks.

Western developers can learn a lot from the Chinese studios: about F2F design, system design, monetization, live-ops, and designing social features. The Chinese developers are not followers who reuse others’ ideas. Mobile is clearly the first entertainment tool and platform and its social aspect will continue to grow. Mobile games are seen more as a guilt-free hobby and Chinese consumers play games in their free time. They often plan to play the way we plan to spend our Christmas holiday binge-watching Bridgerton. As the playing is thought out in advance and they have a limited time available for it, the players often use money in order to advance quickly. Plan offers and discounts around specific holidays.

The Chinese social media channels like TikTok are growing enormously also outside of China. Mobile is clearly the first entertainment tool and platform and its social aspect will continue to grow. The Chinese influence in popular culture will only increase. Remember how in the sci-fi tv-show Firefly, the Chinese impact was everywhere? This is not just a fantastic vision of the future.

Success in China is “valuable in itself since you get so much experience from a vastly different market and culture”, concludes Rauma. For Mikkola, “Overall, just the speed of the market’s advancement is extraordinary. The device manufacturers have new flagship models every few months and all aspects improve very quickly. It’s exciting to be a part of the process and see where it will go next”. “You will learn a lot about your game. Being successful in China requires boosting your game’s design and live-ops. This will also increase your western version’s quality”, sums Pöntiskoski. The Chinese iOS and Android market have played a crucial role in growth for Drive Ahead! in Q1. Getting back in 0,5M DAU and doubling our IAP conversion would not have been possible without a presence in China.

Although the size on its own is enough of a reason to publish your game in China, consider its other promises too and voyage to that enigmatic land.

Emilia Machuca Dodreams People and Comms Specialist
The writer Emilia Machuca specializes in Communications and People Management at Dodreams and loves Dune II and hates scented candles.