Every mobile game company wants a regional hit to become an international success, but how do you actually get there?
I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the top studios and publishers, and over the past 20 years, I have found that what works in one region is not the same as another. What’s really needed, and this is something that we have heavily emphasized at Gumi, is going beyond localization and developing unique games for each market. In short: Think global, act local.
While the challenges are many — cultural differences, distribution partnerships, and even legal considerations — they are by no means insurmountable.
If you’re a developer that’s looking to take your game to the next level in different markets, here’s three helpful guidelines I’ve found to ensure international success.
Truly embrace the local market
When launching your game internationally, hire at least one development team on the ground in each market that you’d like to launch in, and have them focus on just that market. When I say “on the ground,” I’m talking about hiring locals. This is the only way to have the insights and skillsets within your company necessary to prep a game for success in that region. This is true even down to individual countries within regions that outsiders may see as a homogenous audience. When looking at North America, what works in Europe will not just work directly in the United States; when looking at Asia, what works in Japan will not directly work in Korea — and this speaks to all factors of developing a game from design to marketing and distribution to pricing as well as translation.
When designing a game in this way, you shouldn’t think first about global aspirations or how easy to export it is. That will just dilute your game’s initial vision, and it won’t be a success anywhere. The development team should simply be focused on making a fun game for the audience they know best.
Don’t be afraid of change in new markets — even if it’s a hit elsewhere
Bringing a game to new markets isn’t just about language translation or a new skin. You may think the localization process for bringing a game to new markets is as simple as translating the language and possibly altering graphical elements to account for cultural differences. If you truly want your game to be a hit in a new region, though, you need to give the local team free rein to make changes so substantial that it’s doing a disservice to the process to sum it up simply as “localization” in the traditional sense.
This means everything should be on the table. For instance: Chinese gamers are used to having a mouse and keyboard interface with lots of information on the screen, so your minimalist UI for another market would need to be redesigned to display more information and options on-screen.
You also need to keep in mind what devices people are using in other markets and optimize your game to run smoothly on them. But this principle really extends to whatever the local team thinks it needs — new characters, new levels, gameplay balance, anything. The effect you want to create is that people in each market feel like the game was made specifically for them, because it was.
Our game Brave Frontier serves as an example of this philosophy. We developed it in Japan for Japanese players. The other versions of the game were later adapted by development teams in each region with effective autonomy. They changed game balance, characters, game setting, user interface, and even the name. The results speak for themselves. Brave Frontier is a smash hit in Japan, yet it actually generates more revenue outside of the country.
Creators and managers: Embrace letting go and work as a team
For a company to efficiently act on global aspirations and receive the most benefit from this very market-specific game development approach, it needs to take a game that succeeded in one place and check if it will work elsewhere. This is simply an efficient use of time and resources to see if you can take whatever is fun and compelling about that game experience to a new audience.
To do this the most effectively, it requires a high degree of cooperation and philosophical understanding from the creators all the way to the CEO.
For the game creators, this means you understand that if your game is a hit, it will be adapted for a new audience and the code will actually be forked. You have to be OK with the idea that if your game is really fun and a lot people enjoy playing it, it will be touched by other development teams and altered for additional markets in order to be well received by more players. Some folks may not like the idea of having other developers and designers changing their games. For example,Halfbrick objected to iDreamSky adding in dumplings to the Chinese version of Fruit Ninja. That’s fine, but that type of mindset wouldn’t mesh well with a “Think Global, Act Local” strategy.
For company decision-makers, you have to give up some control and delegate authority to the regional branches. The heads of the studios need to be empowered to make game-design decisions based on their own expertise in the market. This is an atypical way for Asian companies to behave. Most tend to adhere to a hierarchical, top-down management approach, but I’ve found a great deal of success by escaping from this mindset.
Step outside your comfort zone
Taking a game to a new market can be a scary proposition. Using a third-party company to act as a localizer — like Halfbrick did with iDreamSky, and like how most companies approach entering global markets — is an OK step, but it’s not nearly the most effective way to approach global success because it’s only a partial embrace of acting locally, thinking globally.
Instead, don’t be afraid to invest in the resources and skillsets of dedicated teams that have expertise in a specific market. Even more importantly, give them autonomy to succeed and make sure that the game creators are on-board with new things being added outside of their control.
This will help create a framework for success that gives your hit title the best chance to rise up the charts and reach new audiences.
Developers! What do you think of the idea of letting your other people work your code? Are you OK giving up control if it means reaching a wider audience?
AJ Redmer is Gumi Inc’s vice president for Western Studios. He has more than 20 years of experience working in console, PC, and mobile games, including Nintendo and Microsoft. Redmer played a key role in the development and deployment of the Xbox 360 home console.