Charlie Moseley is the Creative Director of Tap4Fun, an iOS game developer based in Chengdu, China. Their specialty is massively multiplayer online (MMO) strategy games, with four games currently available and plans to release another this year. Moseley has this to say about his experiences and insights in the game development industry in China.
I’ve been in China for seven years. It’s a great place to be for this industry. For the game development industry, I think China is a really dynamic, exciting place for several reasons. One is because of the emerging Chinese domestic market; this is the largest mobile app market on earth and it’s growing at an incredible pace. More and more developers around the world want to develop products that target the Chinese domestic audience, and, as well, you see developers based inside China that are better able to compete with competitors in places like San Francisco or Tokyo or Sol. There are things that are possible inside China now that definitely weren’t possible even just a few years ago. The Chinese game development industry has grown in every way and in every sense. In terms of number of users, it’s grown a lot. In terms of the variety and demographics of those users, it’s grown a lot. But it’s also grown in terms of revenue and potential revenue and business opportunities and also different types of games. There are more types of games that are popular now than ever before.
Attention is a must
It is difficult for independent developers or for new developers to get a foothold in the market because the market is so flooded with different games. I think the real currency in this market is attention, and that is difficult to get if you don’t have a history of releasing popular hit games. You have to have an audience to rely on. Without that it is much more difficult; you really have to work hard on launching your first game and capturing people’s attention and making your mark. That can be challenging, but there are definitely greater rewards for being a game developer than ever before.
Mobile & Tablet dominate
You have to embrace the dynamics of the new market. Developing games now is really not much like developing games ten or fifteen years ago. The primary platform for game development has changed to mobile devices. And with that platform change there are a lot of changes in the game mechanics and concepts. So the games are developed differently, they’re played differently, the usage scenarios are totally different, the demographic is different. Gaming has opened up to people that it was never open to before. Now, with games like Angry Birds, you have everyone from three-year-olds to grandmothers playing. So the new market is open and it’s accessible to everyone. You need to embrace these new features of the market to really see success in this era.
One of the advantages we have at Tap4Fun is direct access to the increasingly valuable Chinese domestic market. As the Chinese market grows and becomes more valuable, it’s very easy and straightforward for us to effectively target them because ours is essentially a Chinese company that’s filled with mostly Chinese people. We understand how this market works, and that understanding is very valuable.
Our second advantage is that we have access to high quality, low cost development resources in the way of engineers and artists and employees for our company. The city we’re located in has a well-known technology university with thousands of graduates coming out of the university every year looking for work. A lot of them are interested in the game industry specifically, and in that situation, our company would be a great place for them to work. The result is we have high quality resources at a low cost. Right now we have over a hundred employees. This kind of operation simply would not scale in the same way if we were in the United States, for example, just because of all the obstacles to expanding a team to that size. The cost would be far too great. In China, we have a lot of freedom in that regard and, with that, more flexibility.
A third advantage is that the startup capital required to get off the ground is less in China, and that gives us a more freedom over what kind of games we make and what we include in the games. It allows us to take a few more risks. One of the games we’re developing now is essentially an experiment. It’s a cool idea that we wanted to do, we weren’t really sure if it was going to work, but the idea is to take a risk and maybe it’ll pay off big. Maybe it won’t, but we’re in the position now where we have a little bit more freedom to do things like that.
China is very different from any other markets. The top one hundred apps in the app store are dominated by apps which are developed by people in China. That’s because developers have an understanding of the unique features of that market. A lot of our apps are directed at Chinese players in several different ways. One of the ways is a lot of historical references to different periods in China’s history. Games that have that setting in China are always popular. Obviously your app is not going to be very successful inside China unless it’s localized into Chinese, and that is a difficult process unless you’re working with local Chinese speakers. But that is a requisite feature of a successful app inside China. So we have six or so different localizations of each of our games in different languages.
I think the biggest pitfall is committing a lot of resources and time into developing a project without a deep understanding of what the market really wants and then releasing an app and having it flop. That can be devastating. If you’re a foreign developer and you seriously want to target the Chinese market, you need to cooperate with Chinese people in some capacity; otherwise it’s going to be extremely difficult for you to understand the intricacies of the market and of the Chinese people and the kind of games they play. Their context for gaming is totally different from ours. Developers in China adopted the free to play business model first and that has been the prevalent business model inside China. Most games are free-to-play with in-app purchases, in-app currency, things like that. The Chinese market has a totally different context to how games work. Without that understanding, it’s difficult for foreign developers to crack the market.
If you’re going to cooperate with the Chinese people, that means being overseas and cooperating with Chinese people that are based overseas or cooperating with people inside mainland China. Otherwise, you can get yourself into risky territory pretty quickly. There are a lot of organizations that do outsourcing in China, but it’s difficult to work with them. Maybe they won’t totally understand exactly what you want, or they could be bad communicators. There are definitely a lot of risks to cooperating with an organization inside China. The language barrier is significant, the cultural barrier is significant, and even if you can communicate exactly what you want to say linguistically, you have to realize that it could be considered in a different context because Chinese come from a very different culture that has a different system of values. It’s quite the process. But I think that more and more developers will realize it’s worth it to figure these things out.
While working on updates of their current games, Tap4Fun is also working on a few games — two of which will be released in the fourth quarter this year, one of which will release very soon, and there are some other games they’re working on that will be released next year.
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.