Your super-simple totally guaranteed 12-step plan to mobile app success in China (or complete failure)

By John Koetsier May 10, 2021

The list of Western apps that have made it big in China is not long. There are some great games on that list, including ones from major studios Supercell and Riot Games. Games like Cut the Rope and Fruit Ninja made the cut, and Subway Surfers and PUBG are big globally as well as in China.

But as Josh Burns explains, it’s probably easier to list the apps that failed.

He has a lot of experience with apps in general and China in particular. 

As a former exec at 6waves and EA and founder of DigitalDevConnect, Burns has helped launch games for Kabam, Nexon, and Atari. He’s managed games with IP from Disney, Starz, Eminem, and the BBC. Now, among a few other things, Burns helps top grossing mobile games enter the China market.

I chatted with him recently, and along with a lot of advice about what NOT to do, he shared 12 keys to success in bringing mobile apps to China. 

Here’s his best insight about taking apps and games from the west and bringing them east. (Note: quotes are edited for clarity and length.) You can also listen to my chat with Josh on the Growth Masterminds podcast.


This is part 3 of a series on mobile in China:


12 steps to China: keys to entering the Chinese mobile ecosystem


1 . Innovate, but not too far

China might be a different world, but it’s not entirely different. And some of the advice about what works in China is, frankly, good advice about growing your app anywhere.

Innovate, but don’t come to the market with something totally incomprehensible.

“Incrementally innovate in a way that there’s something that’s familiar, but enough that’s unique and different,” Burns says.

Of course, that’s much easier said than done. But so are most things in business, and in growing apps in China.

2. Do your due diligence

As you look to enter the Chinese mobile ecosystem with something that’s innovative but not crazy out-of-this-world and open yourself up to the possibility of lightning striking, it still pays to get some market intelligence.

“Obviously do you want to do a lot of due diligence in advance,” Burns says. “Is there something out there that has any sort of traction?”

In other words: skeletons in games in China? There’s probably a reason why. No first-person-shooter featuring a zombie apocalypse? That might be a clue about what not to do.

3. Go incremental … be agile not waterfall

A huge number of companies are agile in development but waterfall in strategy, especially when it comes to China. So they do too much before they know if any of it will pay off.

“What I see a lot is companies invest crazy amounts of effort into this extensive plan: Okay, we’re going to first want to translate the app. And then we’re going to look to localize the app store pages so that it resonates better with the local audience in terms of the graphics. Then I’m going to look at maybe adding some additional features. Maybe it’s a consumer app that has content … video content or photo content, or even animations to make it more relevant. Then I’m going to look at these local channels for marketing or acquisition,” Burns says.

“You know, they do all of this work in advance,” he adds. “And the reality is you make the app live on the app store with a translation and you realize in a couple of weeks that nobody cares.”

The lesson is clear: start small, start cheap, start easy. If you see signs of traction, continue to invest.

Practically, that means: start with a translation. Get it in the app stores. See what happens. React based on the data.

4. Test your unit economics before spending big

Again, good advice about breaking into the Chinese mobile app ecosystem is probably good advice for just about any game or app launch. Test your unit economics before spending the big bucks, but then also add another layer of due diligence. 

Take a hard look at the profitability of your entire China venture, not just the in-China user acquisition and LTV results. What’s left after all your costs are covered?

“You can do a lot and make a lot more money, but is it actually profitable?” Burns asks, mentioning a mobile brand that went to China and had what looked like success. “The guy was like, yeah, we made a ton more money. But in the end, when you look at the revenue share and the effort and the resources, we have maybe like 5% profit or something.”

Going to China is great. Success in mobile in China is great. But resources invested in mobile growth in China cannot be invested elsewhere. So you have to think hard: where else would you spend that cash? Could it be more profitably invested elsewhere? Is China the best place for your executives to be spending time and focus?

If so: great. Knock yourself out.

If not, a penny saved is a penny earned. Make your shareholders happy.

5. Save your pennies

Talking about pennies, save them up. You’re going to need a lot of them.

“The investment to enter the Chinese market is not insignificant,” Burns says.

But you knew that already, right?

6. Partner up

Sometimes business strategy and business necessity collide. As we mentioned in the first blog post in this mobile-in-China series, you simply need a local partner with local ownership to get up and running. It’s a legal requirement in most cases.

But you also need a local partner to be successful from a growth point of view. Local market understanding, insight, and reach is critical.

“A lot of it (success) is aligning yourself with a local partner to assist you in the market,” says Burns. “Some of the biggest games that are most successful … they all had a local partner to help with operating the game in the Chinese market.”

7. Lawyer Up

As we shared in the second blog post in this series, you need no fewer than seven different business licenses and legal filings to launch in China. That can take a while, and it involves a lot of complexity, especially if you offer in-app purchases.

“There’s a lot of regulatory complexity,” Burns says. “There’s a lot of ways you can get yourself in trouble.”

Get the right help that knows how to navigate through Chinese regulations and bureaucracy. Rely on it. Realize that you won’t cross every T and dot every I in a week or two.

8. Engage users in different ways: use the Chinese social channels

Unsurprisingly, China is not America or Europe. People are different, and they act in different ways. When they have a problem with a game or app, they expect support. And they expect it to be speedy and available on the channels that they use.

“Be intelligent about how you engage your users … be able to do customer service over WeChat,” says Burns. “People who spend a lot expect very high touch customer support.”

That might be unheard of in the west: customer support for a mobile game that doesn’t involve email or some web form that probably will never get answered. But it’s a basic requirement, certainly for high-value users or customers, in China.

9. Know local taboos

It’s not just customer support. Regulations and what’s socially acceptable are different in different countries, and in China, that means no zombies. And no skeletons, among other things.

“There’s things that you wouldn’t necessarily think about, like skeletons in your game is a taboo thing,” Burns says, adding that some games have had to tone down the violence. “PUBG tried to release the original version, but they changed it to be less gory.”

Your local partners — you have them, right — can guide you through those cultural and legal minefields.

10. Follow initial success with more incremental steps

So you were smart. You launched with a minimum viable China product: you translated it and you launched it on the various app stores. Now you’re seeing traction. 

Nope. It’s not yet time to blow the bank.

Keep with the agile, incremental, low-spend approach.

“You have a product that works … how can you modify it slightly to be more relevant?” Burns says. “If you have social sharing, can you support the local channels like WeChat? If you have a microtransaction or some type of in-app purchase model … Chinese users are used to making very very small payments, small purchases, so you may want to look at your business model set-up from that perspective.”

Once you’ve made those changes, check for results. Do they move the needle? Did they pay for themselves, and then some? Do they indicate that doing more might make sense?

But be cautious:

“If you have to reinvent the wheel, it’s not going to be worth it,” Burns suggests.

11. Pray for dumb luck

Look, we all know that hope is not a strategy, right? And yet, dumb luck plays a huge role in what works and what does in mobile, including in China.

Success seems inevitable after the fact, but it’s anything but. And even big winners elsewhere get no guarantees.

“If you had shown Clash of Clans or an early Supercell game to somebody in the Chinese market, they would tell you ‘Oh, you know, this won’t work. People don’t enjoy these types of simulation-based building games’ … but it obviously did,” says Burns.

Some say they’d rather be lucky than good. Best strategy: work at both.

12. Remember, success is an outlier

So much of what works in games and apps is seemingly chaotic. Who would have thought that a crazy-simple hypercasual game like Flappy Bird would capture the world? Who could have predicted that Pokemon Go would not only be a huge hit but would continue to be a massive and strong game franchise for half a decade now?

So remember that success is an outlier, and try something different.

“People are looking from the lens of what’s already worked or working. And so anything outside of that, they say, well, that’s not going to necessarily work here,” Burns says. “A lot of the foreign successes in gaming were because they were innovative and different and not something you could have predicted.”

That’s true in general in almost every vertical … and it means you can’t predict whether your product will resonate and succeed. That is why, as they say in sports, you play the game. Sometimes the champion wins; sometimes he or she loses. And sometimes the underdog becomes the new champion.


In some cases, this is all nonsense

Incrementalism is great, but for some mobile publishers at massive scale who partner with a Tencent or a NetEase … that’s not going to cut it.

If a massive Chinese mobile publisher agrees to partner with you, they’re going to expect massive investment and cooperation in working together to build your app or game into a huge success in China. A few million downloads doesn’t move the needle for players of this size, so you’ll be swinging for the fences.

For smaller players or those who don’t have such enormous partners: go the smart path. Start slow and build as you see progress.


Going to China? Singular can help

Singular is a global MMP with services in China as well as the rest of the world. Book some time with one of our experts to chat about how Singular can help you grow your business in China with our China-specific attribution services that include deep integrations with all of the major industry players.



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