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High Road To (And From) China

YMC Games' Joe Nickolls details the difficulty of adapting mobile and web games to and from the West

Gaming has become a global hobby, and savvy developers are loathe to let a little thing like borders get between their games and their players. To that end, a number of companies have sprung up to help developers shepherd their work from one region to another. One such company, Vancouver-based YMC Games, specializes in bringing Western games to China and vice-versa. GamesIndustry International spoke with YMC CEO and co-founder Joe Nickolls this week to discuss the challenges developers face when going into (or coming out of) China.

"It's almost like going to Nepal without a Sherpa when you go to China," Nickolls said. "You need a guide. You need to have someone that's going to show you where to go."

That's where Nickolls and YMC, which he described as a sort of import/export publishing business for mobile and web-based games, come in. Founded last year by a group of former developers with experience at companies like Microsoft, Electronic Arts, United Front Games, and Radical Entertainment, the company has offices in Vancouver, Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Chengdu. Together they handle the key tasks that Nickolls says are crucial for games to nail if they're going to be successful crossing borders.

"Some of the things that are huge over here just don't have the same cultural relevance over there."

Joe Nickolls

"You've got to localize it, and not just with Google Translate," Nickolls said.

It perhaps should go without saying, but games need to be properly translated for the audience to understand them. Nickolls said that translation isn't a one-size-fits-all job, however. YMC uses different people to translate different things. For instance, any sort of contract language or legalese would be handled by one specialist, while gameplay text (often involving possibly esoteric concepts like mana) would be handled by another translator with a more appropriate sphere of expertise.

Localizing a Western product might make it understandable to a Chinese audience, but it might not make it appealing. So the second major point when moving games between regions is culturalization.

"We try to make it culturally appropriate, so that the game is tailored to the right audience and the content is reflective of what they're comfortable with," Nickolls said. "Some of the things that are huge over here just don't have the same cultural relevance over there."

For example, Nickolls said things like excessive gore, zombies, and reflex-based "twitchy" gameplay don't go over well in China, so developers may be smart to dial down or adapt those elements. Certain brands may also resonate less in China. For example, everyone may know who Iron Man is, but any sort of game featuring less prominent Marvel comic characters may be well served by spending more time introducing its characters, or giving players a bit more exposition.

At the same time, Chinese developers must culturalize their efforts for Western audiences. Traditional Chinese folklore and the Three Kingdoms story are huge inspirations for games over there, but YMC has found that if such games are to journey West, it might be preferable to strip out those elements.

YMC gave Treasure Cove its pirate theme as part of the localization process.

That may seem like the kind of sweeping change that a developer would bemoan being made for a publishing partner. However, Nickolls said in the current world of mobile and web-based games, developers are increasingly accommodating to outside input. That said, he still understands their reticence.

"There are ways to make your product successful without messing with your IP, and I think that's a big challenge developers have," Nickolls said. "They don't want to lose their baby. They don't want to lose the cultural integrity of the product they've made. And you really aren't. All you're doing is making it more accessible for people to play and enjoy."

YMC also helps developers avoid running afoul of the Chinese government. Some of the changes are "what you would expect," according to Nickolls. Don't talk about the government, steer clear of certain subject matter, and so on. Other problems are less obvious. For example, if a developer wants to launch a web-based game in China, it's not as simple as registering a URL and pushing the game live. First, Nickolls said, you have to apply for a license to open a new website. Then you need another to run a gaming site. And another because you're going to have money changing hands through it. And you'll need government approval to set up such an operation as a foreign entity. Dealing with the bureaucracy alone could take a developer eight months, Nickolls said. And while companies like YMC can't eliminate that wait, they can trim a few months off.

"[W]e know what freaks out developers. We know what they want to see. We know what they're worried about, and we can speak to them from that perspective because we've been there."

Joe Nickolls

The difference in the online experience in the West and China is so stark that Nickolls has said it's actually led to fragmentations in the way games are designed. For example, Chinese developers are working without access to Facebook or YouTube, so their ideas of social gaming are a little different from Western developers. As a result, one of the most common changes YMC makes when importing Chinese games is to push devs to incorporate more social features, tweeting in-game achievements, uploading pictures to Facebook, and so on.

Heading in the opposite direction, Nickolls said VIP schemes are particularly effective in China. Rather than selling players inexpensive minor upgrades on a regular basis, Chinese games have found success selling upgraded status packs that combine an assortment of in-game bonuses, as well as an icon to tout a player's lofty status on their profile picture.

Another big difference between success in the West and China is a matter of where the games are sold. Nickolls said it's easy enough to publish an iOS game in China by ticking the "China" box in Apple's submission process, but the problem is that the App Store and iTunes are not nearly as ubiquitous there. Only 20 to 30 percent of the iPhone owners in China go to iTunes to get their games, Nickolls said. He suggested the real iOS market in China is actually split up between maybe 200 sites, "20 or 30 of which really matter."

Of course, these are big markets, and there's no shortage of developers in each region eying the other with dollar signs in their eyes. And that means competition for YMC.

"We're not the only game in town. Others are doing this," Nickolls said. "But one of the differences that we bring to the table is that we're not a bunch of publishers that decided to do something. We're a bunch of developers who became publishers, so I think we bring a better perspective to a developer...Because we've walked the walk, we know what freaks out developers. We know what they want to see. We know what they're worried about, and we can speak to them from that perspective because we've been there."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.