‘Publishers in the west think they need a publisher in China’ – Arcus Key explains how to be big in China

China has long been talked about as a huge opportunity for western game developers. It’s pictured, quite rightly, as a massive market with huge potential revenue. However, approaches have usually swung between two poles.

One, find a Chinese partner to publish your game in the territory, do a deal with them to promote the title and host it on local store fronts. Or two, just add Simplified Chinese to your supported languages, and hope that word of mouth will do the job, with the hardcore of Chinese gamers using Steam to find and buy your title.

Well, Arcus Key thinks there’s a middle ground between those two. And having already worked with Gearbox, Landfall and Headup games, there’s obviously others that agree, with Jeff Skal, marketing director at Gearbox being especially complementary to the team’s efforts.

GATEWAY GAMES

Logan Liu of Arcus Key

Arcus Key is actually a meeting of east and west. In the UK is industry veteran David Clark, Arcus Key’s global client director, having moved on most recently from Green Man Gaming. While CEO Logan Liu is based in Beijing, and comes from a development background, having co-founded Chengdu-based Viking Games – which self-published a VR title, Bullet Sorrow VR, and is co-publishing another, Gladiator The Unconquered, with Versus Evil.

Clark sets out the basic position. “Publishers in the West think they need a publisher in China.” Most commonly because they simply don’t understand the market and discoverability in that market.

“They go to a top level publisher, Tencent or Alibaba, who says ‘sorry, I’ve only got a limited number of licenses, not interested’. Nobody knows who the second tier is… And even if they did use them, it tends not to work,” As those companies have little experience with marketing western titles. “Which is where we come in and why we’re beginning to get the traction.”

Liu tells us that many people asked him how to launch games in China without a license to do so. At first he tried to hook them up with other companies, but it soon became clear that there was a business here, and so he set up a marketing and PR agency centred on bringing western
games to China, and getting them attention in the region.

To launch a mobile game you’ll need to be on the big local app stores, but console and PC titles are often bought from overseas stores.

“So we focus on the hardcore tier players and we do PC and console games only,” says Liu. “The hardcore players know how to use these overseas platforms, whether its console or PC,” he adds.

Those stores are legally accessible by using a specific type of VPN called a Game Booster, which allows access to those stores, be it, for example, Steam or PSN, without the unlimited access that an (illegal in China) VPN service provides.

Of course, tracking the purchases from China is not so obvious, as they may have accounts registered in other countries. However you can still identify them via the payment method used to purchase the game.

UNLOCKING THE REGION

David Clark of Arcus Key

So there’s a route for Chinese players to access your game on existing stores. But that’s only the beginning. As in any market, unless your game is a monster hit (and sometimes even then) how will consumers discover it?

Clark and Liu reckon there are around 7m hardcore games players in China. Official estimates for consoles are 2.2m for PS4, and 1m for Switch and rising fast, although that is likely only the tip of the iceberg when you add grey market bought devices.

Liu tells us that in China they’re aiming at a floor of 15,000 copies sold for a game to be considered a success. Arcus Key ascertains if your game will be suitable for the market before taking it on, based on its knowledge of current trends.

Based on that, the company comes up with a campaign and a budget. For some titles, a press and media-based campaign is best, as the game will not recoup enough money to make it worth investing in, say, a streamer-based campaign. “You will never get enough sales in China in this genre,” to recoup the investment, Liu tells us. That’s not to say there aren’t surprise or breakout hits in China, Liu explains, “But we can tell you what Chinese players certainly don’t like.”

Moving onto the campaign itself, once the game itself has been localised, Arcus Key will assist with localising any assets for the campaign, from the Steam page to video trailers and release dates. “Making sure that not only is it localised, but that the nuance of the localisation is relevant to China,” adds Clark.

The nuts and bolts of getting noticed are largely the same, Clark explains: “You’ve got the same building blocks. So in the west, you’ve got YouTube, you’ve got Twitch, you’ve got social media, web-based media, and then advertising etc. All designed to build awareness of your game. It’s exactly the same in China.”

However, he points out that they are not all the same size with streamers and social media-based brands and influencers making up a far larger slice of the pie, whether they be free or paid. And there’s no legacy of web-based written press in China, so social media is often self-contained, it doesn’t always link to a longer article, although such online press does exist.

Working out the correct marketing spend, for an indie game, is a tough process even in well-known western markets. “Typically video games publishers will spend somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of their forecasted revenue on marketing. The problem is that very few publishers have any experience of China, so they don’t know what to add in,” says Clark, so they simply don’t spend anything.

Because of that Arcus Key’s core service is a PR one. Getting your game to the correct people, to enthusiast streamers, to push the title with zero marketing spend. And for the PR service: “It’s a flat fee, everybody pays the same, it’s cost effective,” says Clark.

There are, of course, campaigns that will benefit from paid marketing, and that usually means paid streamers in this case.

Arcus Key will set up paid influencer deals for clients, passing the base cost through as part of its service. “It means that everybody knows there’s no markup from us,” Clark explains. Pointing out that the agency is prioritising landing repeat business.

And it can count on that business, as unlike the west, there’s less chance of anyone cutting out Arcus Key and going direct. And that’s not just down to the language barrier, in the west a streamer might have a manager but you can basically reach out to them directly. In China, “the platforms have account managers, they control everything… so you’ve got to understand the process to get through to that streamer.”

It’s an intriguing proposition for those who have found the market to be opaque in the past. Arcus Key has the local knowledge, which is then relatable thanks to Clark’s ability to explain the differences between the two markets. A combination which could open up the market to many, many more titles.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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