A few years ago, the question was if Chinese and U.S. developer collaboration would ever occur. Now that top MMOGs have begun penetrating the China market, the new question is how successful such collaborations will be in the long term. Will the success of these collaborations be the result of overcoming cultural battles, or the result of mutual respect? Cooperation by Chinese and American businesses in general is long established, but East/West collaboration in the world of game development is largely uncharted territory. Despite EVE Online, World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot and others’ presence in China, dual-culture collaboration is in its infancy.
This article provides some guidelines on how two culturally diverse development teams can best collaborate to create games with global appeal. The authors provide input from two cultural viewpoints – Horace Xiong from the Chinese point of view (Horace heads the Shanghai-based support team for CCP Games’ EVE Online presence in China and pre-production of future products) and Doug Mealy, who heads an online marketing and PR firm that has launched 280 games and has contributed to the successful PR campaigns of MMOGs Dark Age of Camelot and EVE Online. Comments from the U.S. perspective are in white; comments from the China point of view are in yellow.
Challenges in Dual-Culture Collaboration: Language and Translation Issues
Creating good games is difficult and risky; creating successful MMOGs is orders of magnitude harder, as evidenced by the 50 percent (or higher) mortality rate of MMOG developers. Add to these levels of challenge the mixing of different cultures, different languages and different work practices, and the project becomes even more complicated and difficult. The first stage in collaboration is to address the challenges of communicating with each other.
Language. Probably one percent of U.S. game developers are fluent in Mandarin, the language of business in China, while a higher percentage of Chinese developers are fluent or competent in English.
In mainland China, since the 1980s, English became compulsory lessons for students starting at age 12. So, a person in his 20s in a position such as a Business Development Manager, for example, should have basic English reading and writing skills. But, due to lack of exposure to an English-speaking environment, his oral and listening proficiencies may be somewhat limited. So, don’t expect every senior Chinese executive to be 100 percent fluent in English.
Simplified vs. Traditional Mandarin. There are two formats of Chinese used around the world: The Simplified version is used in mainland China (95 percent of the population) while the Traditional version is used in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.
American slang. Americans use a lot of slang terms, which we define as phrases that don’t translate literally into foreign languages (e.g. “screwing up big time”). U.S. developers need to refrain from using slang in their emails and in voice communications and use words and phrases that are direct and allow the least likelihood of being misinterpreted or mistranslated.
Translation issues. A lot of product names and programming terms in English are used freely in Mandarin and don’t need translation, such as PC, CPU, CD-ROM, etc. But, translation is needed for almost everything else. U.S. developers and game marketers can use translation services in China (outsourcing which is sometimes assigned to students who may have a limited understanding of the business and/or a limited linguistic expertise), U.S.-based translation services (with the same potential problems of accuracy) or use free or commercially available translation software (which sometimes translate with 80 percent accuracy).
You should be very careful when choosing the right translator services, because a poorly translated term or expression can give your targeted reader a completely different impression. Specifically, when you plan to localize your product for the Chinese market, be sure to ask well-known and experienced professionals in the industry to do all the naming and supervision work. We advise against using any general translation agency – they may have senior experts in traditional fields like finance or law, but it’s likely they will have difficulty with all the gameplay-related keywords.
In any of these scenarios, U.S. developers and marketers are at risk for one obvious reason: They can’t proofread any translated work for final approval.
Developing Business Partners in China: Essential for Success
A local partner is essential for any foreign game company that plans to do business in China, no matter what type of product they want to sell. The Chinese game industry is quite young, where the local enterprises are too small to compete with foreign giants. To cope with the possibility of instant failure, the government issued lots of unbreakable protection policies, such as forbidding fully foreign-owned companies to operate an MMOG. Furthermore, laws and regulations for the industry are still under development. There is no supervision mechanism or any product rating organization. The whole industry is regulated by many national ministries who sometime issue conflicting policies. This is confusing and even dangerous for any foreign company, if they attempt to work without a Chinese partner or in a joint-venture structure.
How Basic Marketing Activities Compare: Know What to Expect
The obvious goal of any dual-culture collaboration is a game that sells, and that requires an investment in marketing. Here is an overview of some basic marketing efforts of public relations, advertising and exhibiting at trade shows so you’ll know a little more about how things are done in China and what they might cost.
Public Relations/Media Relations. There are about 80 credible game web sites in English, but you only need to interact with the top 15 or 20; the rest of the sites will post links to published press releases so there is a good chance that if you send press releases to those 15 or 20 top sites, that you’ll get coverage on many of the other sites.
The media ecosystem in China is similar. Only a few (perhaps 10) big game portals dominate most new release sources and public attention and thus attracts largest share of marketing budget from clients, while smaller sites can copy and paste.
The challenge U.S. developers have is finding out what the top China game sites are and the name and the email address of a specific editorial contact. That information is available through PR agencies in the U.S. with clients in China, and from China-based PR agencies, but there aren’t many of them.
Advertising. Advertisement sizes and specifications are easily accessible in both countries simply by visiting the publication’s web page.
In China, there are no strict rules for game ad content or message, because neither the regulating authorities nor the readers take “game stuff” seriously. The fact is game companies always use exaggerated expressions, even “aggressive comparisons.” Some weak products even use bold comparisons to an influential title to “borrow” the marketing strength from known titles.
Trade Shows. Arguably, the biggest marketing investment new development studios make is exhibiting at trade shows. In some cases, this expense may be as high as 50-60 percent of their annual marketing budget.
The exhibit space cost for a standard 10’x10′ booth at U.S. shows ranges from $12 to $53 per square foot of exhibit space, so a 10’x10′ space can cost from $1,200 to $5,300, whereas most U.S. shows offering 10’x10’s in the $3,500-$4,000 range.
Building a booth in China is quite different than building one in the U.S, both in process and in cost. In China, you can have your booth custom built on site. Local craftsmen set up shop around your booth space and build walls, lighting, etc. right in front of you. Here’s a rule of thumb: The ratio of space cost vs. booth building cost in China is 1:1, while the same ratio in the U.S. is 1:5 (minimum).
Shipping your booth to China is risky business, and expensive. Rose Faler, Account Director of AccessTCA, one of the largest exhibit companies in the world, says, “When U.S. companies choose to ship their custom booths to China for a trade show, it is a highly calculated choice. The risk of damage, loss, delays or theft is high. The transportation infrastructure in China is developing. The majority of the shipping trucks are small. Minimal storage is available, and those storage ‘areas’ are sometimes nothing more than a parking lot or field with a large tent overhead, and are often unprotected and not secure. Most companies prefer to work with U.S. exhibit agencies with offices or partnerships in China. These agencies work collaboratively with their Asian counterparts to achieve the marketing objectives of their clients. Generally, this approach is the most worry-free option.”
Given all the booth options in China, it may make sense to rent smaller booths and custom build larger booths onsite.
Go East, Young Man
So there you have it – some basic information on how Chinese and U.S. game developers can begin partnerships with one another. If our two game cultures can better understand how things work in each other’s world, the chances of clashing will be minimized, and collaboration will prevail.
Doug Mealy is founder and president of Online Marketing and Public Relations, and he has launched 280 computer games and managed 130 trade show exhibits, both industry records. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Horace Xiong is CCP Games’ first Chinese employee as Chief China Representative and Asia Business Development Manager. He successfully introduced pioneering MMOG EVE Online to the China market and started the CCP Asia office in Shanghai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.