Thoughts on Uncharted 1-3

Over the past couple of weeks I rushed through the single-player campaign of the Uncharted series. As someone who owned a xbox 360 last gen this was one series I missed, and now I know exactly how much I’ve been missing.

This series has a clear theme / identity: it is a console action adventure “tentpole”  equivalent to the Indiana Jones movie franchise (with some heavy influence from The Da Vinci Code). Each game follows the same basic premise: the protagonists are on the trail of an ancient lost treasure/myth (El Dorado, Shangri-la, and the lost city of Atlantis for each game respectively) competing against some antagonists, and hops from location to location in an amazing race (and always ends up with no treasure – these myths are forgotten for a reason).

Its lead Nathan Drake is a college athlete/frat-boy version of Indiana Jones, with a comical mix of these stereotypes (he can be very scholarly and knows his latin when decoding ancient riddles, but he’s also a hot-head who rarely plans ahead and relies on improvisation to get himself out of a bind; he’s also the most athletic rock-climber ever).

Drake’s supported by a handful of characters that at first glance fall into clear stereotypes as well: Sully is the father figure/dirty old thief, Elena is the blonde romantic interest, Charlie Cutter is basically Jason Statham, and so on. The series is light-hearted in tone (this is not The Last of Us, also by Naughty Dog), and character development is generally minimal. For example, most of the Drake – Elena relationship happened “off-screen”: between game 1 & 2 they were dating but split up; between game 2 & 3 they got married but separated1.

However the series is surprisingly effective at making you care about those “one-dimensional” stereotypes, through the strength of its voice acting (a superb cast) and the sharp dialogues – there’s a number of running jokes that the characters play on each other and the game plays on the characters, for example:

  • Sully, the lowly thief he is, likes his hookers, and has a tendency to utter lines that can be interpreted in a dirty way by others
  • In the setup to a action set-piece, one of the characters would often say “let’s do this quietly”, usually directed at Drake (the player-character). It almost always never is done quietly (even if the player went full stealth, there would be an explosion sometimes to progress the scene) 2
  • Similarly in the lead-up to a set-piece, one of the characters would say “listen guys, I’ve got a plan”, suffice to say it almost always does not play out like the plan

Another major strength of the series is its cinematic flair. Uncharted is not shy to borrow established cinematography techniques from movies:

  • There are some great scenes where the camera either starts from a vista shot and pans/zooms all the way in to a detail where the character is, or vice versa. Superb at establishing the grandiose space and set design
  • There are lots of action shots with Drake facing the camera, running, with a chain of explosions chasing him. A typical movie cliché that’s somewhat fun to play through (and not just watch), but can be annoying if you can’t get it right the first few times (usually because the camera angle hinders you from predicting moves)
  • Especially in game 3, there is a beautiful 15-minute desert scene that acts as a buffer between two action set-pieces. It’s light on interaction (just walking) but heavy on scenery and character. This was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever played, and is a fantastic case study of the intersection between films and video games

The cinematic flair goes hand in hand with another major strength – the series’ breathtaking set pieces. The series can certainly be a prime example of one reason why people play video-games: to experience life differently and travel to places you may otherwise be unable to. There was obviously immense care and attention paid to the environment and it remains a huge achievement.

Lastly, to talk briefly about the actual gameplay: the series is a blend of 3d platforming (the Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time type) with some minor puzzles, and 3rd-person shooter (with minor melee combat). For the shooter piece, I felt it was run-of-the-mill, but the series showed notable improvement (game 1 felt very dated in this regard, whereas 2/3 aged well and are still fun today). The platforming is mundane as well, but fits snugly with the series’ set-pieces and therefore feels fun.

  1. BTW this was done using simple but effective dialogues, for example a couple of lines commenting on Elena’s ring in game 3
  2. At first I thought this was a gameplay issue – the dialogue doesn’t fit the moment-to-moment gameplay needs, so the “quiet” part isn’t enforced, but the frequency at which this occurred made me feel it was or became intentional.
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Are mobile games disruptive?

I have written previously about the “rise of the mobile core” in China – traditional PC genres such as MOBA / MMO / FPS being fairly successfully converted to mobile.

With the launch success of Clash Royale (see my impressions here, here), I think 2016 could turn out to be the year that synchronous multiplayer games (what I will call “real multiplayer”) also come of age for mobile gamers outside of China.

If this does happen, I think it will be a big deal, as it could be an important data point to evaluate whether the mobile platform is a disruptive innovation on PC/consoles.

Minor aside: above I linked to the wikipedia entry on disruptive innovation, because the term has been used so much that its meaning is not so clear. The theory is actually quite strict as to what qualifies as disruptive innovation1:

“Generally, disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.”

I believe mobile games have so far followed the theory here:

  • They have focused on catering to previous non-gamers / casual gamers, and most of the early successes reflected this (Angry BirdsCandy Crush SagaFlappy Birds)
  • These games were simpler to play, and offered less complexity in the gameplay
  • These games were generally looked down upon by core gamers

What gets interesting is what happens next. The disruption theory says that from this low market position, the new entrants are able to mount an attack on the establishment thanks to both product evolution (so they catch up in product experience) and their new attributes which the power users (core gamers) previously didn’t care about.

By the way, what are these “new attributes” for mobile? The obvious ones:

  • Never before has there been a personal computer that literally everyone will own. This means that the ceiling for the network effects of a mobile game is theoretically the entire population, which previously has not been true. More concretely, this translates into benefits such as insanely fast match-making, always populated virtual worlds, and much larger social peer pressure (do you really want to be the one guy in your school not playing a particular game?)
  • Mobile devices are always on, and people are glued to them. Proximity to other mobile apps, especially social apps, means that players can stay immersed in the game communities they care about (notifications, sharing achievements etc.)
  • For developers, the app store infrastructure dramatically lowered the barriers to entry2 and made it possible for very small teams to serve 100MM+ players (think Whatsapp / Supercell)

To be clear, there are already plenty of mobile games that appeal to core gamers: for example if you have ever had a friend addicted to Puzzle & Dragons and was trying to min-max the f2p progression, odds are that friend of yours is a pretty heavy gamer generally. It’s just that to date, most of these games have shied away from experiences that directly compete with PC/console3. Some of it was due to appealing to the “casual audience”, or technical limitations (e.g. unreliable network connection).

Another way to frame this: mobile games to date can be seen as mostly complementary experiences to core games – they generally avoided head-on competition, and instead tried to capture core gamers’ downtime with bite-sized entertainment; however, I believe going forward this is going to change to a more cannibalistic/competitive relationship, where just like a core gamer today needs to choose between playing League of Legends or the hot new game The Division, he/she will increasingly need to choose between a mobile game and a non-mobile one.

Core gamers will likely continue to ridicule Clash Royale for its lack of strategic depth, but I have a suspicion it is here to stay, and we will see more real-time PVP games like it. These games will offer gameplay that may be easier in terms of mechanical complexity, but can offer similar degrees of strategic complexity to PC/console titles. They will appeal both to “retiring” core gamers (like myself) and a younger generation native to mobile, and they may eclipse and push core gaming as we know it today into a niche.

  1. Other kinds of innovation can be “disruptive” to incumbents in terms of impacting their business, but should not be labeled disruptive innovation.
  2. Initially; now the barrier to entry is in discovery, and thus marketing capital.
  3. The notable exceptions are the cross-platform titles, which is offering you the same experience – e.g. Hearthstone.
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Microsoft’s cross-network play

A fairly big piece of news for gaming today: Microsoft has announced support for cross-network play on Xbox, including potentially other consoles. This is something console gamers have always naturally wanted, but to my limited knowledge never widely done (except in a few games?) in previous console generations.

First of all, as a gamer this is obviously a good development. A larger network of players to play with means better network effects, possibly longer lifecycle of games (because the population is larger), shorter matchmaking queues, less anxiety about which platform to adopt (and the herd mentality of following your friends), and probably a wider choice of games. So to be completely clear, as a gamer (and owner of a PS4) I’m happy for this and hope it becomes something material and not just a marketing bullet point.

From a strategy perspective though, there are some intriguing questions, with the obvious one being why.

First, it’s important to acknowledge the macro-context that Microsoft is in – it has lost its dominance in computing, and is dangerously close to becoming another legacy tech company that will live on for decades but is completely irrelevant to most consumers1. And in this context there’s been a big turn-about at Microsoft at embracing other people’s platforms, from the new love shown to Linux to a bigger focus of Office on iOS. This Xbox announcement follows this pattern 2

Second, there’s also the macro-context of the smartphone revolution and the future implications for games. Consider this data-point3:

Supercell had 180 full-time employees in 2015. In comparison, and per Wikipedia, Activision-Blizzard, had 6,690 employees in 2015; EA, 8,400. This sharp contrast speaks not only to product strategy but also market characteristics: the power of mobile scale and the app store. A casual prediction: the first game with a billion monthly active players4 is not going to be a PC or console game – that number is reserved for mobile because of the install base involved.

The point is, in this context of a broader shift-to-mobile for the entire tech ecosystem, being the market leader in console actually amounts to very little, and it’s arguable that for consoles to have an independent future (and not just be subsumed into the mobile ecosystem entirely), perhaps it’s not a bad idea to ditch the barrier to entry that is compatibility. Again, being in 2nd place this gen, Microsoft has less to lose and more to gain with moving in this direction first; though Sony should think hard about whether it really wants to turn down the friend-request.

Third, and extrapolating from the second point, if the major console platforms became buddies, and also had full cross-play with PC, this “circle-the-wagons” move is likely to the benefit of most parties in the “traditional” game development space. And with both Microsoft and Apple wanting to make Windows / Mac more like mobile (the “walled garden” app stores), PC could look very similar to console from an user-experience perspective anyways.

Interesting times:)

  1. BTW, this is a perfectly valid business strategy, it’s just a far-cry from Microsoft’s lofty ambitions in the past.
  2. One of my favorite business school professors, who specializes in teaching strategy in the TMT space, had a very snappy summary about platform compatibility/interoperability – the market leader generally has little incentive in offering compatibility with a competing platform, whereas the followers have a ton of incentives to offer compatibility. This can be broadly observed across tech sectors, and Microsoft’s recent moves certainly exemplify this point.
  3. The financial metrics may not be apples-to-apples comparable, but it is still good reference. Alternatively can also compare top-line revenue.
  4. See this reference on the 12 pieces of software that have 1B users.
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Superhot (2016) – thoughts

Superhot is the full game of the 7-day game-jam prototype that made waves a few years back. The core gameplay is more or less the same, but with a full (albeit short – a few hours) campaign’s worth of content and a couple of new mechanics.

If you don’t know what the core gameplay looks like, the below trailer will give you some idea:

Actually – the trailer just shows you what a completed level looks like, when it’s played at normal time-speed. As you are actually playing the game, you completely control time – “time moves only when you move” per the game’s tagline. So this game plays a bit like Braid or other puzzle games where you manipulate movement / time (though here there’s no rewind) – you can carefully plot out your moves, and the end result looks like a beautifully choreographed scene from The Matrix or John Wick.

The difficulty comes from everything (including yourself) is a one-shot kill, so if you misread the situation you will have to start the level from scratch. In later levels this becomes more trial and error as the margin for mistakes become much smaller and you really have to think about the consequence of every action – if I grab this gun I’ll be vulnerable for a split-second (during the execution of that action you don’t control time – you are committed to the action, kind of like an attack in Bloodborne).

The core gameplay is fun but imposes some strict constraints – with this style of “frame-by-frame” play, it could get incredibly tedious if the level becomes too long, but having short levels restrict the type of narrative you can present. What narrative the devs did put together is somewhat novel and indie-feeling, and wraps around this short-session level format fairly well. (The setting: you, the player, is using a DOS-like retro-interface and your friend shared with you a cracked game called Superhot.) There are also some moments of breaking the fourth-wall type of design, e.g. at one point the narrative has you unable to run the cracked game anymore, and tells you to quit – you literally have to close the program and relaunch the game client to progress further. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly clever but it is coherent with the meta-theme the game tries to present.

But really, the game is about those slick short-sessions where you feel like a badass (e.g. Chow Yun Fat from his bullet-storm John Woo Hong Kong cinema days). After you finish the campaign, you unlock additional modes (e.g. speed-runs, which sound like a great twist, and endless mode) that really enhance replayability.

In sum, I wouldn’t mind seeing more games like Superhot, and it is worthy of praise as one of the most original FPSes in the last few years.

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Firewatch (2016) – thoughts

Some directional spoilers in this post, discretion advised.

I finished Firewatch in a 3 play-sessions totalling about 4-5 hours over the course of two days 1. Overall I would say I enjoyed this experience, and thought it was worth the price of admission ($18 on Steam, after a 10% discount).

A few broad thoughts after letting the playthrough sink in a bit:

  • Strong production values – it’s certainly a beautiful game with strong art direction. Also great voice-acting from the two leads
  • It felt like a very cinematic experience. The opening sequence uses some strong narrative techniques (interactive fiction interlaced with some FPS tutorial elements at the same time…) to very quickly set the context for the character you are playing. The amount of content and emotional highs/lows in the opening reminds me of this Pixar favorite
  • Speaking of movies, this game also reminded me of The Sixth Sense (1999), as both heavily rely on a major twist in the final act that completes the experience in an unexpected way. Firewatch’s resolution may be unsatisfactory to gamers used to a lot more action/suspense in video-games, but feels thematically complete and is a nice little social commentary on the state of video-games and really blockbuster films as well (where gamers expect larger-than-life plots and fantastical narratives, just like the summer tentpole movies)
  • I say this game is thematically complete with its plot resolution, because ultimately this is a game about loneliness. The character you play, Henry, does not see another person’s face throughout the whole game – it’s at best silhouettes or someone with a big mask. And he’s in this wilderness setting because he wants to get away from some big life-issues. So the game’s plot, which some gamers see as a letdown, is actually very contemplative about a lonely person’s frame of mind as he goes “into the wild”
  • Finally, at a meta level, I personally hope to see more of this type of game, something that’s a creative mix of films/novels (with strong storytelling) and games, packaged in an experience that’s under 10 hours. I think there will be an audience for this kind of experience, as we have a generation that grew up with gaming (and wants to game more, but has less disposable time and perhaps a higher need for more sophisticated content)
  1. may have played faster if not for some motion sickness issues – I think turning head-bobbing off helped for me
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Clash Royale – one month in

Writing a short update to my previous post about Supercell’s new game Clash Royale.

A lot has happened in the one month since I started this game:

  • It’s still in soft-launch mode, but a wide-release window has been set for March 2016, and for both iOS and Android. So clearly Supercell folks are quite happy with the reception so far
  • The devs have started a regular balance cadence (3 so far, I think). These changes have created spikes of meta changes, as far as I can tell
  • Regarding my biggest gripe from the previous post (what I called the “anti-play” loop), not a surprise, this was also one of the biggest complaints from the early adopters. In response, Supercell implemented a fairly simple change – starting a game now costs nothing, but chest gold has been lowered slightly to balance. This simple move has been able to largely change how the game feels when played, at least for me – now when I’m locked out of chest slots, I’m perfectly happy to grind a few (actually, a lot) more games to try to progress in the ladder

A month in, I stand by my previous thoughts that the core gameplay is really solid – I’m still having a lot of fun, and I can feel myself learning and playing the game better. At this point, my current biggest concern with the game is how it will manage the tricky relationship between high-spenders and low-spenders/f2p players.

Just like Clash of Clans, this game has a deep monetization well – a Youtuber who is a top-level player mentioned in his reddit AMA that he has spent $4,000, and even with that he’s still under-leveled compared to some of the other high-spenders at the top of the ladder. This doesn’t mean this game is all “pay-to-win”; rather, it means that there’s a really high cost of admission if you do want to play this game currently at the highest level (another top 10 player was briefly #1 after dropping $5k on-stream to upgrade his cards).  This cost of entry at the “pro-level” is in pretty high contrast to Hearthstone (yes, players will be comparing these two games a lot), where there isn’t the concept of levelling up an individual card after acquiring it – which exponentially increases the collection depth especially with the higher rarity cards.

Directionally, there are “easy” fixes1, and the devs have already added support for one – capping the card levels in a “tournament mode”. This means that realistically perhaps even pure f2p players may have a shot at the competitive events (if and when they occur), if these capped card levels are still in the realm of possibility with free unlocks. Other directions could be to have a separate ranked format, e.g. a pay-to-enter queue (like Hearthstone Arena) where everyone is on a equal setting.

Another anecdotally interesting point: a lot of the top clans are apparently Chinese, despite the game not launched in the market yet. Some of these clans are by overseas Chinese; however this still is a signal to me that this game may have particular appeal to Chinese players. One factor to consider is that there are a lot of high spenders in games in China – this game’s mix of high spending requirements and skill may have a particular appeal to certain players in China.

  1. And this is probably not a new problem for Supercell, given their experience in Clash of Clans etc.
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Clash Royale – early review

I’ve been playing Clash Royale from Supercell since it soft launched in a number of geographic markets. Personally I got it from the Hong Kong app store (which is where I live currently, though my main app store account is still back in the US). If you work in video-games or are passionate/serious about making games, you need to play this game now. 1

I’m not going to do a full overview of the game – there’s quite a few detailed reviews. The short story is this game is at its highest level a PVP RTS game, with strong design elements of tower defense games and collectable card games (e.g. Hearthstone). Suffice to say the core gameplay – the PVP battles – are really well designed and addictive. It’s conceptually super easy to understand, yet the RNG of “what’s my next card?” combined with a good initial pool of cards to collect means there’s quite some depth and variety to the gameplay (the proverbial easy to learn, hard to master). 2

My early “negative” feedback from my personal experience so far is the chest unlock timers. The basic loop: after every victory, you are awarded a chest. Unlocking the chest requires a traditional mobile f2p countdown timer – the lowest silver chests take 3 hours, and golden chests take 8 hours. You also only have a total of 4 chest slots, which means after a good 20 minutes into the game (beyond the tutorials) you’ll have probably maxed out all your slots. You can keep playing, but you see this:

Chest Slots Full!
Making you feel bad about playing more

This sets up a pretty negative “anti-play” loop – I really want to play more Clash Royale, but this pop-up makes me feel like I’m left with no good choices – I can either wait for hours (literally) to be able to play for 1 more win (and then back to waiting), or spend precious in-game currency 3 to play and lose out on chests.

The alternative, of course, is to spend gems (real money) to instantly unlock these chests. But as a monetization gate this feels very heavy-handed, especially considering the CCG elements (randomized card drop, plus cards can be upgraded by collecting more of the same card, with a steep resource curve) already set up a fairly deep monetization well to draw from. As a player, I would say the obvious solutions are to either increase the number of chest slots or reduce the timers, but either would heavily impact the card acquisition model, so without running that spreadsheet it’s hard to say if these are viable solutions or not.

The above is my primary gripe with the game so far. As it relates to the content acquisition loop, I think it’s easier to fix. I also think the core gameplay is really solid (so I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a top 10-grossing game) and is a great example of where core mobile PVP games could be headed. On this particular note, I read this other blog post and can wholeheartedly recommend it. I think even without fancy interaction paradigms like VR, we are still only scratching the surface of super-immersive core gameplay on mobile, and Clash Royale is a big step in the right direction.

  1. It’s fairly trivial to create a fresh app store account on some of these soft-launched markets – this should never be a reason why you haven’t played a soft-launched mobile game on iOS. This also applies to the China app store, which I think houses some of the boldest yet conventional (as in brute-force) attempts at migrating core PC genres onto mobile
  2. CCGs are also by design great for monetization, so no one should be surprised to see the mechanic used more and more broadly in games
  3. each game costs gold, the higher your rank tier the higher the gold cost to match-make, and these do add up
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Quick anatomy of a great Bloodborne boss fight

I’m not a game designer, so this is a fairly “amateur” opinion piece, but I really enjoyed the Lady Maria boss fight in the recent Bloodborne: The Old Hunters DLC, and thought I would try to summarize what I thought made it so great.

First, a quick video of the fight from Youtube:

Why is this fight great? From an aesthetics perspective:

  • Lady Maria is probably the most memorable humanoid boss in the whole game. The majority of Bloodborne bosses are beasts, which are generally physically much bigger and usually don’t wield weapons, whereas Lady Maria dual-wields the Rakuyo and dances around the arena with agility. This makes it feel like a classic samurai showdown scene
  • Lady Maria’s 3 phases – where she gains new powerful attacks – are accompanied by evolving visuals: lots of blood (dark red) in phase 2, and added flames (orange) in phase 3, making for some very attractive (and deadly) eye-candy
  • The arena has a gorgeous backwall – the astral clocktower’s clock-face with lots of natural light dropping into the relatively dark wooden flooring
  • In terms of sound-design, this fight not only features an epic score, but also cleverly utilizes the destructable wooden candle-racks (two rows on the two side-walls) to help create tension

From a gameplay / mechanics perspective:

  • As the player in the above video narrates, Lady Maria utilizes timing delays in her attack to throw the player off. So on the first encounter she may feel incredibly over-powering, but after a few trials the player can learn to properly predict / dodge her abilities – this is consistent with Bloodborne’s overarching design philosophy (hard but fair, rewarding to learn)
  • Her attacks (especially in later phases) also reinforce the counter-intuitive design where the closer you are to the enemy the safer you are – this is counter to most players’ natural inclination to keep a safe distance (“fight or flight”)
  • Like other Bloodborne bosses, she can be beaten with any weapon (or no weapon at all), and or even by a character that has never been leveled up. There are strategies that exploit her weaknesses (in Lady Maria’s case, she is quite susceptible to parrying), or you can try to fight her “fair”. The player can pick and choose his/her own challenge in how to defeat this boss – the game is extremely open to different play-styles / player fantasies
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2015 Games in China – the year in review

Partly inspired by this Game Informer piece I read over the weekend, I wanted to do a quick write-up of some of the big themes I felt specific to the games industry in China this year.

Rise of the mobile core

For me the biggest thing (and I was certainly late in recognizing this, though I think it’s still not talked about enough in English gaming circles) is the rapid adoption of core PC genres by Chinese players. I only wrote about this recently (when the numbers became too obvious to ignore), but the Chinese dev/publisher efforts have been underway for at least the last few years.

To toss around some hyperbole:

  • The most played and highest revenue MMO across any platform this year may well be Netease’s Fantasy Westward Journey 1;
  • Tencent’s Crossfire Mobile only launched in December, but may already have more active players than CS:GO on Steam 2;
  • and Tencent’s Kings of Glory MOBA has already bested Dota2 in terms of PCU barely a month after launch as well 3

Obviously all 3 data-points above enjoy the benefits of China’s huge market size / population numbers, but they are certainly still very relevant comparisons. Chinese devs have brute-force migrated their core PC genres to mobile and players have largely embraced them. The thing to look out for in 2016 is will these player-bases sustain – if so they will pose some real hard questions (innovator’s dilemma) for the respective PC titles 4.

Esports/streaming bubble continue to inflate

Somewhat similar to global investor trends, in 2015 China also saw continued investment interest in esports, both on the execution front (hot money flowing to teams / tournaments / related ecosystem players like streaming sites) but also on the “story-telling for the stock market” front in a roller-coaster year for the markets.

Wang Sicong’s esports / entertainment empire building continued with the rollout of his own streaming platform panda.tv, and the formation of Banana Culture which will be the operator of the 2016 LPL, amongst other things. He also recently signed a high profile sports announcer from CCTV, a number of Korean pop acts; and the PC cafe chain he owns a stake in is building esports-themed venues nationally.

He’s certainly not the only one; for example I’ve lost track of the number of .tv streaming platforms, and there’s been intense drama this year on the talent competition front (disputes over high profile streamers “breaking contract” to join competing platforms). Similarly, the rumored contracts/transfer fees of pro players continue to raise eye-brows, despite fairly lackluster results this year in various world championships.

On the “selling stories to stock market” front, start-ups / VCs / public companies seem to be eating up the esports concept and are ruthless in packaging it for boosting the valuations of whatever they are trying to sell. Companies with <$100MM annual revenue are getting multi-billion dollar public market valuations based on some esports related concept, despite having probably very little visibility with players or product control. (Better yet, make it “mobile esports”, which is all the rage currently.)

Now the hype cycle may still continue well into 2016, especially since the esports concept seems to be just getting started in the west, with the likes of celebrity investors such as Mark Cuban getting involved. But given the real-economy uncertainties in China I think there could be some quick boom / busts locally…

(If I sound frustrated or cynical about some of these developments – not really, this is really just business as usual in the “Wild East”. The games industry is not isolated from the macro-climate and a lot of this is just indicative of the broader economy.)

Console’s humble beginnings

China only recently removed the console ban, and Sony and Microsoft have been diligently seeding the market (I wrote about consoles a month ago).

In terms of competition, the early results indicate a landslide victory in favor of the PS4, with media reports of 410k units sold vs. XboxOne’s 90k units as of Dec 2015. However these numbers are certainly tiny compared to the player-base.

The big question, same as what I wrote previously, is about content. My working analogy is consoles in China is like Hollywood films a decade ago – there’s some promise, but the difficulties of operating are high (censorship / approval / quotas etc.). This will continue to be a push-pull relationship: some “questionable” content may be able to get past the reviews with enough government relationship building, and some content will be built in mind with the Chinese audience 5.

Additionally, there’s quite a number of local studios trying in earnest to fill the void – creating local console titles that can pass the government review – but the learning curve of building good console content may be high. On the flip side though, there are a pool of console devs in China, thanks to the local dev offices of big global developers such as 2K.

From the gamers’ perspective, a small but hardcore group of players will continue to be hungry for AAA console content, and with the popularity of social media / streaming some of these console franchises are starting to develop a small brand. So in sum, the trend is positive, but it’s really early days yet.

Steam’s (small) splash

In a somewhat similar vein, Steam has had a pretty good year in China, with the expansion of local pricing / payment support in November. (Even before then, China sales of some locally priced content like GTA5 were starting to show up in data analyses.) And within the local hardcore gamer community, it’s no longer a foreign concept to participate in Steam sales. In sum, they’ve had some good growth this year and some of the local prices generated excitement with players.

My personal understanding is that Steam is currently flying under the radar – they don’t have a on-shore presence, and certainly the vast majority (if not all) of their catalog of games have not gone through Chinese government approval. This means a generally degraded player-experience in terms of download speeds, but also the potential risk that they would be targeted by the government (e.g. if there’s a big PR scandal over some game on Steam, say angry parents complaining GTA5 was corrupting their kids). As a gamer, I would certainly not want that to happen, since Chinese players deserve to enjoy the same AAA experiences as players elsewhere.

  1. Chinese media recently reported 60MM cumulative registered players and PCU of 2.04MM in the 9 months since launch; my previous post quoted analyst estimates of $158MM monthly revenue in Nov 2015
  2. CS:GO PCU was around 800k; CF mobile announced 1MM PCU after 3 days of launch, and is rumored to have 10MM DAU
  3. Kings of Glory announced 1MM PCU and 7.5MM DAU recently, while Dota2 PCU on Steam is 1MM
  4. Disclaimer: including League of Legends, which I work on
  5. just like the current Hollywood blockbusters that are bending over backwards to meet Chinese tastes, now that they see the size of the market
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China’s unique core mobile games

This is clearly old news, but Chinese publishers and developers have been hyper-focused on the mobile market the past couple of years, and it has come to a point where at a macro level the Chinese mobile games market is looking significantly different from the western markets.

To present some simple data – according to a local analyst report from CNG, the top grossing mobile games of November in China were:

(The revenue unit is 100MM RMB, so for example 10.22 is 1,022MM RMB or $158MM – that’s a crazy monthly run-rate!)

A few immediate observations from this chart:

  • Very high revenue estimate numbers. $158MM is a crazy monthly run-rate, and even if this was over-estimated by a factor of 5 it is still really impressive
  • Heavily represented by core game genres taken from PC gaming. #1/2/3/4 are fairly typical MMOs for Chinese players (#1 & 2 are two different MMOs based on the Journey to the West lore, published by Netease); #5 is a card combat game leveraging the Kings of Fighters franchise; #6 is a mobile MOBA (that if I may say so looks quite like League of Legends…); #7 is an arcade shooter; #8/9 are the only western games on the chart, and are the typical western mobile strategy games; #10 is a casual puzzle game
  • This is in stark contrast to what’s popular in the west – take the US for example, the top-grossing games still heavily skew towards casual games like Candy Crush and core PC genres like MMO / FPS / MOBA are not highly visible

Another way to look at the data above is to say, the biggest MMO globally in terms of revenue (and possibly player-base too) is likely a mobile MMO only available in China.

As a separate data point, last week Tencent also launched the mobile version of Crossfire, its top FPS on PC (and a regular $1B/year game for Tencent), to some strong initial traction (they announced 10MM downloads and 1MM PCU after 3 days). The Wall Street Journal also reported last week about Tencent’s ambitions to launch its other mobile FPS WeFire in the US after some success in the Korean market.

I think western developers have generally seen these core PC genres as extremely challenging to “port” to mobile. There have been attempts in earnest (e.g. studios like Gameloft have probably tried every PC genre on mobile), but certainly no runaway success like the Netease MMOs or the Tencent FPSes. A fundamental question that would be asked is “why would gamers want to play these games on mobile?”, and while the answer to that question generally applies to both western and Chinese gamers, there are some environmental factors that have made Chinese gamers early adopters here.

In a sense, these games start from the same low-end disruption thesis: they offer an inferior core gameplay experience (in terms of visual and input fidelity, etc.), but excels on accessibility (anywhere, anyone – everyone has a smartphone, any time – since gameplay loops have been optimized to be short sessions).

The diverging environmental factors that may contribute to the observed market difference are as follows:

  • Chinese gamers are generally much less sophisticated and have fewer gaming choices. The Chinese gaming market is heavily skewed towards online games – for example, none of the GOTY nominees at the recent Game Awards have been officially published in China. There seems to be a strong desire to stick to the genres they are comfortable with
  • More generally, Chinese gamers have fewer entertainment options, and gaming is the affordable entertainment option for everyone. So from a “jobs to be done” perspective, gaming in China fulfills a stronger role of connecting people socially, and gamers are used to this type of behavior (playing a MMO to be part of a community / make friends etc.)
  • The broader market context of mobile adoption and mobile tech leap-frogging PC in China. Chinese consumers have been trained to be more mobile savvy (e.g. using mobile payments) in part because the legacy infrastructure was not well-developed (and therefore no switching cost, just adopting cost). Spending more time playing more hardcore games on mobile conforms with this macro-trend

To wrap up – I think it’s possible that China’s mobile games market today is where the western markets will head to in the future. Having played some of these chart-topping games I can say that they have found some core fun that should be universally appealing – the question is who will successfully replicate these formulas for western gamers.

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