All You Need to Know About the Chinese Mobile Games Market: Genres, Publishers, Brands, and Features

800 million mobile internet users, 550 million mobile gamers, 18 billion dollars of annual revenues – the Chinese mobile games market is like no other; attractive and unignorable. The market is a minefield of challenges as well though. From finding the right publishing partner to adjusting to the quirks of the Chinese government (we all remember what happened with approving new game licenses last year). With that said, it is more important than ever to know what the landscape of the world’s biggest mobile games market looks like.

In this blog post, we’ll make an attempt to chart it in terms of:

Genres: is it all about MMORPGs?

With them playing such a significant role in the market, it is worth examining MMOs a bit closer. While a couple of successful MMOs we’ve seen in the West (such as Lineage 2) have mostly been Action RPGs with 3D graphics, an interesting characteristic of the Chinese mobile games market is the prevalence of 2D MMOs with a turn-based core layer. It should be stressed that these games are not a niche – some of them, such as Fantasy Westward Journey, have been able to sustain top 10 grossing positions for as long as we can remember.

Fantasy Westward Journey uses a turn-based format in its core-layer.
Fantasy Westward Journey uses a turn-based format in its core-layer.

However, recently we’ve seen quite a few surprising and innovative entrants in the Chinese top-grossing lists including, for example, the post-apocalyptic survival game LifeAfter and sausage battle royale Sausage Man (yes, you read that right) from NetEase as well as the excellent endless runner Ninja Must Die 3, which has been a top 30 grossing title for the past 2 months.

Ninja Must Die 3 is an amazing endless runner with stunning visuals and an excellent selection of game modes.
Ninja Must Die 3 is an amazing endless runner with stunning visuals and an excellent selection of game modes.

Another argument that one can make is that despite everyone raving about Honor of Kings and its incredible top-grossing run, the MOBA scene, in general, seems to be a tough one to enter. For example, NetEase has attempted several times to break into the genre with the popular Onmyoji brand as well as school-themed Inhuman Academy, but the results have been rather modest (at least when compared to Honor of Kings’ success).

Publishers: Tencent and NetEase are massive

You may already know that tech-giants Tencent and NetEase are the leading game publishers in China. But did you know that they absolutely dominate the publisher game?

Tencent and NeEase Dominant Market Share in Chinese mobile games market

Just stop to think for a second about what if this was the case in the West as well. A single publisher with more than 50 games in the top-grossing 200.

Brands: the legacy of PC lives strong

Due to China’s restrictions and bans on console gaming along with piracy issues, (up until now) consoles never had a real chance to take off in China. PC on the other hand has thrived. The 2000s, in particular, were the golden era of internet cafe gaming. The heritage of PC gaming is clearly visible when taking a look at the mobile scene and the brands utilized there.

Brand types in China

Freestyle is a popular cartoon-style basketball game originally published on PC.
Freestyle is a popular cartoon-style basketball game originally published on PC.

Feature trends in the Chinese Mobile Games Market

Finally, let’s take a deep dive into what we love the most here at GameRefinery: features. There are a couple of things I’d like to highlight based on both my own experience from following the Chinese mobile games market for several years as well as GameRefinery’s data.

1. With Battle Royale gaining a foothold in China, Battle Pass is finding its way as well

The Chinese are masters in coming up with new innovative ways to monetize their games. Sometimes things go the other way around though as is the case with Battle Pass. Currently, the monetization tool is already found in all the top 100 grossing Shooter and MOBA games in China.

2. Untapped potential in Made in China features in Western markets?

Many of our clients use GameRefinery to make early discoveries of game features that are buzzing in Asian markets. Just consider how gachas took off in the West for instance. On that note, let’s compare how a selection of popular Chinese features have been utilized in the US and Japan compared to China.

Features in Chinese mobile games market
In case some of these sound unfamiliar, make sure to sign up for our free layer of the service for more detailed definitions.

While it is true that many of the features above are designed to support more aggressive monetization than what is to be expected in the West or Japan, it is still interesting to note the drastic differences between these markets.

3. Many top-grossing games have a strong Japanese touch to them

China and Japan have a turbulent history with one another, but at least when it comes to mobile gaming, there seems to be no bad blood between the two. For example, a good number of top-grossers in Japan are based on the Chinese “three-kingdoms” era while Japanese visual elements and game mechanics have largely influenced many top performers in China. Some examples of “Japanese” top-grossers in China include Onmyoji, Azur Lane, Girl’s Frontline, and Food Fantasy.

10% of top-grossing games are “Japanese”

Japanese games in Chinese mobile games market

What makes these games “Japanese” is not their origin (Fate/Grand Order is the only game developed in Japan) or even the manga art style, but the fact that they heavily utilize certain features typically found in Japanese games, including gachas and building up relationships with a game’s NPC characters. Interestingly, the default voice acting in these games is also almost always in Japanese, and in several cases, Chinese voice-overs have been left out altogether.

Key takeaways & future outlook of the Chinese mobile games market

If we set our sights on the future of the Chinese market, there are a couple of things I’d look out for. First of all, will the MMO-market stay as fragmented as it has been thus far? Or could the market become more consolidated? What about the potential of foreign games, such as Brawl Stars, Fortnite, and Pokemon Go, which are all still waiting to hit the market. Then there’s the Chinese government, which is known to be able to shake the market by stopping new games from entering the market and practically blocking entire genres such as foreign casino games and AR, shutting down entire genres.

Anyhow, here’s a brief recap of the main points of this post:

  • MMOs and ARPGs are still showing robust performance in China but unconventional success stories do exist as well, e.g. sausage battle royale Sausage Man and Ninja Must Die 3.
  • China’s deep history with PC gaming has helped numerous PC brands make a shift to mobile, and manga/anime brands are performing well.
  • Tencent and NetEase own a combined share of almost 40% of the top 200 grossing market, talk about dominance.
  • Many features originating from China have been little utilized in Western markets. Chinese games, on the other hand, have been quick to experiment with Western features like Battle Pass.

To learn more about the mobile gaming market, make sure to try out the free layer of our service here.

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