China is estimated to be the world’s largest gaming market, with an approximate revenue of $40.85 billion in 2020. So it really isn't any surprise that when people mention the Chinese gaming scene, the next question is always “How do I enter the market?”
To understand how to thrive in China, you must understand how the gaming market achieved the “world’s biggest” status. A big part of that success is due to the fact that it is one of the first few countries that adopted and popularized the free-to-play mechanics we see today. Now, as China’s game publishing rules tighten, we are seeing an increasing number of Chinese studios focusing on the global market — with recent hits such as AFK Arena, Rise of Kingdoms, and Genshin Impact topping the charts. And as Chinese gaming companies are poised to dominate in the global market, there is plenty we can learn from these giants.
In this article, we will share four things a typical successful Chinese developer excels at, and that gaming studios around the globe can learn from to find new successes at home and abroad.
Viewing innovation as a means to an end
Chinese developers are often labeled with the notorious title of a copycat. However, we feel they are misunderstood. In reality, Chinese developers view innovation as a potential solution to any issue they are expected to face and keep whatever is working.
If a particular game mechanic works, why change it? They will look to other “micro-innovations” — such as different themes, better live-ops, or even a creative method of conducting UA — to make a game their own. This results in the industry learning from one another — leading to constant incremental improvements which eventually benefit the industry as a whole.
As a free-to-play mobile games publisher, we sometimes come across studios that want to create innovative/unique gameplay. If you have indeed created the next genre-defining mega-hit, then you can expect to hit the jackpot. However, what usually happens is that many studios ended up innovating for the sake of being different. Different doesn’t mean it's better. Taking a good concept and making it great usually has a greater probability of succeeding.
How do game developers decide what to innovate on? They make the decision based on data collected from their games/tests. Good teams we have come across are extremely data-oriented: They validate all hypotheses with tests and make decisions based on meaningful data. This trend is also becoming more mainstream globally.
One important thing to keep in mind: Being data-driven internally is often not enough. Be sure to find partners, publishers, outsource support, or UA agencies, that work on the same page as you. This data-focused approach will help you get better alignment.
However, being data-driven is not enough, it is also important to find the fastest/lowest cost method of testing your hypothesis before committing more resources. It is not unheard of for teams, especially hypercasual studios, to conduct marketing/UA tests even before building the game. By doing so, they commit minimal resources to validate their ideas. Based on the metrics, they will find out what works or doesn’t work and iterate from there. Is the art suitable? Does the gameplay look attractive to our target audience? What themes should we adopt? These are all questions many Chinese games studios answer early in the process.
Building a game that we love is important, but we also need to realize that this is also a business, and it needs to be sustainable so that we can continue doing what we love. More often than not, the metrics would determine how well your game could eventually scale.
Heavy emphasis on live-ops
When you launch a game, it is not a “done deal.” This is especially true when it comes to free-to-play games where live-ops such as game updates, regular events, customer support, community management, etc. could make or break a game.
Seeing that Chinese teams are so big on data, it should come as no surprise that they rely heavily on data collected to run the most optimal live-ops that are suitable for their game. So much so that they often have a specific role called “Game Operator.”
Live-ops is also deliberately planned from the very beginning of development, and not as an afterthought when the game is launched. Events planned are not only festive events; they include recurring weekly/monthly events, and even offline live events!
What kind of event you focus on is largely dependent on the data collected, as well as your team’s objectives. For example, if data shows that players have too much in-game currency on hand, more purchasing events would not be as effective/useful as a “spending” event, where players are rewarded for spending their in-game currency. As a publisher, it is important to integrate key data points and keep track of players’ behavior. Based on that learning, we will organize the most optimal live-op event not just to maximize profits, but also to ensure our players are enjoying the game.
To keep whales engaged, top-grossing games within China would not only proactively reach out to them and make them feel important, the studios go as far as to have employees designated to keep them engaged within the game. Ultimately, this increases the satisfaction of whales, retaining them for longer periods which eventually leads to more IAP revenue from them.
With their heavy emphasis on live-ops, not only do these developers have the resources to understand their gamers they also ensure gamers are always engaged which eventually drives a better RoI.
Willingness to explore new marketing creatives and innovative production hacks
No great game is complete without a strong marketing strategy — and this is where the Chinese have innovated to get players' attention.
One type of ad very commonly seen is episodic ads featuring different famous actors/actresses that would break the fourth wall, and engage with players directly.
Because of the comedic nature of these ads, many of them quickly became viral within China and were even frequently sent as a meme on WeChat. These ads become so fun for viewers, you would be able to find compilations of different episodic ads which would tell the “full story” on various platforms such as BiliBili.
With these ads, Legend of Mir has managed to achieve major brand awareness, that both gamers and non-gamers alike are aware of them.
Credits: Legend of Mir - Shanda
Raid: Shadow Legends used a similar ad tactic where they blurred the lines between the game world and the real world, attracting non-gamers to give their ads a second look.
Credits: Raid: Shadow Legend - Plarium
Not everyone has a huge budget to splurge on their UA Creatives, and Chinese studios face the same constraint. Instead of spending massive budgets to produce Hollywood-quality creatives, many Chinese studios rely on innovative creatives that look like a “homegrown” production.
Learn more about new markets and how to reach them at MGS Expand.