How to launch a game in China

UK studio Eutechnyx spent four years preparing for its entry into the Chinese game market with Auto Club Revolution.

China is a huge, intimidating territory for your average studio, but Eutechnyx CEO Darren Jobling is a great believer in its potential. And he’s not the only one – figures from the Chinese government suggest that next year it will overtake the USA as the world’s largest consumer market, and a slew of western companies are looking east to capitalise on the nation’s fast-growing middle class and its spending power.

Its games market has emerged from a consumer vacuum and immediately has skipped a number of technology generations. Without the global domination of a few first-party giants, the Chinese game industry has forged its own way, particularly on mobile, online and through social channels. There’s no point in trying to popularise big western game franchises in China, says Jobling – they’re busy forging ahead with their own.

In the next few years, emergning forces like Tencent, Kongzhong, NetEase and Shanda will play a larger and larger role in ‘our’ games industry, he says, and the best piece of advice he’d received on breaking into the market was ‘To get on in China, you have to get into China’. Before plans were formalised, Jobling had been on several explorative trips and was impressed by the commitment and quality of the Chinese production companies he’d met. The region around Chengdu is being sold to foreign companies as a potential technology hub, with over 1,100 firms having already moved into the region. At the same time, Euthechnyx had secured $16 million in funding to set about restructuring its business to focus on emerging markets like China.

Making a driving game was the obvious thing to do – Eutechnyx has a long history with driving games and there is a growing taste for western brands and motoring in China. Auto Club Revolution would therefore be a free to play game in which players could buy, customise and race officially-licensed cars. “You quickly learn to forget all of your preconceptions and enter the market with an open mind,” says Jobling. “The racing game market in China is solely centred around karting titles and very little else so when their customer think ‘racing’ they actually mean ‘karting’.”

The games market in China must be considered on its own terms, says Jobling – releasing ‘Western’ games as they are over there just won’t do.

There’s no Gran Turismo or Forza in China, and with ‘racing’ games so poorly defined in the region ACR would stand alone in its field as a driving game with licensed cars. A strong proposition, then, but Eutechnyx still felt it needed a partner on the ground in China with local working knowledge of the market. “I can’t underestimate how important getting this step right is,” says Jobling. “You need to find a partner that you respect, trust and ideally who has similar ambitions on the Western games market as you do for China.”

First, it worked with ChinaJoy, a Shanghai-based games expo, and later it was approached by Kongzhong, a company with a $331 million market cap on Hong Kong’s NASDAQ. It runs World of Tanks in China and was seeking further ‘western’ style games to bring to the territory, which led to a lot of meetings and a long period of learning the vagaries of the local market, says Jobling. “If you think you’re going to be able to go into China with your existing titles and not make many changes, you’re going to have to think again,” he says. “The key to success in China is being able to understand, then change and adapt your product for local tastes. Doing business in China is all about building and growing personal relationships. From our initial reconnaissance mission to China to the eventual partnership with Kongzhong took us four years. It sounds like a lot of time to invest in building market understanding and personal relationships, but the potential rewards on offer are well worth that level of effort.”

Before launch Jobling and his team had taken great care to ensure that ACR had been tweaked to reflect local preference. “Due to the fascination with karting games we’ve had to change the early car handling to suit Chinese tastes: drifting around every corner is a required feature – non-negotiable, we were told.” Grinding is very much frowned upon in the territory, too, and China’s fast-growing eSports and competitive gaming scene helped shape ACR’s multiplayer modes as Eutechnyx made them more suitable for streaming, sharing and tournament play.

China’s fast-growing eSports and
competitive gaming scene helped
shape ACR’s multiplayer modes

ACR is now performing well in China after launch, and Jobling suggests that this is just the beginning for the game, and indeed the region as a whole. The Chinese games market’s potential is undeniable, and it won’t take long for its influence to extend out to what’s happening in the west, adds Jobling.

“I can honestly say I have been blown away by the commitment, passion and sheer output of all of the companies I have met in China,” he says. “Unfortunately, the historical western games industry seems to have lost some of that momentum and drive, which makes our industry vulnerable to approaches from these companies eyeing our market with a high degree of envy.”