2020 year in review

My recap posts on 2019, 2018, 2017, 2015. I don’t remember writing with such consistency (my son was born Jan 2016, I guess that explains the gap?). Skimming these prior posts, I do see I’m repeating myself an awful lot, but it’s still rewarding to see how the same themes (and my attempts at framing them) have evolved over time, and quite gratifying when some predictions I’ve made turn out to be on the money.

As usual, I’ll write about a few topics that I personally found fascinating.

Genshin Impact and the coming “Industrial Age”

At the end of my 2019 post, I called Genshin Impact an aspiring blockbuster, which was not that bold a claim given the viral hype (and controversy) it already enjoyed in China at the time. It has easily surpassed my expectations, even more so in western markets.

I’ve already written a long post about the game. In the aftermath of the game’s explosive launch, much of the Chinese industry chatter was about “industrialization”. I’ve not seen a clear definition of the term in this context (it seems taken for granted), but loosely, the logic is that as consumers demand higher fidelity games (rivaling PC/console AAA in quality) and ever more content, Chinese developers will have to embrace the flywheel of “bigger teams (and more specialization of talent), more sophisticated production pipelines, and more advanced technologies and tools”.

In other words, Genshin Impact is seen as a landmark game, one that has permanently shifted consumer expectations higher, and subsequently started a new industry-wide arms race in China. In my view this is quite overblown – the dominant market leaders Tencent and Netease have for years chased higher budget productions made by “armies of developers” – but Genshin captured the zeitgeist with the audacity of its vision.

What’s next? A lot of UE4 projects, for one thing. To name a few: Tencent Quantum Studios’ Dawn: Awakening is an open-world survival game (with 3rd-person shooter gameplay) made in UE4. Lilith Games recently announced Farlight 84, another UE4 project with a post-apocalyptic theme, Battle Royale PVP gameplay (perhaps amongst other game modes) and mobile-PC cross play. (I don’t know if either of these will take off – their themes lack the easy viral appeal that Genshin Impact had.) Meanwhile, Tencent Timi Studios recently posted job ads for a “AAA-grade” realistic racing simulation, built in UE4 for mobile; and miHoYo has been recruiting UE4 developers as well.

When China meets the world

Chinese game developers have for years studied and learnt from their global industry peers – whether it’s GDC talks, studio visits, academic studies or direct talent acquisition. There still doesn’t seem like a lot of information flowing the other direction – language and culture are big barriers (for Chinese developers to share outwards – the “supply” side), but lack of interest on the “demand” side has been a deterrent as well.

In this aspect, the games industry seems a step behind the broader tech sector, where Silicon Valley now clearly pays a lot of attention to trends in China. When there is more interest, and deeper exchange of knowledge about China’s game development practices, I suspect there will be a good amount of bemusement and shock from the outside.

I’m reminded of an ancient news piece – when the first MacBook Air was announced in 2008 (by Steve Jobs memorably pulling it out of a manila envelope), a group of Japanese engineers did a teardown and expressed surprise at the “wasteful” and “expensive” internal design:

“If I proposed such a design, our company would never approve it,” said one of the engineers. “I can’t find anything that is technically superior. We can make the same computer at a lower cost,” said another.

In hindsight this was obviously missing the forest for the trees – the Japanese experts weren’t necessarily wrong, but their points were irrelevant in the big picture. Game developers should avoid making the same mistake when they examine Chinese game development – the sausage might be made in an ugly and wasteful way based on your perspective, but don’t neglect the end results or their growth trajectory.

Chinese developers have been self-reflective about the gaps. For instance, in this recent interview (in Chinese, but the Google translate is well worth a read) with the head of Timi J3 (the team behind Call of Duty: Mobile), he called out investment in tooling as one area where China still has much to learn:

姚远:… 再就是欧美厂商对工具化的实践比我们强太多。之前和《幽灵行动:荒野》的团队聊,他们说花5年时间做了个编辑器。这个编辑器强到什么程度呢?基本上随便拉一下,所有村庄、道路、人物、动物、植被全都出来。这就是育碧的工业化能力。



Yao Yuan (head of Timi-J3): …Furthermore, European and American manufacturers’ practice of tooling is much stronger than ours. I talked to the team of “Ghost Recon: Wilderness” before, and they said it took 5 years to make an editor. How strong is this editor? Basically do some drag & drops, and all the villages, roads, people, animals, and vegetation will come out. This is Ubisoft’s industrialization capability.

Interviewer: Domestic manufacturers may not do similar things.

Yao Yuan: Yes, many domestic projects have no time to build tools due to development cycle constraints, but European and American manufacturers are different. Ubisoft’s editorial team will do various military and historical research in the pre-research stage, go to relevant places to collect features, improve tools, and then slowly start the project. This process is very worth learning. If you really want to pursue efficiency, you still have to be prepared from the beginning.

(English via Google translate with light edits.)

Earlier in the interview, Yao made this comment about their production capabilities:


For example, compared with a year ago, we have the same size of two or three hundred people, but our production capacity has increased by 3 to 4 times. By cooperating with an outsourcing team of nearly 300 people, we can now make several game modes and maps, hundreds of weapons and dozens of characters in one month. Although some content requires a relatively long production cycle, for example, it takes 3 months for a character to go from conceptual design to IP-stakeholder approval, but the production process and pipeline are very strong and mature.

(English via Google translate with light edits.)

So the picture here is, this team is consistently churning out vast amounts of live-ops content, despite relatively immature tooling (compared to their western peers), and their efficiency is rapidly improving. And they have stayed on top of the organizational challenges of running such a large team. And there is still a lot of productivity upside if they do seriously tackle tooling – that’s the scary part.

5 years of Honor of Kings

Honor of Kings launched in late 2015. SCMP did a profile recently, and their graphs painted the picture succinctly:

Let’s be clear: the “real” lifetime revenue is a lot higher than this $7.8B figure from Sensor Tower, as it does not include China Android revenue (understandably hard to model), and Honor of Kings has very low revenue outside China. Indeed, I would say you can double that figure to $16B and possibly still be low. Coincidentally, $16B is a cool 100B RMB, a nice round figure for half a decade.

Beyond these eye-popping (and speculative) numbers, it’s hard for me to talk about Honor of Kings without doing some soul searching. Professionally I had a ring-side seat to this spectacle – I was a part of the China team at Riot Games, based in Hong Kong in 2015/16. I played the game when it launched, and was 1) amazed by how it recreated some of the high satisfaction moments of PC MOBAs, but 2) also confident that it was not a major threat to League of Legends as the gameplay was still too shallow for core players. My main takeaway was that Riot should absolutely look into making a mobile MOBA as well.

To show my thinking then: in March of 2016, I wrote a post titled “Are mobile games disruptive?“, and the disruptive game I was talking about was Clash Royale (which took up every second of my day when I wasn’t taking care of my newborn):

I believe mobile games have so far followed the [disruption] 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.

While my memory is fuzzy, I believe I largely stopped playing Honor of Kings for fun after the initial few months. However, by Chinese New Year 2017, it was clear that a disruption was playing out according to Clayton Chistensen’s theory. League of Legends players were being pulled into Honor of Kings en masse: it turns out social ties and bragging rights were more powerful motivations to many (if not most) people than gameplay depth and mastery. But really, the bigger story was how Honor of Kings activated so many non-gamers.

So that’s what it feels like to be disrupted.

I’ve often described Honor of Kings as an attack from below – if you think of the hierarchy of MOBA players as a pyramid, with the very pinnacle being esports players, Honor of Kings successfully activated the bottom tier first. There was little organic endorsement or word-of-mouth from the establishment influencers. (The game did try to piggyback on the popularity of League‘s esports celebrities, with ambush marketing like getting Faker to do a livestream.)

League of Legends: Wild Rift, in contrast, will be an attack from above. I played a modest role in getting this project off the ground (and I’ll shamelessly overstate it on my Linkedin page), so it’s something quite close and dear to me. The existential question for Wild Rift has always been: is there any chance against Honor of Kings?

Sentiments aside, I think the answer is yes, even in China. The League “establishment” that shunned Honor of Kings have been dying to play a League mobile MOBA, and perhaps this echelon of esports pros and streamers can create a big enough beachhead. And there is still a brand premium in my opinion, though that picture is nuanced as Honor of Kings has leaned into Chinese culture – in a way, it’s a bit like Apple versus Huawei in China. At the end of the day, players across all tiers of the pyramid will try Wild Rift – the question is can Riot get them to stay.

As an anecdote, I’ve been lurking in a wechat group of League influencers who have overcome formidable obstacles to play the game on Asian servers. Some of them are already organizing pro teams and recruiting players at the top of the ladder. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and gives me cautious hope about the next chapter in this saga.

Lastly, one other personal reflection from these 5 years is that, even with the personal experience of how Honor of Kings disrupted League of Legends, I was able to repeat the mistake when it came to thinking about PUBG Mobile. I had seen an early build before its launch, and I was impressed. But my gut again told me that it would not satisfy PUBG players, and its input complexity would be overwhelming for casual players. I was definitively wrong on both – I guess that speaks to how strong one’s biases can be.

(Optional extra reading – this piece in Gamesindustry.biz shows Timi leadership’s reflections about Honor of Kings and their views on industry trends.)

China’s dynamism

Taking a step back from games for a moment. I came across this year in review letter by Dan Wang, who is a tech analyst based in Beijing. It is thought-provoking and beautifully written, and honestly I envy his prose. (Seriously, you should stop here and go read that letter instead.)

This small bit particularly resonated with me:

This year made me believe that China is the country with the most can-do spirit in the world. Every segment of society mobilized to contain the pandemic. One manufacturer expressed astonishment to me at how slowly western counterparts moved. US companies had to ask whether making masks aligned with the company’s core competence. Chinese companies simply decided that making money is their core competence, and therefore they should be making masks.

This “can-do spirit” is Chinese game developers’ biggest (and perhaps most overlooked) strength – it’s the rising tide that lifts all boats. While studios elsewhere debated first principles about whether MOBA / FPS were viable on mobile, Chinese studios simply hacked away at it. When the Chinese government tightened the publishing license process, companies rapidly pivoted to overseas expansion. And with this “industrialization” wave, Chinese developers are again just diving head-first.

Having recently lived in the US for almost a decade, I feel the stark contrast. As I was writing this, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building. (It may well have been a scene from a dystopian video game like The Division 2.) There are bitter divides and deep social justice issues. It feels trivial, and perhaps disrespectful even, to be discussing game development against such a backdrop – but I feel the need to argue that Americans must find a way to rekindle a similar can-do spirit, and just build stuff. Build institutions, social welfare, infrastructure, housing, startups… Whatever it is that motivates you, which hopefully for some would be video games.

This is obviously a huge topic that was discussed in the US in 2020, when Marc Andreessen wrote his “It’s time to build” post. I didn’t follow the rest of the discourse closely, but I enjoyed reading this essay “On cultures that build.” I’m not well equipped to really add more to the conversation, but I will say this: China faces huge (if not bigger) societal challenges as well, but part of the dynamism is rooted in people’s belief that they can (and must) improve their livelihood via hard work. They have the lived experience of the dizzying growth – the building of everything – of the past 40 years. For Americans, more cultural exchange and economic ties with China – not less – may have a nice side-benefit in combating the complacency.

M1 Macs

In my 2018 post, I briefly speculated on “the beginning of the end of the PC (x86) platform”. With the arrival of the M1 ARM-based Macs (finally), I’d like to raise my bet.

I haven’t used a M1 Mac yet, but from everything I’ve read so far, it sounds like a generational leap in objective performance as well as subjective user experience. Now the question becomes, is this strategy and capability unique to Apple, or will others attempt to follow suit? I’d argue yes, if not simply because of the gravitational force of the mobile ecosystem. In particular, if Nvidia’s acquisition of Arm is cleared, Nvidia will be in an enviable position to attempt some big integration plays here.

If there is such a foundational migration on the Windows side of PCs, one clear worry is app inter-operability during the transition. It’s hard to imagine the Windows side offering as smooth a transition as Apple is doing with Rosetta 2, thanks to the much more fragmented hardware stack. And games as a special category of applications may suffer the worst of any transition. Again – a gaming-focused company such as Nvidia could be particularly motivated to navigate a path through this.

There is some irony, to me, if at the end of this, it’s consoles (due to their long generational cycles, and current commitment to backwards compatibility) that become the laggards that stick with x86.

Personal stuff

2020 was the first full year I’ve lived in mainland China for over a decade, and the first time I’ve lived in Shanghai. My timing was pretty good, in retrospect. When the strict lockdown started in late January, we thought we had the worst luck, but by May, life was mostly back to normal (even masks were mostly gone, except where mandated such as in public transit).

In the summer, many friends went vacation traveling again; we didn’t as we had very young children. But we couldn’t resist booking a short vacation trip for December. Alas, the weather in Xishuangbanna wasn’t warm enough to take advantage of the private pool we had in our villa, but it was still a pleasant trip.

Shanghai is a very livable city. I say that as a proud Beijinger. The summer is still too hot and humid for my liking, but the city has a good balance of culture (with a dash of western influence), urban planning, and pace of life. Beijing feels too bureaucratic, and it takes too long to get anywhere. Shenzhen feels too rushed, and the hot humidity is just as bad as nearby Hong Kong. Los Angeles – I love the climate, and the parks, but I don’t miss the driving.

The pandemic also gave me some new perspectives about effective governance. The US response has been appalling to see from afar. I wonder how much of it is uniquely the failings of the Trump administration, and how much is reflective of the general state of decay and complacency in US institutions. To be clear, I’m not looking at this from a lens of US versus China as superpowers, or other sorts of macro-economic debate. I’m much more concerned with the micro-economic life decisions we make as a family – where we should spend our precious years together, and can offer us the best mix of professional fulfillment, income, education, and life experiences. And for me the US fell a lot in the rankings this past year.

Investing: some years ago, there was a popular startup catchphrase about seizing the big trends, coined by Xiaomi founder Lei Jun: “even a pig can fly if it is in the middle of a whirlwind.” (Jack Ma, who’s living through some interesting times himself recently, apparently had a witty response: “when the wind stops blowing, it’s the pigs who fall to their deaths.”) The stock markets certainly made me feel like a pig facing a hurricane, torn between FOMO and having a nasty fall. It was quite surreal to see the market movements in contrast to pandemic life.

Remote work was a much discussed concept, and a collectively forced experiment. In my case, with 2 young kids running around the apartment, working from home simply did not work. When my older son’s kindergarten re-opened, it was marginally better. I’d probably need a private office away from the office to make remote work viable.

To wrap up with the games I played in 2020. I played various mobile games due to professional interest, but the one that stuck with me, surprisingly, is Merge Mansion. (Disclosure: my current employer, Supercell, invested in the developers.) I’m not a puzzle game player, and this is a game that’s still very early in development with a lot of rough edges. But it became the perfect time-killer game, and I’ve averaged 20 minutes of play every day for several months now.

On PC/console, I played Hades more during early access in 2019 than I did in 2020, but I should go back and play it some more to experience the complete game. During the depths of the spring lockdown, I occupied myself with Ghost Recon Wildlands and The Division 2. Fall Guys probably brought the most joy and laughter, and it was eye-opening to see how much it resonated with my 4 year-old. Later in the year, Ghost of Tsushima was an easy crowd-pleaser, which I spent more time on than I should have.

The game that resonated the most with me though, without a doubt was The Last of Us Part II. Its harrowing discussion of trauma, empathy and perspective-taking was particularly fitting for these times we live in. And the toxic fandom around the game felt like an inadvertent meta commentary that echoed the game’s core themes. Months after my playthrough, I still think about my experience with the characters. Perhaps it’s time to pop the disc into that new PS5…

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