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The free-to-play market is gigantic worldwide, including the hundreds of millions of players within China. Nielsen’s SuperData Research Group found that free-to-play games revenue saw a 6 percent increase to $87.1 billion last year (near 80 percent of the overall $109.4 billion for digital game revenue). Research commissioned by firms like Mintegral and Newzoo say the majority of Chinese players favor free-to-play over premium games.

According to some experts within the Chinese game industry, the COVID-19 pandemic could help accelerate a change in how those players spend their money. “We’re starting to see Chinese gamers mature,” said Jeff Lyndon of iDreamSky, the largest independent mobile game publishing platform in China. “They’re more reasonable with their spending patterns in-game.”

A panel of Chinese game industry experts discussed the effect COVID-19 has had on the region and its game industry on the second day of GamesBeat Summit 2020. One major topic is how players are choosing to invest their time and money when so many must stay home due to quarantine orders from local governments.

“Unlike what I’ve seen in the past, where Chinese gamers were known to spend mindlessly, and they’d consume everything in the game,” Lyndon said. “Chinese gamers are starting to look into their return on investment.”

Lyndon emphasized that players are starting to look at each game (and the studio that developed it) and consider if it’s worth their their time and money. He said that he had noticed this change before the pandemic, but stay-at-home orders and income loss have made the evolution move faster.

COVID-19 has ravaged China, but businesses whose infrastructure is based in online ad sales and in-game purchases have been hit less, according to experts like Lyndon. But the pandemic has fundamentally shifted how much revenue ad sales and in-game purchases bring in. Chinese game designers are trying to adjust their monetization models to lessen the hit their revenue streams will take.

“Game designers are trying to give more gift packages so players can buy more stuff with a discount,” said Cynthia Du of Cocos, the biggest open-source game engine in the world. “There is still a huge demand for players to play and purchase things, but they don’t want to spend as much money.”

The free-to-play market will still be dominant post-pandemic, but all the panelists agreed that Chinese players may be more selective of the type of games they will play and how they spend their money. Game developers will have to work harder to earn their players’ time.

“In our industry, content is king,” said Bill Wang of Skystone Games. “If you have great content you will get our attention.”

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