Mobile games have helped grow gaming in China and because of them, have brought about higher quality in the ecosystem that wasn’t seen since World of Warcraft came to the mainland and pushed MMO developers to better innovate in Asia.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Gaming in China has been a mainstay in the culture. Card games as well as board games and tile games like Mahjong and Pai Gow (also known as Chinese dominoes) were huge in the tradition of China as well as a past time for the elite down to the farming class. Many times, players would gamble on their games, while others devised beautiful art around the creation of different gaming items.
For China, gaming is nothing new. But video games have been the ire of China since their introduction. Most Chinese I speak to would talk about their first time playing games in either an arcade in the bigger cities, or from fake Nintendo Famicom systems that were being produced in the country in the late 80s.
Subar’s “The Little Tyrant” was a popular system that played Famicom games and sold for a lot less (as little as $10 today on Taobao) and could play many of the bootleg games from Japan or poorly Chinese translated bootleg games from Hong Kong.
It wasn’t until the PC games and internet use grew that gaming moved into Internet Cafes and game development started to build. Most cafes would let you use the internet for email, searching the web, and watching bootleg DVDs. But as the MMORPG genre grew in Asia, more people were gaming.
MMORPGs became a big craze and many were from Korean developers bringing games to China and Taiwan. China would copy many of these games to create their own version for Chinese audience tastes. The use of copying other games became a popular theme in both PC and mobile for a long time.
Mobile Gets Gaming
In the 2000s, Mobile devices were gaining as J2ME (aka Java, Micro Edition) began to appear on more and more devices, allowing for better games to be built on phones. Most were single player gambling/card games or mini-games that were popular to phone owners but didn’t strive to grab the public’s interest.
To combat this and gain popularity with Chinese gamers, most companies would again start to copycat many other popular phone games or PC games, resulting in many games in the market being of poor quality or just straight ripoffs of games popular in other countries.
While I was working at PopCap in Shanghai, we joked about a copycat game named “Ghosts vs. Flowers” that was exactly like PvZ but with ghosts attacking different looking plants on a very shortened field.
Google and Apple bring games to the mainstream
With the iPhone and later Android bringing better hardware, gamers were beginning to play more and more games on their phones. Many of the early popular games were gambling games like “Fight the Landlord” and basic flash games poorly moved to the phone with many western games coming to take over the marketplace. A pivotal point was when developers worked more towards social gaming in 2010 and the internet censorship of Google Play.
When Google was banned from China, new marketplaces for android games started to pop up. Today there are hundreds of marketplaces with some catering to specific app genres. Growth from the PC MMORPG market that were popular in the 2000s had brought more expert developers to build better domestic mobile games using common cultural themes and the MMORPG genre started to enter the mobile space.
Today, we are at a crucial point as there are thousands of game development companies in mobile gaming in China and with an estimated 91% failure rate, questions of contraction and mergers are starting to emerge. But the good news is, quality is now a main priority for survival and this type of competition from China might bring future Chinese games into western top 20 lists more.