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The specifics of publishing in China

Last year, we started publishing games in China. While we still have a lot of work to do, everything is definitely on motion — we’re expanding the team, partnering with stores, attracting users, organic traffic, and experimenting a lot. In order for this to work, we have to figure out a lot of issues specific to China.

I’ve already wrote a piece about the licenses that game publishers need, about the difficulties of doing business in China from outside the country, legal issues and more. Today we’ll take look at a few more distinctive features of the Chinese mobile games market.

What’s new

First off, a couple of updates on the things that changed since this article.

Here’s the biggest one: the procedure for obtaining an ICP license, which is necessary for the games that don’t have  in-app purchases, has become more complicated. Previously, standard processing took a month and cost about $100, but the process could be officially accelerated to 3-5 days if you paid extra. Now obtaining a license takes 30 days regardless, and the fee has increased 2-3 times, to about $250 (depending on where you apply).

But there’s good news too: during the summer, the Chinese government released a statement saying that they understand how difficult it is and promised to support the industry. How exactly are they going to do it is yet to be announced, but the shares of local gamedev companies have already grown by 5-10%. New games by Tencent and Netease got licensed in September — getting papers took a while even for the prominent players like them, so, all and all, this is a positive development.

That’s it for the updates, let’s move on to yet another batch of market specifics.

Audience

Hyper-casual game developers should pay special attention to the fact that the Chinese audience is very fond of achievements and social mechanics.

For instance, we’re working on an update for a hyper-casual game where you can make in-app purchases to become the mayor of various cities and all other players will see it on a ‘leaderboard’. The only difference is that in the Chinese version you can get in-game currency only by watching ads.

The audience in China historically loves social mechanics because they’ve had fast and cheap Internet for quite a while. Therefore, games like Brawl Stars, PUBG, and Honor of Kings, as well as local versions of card games like poker, are very popular in the country. The competitive factor is one of the most important features for the local market.

Back in 2015-2016, the main income from China came from in-app purchases, while everywhere else it came from advertising or try-and-buy. There was also a developed system of quick payments that required only putting your finger on the button. It’s the same in the West now, but China had it earlier.

China even has a particular type of business — BT. Let’s say we have an MMO that’s losing popularity. Another company takes over and simply speeds up the process of getting achievements. Players are given the opportunity to cheaply purchase all the content, quickly upgrade and collect all the achievements. In some Western countries, all content is distributed for free before the servers are shut down because no one needs it anymore. In China, you can profit off of this process.

All this leads not only to the point that it’s difficult for Western companies to work in the Chinese market, but that Chinese developers themselves have difficulty entering foreign markets.

Marketing

We’re currently optimizing the process of making creatives for the Chinese market: we’re looking for artists and video makers to join the team. But here’s the problem — even though Azur Games has a very strong international marketing department, the difference between the Chinese audience and the rest of the world is so distinct that we need local staff who understands the Chinese audience to make ads. Even the absolute best of our ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions aren’t going to work here.

This applies to visuals, sounds, emojis, the overall cuteness and effects. Sometimes you watch an ad clip and feel like you’re on TikTok. No one in the West was able to exactly copy this style so far.

Here’s another example: even the most well-developed, high-quality mobile games in China are often advertised as if they were made for a high school project. They deliberately lower the CPI with “poor-quality” ad creatives. Meanwhile in the West, misleading ads are as popular as they can be.

How to test hypotheses

Chinese app stores don’t have the A/B test features we’re used to seeing on Google Play, where you can roll out an update to a certain percentage of the audience. In China, this is prohibited: according to local laws, there can’t be two versions of the game in one store under the same name, even if they’re slightly different.

However, there are several other ways to test hypotheses.

Since there are a lot of app stores in the country, you can test the update on the audience from a smaller store first. If the metrics increase, you can implement the same changes in popular stores.

Larger companies have another option. They register several legal entities, make several different builds of the same game, and put them in the same store under different names. Then the companies attract users from various sources to evaluate their reactions to different versions of the product, because the data you get by monitoring organic traffic is not a solid ground for decision making. But you have to keep in mind that you need a separate set of documents for each build, which cost $250 each.

Final thoughts

China is a very complex and interesting market, so it’s impossible to share all of its secrets at once. Now we already have several successful cases and continue to experiment.

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