Should you consider publishing your mobile game in China?

The potential and difficulty of the Chinese mobile game market are both enormous. This post discusses what you should consider when bringing the title to the market


Whether you already have a mature product or are only in the planning stages of your next one, one thing about China is for sure – it requires a sizeable long-term investment.

China is a whole different beast from any other market, and one of the common mistakes is trying to go in without a well-thought-out game plan and resources. The reality is that it’s almost impossible for a Western studio to possess or acquire the necessary understanding of the market to make such a plan. A strong, trustworthy China publishing partner is needed for sure, and you have to mentally prepare for a marathon, not a sprint.

Possibly the biggest and most apparent initial consideration for the Chinese market is the ISBN, which is the official government license required to publish any game in the country. There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to ISBN.

  • It takes a very long time to apply. The current expected wait time is 1.5+ years for a foreign game. If you believe your game will still be going strong in 2 years, then it’s worth considering.
  • Content-wise, is your game even eligible to apply for it? For example, any sort of gambling games are not allowed, so the Slots/Casino category is out. In addition, restricted content includes for example blood, bones (undead) and even sexy-looking characters. Some games may just have too many of these elements, making it unviable to really “reskin” to fit the ISBN requirements.
  • If China is part of your company’s long-term strategy, then you really need to incorporate the ISBN requirements into your game designs from the beginning.

While obtaining the ISBN license is only the beginning, how could you try to determine whether your game has the potential in the Chinese market? Should you even begin the ISBN application process? The best way to find out is to talk to China publishers (such as our team at MyGamez!) and have them evaluate your game.

While ISBN is basically a requirement for publishing, it’s actually still possible to do a soft launch without IAPs, simply testing player interest and key metrics like retention, sessions per day and session length. This could help act as a good China “proof of concept”. Essentially, my main point here is that the workload and overall effort to publish a game successfully (or even to just obtain ISBN) is so big currently, that you really want to obtain some sort of actual proof that the game is suitable for the Chinese market. Having a highly rated title making over a million monthly globally is not proof that it would work in China as well. The proof could be a soft launch, or knowing that you already have lots of Chinese players active & spending money on the global version (maybe check the number of users opting for the Simplified Chinese language option?), or that you’ve previously done well with the game on iOS China, or even that there are Chinese copycats of your game out there already.

Once you have gained confidence that your title is a strong fit for China market, and are perhaps considering the ISBN application, it’s time to evaluate the resource requirements required for market success. Simply getting the game out is rarely, if ever, going to bring you meaningful results. You may get promising results for a little while, but the ever-changing needs and requirements of the Chinese market are so different from the West (China just finished celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival – does your game have a themed event for it?) that you will not find long-term success by simply adding in features from your global version, without addressing market-specific needs.

One thing that’s hard to comprehend for anyone who hasn’t spent time in China is the sheer speed of everything. Having lived 10 years in China, the best way I semi-jokingly like to describe this is the feeling I got whenever I did my standard annual 2-week visit to Finland. Landing back in Finland after another year, I didn’t really feel like much had changed. To me, everything felt and looked mostly the same as before. Then getting back to Shanghai after 2 weeks, there could literally be a new mall or metro line opened (and felt like built) in the district. This “hyperspeed” extends not only to construction but basically everything going on in society, including mobile games. This of course makes planning quite tough, as you never know if the current trend is just going to be forgotten after a couple of months.

As such, even with a somewhat “proven” fit game for China, to reach the full market potential, you need to be prepared to designate a dedicated China team for the project. This team doesn’t necessarily need to be in-house, it could be done by your China publisher or even outsourced, but it needs development muscle (developers + artists) in order to keep up with the market.

Chinese players burn through content at amazingly high rates.

So if you are not able to give them a constant flow of new, shiny stuff (your standard monthly content update from the global version is unlikely to cut it), they will gradually lose interest and move on to the next big thing. If you don’t have the dedication or resources to allocate here, but your title is strong enough, there will be local companies copying your game while addressing those specific market needs. They will leave you in the dust with a product based on yours but more polished for Chinese tastes.

I don’t mean to sound negative with this post. I do want to drive home the point that the resource investment required to not only enter but also succeed in China is going to be significantly higher than what most expect. The potential profits are undeniable.

You cannot ignore China if you have a strong global hit on your hands!

If, on the other hand, your title is still under development and not yet a proven hit in the global market, it’s most likely a better choice to just focus on your own thing, and forget about China for now.

Author: Juha Mikkola, Team lead & Product Director @MyGamez!

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