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You might assume that a successful game in one country could go on to be successful in others around the world. But culture plays a major role in how well a game is or isn’t received — a role that manifests itself in radically different ways, ranging from payment platforms to graphic designs.

A panel of international game developers and analysts addressed this issue today at GamesBeat@GDC. Initially, several of them commented that there are many commonalities between cultures in the gaming world — almost everyone around the world is becoming more engaged with social games, virtual economies and web-interfaces, for example. Tomoko Namba, CEO of rapidly-growing mobile gaming company DeNA in Japan, said that small beta efforts have played just as well in the U.S. as they have in Japan.

But, as the discussion progressed, it became clear that game companies need to draw finer distinctions in order to gain traction.

Illuminating just one of these differences, Aroon Tan, managing director at Magma Studios, said that most Asian titles feature heroes that appear more androgynous and almost feminine, while games developed in the west have more burly, masculine protagonists. He said that traits as simple as this are enough to tank a game in an overseas market.

“These cultural norms don’t translate as well,” Tan said. “Finding a universally appealing design with graphics is very hard.”

But the look and feel of games aren’t the only differences that can alienate prospective customers. Distribution structure also makes a big difference. As Klaas Kersting, CEO of German Gameforge, pointed out, you have to be able to scale rapidly to succeed in new markets. In order to do so, you have to truly understand how people discover new games, what times of day and for how long do they play them, and how do they share them with the people they know. All of these infrastructure questions can vary dramatically from country to country, Kersting said. Local partners who understand these criteria are invaluable in this situation.

Tan echoed Kersting: “What kind of local partners do you have in the market? You can’t just build a great product. If the barrier to entry is too strong, you won’t get any traction.”

The panelists pointed to Electronic Arts’ efforts to grow its foothold in China as one of many examples of these challenges. One of the biggest gaming companies in the world, EA is still failing to lure millions of customers in Japan and China, both.

“I’ve seen a lot of cross cultural tries. All the big companies with close to a billion dollars try,” said Won Il Sue, vice president of business development for Nexon America. “But it’s not about the money — can they manage it well? There’s not enough management for the talent. It’s not just about being bilingual — it’s about being cross-cultural. It’s going to take much longer than everyone thinks.”

The arena where better management is most needed is payment, especially when it comes to mobile games. In America, people are used to a subscriber model, in which they make one major payment a month or a year for full access in the meantime. Elsewhere, in Asia and Europe, people are more accustomed to a pre-paid model, in which they buy a certain amount of minutes upfront and watch their funds winnow down with use.

“There is very different behavior between pre-paid customers and subscribers,” Tan noted. “People who pre-pay are more regularly monitoring the amount they have and may not spend as much as someone who makes a regular monthly payment.”

In order for a single paid mobile game to successfully cross borders, it will need to bake in many modes of payment that appeal to consumers regardless of their mobile habits. Kersting underscored this need, saying that Gameforge has added payment models to appeal to not just cultural differences, by geographical, age, gender, etc.

All of the panelists agreed that companies looking to break into overseas markets need to onboard people who are familiar with local culture and preferences, who can educate them about the challenges and the opportunities before they run into or miss them.

“The most important thing is to meet the people who get it,” Tan said. “Local talent reduces human resources risk and investor risk.”

Read all our coverage from GamesBeat@GDC.

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