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Top 10 Takeaways from Our SXSW Panel on Publishing Mobile Apps and Games in China

Mar 16, 2013 | By:

Our SXSW panel “200 Million Reasons to Launch Your App in China” turned out great, with lots of attendees and good audience questions. Here’s my top ten favorite takeaways, as offered by startup adviser Andy Lee, Patrick Hudson of Robot Entertainment, Lisa Hanson of Niko Partners (who ably hosted the panel), and myself:

China smartphone market forecast to have over 400M+ by end of 2013

200 Million Smartphones Now – 500 Million by End of 2013?
As the chart above shows, there’s an estimated 200 million Android and iOS devices in China now, and that’s expected to grow to 400 million by the end of this year. I originally made that forecast for Gamasutra last month, but as I said at SXSW, that already seems to be on the low side. Now, I’d predict 500 million smartphones by the end of 2013. As a point of reference, there’s a cheap Android knock-off of the Samsung Note that’s selling 1.5 million units a month. And that’s just one of many top-selling units. The average entry price for a “China Droid” is just $80, and as Andy added, some units are even cheaper, making it very easy for feature phone owners to upgrade.

Chinese versus Western Gamers: More Competitive — and Competitive Purchasers
Among the first questions we covered is the difference between Chinese and Western gamers. “Chinese really embrace competition,” Andy said, citing farm games in China which encourage the player to steal crops from other players, a competitive aspect that probably wouldn’t fly in the US with FarmVille type games. Patrick added that Chinese mobile gamers like to purchase virtual items for the express purpose of out-competing other players. Several other important differences: Mobile game usage is significantly greater in China overall, noted Andy, while I pointed out the demographic differences between Android and iOS: Android gamers tend to be predominantly young male hardcore gamers, while iOS has significantly more young female gamers.

Work With a China-Based Partner
In order to comply with Chinese government regulations, the panel recommended working with a local partner who can help you navigate all the laws and regulations around games and apps. (As an example of this, Andy noted that location-based apps are sensitive for regulatory reason.)

Integrate Games with Top Chinese Social Networks
When it comes to social networks that games in China should be integrated with, Sina Weibo, QQ, and TenCent Weibo are all top platforms to target. A recent momentum play WeChat, also from Tencent (see below) is huge, but is still largely closed in terms of gaming integration API’s. (Nonetheless, as Andy pointed out, some developers are figuring out ways to use WeChat to promote their games anyway.)

The App Market Beyond Games – Especially WeChat
What non-game apps are popular in China? Among the leading categories, said Andy Lee, are photo, e-commerce, and social networks apps. (Path is popular in China, for example.) Related to that, WeChat, a cross-platform messaging app very similar to What’s App, has become very big – so much so that it’s competing with China’s top social networks (see “Integrate Games” above). Lisa even predicted that “WeChat is going to change the world!” Ironically, a popular Western chat app, What’s App, was once very popular in China, but when the developer starting charging for it, WeChat, made by a local competitor, quickly beat them out.

Chinese Consumers Want Teaching Apps
Responding to an audience member question, Andy Lee described education games and apps as a “huge opportunity in China”. The products on the market are not generally made by educators, he said, which affects their quality; “Lisa went on to note that parents in China are reluctant to embrace gaming for their kids who should be consumed by studying for school tests and college entrance exams, but if there were to be a window of opportunity, it might be through the segment of educational games.

Android: Lots of Hassle to Launch, but Lots of Growth Potential
Launching Android games effectively in China requires business deals with the top 20 app stores as well as the three mobile carriers, I noted, and as Andy Lee added, it’s a “massive headache” to launch on Android in China without a local partner. That said, the promise is also massive. As an example, I cited the Android launch of Ski Safari from our partner Defiant Development: The game got over 100K+ new active users from just two Android app stores in a single day!

Android App Stores Starting to Consolidate
One reason the Android market in China is such a hassle (as mentioned above) is that there are so many app stores to deal with – literally hundreds of them. However, as I told the audience at SXSW, the market is starting to consolidate. At the moment, I’d estimate that 20 Android app stores now drive 80% of the total volume.

To Succeed In China, Seem Chinese
“Make your Western game play and feel like a Chinese game” is my advice for Western developers who want their product to do well here, something I often discuss on this blog and on my Gamasutra column . Patrick talked about the local features (including new content and social network integration) we worked on with his team, to give Robot Entertainment’s game Hero Academy a Chinese feel. Another example is Popcap’s great Plants v. Zombies, which didn’t succeed in China at first (as Andy reported), but after the company fully culturalized it to the market, it went huge.

I’ll go into more detail on this last point in my next US talk, March 26 at GDC in San Francisco – info on that coming soon!

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