This article aims at helping you find your way to Asian publishers once you're confident that you have a solid established product. Please note that these observations were based on my experience and may not cover the full spectrum of what you're likely to encounter, but I hope this is helpful to you.
Developing a Game for the Asian Market
"Is it Free-to-Play?"
This is the first thing you're most likely to hear if you reach out to publishers in Asia.
For a number of reasons, the Asian market is currently dominated by F2P games. This prevents hacking, reduces friction to entry, etc. If your game isn't a F2P, you need to look into ways to turn it into one, otherwise you'll fall short from landing a deal with any publisher and will be told that your project is risky.
That may however not be as straightforward as it seems. A number of game concepts simply can't be translated into a F2P efficiently. Changing from Retail to F2P can have dire consequences on design, balancing, and even "fun factor".
Verifying that your game concept could work as a F2P is thus the first critical step to making it work in the Asian market, and there's a probability that your effort might end right there if you believe it can't be done. The good news is you won't have to sink thousands of dollars to figure it out. Phew!
F2P = Pay2Win?
So you've probably heard that Asians, in general, are ok with Pay2Win when playing F2P games, right? I mean, who hasn't heard the story where two Korean kids died while grinding because they forgot to eat? While it's true that Asians, in general, are ok with Pay2Win, it would be possible to build a Pay2Win game that would totally miss the point.
To better understand what makes them tick, we need to take a closer look at their culture. My intent is not to teach you how they think (I don't know nearly enough), but rather, set a few guidelines so that your product hits the right target. Hopefully, it will also help you see your own game under a better light.
Life is Hard
In general, Asian cultures are very competitive and, from a young age, these people are taught that life is hard. They are already familiar with the concept that if they want something they will need to fight for it.
Furthermore, social status is something highly regarded in their societies, and they take great pride in the positions they occupy in "real life". It is highly desirable for them to reach the top of whatever they undertake (work, etc.)
In F2P, this translates into two things:
A decent definition of "Pay2Win" would be: an environment in which the paying user has access to premium content otherwise unavailable for non-paying users within a reasonable amount of play time.
In the west, the key word (reasonable) is loosely related to a player's neuroticism, a concept used in applied psychology (in the context of games) to determine how likely an individual is to "rage quit".
In Asia however, though the same level of anxiety may be felt by the person, it manifests differently and is less likely to cause "rage quit". Thus, what may appear as "unreasonable" to the western observer may be quite acceptable to the Asian crowd. Since the above definition hinges on the "eye of the beholder", the pejorative connotation of Pay2Win is hereby lost.
The average asian player is a "hard worker". The games that achieve the most success in Asia are those that replicate work: strict social structure, several ways to the top, but each of them either involve hard work or money. These games generally allow the player to grind for "everything" at a much slower pace than their American and European counterpart. But because the Asians deal with their anxieties differently, it usually reinforces their resolve to continue their hard work rather than turning them away from the game altogether.
Though the actions players can undertake repeatedly (read: grind) may be meaningless, the end-result is always relevant so-long as the game emulates that social structure well enough. It is important for them to have the feeling that the game economy is directly tied to social status for this to work.
In other words, players will play to become "stronger", but won't seek to become "stronger" to play. They should be able to buy upgrades for their character, but not necessarily levels (progression). They will still need to play in order to level up, and money will only help them ease the process a bit.
Failing to have a compelling representation of a social status order that matters will result in players leaving the game, even if everything is done right.
Pitching your Game to Asian Publishers
Publishers in Asia are strong. They are LARGE corporations, often originating from sectors that have nothing to do with games. Tencent, for example, started as OICQ (QQ), an instant-messenger.
Though nearly all publishers started in software, most of them did not delve into games until MMOs started to get big in Asia. They do not have the same history as Western publishers such as Ubisoft, EA, Activision, etc.
It is important to bear in mind that, though these businesses have a division that focuses exclusively on games (sometimes even being their largest division), their mindset is heavily influenced by the greater corporation's needs and that their development plan for any given title follows a roughly similar cadence plan as would any other field in which they have invested.
With that knowledge in mind, you can better plan your approach by finding how your title can contribute to their global strategy.
What's their Plan?
Coming in, you should know what their "macro" plans are. For example, at the time I came into contact with a number of these publishers, all of their efforts were deployed to support their new mobile platforms. The game I was representing was't mobile, so you can imagine how "uninteresting" that was for them at that precise point in time.
My success came from hinting at a potential mobile port. That caught their attention and got the discussion going. This, alone, allowed me to survive the early "screening" phase of the discussion and move forward. Though that actual port did not come into play later, it allowed me to get their attention.
Lesson Learned: Know what they're up to, their global strategy, and find ways to "fit in". This will allow you to keep the discussions alive (even if you're being sent to somebody else internally).
How do you fit in?
Asian publishers receive an insane amount of pitches every month. "Fitting in" is not easy, but there are a few absolutes that you should consider:
I have an idea and... : No. The game needs to be complete or at least in some form of open Beta. I have a few users and... No. The game needs to have favorable metrics before they care (1 Million users in a F2P, or 500,000+ sales in retail).
The reasoning here is that these publishers can't afford to make decisions based on a "hunch". Many of them are not qualified to vet a game concept and determine its viability. And the truth is, many of the applicants already offer completed games with a strong install base which mitigates their risks.
You should come in, all guns blazing, once your game already works in the West. Don't plan on cross-launching in the West and East as a single move. The teaser paragraph of this article mentions "publishing their successful games in Asia": If you've read this far but don't have a successful game to promote, then consider this article as information that's impractical for now.
Publishing a game to the Asian market usually comes with a series of localized modifications: the product needs to be adapted to the Asian crowd before it makes any sense. This is why these regions generally get different SKUs (not just translation itself).
Here's a series of highly prized features you're likely to be asked:
Leaderboards (essential) - The game needs to emulate social status in one or many ways. I've gone through this earlier in this article.
Economy re-balancing - The economy should be tailored to the Asian crowd. Some Pay2Win is acceptable, but don't lose focus (I've also covered this earlier).
"Perma-loss" - Asians are generally receptive to a game where items can be "lost" altogether. This can be mixed with gambling (see below).
Gambling - Gambling generally works well, especially when coupled with some form of upgrade or crafting system. The risk of "losing" the item altogether is also acceptable (unlike in the West) and is even perhaps desirable. This grants more value to everything a player has.
PVP or PVE - The game should have some form of PVP or PVE. No one plays "alone". Any single player feature can be axed for this version, and all focus should be shifted towards multiplayer. PVP generally takes precedence although some PVE concepts work great.
Rolling Servers strategy - Many game genres will need hard "resets". In a city-builder competitive game like Evony, there will come a point where newcomers are too weak to compete with veterans. The goal is to provide a soft reset and start a new "age" in which everybody starts equal. Competitive players will fight for the top. Those that attain it will stay, others will drop and start games in new servers, etc. These games can only survive if the rolling server cadence is adequate. The game should thus favor this type of "soft reset" (it should not feel alien to the game design).
Even successful games can have a hard time going through to Asian Publishers. These organizations are receiving tons of applications and have to choose. The above guide will help you dent the crust of these corporations and try your luck at getting a share of the pie, but it far from guarantees success.
Should you find yourself unable to break through, or if you happen to have an unfinished game and/or poor metrics, there's always the self-publishing path. More and more, this is becoming a viable option (through Steam for example, which is slowly taking roots in Asia). It is also possible that you'd wish to go down that road so as not to split profit with a publisher.
That, however, is an entirely different approach...
30 April 2014: First Draft (Laying the foundations) 03 June 2014: Second Draft (Content complete) 04 June 2014: Third Draft (Fleshed out content) 06 June 2014: Fourth Draft (Content is final) / Proofread