The untapped potential of emerging markets presents challenges and opportunity alike.
The games market is an inherently global one, and consumers around the world have increasingly begun to embrace gaming. Last year games and esports analytics firm Newzoo projected global games revenues to reach $150 billion.
But UK developers focusing solely on the “home” territories of Western Europe and North America risk ignoring over half of the entire games market. Combined, these two regions make up 43% of global games revenue, while Asia-Pacific accounts for over 47%, according to Newzoo.
China alone is worth over $36.5 billion (roughly one quarter of the entire global market), and despite lower overall revenue, markets like India, Brazil, and Eastern Europe are enjoying considerable growth with the proliferation of affordable smartphones.
Emerging markets present some of the best opportunities in general; releasing in these regions helps improve the chance of your game being the first, and possibly even the biggest, of its kind. For developers looking to capitalise on these opportunities, there’s a lot to consider.
“In practical terms, you may have 100 clones of X game released in China officially or unofficially, but perhaps none of those have a significant investment behind them in user acquisition and marketing,” says Daniel Camilo, overseas business developer for Apptutti, a firm which specialises in bringing games to China and other emerging markets.
“Find the right publishing partner for the country, with the right investment, and you can ‘easily’ and quickly overshadow all those other competitors and become the reference.”
David Wightman, former head of development at Respawn Entertainment, highlights how releasing in these untapped markets can allow developers to take “wild creative bets” where there is “less mental gaming legacy to compare against” and where “brands are currently less important.”
While releasing your game into other markets can help capture entirely new audiences, it comes with a number of significant challenges. Localisation is arguably the most important factor, but could prove a waste of time and resources if not done with the appropriate care and consideration. It’s also important to reinforce the localisation effort with targeted marketing and PR within regions you have localised for, and carefully consider regional pricing.
There are a number of pitfalls to avoid when preparing your game for release in other markets. One thing which crops up repeatedly when speaking with experts is the dangers of assuming your players are the same all over the world. For example, US audiences typically expect a more refined experience but players in emerging markets like Vietnam are more open to a novel gameplay experience.
“A lot of business development specialists and developers I talk to tend to make the common mistake of assuming that the same strategy can be used for the whole of East Asia – usually South Korea, Japan, China, and sometimes for southeastern Asian countries – and tend to think that whatever worked or didn’t work for Japan will reflect in the same way for China,” says Camilo.
“That is usually not the case. Both from the creative perspective of the actual game content, but even more for the publishing and bureaucratic side of things, where China is totally its own different alien planet.”
Different spending habits around the world also need to be accounted for, as Wightman clarifies: “On mobile, which is where you start from in new territories, from a business perspective there’s a huge variance in how to monetise content. India, for example, has a very low rate of credit card attachment but the consumer is way more open to clicking on adverts for the upsell. Being aware of socioeconomic factors is a keystone area to study, not just the creative differences.”
There are also a number of regulatory and legislative considerations for developers looking to release in foreign and emerging markets. China in particular is a complicated region to access, but can pay incredible dividends.
If you are hoping to release in China, it is essential to find a local partner to work with, as only certified Chinese firms can apply for certification in the region.
“A common mistake from international developers is to partner up with global publishers to release their games in China, which in turn will work with a local Chinese publisher to get the necessary documentation,” says Camilo. “With this process, the original developer is getting its profits cut twice. The best solution is to face China as a totally different operation and partner up directly with a local partner.”
Beyond language, monetisation, and regulatory considerations, there is also culturalisation. While not necessarily an essential part of releasing games into foreign markets, knowing how or whether to culturalise your game is important.
“From my point of view, trying to adapt a game to be more ‘culturally appealing’ to a specific market can actually bring a lot of risks,” says Camilo. “The final product might just end up being condescending, generic, or downright offensive. We have examples of that not only in gaming, but also in movies – like we recently saw with Disney’s live-action Mulan, which tried so hard to please Chinese audiences that it ended up having the exact opposite effect.”
As Harvey Homewood, business development director at Team17 Digital clarifies: “If a game is getting real traction in a new market with [text and voice] localisation alone, then it can be worth considering how you can make it even more appealing to that audience with some degree of culturalisation [for other elements]… If your game is likely to include content that would cause offence or be controversial in a specific region, then it would be prudent to do a deeper dive into that of course.”
Emerging markets represent some of the fastest growing areas for games, but UK developers often lack the same level of cultural familiarity as they do with Europe or North America. This can mean that certain assumptions you might make do not apply, and it can require considerable research to tackle effectively.
Kate Edwards is an industry verteran and founder of geopolitical content strategy agency Geogrify. She says that by modifying your game content to appeal to a specific country, culture or region can “really establish your creative credibility for that area,” allowing developers to build on that positive reception.
“Because culturalisation deals with all aspects of world building, involving a review of the narrative, characters, environments, and so forth, it’s critical to start considering the potential cultural impacts from the start,” she continues.
“If the foundational concept of the game might already have challenges in reaching global markets, that’s something you want to know very early, when making changes is relatively easy and cheap. And then as the game gets into full production, it’s important to have periodic culturalisation reviews to ensure that the content being generated adheres to the original vision and doesn’t introduce potential risk.”
Edwards outlines the four major issues to consider if you’re planning on culturalisation for your game:
Your personal values and goals
“In order to adapt your content to local expectations, you may be required to alter aspects of your creative vision in order to be able to distribute your game in a specific market. In my experience, the majority of the time this is very surgical in nature and doesn’t affect the broader scope of the game. But there have been a few times where the entire game concept just won’t work in some markets – and you have to decide to either stay true to your creative freedom and not make changes, or choose to adapt the game for the local expectations. There is no right answer to this issue.”
Check your biases
“Every one of us has innate biases based on our geographic and cultural origin. Through education and various forms of enlightenment, most of us rise above those biases. But when you’re in the creative flow, sometimes those biases subconsciously appear in the output of your work. For example, I’ve seen very world-aware and smart people make pretty blatant mistakes with cultural and/or ethnic stereotypes.”
Seek local input
“This has been a very positive trend in recent years across many games, and that’s to seek the input and guidance from people who you’re trying to represent in the game. For example, for the game Never Alone (on which I did some consulting), the game depicts the Inuit culture of far northern Canada and it was created in direct partnership with the Inuit tribal groups. For Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft hired a consultant from the Cherokee nation to help guide the creation of the indigenous protagonist Conner Kenway in the game.”
Create with intent
“During the world-building process, one of the most dangerous activities is what I call ‘backfilling’ the game with all kinds of random content. This is when all the writers, artists, etc. on a team are doing their great work but it’s often in such a flurry of activity that no one is asking critical questions about certain depictions, or ideas, or other aspects being created. Ensure that everything that’s put into the game is done so with conscious intent, and not just ‘filler” for the story, the environment, etc.”
As Wightman adds: “How your game is perceived starts by challenging the cultural presuppositions of the design team.”
There are also technical requirements to consider, especially in emerging regions where access to consoles or high-end gaming PCs is more limited.
“There’s so many issues here that it would take a day to cover all of it,” says Wightman. “On PC there’s a surprisingly large enthusiast market with high-end specs, but when you drop to the mainstream you need to dig into video card distribution as many emerging markets rely on integrated laptop GPUs and they can be older processors as they need to hit a price point – it’s that socioeconomic topic again. With mobile, Android still has an OS fragmentation issue as cheaper handsets rarely get OS updates.
“Then there’s the network topic, if you rely on a mobile title that downloads a stub from the App store then downloads an additional data payload once installed – how this works across a poor 3G network in Vietnam might get you into a spot of bother as we’ve seen issues where it can take a day to download across a spotty network or on a limited data package.”
Digging into hardware surveys using the Steamworks portal can be a huge help in this regard. But as Homewood states, the rule of thumb at Team17 is to optimise its games as much as possible.
“The lower the spec of the machine that can run your game, the larger your potential audience becomes, regardless of region,” he says. “This is generally exaggerated in emerging markets, and so it reinforces the focus on optimisation in general.”
Releasing your game into emerging markets may be a daunting process, but it’s something you need to consider very early on in development. So deciding on which regions to focus is vitally important. Under the right circumstances, and with the right partnerships, China is obviously a very appealing prospect. However, Camilo reminds developers not to overlook the “piece of the big sums.”
“There’s this tendency to look at Europe as just one big economic block,” he says. “Same for ‘North America’, ‘South America’, ‘Asia’, ‘Middle East’ -- even Africa.
“I think publishers in particular really need to be able to target specific, sometimes smaller markets, where the relative return on investment can become really significant. Obviously there are added costs to that approach, but sometimes there might also be savings to be made.
“Say, perhaps instead of having a [single large] budget for Europe, why not really look in depth into different countries and see how to [squeeze] out the most out of each one individually. I’m saying, look into Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, Greece, wherever. After all is said and done, perhaps [that initial budget] would actually be too much, and unnecessary for the whole region.”
Doing your research and becoming aware of local government regulations and policies, cultural standards, and socioeconomic factors is vital when releasing in foreign markets. By identifying potential markets and beginning the localisation process early, UK developers can reap the benefit of a highly-connected global industry.