Chinese app stores ecosystem, revisited

selective focus photography of person holding turned on smartphone

Several years ago I wrote about how China’s Android app stores ecosystem took a different path after Google’s exit. It’s time to briefly revisit this topic, thanks to some recent news.

The first news is related to Dungeon & Fighter Mobile’s China release. It’s been widely reported that the game generated $270M of iOS gross revenue in its first month, and Chinese media have further guessed a staggering RMB 5B ($690M) first month combined gross across iOS and Android.1 With this massive launch as the backdrop, Tencent then decided to pull the game from certain Android app stores – players will instead have to download from other stores, or directly from the game’s official website (i.e. sideloading, the behavior Epic had wanted people to adopt for Fortnite).

We can speculate the rationale behind this move. It’s probably a combination of the following factors:

  • The game is primarily targeting legacy Dungeon & Fighter PC players, who are tolerant to jump through hoops to play the game – in other words, there is little to be lost from reducing the distribution footprint;
  • The launch metrics emboldened Tencent to push for higher margins, even at the expense of new user acquisition.2

This is not the first game to get more selective with Android app stores in China. The fragmented landscape and the various tricks/schemes played have always incentivized developers to have a mercurial or even hostile attitude towards the store vendors. But combined with the next piece of news, I wouldn’t be surprised to see developer – store relationships further splinter.

The second news is about Huawei’s HarmonyOS(which started off as an Android AOSP fork), and specifically, the next major version HarmonyOS NEXT scheduled for Q4 2024, which will officially drop Android compatibility. This is a fascinating development. Most people (myself included) would say the mobile OS wars have long been over – and both iOS and Android won – so it’s intellectually exciting to see a dramatic new entrant.

Huawei has a big uphill battle, but it certainly has some advantages as well, and the current Android-compatible HarmonyOS has established a foothold already – Counterpoint Research estimates it has 17% OS share in China, slightly ahead of iOS (16%), with the remaining majority being Android. Now of course, dropping Android compatibility is still a huge gamble, but at least Huawei can present a somewhat legitimate sales pitch to developers given its market share.3 So far, Tencent has been a notable holdout, and apparently there are negotiations ongoing about porting WeChat (but I’d assume also the tentpole/cash-cow games).

  1. Using a rule of thumb 60/40 Android/iOS split – not accurate, but not a bad ball-park guess.
  2. As an aside, I’m a bit surprised at some of the analysts’ bullishness on the title. The first month figure is certainly staggering – even by China market standards – but the title is a unique snowflake (given its years-long regulatory limbo) with lots of pent-up demand. Its performance in Korea (a big sharkfin graph) is certainly not inspiring from a longevity perspective.
  3. just look at this amusing headline today from TechRadar – “Huawei succeeds where Microsoft failed miserably — HarmonyOS now on almost one billion devices, and China’s largest mobile phone manufacturer has completely eliminated Android”.

2023 year in review

flare of fire on wood with black smokes

Previous yearly reviews: 2022, 202120202019201820172015.

Industry stuff

The global games industry had a peculiar year in 2023. Pandemic-delayed production resulted in one of the most stacked years in memory in AAA releases (and I’m ashamed to say my backlog is so long I might as well just declare bankruptcy). Meanwhile, mobile didn’t grow, and China arguably led the decline.

Sadly, layoffs were a major theme of the year too. In the west, the main drivers were over-expansion in the pandemic-boom (Epic) and the end of zero-interest fueled acquisition sprees (Embracer Group). The Embracer story was particularly depressing, because even during the buying frenzy it was highly questionable how operationally the whole strategy was supposed to work – and when it didn’t, it was the thousands of developers at those various studios who paid the price first.

In China, layoffs were also ongoing, with the Bytedance event late in the year being probably the biggest. What’s notable about the Bytedance layoffs is that it was mainly driven by the company’s shifting strategic priorities, rather than financial pressures or over-expansion per se. When Bytedance marched into gaming 4-5 years ago, it was driven by a desire to create a significant new source of revenue growth. Gaming has always been “core” to Chinese internet conglomerates (in contrast to FAANG), so the decision back then made strategic sense even if there were lots to critique about Bytedance’s execution plan. However, Bytedance has since discovered a new revenue engine in Douyin e-commerce, while the gaming initiative has been predictably slow to show results at a scale that is material to the company’s ambitions. So the strategic divestment of gaming assets reflects a desire by management to focus and shed distractions – and once again it’s the developers in the affected studios who are paying the price.1

Depressingly, as I’m writing this in January of 2024, we’ve already seen a bloodbath of new layoffs – Unity, Riot and Blizzard (to name just a few). The Riot news hits close to home, since I worked there for 8 years. To be honest, I was shocked reading the publicly released email that since 2019 – which happened to be the year I departed – the company had doubled in size. The reason for my shock is simple – I felt back in 2019 the mood of the company was already “let’s be more fiscally disciplined and improve operational efficiency, since the new games outlook is uncertain”. Thus, it’s very hard to not point the blame at management, for either misjudging the big picture or not being able to fight back the institutional growth inertia (or both).

Moving on – the metaverse hype-cycle may have passed, but 2023 actually saw some tangible developments in games with platform ambitions. Epic unveiled UEFN to developers at GDC, and ended the year with a major expansion of diverse experiences in Fortnite – Lego, Rocket Racing and the Festival. Meanwhile, the “party-game as platform” war commenced in China, with Tencent launching Dream Stars in December in a direct head-to-head against Eggy Partyfrom Netease. Dream Stars released with a staggering (and almost comical) amount of features and game modes, including a UGC-platform that was already seeded with community-made content. As a small sample, the official game modes already include the classic Fall Guys race, an Among Us clone, a team vs team hide-&-seek mode, and a team death-match 3rd-person shooter mode.

Valorant finally launched in China; I’m unsure if it’s living up to expectations. Judging from PC cafe data, it’s a distant 5th in market share, behind the perennial top 3 of League of LegendsDungeon Fighter and CrossFire, as well as 4th ranked Battle Royale game Naraka Bladepoint. This may be more of a regional product-market-fit issue rather than any particular execution failures – mobile is just too dominant in China, and we may be past the days where a PC game can break out of its niche hardcore audience into true mass market (like League of Legends did over 10 years ago). At the same time, from some anecdotal figures I heard, Valorant’s revenue performance in China is quite strong.

One dark horse the past couple of years in China has been Battle of the Golden Spatula – this is the Tencent-made China-only mobile version of Teamfight Tactics (Riot’s take on the auto-chess genre). The story of this game’s journey deserves a proper account some day. Suffice to say there were not high expectations for this game initially – both Riot and Tencent only had a skeleton crew to support the launch. And it has outperformed since, frequently overshadowing the much bigger Riot-Tencent mobile production Wild Rift. By 2023, it has become a regular name in Tencent’s quarterly filings – a honor bestowed only to the very few titles that are driving significant impact to the corporate P&L.

One last China-related commentary – the big game teams seem to have consistently gotten bigger in the last few years. I feel this is a combination of the “industrialization” death march and the market uncertainty driving consolidation. As one anecdote, I’ve heard Dream Stars has over a thousand full-time devs supporting its launch (this includes the “game team” and also supporting resources pulled in.

Work stuff

Last year was a rollercoaster of emotions at work, coupled with a lot of change. The highs involved reaching a successful internal project milestone, and stepping into some new responsibilities that forced me out of my comfort zone. The lows were several unexpected people-related challenges. One was particularly stressful, and in hindsight a big test of whether we lived our culture or was just paying lip service. I’m thankful we passed that test with flying colors.

All in all, I think I grew a lot personally through the trials by fire, and the Shanghai teams and games did so as well. Hopefully there’s more things public to write about next year:)

Personal stuff

I want to say “back to normal” was the main theme last year. I’m not sure how accurate that really is. Sure, I traveled a lot more, both for work and leisure. (I even managed to take my better half on a trip abroad, just the two of us – I can’t recall the last time we did that.) And it seems everyone quickly forgot what life was like under zero-Covid; I was only occasionally reminded by the box of leftover antigen test kits in my living room cupboard. They were put to use again when I got my second infection in July.

One thing I should a tiny bit proud of – I’ve gotten into a semi-regular habit of rock climbing, thanks to all the Sunday afternoons taking my son to his classes. In the grand scheme of things I’m still an absolute beginner, but it’s been great challenging myself and my comfort zone. One memorable failure was a session where the gym was more packed than usual, and I was too afraid to make a fool out of myself on the wall to get enough reps in. I think I’ve made some meaningful improvements on this, though I’m still painfully self-aware some days.

Media consumed

I did a bunch of catching up on my American history last year. I read in order 3 books by Alan Taylor – American ColoniesAmerican Revolutions and American Republics. I then moved on to the Civil War, with Battle Cry of Freedomby James McPherson. I’ve since hit a total roadblock with the reconstruction and the gilded age through The Republic for Which it Stands, a much difficult read for me. I’ve just gotten back to it recently – hopefully I can say I finished it in the next yearly review.

In terms of film and TV, I did a lot of “Netflix and chill” last year (when I felt too fatigued to even play video games), and honestly there didn’t seem to be many memorable stuff (Blue Eye Samurai was great!). I do believe it was last year that I did a full rewatch of The Wire. Apple TV+ has some decent shows – I’m a fan of For All Mankind (which wins by sheer scale of ambition) and Slow Horses – but it doesn’t seem to have the quantity or the prestige yet.

Games – I sampled many games for work; one of the few games I finished was Final Fantasy XVI, which I played at home during my July bout of Covid. Diablo IV made me realize that I’ve always been a casual player of the franchise, and I bounced off it very quickly after its launch. I went back to Dead Cells and sunk a couple of hundred hours in it – I need to go back to it still since I haven’t finished 5BC difficulty yet. Towards the end of the year I picked up Warcraft Rumble – I wouldn’t say it’s a great game, but it perfectly served a need and I’ve played it almost daily since its launch.

Closing thoughts

This is a shorter piece than some past year’s, mostly due to a hectic January. I’d like to be a bit more disciplined about writing this year – otherwise this is going to be an annually updated blog (as opposed to a quarterly one) – let’s see how that goes…

Featured image by Pexels

  1. As an aside, last month I had lunch with some folks from one of the affected Bytedance studios. They were on a sales tour pitching themselves to potential buyers. (Bytedance’s general approach was – if you were in an R&D team, you would be laid off immediately; if you are in a live game team, the company would like to find a suitable buyer to acquire the game and the team as a package.) I have a lot of sympathy for those folks – they were in a deeply ironic situation.

2022 year in review

landscape photography of snow pathway between trees during winter

Maybe there is some sunlight at the end of the road?

Previous yearly reviews: 2021, 20202019201820172015.

Industry stuff

2022 felt like a good time to review some macro trends / predictions / hyperbole, past and present. To start, I’m rather glad that crypto is in a deep winter, and I remain convinced that the whole space is only meaningful for financing criminals and providing endless instruments for speculation. After reading Matt Levine’s entire Bloomberg feature on crypto (it’s loooooong), I have better appreciation for why crypto is intrinsically interesting (fun) to a group of people (especially those in finance / fintech), but more than ever I don’t see the broader opportunity or value. I also hope this winter means that at least I don’t have to listen to people rationalize why Ponzi schemes are not so bad after all.

I also remain heavily skeptical of VR, even with the recent rumors of the upcoming Apple device. Indeed, those Apple rumors illustrate the deep compromises that still need to be made. I also think mass adoption of autonomous driving is still a long time away – say, at least 10 years away before it hits 10% adoption.

On the more upbeat side, it’s been a long time1 since I came across an emerging trend and said “I get it / I see it”, and I’m definitely bullish about the current AI hype. I used Copilot in the summer and absolutely loved it; I also found ChatGPT and AI art mind-blowing in various ways. It’s important to see past the hype – no, I don’t believe AI art is going to replace professional artists, any time soon – but it’s also clear that these tools in their current form already have massive educational value, and have generally lowered the barrier for untrained folks to express their creativity. We are still figuring out how to be truly “productive” with these tools, but the opportunities seem endless.

On a more personal level, I also think this is a good time to reflect on some predictions I’ve made in the past. More than a decade ago, as I was about to join the games industry, I was very bullish on esports; I would now say it hasn’t changed the world as much as I had thought. In the world of sports, esports as a category has established a foothold; but it still feels a long time away to rival the mass popularity and commercial value of the biggest “legacy” products. Some of this is just a factor of time – you can’t have multi-generational fandom/legacy without generations – but some of it are attributable to inherent adoption hurdles.

Similarly, my personal pessimism towards PC gaming has not materialized so far, especially in light of the recent Steam concurrency records. And my fantasy about mobile / console convergence in terms of input paradigm (more adoption of controller peripherals for mobile) has remained just a fantasy.

For the games industry specifically, 2022 was not a great year. There was an industry-wide post-Covid consumer spending/engagement decline. Many studios were impacted by productivity hits and thus shipping delays. And with the macro-economy downturn (the credit squeeze etc.), there has been layoffs and closures.

With regards to the games industry in China, the headline (link in Chinese) was a general revenue decline of 10% in 2022, according to an official industry association. Mobile games (73% of the total industry) led the decline with a 14% drop, while PC games (23% of total) grew 4%. Many big companies had layoffs – Bytedance adjusted their gaming ambitions mid-year, after a crazy ramp-up in the prior years; Garena and miHoYo also downsized later in the year.

There was finally some good news in the last few days of the year – a batch of 44 imported games got approved (along with a batch of domestic titles). To put this into perspective – the number of imported games approved annually from 2017 to 2022 is… 456, 50 (that was the big freeze of 2018-19), 180, 97, 76 and this 44. One can speculate that this 44 was squeezed in to avoid a big 0 in the statistics. For 2023 I don’t expect a huge rebound – I think the 180 in 2020 is the new benchmark in the current regulatory climate.

This ~100 imported games / year ballpark is important for foreign games studios to really examine their China ambitions. The license supply is extremely constrained, with an “unknowable” lead time of at least 2 years (Riot’s Valorant, which is one of the lucky 44, probably filed the initial application in 2019-20). As a parallel, Hollywood studios seem to be going through a correctional phase with regards to how much they cater to China; there can still be lucky darlings like Avatar: The Way of Water, which as of this writing has grossed $230M from China out of its $2B global total, but it’s very much the exception now, with 7 out of the top 10 grossing films in the US last year not having a theatrical run in Chinese cinemas.

Work stuff

2022 was a weird year to work in China. Compared to 2020/21, more people in more places were impacted (severely, sometimes) by Covid regulations. And in December it felt like everyone took a month off, due to a mass re-opening wave.

Covid aside, work was challenging but rewarding in unexpected ways. I had a big project setback in the beginning of the year, but it was also extremely liberating and created new opportunities. Personally this lead to a lot of hard-skills learning throughout the year. This started out with picking up Javascript (really old school, plain JS + jQuery) to make some quick design simulations. One thing led to another, and soon I was coding in React (and the boardgame.io library), and even put together a quick next.js-based internal site (so co-workers can start/stop game-servers for playtesting). And over the last month I started a proper Unreal C++ course. I wouldn’t say the end-goal is to become a full game programmer – but rather, accumulate enough basics to be helpful to the team in various ways. And the AI tools have already made made it much easier for a “novice” programmer to be productive (and “dangerous”).

The year also presented lots of opportunities to practice and grow soft skills. The project setback I alluded to above forced me to go through some difficult decisions, and conversations around those decisions. And later in the year some interpersonal challenges on the team finally came to a head, which spurred some “crucial conversations” (yes, I applied the book’s framework, and found it quite helpful).

This seems like a good place to discuss my experience with the Supercell culture in practice. The core of the culture is empowering small dev teams (“cells”) with (almost) full independence, based on the belief that such cells (if high-functioning) yield the most creative outputs over the long run. And with small teams, people often wear many hats2 and there is a lot of fluidity in how decisions are made. In the happy path, folks who are like-minded (or who’ve built up deep mutual trust to tolerate big creative differences) are able to move rapidly on game ideas they believe in. In the unhappy path, teams can be split creatively and trapped in a constant contest of the “game’s vision”. And in this state, even with a small team there can often feel like there’s too many “cooks” trying to do game design3.

My temporary construct to alleviate this is a circular owner-customer analogy across the major domains of craftsmanship in game dev (typically, game design – art – engineering): the domain experts (e.g. game designers) are the owner of solutions in their domain, but they must somehow address the customers’ problems (e.g. artists’ concerns with the game design). This doesn’t avoid stalemates entirely, but it does seem to both give designers some breathing room to work out possible solutions, while making non-designers feel they are being heard and have real influence on the game’s direction.

Personal stuff

All in all, I’d say life in Shanghai under Covid was great in 2020, acceptable in 2021, and abysmal in 2022. The nationwide Zero-Covid policy became a cruelty with Omicron and later variants.

The Shanghai lockdown of late March to early June was a mix of bizarre, tragic and sometimes uplifting events. Individual experiences varied greatly. In my case, I was fortunate to be living with a lot of support at home, and once the supply of essentials stabilized, it was mostly a mundane 2-month home confinement. Trying to work-from-home was futile with 2 young kids; the biweekly PCR test downstairs became our “yard-time”4.

It was a much worse affair for those that lived alone, whether young or elderly. Several co-workers spent most of their waking hours trying to procure food (through the vastly inefficient group-buy networks that had sprung up in each community), and then cooking them. It was a different sort of subsistence living. And anyone that had any kind of chronic health condition was tormented by the constant worry of running out of medication, or needing to make a difficult trip to the hospital. And there were probably plenty of migrant workers who had no home to go to – from my window I can see this footbridge, and during those months there were signs that someone (or several people) were living in a facility room under the bridge.

Most of the uplifting moments came from ordinary people being wholesome. We got to know the people in our apartment building a lot better. We often exchanged various supplies, and helped the residents who couldn’t speak Chinese. My wife once complained in the building wechat group that we were running out of meat (she had lost the day’s group-buy and online grocery battles); a few hours later a care package arrived, with an assortment of meat and various food, and even a bottle of Coke5.

When the lockdown was finally lifted in June, I experienced some symptoms of what Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption called being “institutionalized”. I wasn’t eager to go out on to the streets; I was angry at the celebrations. And as a tragic epilogue to this whole fiasco, we learnt that the gentleman in his 50s who lived next to us had died, after being rushed to the hospital in that very last week. He never got to see Shanghai free again.


In August, I got the chance to go abroad on an extended business trip, and I wrote down my impressions in an earlier post. I returned to Shanghai in early October, and had an interesting ordeal during the entry quarantine. It was supposed to be 7 days in a hotel + 3 days at home, but on day 6 I got notified that no one would be discharged. The quarantine hotel had gone into further lockdown; I speculated that it was due to hotel staff getting infected (some guests testing positive would be routine and expected – it’s the whole point of entry quarantine). I could do nothing but spend a total of 15 days in that hotel.

November was tempestuous (to put it mildly). It was clear that Covid was spreading, in many different parts of the country. And it was clear that the economy was suffering badly, due to the harsh uncertainties of the “zero-Covid” framework. Even so, I still felt that there would be no significant policy changes until the next summer; imagine my surprise when the big switch was flipped in December. I have gone through a lot of different feelings (anger, schadenfreude, sadness, to name a few) in the past month, but mostly I just feel relieved that my extended family have gone through this with no major incidents.

Media consumed

I played a lot of Elden Ring during the Shanghai lockdown. I wrote about the brief viral sensation Sheep a Sheep. I also played a lot of Returnal late in the year – I really should have wrote a post about it, it’s an excellent roguelite and a great take at a 3rd-person bullet-hell shooter (I recommend their GDC talks). And over the past month I’ve been quite taken with Marvel Snap – I’ve long announced that my gaming sweet spot is fast-paced PVE action games, but somehow this game has reoccupied the casual competitive gamer in me.

I don’t have a great reading habit, but I quite enjoyed some history reading last year6. I found Tower of Skulls, volume 1 of a trilogy on the Asia-Pacific War in WW2, excellent and informative. I’m currently slowly working through American Colonies (also part 1 of a trilogy), after hearing a friend mention it.

For films and TV – I didn’t enjoy Everything Everywhere All at Once; quoting my own Letterboxd comment: “I both appreciate this is a fantastic piece of film-making and feel that it’s not my cup of tea.” Top Gun: Maverick blew past my expectations (I ended up seeing it once in US and a second time in Finland on IMAX), while Avatar: The Way of Water mildly disappointed. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery was the film I didn’t know I needed – it was a real palate cleanser to lift my spirits during a dreadful end-of-year.

Featured image by Pexels

  1. Long enough that I worry that I’m just old and more closed-minded than before.
  2. There are quite a few programmer-designers and designer artists, for example.
  3. This is often a symptom of people pitching and debating solutions when they haven’t agreed on the problem.
  4. The PCR test flow-of-traffic dictated that we walk around the building after testing; nobody enforced how long you took to finish that walk.
  5. Coke was a bit like cigarettes in prison during those months.
  6. This interest was naturally spurred by some current affairs.

The curious case of the game “Sheep a Sheep”

I’m on a late summer vacation and wanted to get back to writing. Sheep a Sheep provides an easy topic, even though it’s not usually the type of game I would comment on.

The short story: Sheep a Sheep is a hyper-casual match-3 puzzle game, available as a mini-program (roughly HTML5-based) within WeChat. The game has become a controversial viral sensation in China the past week. (Here’s a write-up about the game for more context.)

The controversy stems from a few areas. First, there is the question of whether this game is a copy of other works. The base gameplay is similar to mahjong solitaire. Many people have also pointed to the game 3 Tiles as the source of inspiration – indeed, 3 Tiles itself has shot up to the top of the App Store download charts in China on this unexpected tailwind (so, should they be thankful for getting ripped off?).

Second, the core hook of Sheep a Sheep is ethically shaky, to put it mildly. The game is labeled as an “ultra-hard puzzle game where only 0.1% of gamers can win.” After a quick tutorial level-1 where players are taught the match-3 mechanic, players are immediately presented with a procedurally generated level-2 that in vast majority of cases are mathematically impossible to complete. By watching ads – this is the game’s sole monetization -or sharing links to the game via WeChat, players can access a very limited number of power-ups that can improve their odds slightly – but usually this is not enough to actually win.

The game employs a proven bag-of-tricks to entice players to try for the impossible win. Even winning once is huge bragging rights, which plays right into the game’s viral referrals – “have you won once yet?” Furthermore, there’s a province-based leaderboard right on the game’s home screen, and by winning you contribute to your province’s rankings on this leaderboard. And winning games also gives you currency to buy cosmetic items, which of course are more avenues to show off and brag. All of these are battle-tested mechanics in China’s top games, and immediately familiar to players.

I’ve played maybe 10-20 rounds, and in a couple of tries I felt I was close to a win – but it’s hard to know for sure since the tiles can stack infinitely and thus you never know for sure how many tiles are left. Despite knowing that this game is in many ways a scam / hoax and the odds are hopelessly stacked against me, I felt compelled to play more, to just win once; and I gladly clicked to watch the ads which raised my chances by an infinitesimal amount (99% of the ads shown to me were for Pinduoduo). I guess this is similar psychology to people buying lottery tickets or playing slot machines.

In contrast – 3 Tiles is certainly a better-made game, with superior aesthetics and a traditional free-to-play puzzle-game difficulty curve. Like many other puzzle games, it has hundreds of levels and I cruised through the first dozen levels. My only complaint is the game’s high frequency of ads – an ad is played before every level and there are some UI “dark patterns” during the ads to trick click-throughs.

And this is where this “case” gets interesting for me. Comparing the 2 games, it seems like a no-brainer that players should choose the better-looking game where they can actually finish the puzzles, instead of the deceptive and poorly-made game where 99.9% of the time you are set up to fail. If you were to bet on the outcomes of the 2 games ex ante – say, you are a publisher or an investor looking at these 2 game pitches – it would seem crazy to bet on the latter. And yet, in this case we know the latter is the winning bet by far. What, if anything, should we take away from this case?

Well, “maybe there’s not much to really take away” is a reasonable answer in my opinion. No one expects Sheep a Sheep to have longevity – after realizing the game’s objectively bad (intentionally deceptive?) puzzle design, many people feel tricked and there’s likely a backlash.

At the same time, from a “jobs to be done” perspective, we should realize that 3 Tiles and Sheep a Sheep target entirely different needs (and thus different audiences): 3 Tiles serves the motivations of the traditional puzzle-game demographics, while Sheep a Sheep is about serving a flavor-of-the-month novelty to the Internet at large. The necessary ingredients of such a flavor-of-the-month novelty could be: illusion of skill, high element of randomness/luck, and a subversive x-factor that drives virality (“only 0.1% can do this – can you?”); it is coincidental that the 3 Tiles gameplay could be successfully twisted into this recipe.

For “serious” game devs, perhaps there’s some room to interpret Sheep a Sheep as yet another case for subversive design choices. Making the 2nd level of your game incredibly hard is a subversive decision, and maybe it does make sense in some very rare set of conditions.

[Sep 27 update]

I thought it was worth a minor addendum, one week after the original post above. A couple of things happened:

First, it seems the devs drastically reduced the difficulty of the game – by drastic, I mean that the odds of winning went from 0.1% to 5% (illustrative numbers, but you get my point). The net result is that in absolute numbers there seems to be a lot more players getting a win every day (in the above screenshot, there were already 500k winners during the day), but percentage-wise it still feels like a fool’s errand.

Second, I finally got my personal first win, after maybe 100 tries? Anyway I’ve played for ~10 days and this is the first win. With my win I got a cosmetic (the constructor sheep above). With this win, I also finally realized that the game also emulates Wordle‘s “a puzzle a day” format – once you’ve won a round, you have to wait 24 hours before you can challenge again, in effect setting up an appointment mechanic.

2021 year in review

Previous yearly reviews: 20202019201820172015.

Industry stuff

If 2020 was a year where the global games industry got drunk on pandemic growth, 2021 was the hangover. Consumption growth stalled, as expected. Supply chain disruptions have meant a difficult transition for the new console generation. And developers also wrestled with production delays and ongoing uncertainties of office re-openings.

In China, there was even less to cheer for. Game license approvals have again been stalled since August, and thus there were only 755 games approved for the whole year – a 46% decrease from 2020. And there were only 76 imported titles – it’s important to note that any game that’s based on a foreign IP is typically treated as an import title (e.g. Netease making a MOBA with Marvel characters), so the number of licenses issued to games made by developers outside China is even smaller. In comparison, NPD reported over 2,000 premium games released across consoles and Steam in the US in 2021; and there’s about 10k games released on Steam every year, and certainly a lot more on mobile free-to-play. So the license approval in China has become this ironclad gate, where the vast majority of games produced globally every year are not allowed legal entry. It’s not hard to imagine the rent-seeking behavior this creates.

And then there were the newer and stricter regulations. Minors are now limited to a total of 3 hours of gaming a week, designated at specific hours from Friday to Sunday. (If you work in server operations, these kinds of schedules create the worst traffic spikes during your peak hours – and indeed Honor of Kings suffered server outages when millions of youngsters wanted to login at the same time Friday night.) Tencent also voluntarily introduced time restrictions for adults, and thus it’s now a common sight to see streamers swapping accounts to extend their playtime while on air.

And thus Chinese game companies continued their international expansion, looking for greener pastures elsewhere. miHoYo opened a studio in Montreal, following a series of studio openings across North America by Tencent. But there’s also regulatory headwinds, with the US government scrutinizing Chinese services. This is partly what prompted Tencent to unveil a new publishing entity, Level Infinite, headquartered in Amsterdam and Singapore; and likewise miHoYo transferring Genshin Impact’s publishing to its Singapore entity Cognosphere. It’s unclear to me that such attempts to create a legal separation between China onshore and offshore entities would appease regulators outside of China, and the legal gymnastics could eventually become untenable.

Speaking of Genshin Impact, it continues to impress on the global stage, not just in terms of its business performance, but also cultural impact. I think it’s doing a lot to elevate the stature of Chinese games with players globally. Another mobile game worth mentioning is Harry Potter: Magic Awakened, developed by the Netease team that created Onmyoji. This game has set a new bar for launch live-ops in China: players were allowed to download the game, log in to create their characters, and socialize with other players in-game a few days before the official launch date; combined with a creative marketing campaign (a “back to magic school” theme that coincided with the real-life back-to-school season), the game was a viral sensation.

On a separate note, one positive development was the formal end to “996” at most large tech companies in China. Partly spurred by regulatory scrutiny, and partly perhaps due to an attitudinal shift in the new generation of talent, this is one more sign that the hyper-growth years are over.

Oh, and there was the Bubble – metaverse, web3, NFTs, play-to-earn… Even to a disinterested observer like myself, these concepts seemed to have sucked all the air out of public discourse. In China, discourse around NFTs and crypto-gaming have been much more muted, thanks to the ongoing government crackdown against crypto. But the “metaverse” hype cycle was in full force. It’s hard not to be skeptical, when you hear about some blue-blood VC eager to fund a team (which has never made a game before) pitching a cross-platform metaverse MMO. But for now, the music hasn’t stopped playing, and so the game continues.

Finally, Wild Rift – the game I worked on for 2.5 years from late 2016 to mid 2019, and where I was one of the first 3 people on the team – finally launched in China, as the more straightforwardly (and better, IMO) named League of Legends Mobile. Early data seemed to have been very good, at least good enough for the project team to win the prestigious “major business breakthrough” award within Tencent. But of course the jury is still out on whether the game can sustain. In any case, I’m just happy that Chinese players can enjoy it (or unite in complaining about the matchmaking – but that should a post for another day).

Work stuff

2021 was the second full calendar year I worked at Supercell Shanghai. The office was open year round, except for a couple weeks when one colleague was quarantined by the Shanghai government in a contact tracing effort. (In my colleague’s case, apparently the Didi ride they took had transported someone flagged as a close contact of a suspected case, and so my colleague was flagged as well – this is one anecdotal example of how contact tracing had been enforced locally.

It was still far from a normal year for work, since it was a massive undertaking to enter or leave China. So we really missed out on cultural exchanges and collaborations with other Supercell offices. And it also took a heavy toll on our recruiting strategy, since it was practically impossible to hire from overseas.

It’s hard to develop new games and build new teams and establish a new studio’s culture all at once. (Duh!) And thus it was an exciting milestone (and a big sigh of relief?) when my coworkers soft-launched Clash Mini towards the end of the year. I didn’t work on the game, but given how small our studio is, I’ve had a great front-row seat to its trials and tribulations. There’s a Chinese idiom that says a bystander sees more clearly than the person directly involved; I certainly felt this way in the numerous peer 1-1s I’ve had with Mini’s game lead.

As to my own project, there’s not much to talk about publicly, yet.

One book that had a significant influence on how I worked was Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. Whatever its flaws (reviews online are fairly mixed), the discussions of how to run better recruiting and performance evaluation processes prompted me to change my approach on these topics.

Personal stuff

As a family, we still didn’t do much travel in 2021. A large part of this is thanks to the tight travel policies of local schools, which implemented extra restrictions on top of city-wide policies. For example – if my son left Shanghai, at the minimum he will have to submit a negative PCR test result and self quarantine for 48 hours before he can return to school.

For many Chinese families, such requirements haven’t dampened their interest for travel. And some have gotten quite creative at beating the system – for example, if you have multiple mobile lines (which many Chinese do, partly due to the low cost and the restrictive carrier lock-ins), you can leave one SIM inactive at home, and use that number to generate a green report (based on carrier location tracking) that says you have not left the city.

But anyhow, in my family’s case we played it safe. That has meant opportunities to pick up new hobbies. During the pandemic, my son became a huge fan of American Ninja Warrior, so I’ve tried to gently nudge his athletic interests. (He’s definitely starting from behind in this regard, since my wife and I both lack good exercise habits or play any sports still.) I couldn’t find a Ninja Warrior style gym in Shanghai – so we picked up rock climbing (in gyms) instead.

Anecdotally, rock climbing feels like an up-and-coming sport in China. There’s not a huge list of facilities in Shanghai, but it’s been a mini adventure taking my son to a handful of gyms over the past year. There’s usually 2 distinct groups of customers at these venues. The first is kids – parents paying for private lessons for their children, perhaps hoping to get some certifications that help towards high school applications. The second is young people in their early twenties, skewing slightly more female than male. And if I had to guess, I’d say the first group overall outnumber the second – so you could say that the job-to-be-done of climbing gyms in Shanghai is primarily to address the education-system anxieties of Chinese parents.

There are a few lessons I’ve observed from all these trips to climbing gyms. The first is how people overcome their natural instincts through practice. All beginner routes at these gyms use auto-belay devices for safety: they respond to your weight and will lower you at a controlled pace when you fall. So the first thing all new climbers need to learn is to let go of the wall to safely descend. This can be a lot harder than it sounds – I’ve lost track of how many kids I’ve seen that are “stuck” at the top of the wall because they can’t let go. It’s a counter-intuitive move that requires a leap of faith initially. With enough repetition though, you can overcome your natural survival instincts.

Another small lesson is how first-time customers (especially parents taking their kids to try out climbing) misjudge the relative difficulty of bouldering (3-5 meters tall) versus wall climbing (12-15 meters tall). They assume that the taller wall, which requires protective gear, must be harder; whereas gym staff will almost unanimously tell them that bouldering is more technical and harder, especially compared to the beginner climbing wall routes that are effectively ladders. I guess this is another example of how subject-matter literacy is required for informed debates (yes, I’m alluding to the NFT discourse on Twitter that is driving game devs mad).

Media consumed

I played a lot of Hades in the beginning of the year. I was quite hooked, so much so that I was carrying my PS5 controller with me when I traveled for work. Besides getting platinum in achievements (alas, I have almost no friends on Epic Game Store to brag to), I even attempted speed-running and was very proud of myself for setting a personal best of a sub 9-minute run (which is ranked about 300ish on speedrun.com).

Towards the end of the year I binged Wild Rift a lot on China server, probably more than I would have expected. I can now see it’s a bit of an acquired taste – it’s the most competitive and serious real-time PVP game I’ve played on mobile, and the intensity of the experience is a notch higher than pretty much any other mobile game. The literal $B “product-market-fit” question is how many players there are in the world that want this intense an experience on this particular platform. In China it’s a lot – quite a bit smaller than Honor of Kings, for sure, but we are still talking about tens of millions of players at least.

The rest of the year I can’t really recollect what I played. I sampled a bunch of games on Xbox Game Pass, but didn’t play anything deeply. On the indie/AA side of things, I enjoyed Death’s Door and F.I.S.T. enough to write about them, and I was impressed with the latter as a very competent first outing for a Chinese studio.

For film and TV that I watched for the first time last year, Dune (2021), Samurai Rebellion (1967) and Free Solo (2018) were my top 3 feature films; Generation Kill (2008) was my favorite TV series, though the latest seasons of Succession and Ted Lasso are also very close to my heart. Squid Game – by far the biggest surprise hit of the year – was in my opinion another reminder of how fruitless it is to make ex-ante forecasts; we can only make ex-post rationalizations of the show’s success.

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

F.I.S.T.: Forged in Shadow Torch (2021)

F.I.S.T.: Forged in Shadow Torch is a Metroidvania game made by Shanghai developer TiGames, and released first on PlayStation recently (coming to PC in future). The team is about 20 people.

With a Metacritic score of 81, this game is in my opinion a good example of a new breed of Chinese games that are successfully establishing a beachhead in the premium console space. And now it’s not so far-fetched to envision a future where Chinese developers can ship successful $70 AAA titles cross-platform, competing with the biggest console franchises.

I’m not heavy into this genre, and during my first hour with F.I.S.T. I was not too impressed. I didn’t like the grimy dieselpunk art style, and the starting weapon, the eponymous giant fist felt too slow. At this particular moment, I felt I was playing the game more due to professional curiosity (and a natural desire to support a Chinese title).

But the game does open up over the next few hours, as you unlock new abilities, including traversal abilities like double jump and wall jump that are staples of the genre. (I would argue that perhaps these abilities can be unlocked even earlier – at the cost of a more accelerated learning curve for players new to the genre.) And once you acquire the second weapon (out of 3 total), the game’s combat system fully reveals its deep combo-chaining potential (seemingly inspired by action games and fighting games).

Probably around the 10 hour mark of my playthrough, I was fully hooked on the game. I felt compelled to explore every corner of the map, and practiced every boss fight like how I would approach a Soulsbourne game. The game is quite hard – there were few boss fights that I completed in 1-3 tries, and many took me practicing up to an hour to crack.

I ended my first playthrough at the 26 hour mark. I still didn’t care much about the game’s narrative – but I was completely sold on the combat and level design. There are some really fun and intuitive puzzle elements to the levels – an area focused on puzzle gameplay that unlocks very late in the game is especially memorable – and I was impressed by the mileage that the level design got out of a single mechanic.

What’s most impressive about the game – and I’m paraphrasing a line from a Chinese review I had read – is that I don’t need to go out of my way to hype up this game because it’s made by Chinese devs. The game’s quality speaks for itself, and while it’s maybe not at the very peak of the Metroidvania genre, it is a very competent entry with a super-rich combat system. The production feels very mature and there doesn’t seem to be many rookie mistakes (I will complain about the font-size feeling too small for couch-play).

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。

葡萄君:国内厂商不一定会做类似的事情。

姚远:是,国内很多项目因为开发周期限制,没时间做工具,但欧美厂商不一样。育碧的编辑部团队会在预研阶段做各种军事、历史的考证,去相关地点采风,完善工具,再慢慢把项目做起来。这个流程非常值得我们学习,如果真的要追求效率,还是得一开始就准备好。

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:

举个例子,我们和一年前相比,同样是两三百人的规模,产能却翻了3~4倍。通过和近300人的外包团队协作,现在一个月能做若干玩法和地图,上百把武器和几十个角色。虽然有些内容总体所需的生产周期比较长,比如一个人物从概念设计到监修要3个月,但生产流程、管线都非常强大和成熟。

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…

Annual parties in China

With Chinese New Year right around the corner, the annual ritual of burning a full month on corporate annual parties has thankfully come to a close. Here I’m jotting down some observations about the practice.

First off, to state the obvious – Chinese New Year (CNY), which usually lands somewhere in January/February is a big deal. The whole country shuts down for about a week, as literally hundreds of millions of people scramble to get back home for family gatherings. For corporate life, right before CNY annual bonuses have usually just been decided; there are a lot of year-end business summaries, presentations and discussions.

And then there are the annual parties, which occur at every level of the org. Tencent, for example, has a corporate annual party (tickets are raffled) usually held at a sports stadium, where key executives take part in some performances. Then the business units will have their own respective parties, trickling down to the departments / teams.

There are 3 typical components of any party:

  • The performances, usually singing / dancing acts, and often modestly budgeted mini-films. Usually each sub-department provides one act
  • Prize raffles, which occur throughout the night, with each prize’s sponsor (a “boss”, partner team etc.) clearly identified. A current-gen max-spec iPhone is a typical good prize, while grand prizes can go quite a bit higher. If a “boss” (say, a director level manager) happens to win a prize, there can be a loud chant of “double”, which means the “boss” is supposed to re-draw the raffle and double the reward out of their own pocket
  • Drinking and toasting. For mid-level managers and above, this feels like the main function of the night: an elaborate and potentially stressful ritual of toasting and hazing, accompanied by private conversations. These conversations are often powerful bonding moments where important business alignments are forged / reinforced. It’s one huge networking and alliance-building session facilitated by a lot of alcohol

The reason I said at the beginning that a full month is consumed by these annual parties at various levels is because of the invitation format. All these parties can have guests external to the org, and it is important to pay respect (and who you send to the party shows your level of respect to the host). If your work depends on a web of relationships with other departments at the company, you may be expected to attend a whole host of parties to oil these relationships. Which ones you go (and skip) reflect your priorities.

At the ground level, these parties are rare moments for the team to vent and let off some steam. At the studio/team level party (usually the smallest and most intimate party you attend), many people get very, very drunk. Subordinates team up and get their team leads drunk. Disciplines which feel they have been under the whip of another discipline (say, game design barking orders at engineering and art, as is the norm in Chinese studios) extract revenge. The next day often is still a work-day in theory.

Thoughts about 2019

An unfashionably late (as usual) post about 2019 and the big games industry themes that I found interesting. Similar to last year’s post this will be focused on the China perspective.

Further global footprints

A continuation of the past several years – 2019 saw Chinese devs & publishers continue to expand globally. Representative titles such as PUBG Mobile continued to gain ground, ending the year as one of the year’s biggest games in terms of revenue and active players. (Note that the game’s revenue is going to be meaningfully higher than popular estimates, as the game is integrated with various non-Apple/Google 3rd party payment channels that are significant – or even the majority in terms of payments market share – in Southeast Asia and other emerging markets.)

Similarly, Garena’s Free Fire was also raking it in – primarily from Southeast Asia and South America – reporting over $1B in lifetime revenue since its 2017 launch. (Garena is based in Singapore, though Free Fire‘s dev team is based in Shanghai if I’m not mistaken.)

To sum it up – real-time competitive PVP mobile games (by Chinese developers) PUBG Mobile, Free Fire and Mobile Legends are now household names across the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and South America.

It wasn’t just about emerging markets – Call of Duty Mobile blew open the gates to the prestigious North American market. While it has a lot to work to do to lift monetization, it is likely changing the perspectives of the gamers who have the most platform choice (and who have been the most snobbish towards mobile gaming).

IP partnerships

Staying with Call of Duty a bit more: I’m very confident we are going to see a lot more of these types of East-West IP partnerships, purely out of necessity. Simply put, I’m not aware of any western studio that have the proven capabilities today to execute in-house against the development and publishing of a mobile game similar in technical complexity to PUBG Mobile or Call of Duty Mobile. Epic and Fortnite is the closest example I could think of – but even there, their mobile optimization and global footprint pales compared to the above.

In a way, these partnerships, or talks of such partnerships, are nothing new – for example, over the past few years, Blizzard have certainly talked several times with Netease, Tencent et al about mobile projects around all of their various IPs. (Personally I’d love to see a Starcraft game on mobile.)

But what is likely new is the seriousness of these conversations now – the Chinese devs have a lot more proven successes to point to, and the western IP holders are a lot more educated about the proven market demand. So expect to see a lot more of these, and possibly a lot sooner than you’d guess.

Chinese design innovations

What I personally found most interesting last year though, was the startling success of Chinese devs when it came to their biggest deficit traditionally – game design innovation. It was truly a break-out year.

Consider the following list of titles:

  • Auto-Chess
  • Archero (I wrote about it here)
  • AFK Arena
  • Punishing: Gray Raven

Each of these games were hugely successful in 2019 in some way. Auto-Chess spawned a esports genre after itself (and certainly disrupted the landscape of adjacent CCGs). Archero caught lightning-in-a-bottle with its surprisingly elegant (and highly addictive) core combat. Arknights and Punishing: Gray Raven both represent best-in-class games in their respective genres today (tower defense and 3rd-person action), on top of stylishly creative original anime-IP (interestingly, both were apocalyptic sci-fi in theme). And mobile developers couldn’t seem to stop talking about AFK Arena, a brilliant iteration from Lilith Games on a genre they themselves largely created half a decade ago.

Also – almost all of these games on the list come from relatively unknown developers (the exception being Lilith). This certainly feels like the silver lining in the deep winter that Chinese devs have inhabited the past 2 years (venture funding has been nonexistent since 2017, and the game license issue has froze up the domestic market). I look forward to the many pleasant surprises that the surviving studios will bring to market – whether it’s aspiring blockbusters from known studios such as Genshin Impact (by miHoYo), or the next wave of indie hits.

Assessing China’s game development capabilities

This seems to be a re-occurring discussion I have on this blog, but with the release (and early positive reception) of Call of Duty Mobile (developed by Tencent Timi – J3 studio; published worldwide by Activision and Garena in respective markets), it’s worth refreshing this conversation.

Similar to PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty Mobile seemed to immediately receive praise for its technical performance. Players are wow’ed that “this is playable on mobile”, “it runs so smooth!” Etc. It is indeed an impressive feat, with no doubt lots of hard labor and ingenious solutions to hard problems. In its sum it’s Chinese developers reaping the rewards of their half-decade investment in mobile development at AAA scale.

Framework sketch

If we take a step back and snapshot Chinese developers’ capabilities in the global games industry value chain, we might get something like this (excuse my crude hand-drawn graphic):

China’s capabilities in the global games industry value chain

Here, the value chain component labels are intentionally generic (I’ll come back to this later). And the artificial separation of “Design” and “Manufacturing” are divergent from reality, but you get the rough idea.

The main observations I tried to capture are:

  • In the console platform, China has traditionally only had a minimal / partial “manufacturing” role, in insourcing or outsourcing (e.g. western developers’ China studios that help their western teams finish their games; or large outsourcers like Virtuos). A lot of this is due to the lack of a home-grown market
  • In PC, Chinese developers made lots of games, but they were generally non-AAA and in the lower end of the market (for example browser games). There were various attempts at shipping these games to a global audience, but nothing that became a cultural phenomenon
  • In mobile, Chinese developers are leading the charge on almost all fronts (with exception of “design” which I will break down in a bit), pushing the technical boundaries as well as going deeply to emerging markets that have historically been neglected by most publishers. Their capabilities in manufacturing and distribution are industry-leading

Now coming back to why I generically labeled it “manufacturing” and such: this is thanks to a quick chat I had with a co-worker this week. My colleague has an education background in industrial management. When I started discussing with him what I thought were the strengths / weaknesses of Chinese developers, he instinctively mapped it to industrial manufacturing – “it sounds like they are very good at running the factory – operating manufacturing processes, solving the production line issues, ensuring output quality etc. But these production line engineers tend to be terrible at new product development because they are focused on totally different sets of things.”

I thought this was a great insight. And yes, game developers tend to know whether they enjoy and are good at making new games or working on live titles (very few developers are great and passionate about working on all stages of a product’s lifecycle). But mapping it back to an almost archaic manufacturing-line metaphor really helps distill the point.

(One other benefit about the generalized industrial labeling is we are reminded to explicitly reference what has happened in other industries – for example appliances and consumer electronics.)

A side-bar about Design

So, to the part about “design” and China’s capabilities here. First off, here I’m using “design” in the more general sense (and it’s probably a poor word choice on my part) – it refers to loosely everything to do with new product development. I think this is by far Chinese developers’ weakest area. Thinking out loud here, there’s a few factors why:

  • China has a relatively shorter history of game development, and the industry has always been skewed in narrow areas (online f2p)
  • Much of China’s recent growth has been in perfecting the production line – working around harsh memory constraints to realize a feature, designing a networking model that supports twitchy real-time multiplayer gameplay in unreliable mobile network conditions, making the game run on 5-year old phones, efficiently integrating with a long list of social networks / app stores… When most teams have focused on being the best production line team, they lose the mindset for new product development
  • China’s shorter-term planning and rampant clone culture results in less value placed on original design, and thus less exercised muscles
  • And to some extent, China’s education system and societal values are detrimental to fostering type of talent that excels at creativity and independent thinking (this is obviously a huge topic in itself, and it’s easy to overstate this factor’s impact; but I think it does exist and should be listed)

Known unknowns vs unknown unknowns

So, coming back to Call of Duty Mobile. In many aspects it’s a great product and the team should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. It’s a great showcase for the Manufacturing prowess of Chinese developers.

From the extremely few anecdotes I’ve heard about this project (casual conversations with folks from both Activision and Tencent), the Activision team was fairly hands-off with the game’s development. (In Activision’s IR comms, the game is also described as “Published by Activision, and developed by Tencent Games’ award-winning TiMi Studios”.)

I think in this specific case, this IP-licensing model works, because there was likely little doubt what the desired gameplay experience is (bookended by PUBG Mobile on mobile, and the decade-plus refined Call of Duty experience on console).1 That is to say, the challenges in this project are mostly known unknowns – “how do we solve the input challenges?”; “how do we recreate these iconic CoD maps to fit the memory budget?”; “how do we ingest Activision’s raw assets into our assets pipeline?” etc. Or really, mostly known knowns, as Timi has already overcome most of these challenges in their previous (now canceled) PUBG game.

For this type of known unknown work, as it relates to mobile games, I doubt you can find more capable developers than Tencent and Netease. And I expect them to find further success with other IP licenses, for example, the rumored Apex Legends mobile game, or even the negatively primed Diablo Immortal (which I still cautiously hope will defy expectations). And I could imagine them tackle something like Destiny or World of Warcraft2.

Basically, anything where there’s a beloved IP on top of proven gameplay (that can be adapted to f2p)- call Tencent / Netease and get it on mobile. Forget your own biases about what should / shouldn’t be on mobile. The Chinese teams will solve all the seemingly impossible challenges, and the game will reach an otherwise unreachable audience (the billion plus players in emerging markets, the older / younger gamers for whom mobile is a much better lifestyle fit than console / PC).

But for exploring unknown unknowns, or in our industry, creating games that doesn’t have a clear reference or have so many new ideas ingested that it has become something evolutionary, I still think the heavy-weight teams in China generally lack the DNA, culture and org structure to effectively pursue. Games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Portal and Clash Royale, to name a few random examples.

Thus as a closing thought, the marriage of global Design capabilities to Chinese Manufacturing seems like a literal $10B opportunity (if not more). It is clearly incredibly hard to do, starting from a lack of talent – people who are passionate / knowledgeable about game dev, speak the languages, and are adroit at bridging the cultures. But I’m quite optimistic that this will improve over time. Perhaps Apple’s “Designed in California. Assembled in China.” Is one gold standard we could look at.

  1. Before PUBG Mobile there were perhaps lots of questions of “why would players want to play that on mobile?” But now that’s been answered loud and clear by literally hundreds of millions of players.
  2. Netease already made a thinly veiled WoW clone…