When I started PopCap Asia in 2008, people thought it was crazy for a Western casual games company to try and expand into the region. Just seven years later, you’d be crazy not to try. This is true not just for bigger game companies like PopCap (now part of EA), but for small indie developers as well. Not only is China — by itself — about to be the biggest single game market in the world, but changes in game development and distribution have made Asia much more open to casual developers of all sizes.
I saw this firsthand at Casual Connect Asia in Singapore earlier this year, where the floor was crowded with developers showing off a huge range of games. The indie scene is alive and well there, thanks to the same tools that have allowed Western developers to focus more on game play and fun than on engines or backends. While that means you’ll be competing in Asia with homegrown developers, it also means there’s a wealth of experience you can draw on.
I get asked a lot about what makes a game successful in Asia. The short answer, of course, is the same thing that makes a game successful anywhere: a ton of planning and a little bit of luck. Beyond that, here are four key areas to focus on in your planning:
1. Choose the Right Market
The Asia Pacific region is incredibly diverse — if you’ve thought about localization at all, you already know that. But it’s not just language or platform you need to consider. Gaming culture is important too. China may be the biggest gaming market out there, but that doesn’t mean your game is the right fit for Chinese players. Note that this isn’t just a Western-to-Asia developer problem, of course; think of all the Asian games that have failed to make it in the U.S. or Europe.
It’s also important to remember that “casual” is in the eye of the beholder. South Korea has such a competitive multiplayer gaming culture that casual games there look a lot more “hardcore” than casual games elsewhere. Similarly, while “casual games” and “free-to-play” are almost synonymous in the U.S. these days, Chinese players expect to have to pay to play (and win), and so casual games are much more heavily monetized there. RPGs and puzzle games remain popular in Japan, with monetization focused around “gotcha mechanics” that emphasize collecting. And don’t forget the obvious cultural differences: Cricket is a national obsession in India, and accordingly cricket-themed video games are incredibly popular there.
Not sure where your game might do best? Spend some time looking at the top-selling games in the countries you’re thinking of targeting. App Annie is useful for this, as you can set up dashboards that track very specific app types based on various combinations of platform, country and revenue model. It’s important to look not just at the top games, however, as it’s not exactly a surprise that Clash of Clans and Candy Crush are popular in many regions. Taking a look at the games that are ranked 20th through 100th will give you a much better picture of the popular trends.
Platform is important too, and it’s not as simple as Android vs iOS. Where are people actually playing games? It’s not a coincidence that eSports first became a phenomenon in South Korea, where PC bangs had already created a massively social gaming experience. Long train commutes in Japan mean that mobile games are popular, but the legacy of feature phones means that smart phone platforms have only recently taken off — far later than they did in other countries that skipped the feature phone stage. Then there’s India, which is seeing significant growth in mobile games, but much slower growth in players willing to pay for those games.
2. Don’t Forget About Android
Apple has been seeing huge growth in its iOS platform lately, particularly in China. But Android phones still dominate even there, with 72% of the market. Revenue comparisons are harder, but a recent report by Digi-Capital makes a compelling argument that Android revenue is usually underestimated. With Google Play nonexistent in China, the Android games market is divided among Baidu, Qihoo 360, Tencent, Wandoujia, and dozens of smaller distribution platforms. When added together with revenue from Google Play elsewhere, Android revenue platforms are actually greater than iOS revenue, according to this report.
That doesn’t mean you can use the same strategies for the Android version of your game as for iOS. Apple devices are aimed at higher-end consumers, and so they are more likely to be purchased by people with more money to spend on games to begin with. So to get the same amount of revenue in China from Android, you’ll need far more downloads than you would with Apple. Too much work? Let me remind you that China is set to overtake the U.S. as the biggest market in the world for games this year. By 2018, the Chinese market is expected to grow to $32.8 billion a year, according to Newzoo. That’s $8 billion more than is predicted for the U.S.
One more thing to remember about Android devices is that because a main part of their appeal is their low cost, the majority of them are aimed at a less affluent audience. While Chinese companies such as Xiaomi and OnePlus compete at the higher end with top-of-the-line Samsung phones, super cheap phones such as those from Coolpad are increasingly popular. In addition to having fewer features, owners of these phones will be more sensitive to the cost of data downloads, which means you may need to adjust your game accordingly.
3. Develop Strong Partnerships
Casual games have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the democratization of game developer tools, and that applies to entering new markets as well. Just as you don’t need a 10-person engine team anymore, you don’t need to open your own office in Singapore. There are plenty of smart, reputable firms that can help you do great things, but you’ll need to do your part as well.
It’s not enough to pick up a distributor’s card at a trade show and then email them six months later to tell them all about your new card game that you’re sure everyone in Indonesia will love. You need to start thinking about your APAC strategy early and reach out to the right partners. In-person meetings are always best in building relationships, and if you plan ahead, you can arrange these for Casual Connect or GDC, rather than an expensive one-off trip.
Remember that it’s not just localization you’re looking for. Whether you’re bringing your game to Indonesia or Korea, a good local partner will help you adjust your business model, handle local marketing, and make sure you have the right distribution relationships.
Not sure where to start? Ask other game developers about their experiences and check out market-specific panels at trade shows. Make sure that the localization and distribution partners you’re interested in actually have experience in the markets you’re targeting, and always ask for references. If they can’t give you the phone number or Skype ID of a current client, back away quickly.
4. Use a Strong and Flexible Backend Solution
I realize that faced with so many markets and distribution channels, the idea of bringing your awesome casual game to APAC may now sound less appealing. But don’t despair! This is where planning comes in. Include a flexible backend in your game from the start, and once you do find the right partners in the right market, they will be able to modify and operate your game far more easily and cheaply.
Don’t have a backend team? Don’t worry about it. Just as companies such as Unreal and Unity have put much more powerful engines in the hands of game developers, other companies (including my own, PlayFab) are making full-featured backend technology available at a fraction of the cost of doing it yourself. That means you can focus your localization resources where they can really make an impact, and significantly reduce the time and resources needed to enter new markets.
Casual games have never been more popular, and the resources to bring your game to the Asia Pacific market have never been more within the reach of ordinary developers. Take the time to find the right market and develop the right relationships and you dramatically increase the chances your game can succeed in the region, no matter where it was developed.
Note: This article originally appeared in Casual Connect Magazine, as "Four Keys to Success in Asia: Tips on Bringing your Game to the APAC Market."