Kaixin001 is experimenting with an open platform, inviting select third party developers to participate. Kaixin001 lags behind RenRen and 51.com, but all Chinese social networks are now slowly but surely moving towards openness. Kaixin001 is immensely popular with Chinese white-collar workers, with a total of 25 million daily active users (86 million registrations).
It originally rose to prominence by spamming and its viral social games (Parking Wars and Happy Farm). At its peak Kaixin001’s Happy Farm had 15 million daily active users and still has over 10 million today, according to Hans Tung, a partner at Qinming Venture, which invested in Kaixin001. Although Kaixin001 since refocused on relationships, games are one of the most lucrative monetization channels for social networks.
Though copying of both foreign-made and Chinese-made games is rampant in China’s social games industry today, that’s not what will drive the industry forward.
Liu Jian, chief operating officer of Oak Pacific Interactive, owners of the popular RenRen social network, stated, “Copying cannot be the future model for social game developers, unless you’re Tencent.”
That barb, rare at a Chinese conference like the recent ChinaJoy event, prompted a round of applause. The issue of copying is a common one in game industry history, with the likes of Zynga, Electronic Arts, and Activision Blizzard being blasted for it at some point or other.
China’s social games industry—the players, games, rules, and business models—is evolving at a blistering pace. China’s Top 10 Social Games and Top Social Networks, a new report by BloggerInsight, analyzes the latest changes.
Only a year ago, social games in China were developed by individuals or a small team on a shoestring budget, destined for RenRen (then Xiaonei) or other Chinese networks. Today, buoyed (and pressured) by investment (primarily foreign), developers have formed serious teams and launch their games in more lucrative markets.
Originally posted at VentureBeat
There is no single dominant network, no Facebook for all of China. The actual Facebook.com is blocked by government censors (Chinese sites all obediently and quickly remove “objectionable” content). No single social network will conquer the China market in the immediate future, least of all a foreign one.
Instead, there is fierce competition between the top four:
- RenRen (formerly Xiaonei) copied the Facebook model: it started with students and has since opened to all.
- Kaixin001 attracted white-collar office workers by focusing on fun, addictive social games.
- Qzone gained young teens and rural users via cross-promotional traffic from QQ Messenger.
- 51.com started strong in lower tier cities, but growth has since slowed.
This post will assess market share, profile the top four, and boldly predict the future.
Qzone, “the largest social network in China,” and Tencent’s other SNS (QQ Campus and Xiaoyou), are failures for three reasons:
- Squandered Opportunity: Chinese internet giant Tencent was enviously positioned to dominate social networking, but blew its chance. QQ Campus failed. Xiaoyou is far behind the competition. Qzone does not reach any new demographics.
- The Site’s Design and Features are Lousy: The Qzone website is an unintuitive eyesore. Its applications are of poor quality and frequently inaccessible.
- Is Qzone Really No. 1? Tencent’s claim of 305 million active users is highly suspect; even its classification as an SNS is questionable. Its competitors are encroaching upon its core user base of young teens.
Does this mean Tencent will soon collapse? Absolutely not.
In June 2008, VentureBeat wrote: “The good thing is that PopCap’s games are well known in China. The bad news is that most retail versions are pirated.”
1.5 years later those words still ring true, but PopCap remains upbeat. PopCap is a patient pioneer: “PopCap prioritizes taking the time to get it right – whether that’s building a new game or approaching a new market. We’re investing in China as a market for the long term, we’re not looking for short term gains,” said Giordano Contestabile, Senior Director of Business Development for the Asia/Pacific, in a recent interview with China Social Games. On Twitter:
PopCap has two advantages in China: 1) its games are already wildly popular; and 2) its games are family friendly, suitable for the China market. PopCap’s big disadvantage is that its primary monetization model, “try and buy” downloads, is a loser in pirate-infested China. The real challenge in China is developing a new business model, not new games.
Popular with Chinese Pirates
“When I meet someone in China and introduce my work, I often hear, ‘Ohh, my grandma, mom, and I all play your games.’ Possibly 100 million people play Zuma in China, but we’ve sold virtually none of the copies,” said Mr. Contestabile.
PopCap’s “Plants vs. Zombies” (Chinese: 植物大战僵尸), a charming cross of Tower Defense and Happy Farm, is another smash hit in China. The recently released title costs 20 USD and is not officially sold in China, but the pirated copy is available for free from a number of major Chinese download sites. The translated Chinese text is so professionally integrated into the game that I first believed it to be a genuine Chinese edition by PopCap (it’s not).
The Chinese social game market is still in its infancy, but growing up fast. The first smash hits, Friends for Sale! Parking Wars, and Happy Farm are just over a year old in China. Here are 5 predictions for 2010:
1. Social Games Displace Web Games
Social games have a superior distribution model for reaching unprecedented demographics, including females and middle-aged users. These users are open to casual gaming, but unlikely to seek it out on 3rd party websites, as required by web games. Social games go viral by using existing services (social networks) and trusted references (friends). Social games are more than a fad.
Moreover, in-game social interaction has only scraped the surface. At the moment, it’s very limited: players can visit a friend’s game and leave a footprint (steal crops, play with pets, decorate a room). Once more games offer synchronous gameplay and allow friends to chat, expect social games to become more popular still. Casual web games don't connect friends in the same way.
As a result, social games enjoy unprecedented numbers of users. In China, Happy Farm has an estimated 23m daily active users across all platforms. On Facebook, FarmVille has blasted past 27m daily active users in only 6 months. Explosive growth will continue in 2010 and web games will be left in the dust.
2. Consolidation of Game Developers
The days of a few friends developing a hit from the dorm room are over. The Facebook market has already seen consolidation on a colossal scale, with huge paydays: Playfish (300m USD merger with EA), Zynga (180m USD funding), RockYou! (70m USD funding), and Playdom (43m USD funding). Production values are rising in China too, with RenRen Restaurants (copy of Playfish’s Restaurant City) and Happy Pet (copy of Playfish’s Pet Society). Developers will need more resources, serious teams and finances, to develop the next hit game.
China’s consolidation will be on a miniature scale compared to Facebook though. In fact, it has already begun: Five Minutes, developers of Happy Farm, scored 3.5m USD from Draper Fisher Jurvetson on Dec. 1. And Rekoo, developers of Sunshine Farm, received 1.5m USD from Infinity Venture Partners. China will follow Facebook developers here: expect more consolidation in 2010.
Are Chinese More Addicted than Westerners?
Parking Wars received a lot of attention for its initial success but has since been outpaced. Happy Farm hit next and still continues its mainstream popularity, now reaching 27m DAU in China and basically matching FarmVille’s 29m DAU on Facebook. China’s enthusiasm for social games at least matches and arguably exceeds that seen on Facebook.
China’s social games are similar to those on Facebook in terms of themes: the top 10 includes farming, aquarium, pet, and restaurant games. However, further analysis yields some unique characteristics in terms of the developer industry, competitiveness, and popularity.
#1 Happy Farm
It’s hard to overstate Happy Farm’s popularity. In addition to the real deal, there are countless copycats and countless games have adopted the addictive mechanics. Chinese versions are more competitive than their Western counterparts: they allow users to steal and add worms and weeds to friends’ farms.
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