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Why your favorite mobile games look a lot different in China

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'The market has evolved to become very, very crowded and competitive.'

In November 2013, Finnish studio Supercell launched its massively popular mobile strategy game Clash of Clans on Chinese app store Wandoujia. With more than 450 million users who’ve downloaded 1.6 billion apps, Wandoujia is one of the biggest Android stores in China, a country where Google Play has no real presence. And many of those millions wanted to play Clash of Clans — in its first month on the store, the game was downloaded more than 200,000 times. But there was one big problem: the game used Google’s payment services for in-app purchases, but it’s a feature that Chinese gamers couldn't actually use.

It was a huge hit that made absolutely no money.

Supercell's accident isn’t an isolated incident. Plenty of Western game developers are looking to China and its burgeoning mobile scene as a new, untapped market to bring hit games. But it's also a market fraught with difficulties. There are language and cultural differences, a multitude of payment options, and if you're releasing on Android, there are literally hundreds of different app stores; Wandoujia may be among the biggest, but it's far from the only one. And due to the high level of piracy, free-to-play games dominate the market even more than they do in the West.

Because of this, a cottage industry of publishers has appeared over the past few years with a focus on bringing mobile games from the West and adapting them to China. Sometimes the process is as simple as changing the in-app payment method, other times whole aspects of the game are changed, with new art and characters added in to appeal to the local audience. But it’s a business that’s growing, and growing fast. "The market has evolved to become very, very crowded and competitive," says Henry Fong, CEO of publisher Yodo1.

Temple Run China

Promotional art for Temple Run 2 in China.

"We really wanted to partner up with someone who understood the market."

One of the most recent examples of this phenomenon is Monument Valley. When the game launched on iOS, China proved to be the second biggest market, accounting for 12 percent of all sales. But when it came time to bring the Android version of the game to China, developer Ustwo decided to seek out a partner: iDreamsky, the company behind the Chinese versions of games like Temple Run and Fruit Ninja. "We really wanted to partner up with someone who understood the market and the players within it," says Ustwo executive producer Dan Gray. "Downloads and purchases surged following the launch of the game's first expansion pack in November 2014," iDreamsky CEO Michael Chen said in a press release, "demonstrating the enormous appeal this game has to a very broad demographic which we are confident we can replicate in China."

It's still early, so it's not clear how Monument Valley will be changed to better suit China — "those details are still to be decided," says Gray — but in some cases the alterations can be quite drastic.

When iDreamsky launched Temple Run in China, for instance, it featured new anime-style character designs. Turn-based strategy game Hero Academy added a whole new team of fighters exclusive to the Chinese version; since local players wouldn’t relate to the game’s Tolkien-style fantasy world, the new characters were inspired by Chinese mythology instead. The story-heavy space sim Alpha Zero, meanwhile, had the entirety of its dialogue rewritten, so that it felt more natural for a Chinese audience. It even featured local voice actors and dialogue recorded at a studio in Beijing; one app store review described it as "the best Chinese game ever."

And those small changes can have a big impact. The Chinese version of Ski Safari, published by Yodo1, featured music, art, and more customized specifically for the new market; a polar bear character was swapped with a panda, for example, while a penguin changed into a turtle. The result was more than 25 million downloads in just six months.

Dots China

Promotional art for the Chinese version of Dots.

Yodo1 operates a bit differently than a typical game publisher. Instead of simply providing funding and marketing support, the company does virtually all of the heavy lifting when it comes to making the new, localized versions of the game (Yodo1 calls this process "culturalization"). A staff of more than 200 people produces new game content and features, and the publisher works so closely with developers that it usually has direct access to a game's source code. Fong says that each month Western developers submit around 200 games to the publisher, and a staff of 10 game reviewers analyzes them to determine which get published. Currently the company puts out around one or two games each month. "We're really focusing on quality and suitability to the market," he says of the process.

This wasn't always the case. When the company first launched — Fong had previously run a similar company that helped tech startups launch in China — it had to cold-call developers and hope they would be interested in releasing in China. Most weren't too comfortable with sharing their source code with a little known Chinese company. But thanks to successes like Ski Safari, the perception is changing. The same is true for similar publishers: Ustwo chose iDreamsky specifically because it had already worked with notable developers like Imangi and Halfbrick. Meanwhile, Dots is working with Chinese internet giant Tencent — the same company behind the ambitious PC game Call of Duty Online — to bring a localized version of TwoDots to China. Tencent also happens to be one of the companies involved in the studio’s most recent funding round

That familiarity is a key selling point in a market where things can seem very foreign. "The list goes on and on," Rob Segal, co-founder of Get Set Games, says of the different variables that can hinder a Chinese launch for a mobile game. Yodo1 published Get Set's mobile hit Mega Jump in China, and handled virtually every aspect of the process, including things that would simply be impossible for a tiny Canadian studio. The changes made to the game itself were relatively small and mostly centered around making it more social: for example, you’ll get a notification when you beat a friend's score in the Chinese version. But even with those smaller changes, there’s still a lot of work that goes into a port like this.

"I don't think you have any chance of success without working with a partner."

Playtesting, for example, isn't exactly easy when the audience is playing your game on a phone that hasn't even been released outside of China. Likewise, incorporating in-app payments, which are often handled through mobile providers, can be difficult for foreign companies. When you’re used to dealing with known entities like Google Play and the Amazon Appstore, the list of headaches adds up quickly, especially for a studio comprised of just a few people. "We had games there before we had a partner," says Segal, "and I don't think you have any chance of success without working with a partner."

China's mobile market isn't quite as mysterious as it once was — it's hard to imagine a company like Supercell making a similar mistake in 2015, given this new slate of publishers. And as the country becomes an even more important market for mobile games, developers are starting to think about it right from the beginning. Segal says that China is "at the forefront of our minds" when it comes to new game ideas, while Yodo1 recently published Hipster Whale's Crossy Road worldwide, so that it landed in China at the same time as the rest of the world. The game was downloaded more than 10 million times in its first 20 days of availability. Given those kinds of success stories, and the sheer size of China, the appeal is obvious.

"Knowing there's over a billion people who’ve never heard of Monument Valley is a great reason to want to release over there," says Gray.