By: Adi Haddad, Head of Marketing at Ilyon
Not quite friends, but certainly not enemies, the United States and China have vastly different cultures – but despite that, both sides try their best to trade and promote their country’s products and technologies in each other’s markets. Some American brands – like Apple, Coca Cola – have done well in China, while several Chinese brands, like Huawei and ZTE, are recognized by American consumers for their technology, not just the low prices that Chinese products are usually associated with.
But there have been far more misses than hits for both in the other side’s markets – especially in technology. Ebay, for example, has struggled in the Far East, while WeChat, the Chinese all-around chat and e-commerce app, has yet to make inroads in the US. Why? Both missed important cultural or usage cues that consumers in each country were looking for. Chinese consumers preferred local online auction apps because they allowed them to instantly communicate with sellers (something eBay didn’t offer), while in the US, WeChat failed (or chose not) to make deals with other app makers or services like it has done in China. As a result, American WeChat users remained in the closed environment of the app, unable to use it to order meals or other products directly from chat, or tweet a photo taken using WeChat.
The differences in the way the American and Chinese markets work are just one example of how even in a fully interconnected world – with instant communications and nearly instant travel options – cultures and countries still retain independent identities, to the extent that marketers who failed to recognize just how different the world outside their neighborhood really is lost valuable time and money before realizing that they were a lot less well-informed than they should have been before foraying outside familiar territory.
It’s the same in the gaming business. With games by far the most popular app category in different app stores, there have been countless ports of American-developed games that have languished in the other countries’ respective app stores. Each failure, of course, is unique – there’s a specific reason why a specific game failed to make it – but all those failures are consistent with a list of general tried and true principles. It’s not rocket science, though; there are specific reasons that games fail, and there are specific things – among them localizing the game, and properly monetizing it – that developers can do to ensure a greater chance of success when they try to enter new markets. Here are some of them:
- Location Preferences
Different cultures generate different preferences; that’s a principle that holds true for everything from food to gaming. In the US, studies show that arcade, puzzle, and casual games – the fun, informal competition games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds – do best. In Japan, players prefer puzzle and RPG games, while in China and Southeast Asia, the preference is for social games (many of them played on WeChat).
Thus, a game that is very successful in one market could be a dud in another – not because it isn’t a good game, but because the audience it is aimed at isn’t used to the type of gameplay, graphics, or monetization strategy the game offers. Before going through the other steps that need to be taken in order to ensure game success, developers need to think about whether or not their game is one that players from another culture will even want to play.
Developers who want to export their efforts need to ensure that their target audience understands their game – the objectives, the way the game is played, rewards, etc. As a result, language and usage become a very important factor in game development. Ensuring that players can understand the menus, dialog, and texts is crucial. Even the name of the game has to be checked, to ensure that it is pronounceable and flows off the tongue properly (and, that the term is not an insult or a pejorative).
In addition the landing page and other web materials associated with the game needs to be adjusted to reflect the language, usage, and design that makes sense to potential players. Americans; especially, don’t always “do” foreign cultures well, and it might be a good idea to partner with a company in the target country – or even to hire a developer who lives there – to help smooth things out from a language and culture perspective.
Games in general rely on one of (or a combination of) three monetization strategies – ads, freemium upgrades, and in-app purchases (IAP). What works in one country may not work in another, and to ensure that developers don’t miss their chance with players – or with the market in general – they need to do their homework on how monetization strategies they have chosen work in each country.
For example, many games (especially free casual games) will rely on ads for monetization. Nothing wrong with that, but developers need to be on top of how mobile advertising works in their chosen market. For example, a game that relies on ads from a network with good performance in Tier 1 countries (but not in Tier 2 or Tier 3), is unlikely to find enough traction with that network in Brazil or India; in those countries, alternatives more popular locally (like inMobi) are likely to provide greater ad opportunities, resulting in more revenue per user.
Another example: Although they are avid game players and heavy smartphone users, residents of most Far Eastern countries (except Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) don’t have as much money as Americans. And although they are very familiar with the concept of in-app purchases and freemium games, getting them to pay for upgrades or coins, could be more of a challenge than it is with US users. That said, there are IAP opportunities even in countries where most consumers don’t have/can’t afford financial instruments like credit cards. In China, for example, partnering with WeChat (with fees collected by WeChat and shared with developers) could get a game some IAP traction, since Chinese mobile users are very comfortable with WeChat purchases.
IAP, of course, is successfully used in more prosperous countries, including the US, where users largely pay for their purchases with credit cards. But the way purchases are made is not only a function of GDP; it’s also culturally driven. In prosperous Japan, Gacha has proven to be a very popular IAP mechanism, with players purchasing the opportunity to acquire needed digital goods/characters, combining the thrill of gambling with the action of gameplay. Here, too, money is collected via an app or a cellphone service provider, which shares the take with partner game developers. To succeed, developers need to hook into the payment system players are used to, one of the cultural signals game makers need to take into account when deploying their game in a market.
The channels and strategies that work for game makers may not work abroad; they may not even exist. Thanks to the common interface of the App Store despite its language interface, iOS developers will have a pretty smooth transition between countries – but depending on the market, the same can’t be said for Android developers. While the Google Play interface is easy to navigate for developers, it isn’t, for example, available in China. Developers who want to distribute Android games have to contend with 200 different sites. Which one to choose? Only close study and research will yield the right answer.
To succeed in a market that complicated, it pays to have friends. WeChat is perhaps the most ubiquitous app on smartphones in China – and it is also one of the leading distribution platforms for games, as it supplies not only a distribution system, but a payment system as well. Under those conditions, working with a local partner on marketing and distribution may be inevitable. For developers distributing games in Japan, partnering with Line makes sense, while in South Korea the choice should be Kakao. Again, research pays off.
Timing, the season of the year, the proximity of holidays, even the days of the week – all these can have an impact on when to launch a new game, or when to go on an advertising blitz. In China, for example, the period before holidays – when new smartphones are purchased or given as gifts – could be a good time to launch a new game. On the other hand, chances are good that other developers will be doing the same thing – resulting in more competition and leading to higher marketing expenses.
Timing requires research. Depending on the kind of game and the potential audience, there are days of the week and times of the month and year that are more advantageous. With casual games, for example, a weekend launch might be good, as people might want to try it on their morning commute at the beginning of the workweek; for more intensive RPG or fantasy games, a mid-week advertising blitz might be better, as players will download it for weekend play.
The Internet has made the world a much smaller place, and in recent years there has been a lot of cross-pollination between the US and foreign markets and cultures. But despite the homogenization of world culture (largely through American-made TV, movies, and music), the “old ways” remain strong in many places – even in places that seem very “American-like,” such as Europe. Preparing a game for marketing abroad is certainly a challenge – but not an impossible one, for developers willing to be flexible.