We all know that games are big in China (even bigger than in Japan, perhaps)!  But what do we really know about the state of games in China?  How does it differ from the US games market?  Can you make money (or renminbi) in China?  Who are going to be the winners?  (Hint:  not Apple!)

I was honored to be a speaker and guest at the CocoaChina Games Conference hosted by Chukong Technologies, a leading mobile game developer, publisher and developer community in China.  Here’s what I learned.

1.  China is a big gaming market

It may be obvious, but until you set foot on the ground, you can’t appreciate how big and fast China and its games market is growing.

In 2012, China officially became the #1 market in the world with over 1 billion people owning mobile phones.  Flurry reported that China took the lead as the number one country for iOS and Android activations in March 2012.  And, according to App Annie, China ranks as number two country for iOS app downloads behind the US.  Based on the growth rate, China should be number one in terms of game downloads soon.

 

2.  Revenues are not so big

Unfortunately revenues are not growing as fast as downloads.  Games on smartphones generated 1.5 billion RMB ($250 million, where 1 USD = 6.3 RMB) in 2012 and are estimated to grow to 5 billion RMB in 2013.  That’s big, but low relative to the size of the smartphone market and amount of games being downloaded.  There are two issues at play here, and the first is economic.   

There is tremendous wealth in China and a growing middle class, but the majority of Chinese still cannot afford pay for a ticket to the movies.  Until this changes, most people will continue to play games for free.

The second issue is cultural.  I talked to many Chinese game developers and gamers in my week of travels, and the general consensus is that the Chinese people really like to get their mobile content for free.  Especially young people.  This is a big of a generalization, and it’s the case everywhere that people prefer free over paid content, but it’s especially true in China.  A few people told me that there is pride for Chinese mobile users to find a way to get content for free and to brag and share it with their friends.   Some of the most popular iPhone apps now in China are apps that let you get free apps through the App Store without jailbreaking your phone.  

 

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3.  Android will defeat the iPhone in China

Every Chinese game developer believes Apple is going to lose in China.   Given the fact that people are waiting in lines to buy Apple products in China and the fact that Google is essentially banned in China, how can this be?

The answer is price.   The rich can afford an iPhone or iPad and view it as a status symbol.  The average Chinese consumer, however, can’t.   So they’re buying Android phones instead.

A good way to think about this is to compare mobile phones to cars.  I saw more new and fancy cars in Beijing than any city I have ever been to.  The majority of Chinese, however, don’t own a car; they take subways, buses, scooters, bikes, or walk instead.  

Whereas the Apple buyer is the same person that owns a car, the Android buyer is the person who can’t afford one.  In a country of more than one billion people, with hundreds of millions of middle class and wealthy people, Apple will make tons of money in China.  The majority of Chinese, however, are buying Android phones.   

What’s amazing about Android and China is how Wild Westa market it is.  Google Play is banned in China, but there are over 300 different Android marketplaces instead.  People buy HTC and Samsung, but the most popular Android phones are cheaper handsets and phone clones from Vivo, Kobee, Konka, and a ton of other companies I have never heard of.

The stats from CocoaChina’s own hit game Fishing Joy support the dominance of Android over the iPhone in China.  Fishing Joy has been downloaded over 100 million times and is installed on over 50% of all iOS and Android devices in China.  It’s more popular in China than Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja.

Yet Android handsets account for over 30% of all Fishing Joy installs compared to only 17% for Apple.  In 2013, Cocoa expects Android revenues will surpass iOS revenues for Fishing Joy in China, even with the iPhone 5‘s release this past week.  

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More bad news for Apple:  every game developer in China I talked to complained about how slow and ineffective the app approval process is for iOS apps in China (takes weeks if lucky) when compared to Android (which can take less than a day).  

China is Apple’s to lose and based on current trends, it will.  

Just so Apple doesn’t feel too bad, Google’s search engine is being trounced by Baidu and other Chinese search competitors, and there are so many Facebook-like apps and start-ups with millions of users that Facebook is probably dead-on-arrival when they expand to China. Bringing dominance to the Chinese market, it would seem, it a tough nut to crack for the West.

 

4.  Chinese game companies are coming to the US

The final trend is that every Chinese games company I met expressed a desire to bring their games from China to the US.  They believe that it’s easier to make money in the US, where people are more willing to spend money on games than consumers in their homeland.   

It’s interesting to note that most US companies are moving in the other direction, trying to localize and introduce their games to China because they believe the marketing costs to get their games discovered in the App Store is too prohibitively expensive to be profitable (except for a chosen few companies with millions of dollars to spend per month at a $3 or higher CPI).  

Like two ships passing in the night, US and Chinese game companies are crossing the ocean to enter each other’s territory, only to discover how lucrative and challenging each market is.