The history of video games and their links to Asia is well documented, with the continued evolution of mobile games still showing strong ties to this part of the world even 40 years later.
Hit mobile game PUBG Mobile comes from Lightspeed & Quantum, a Vietnamese game developer, while its Chinese mobile version is published by China’s Tencent Games, who also worked on Activision’s Call of Duty: Mobile. Popular mobile games Genshin Impact and Honkai Impact 3rd are from Chinese developer miHoYo, while one of the most popular mobile games ever developed, Free Fire, is made by Vietnamese game company 111dots Studio and published by Singapore’s Garena.
And one of the reasons why Asian game developers have a finger on the pulse of mobile gamers everywhere is that they have a global first view when it comes to creating games for a world audience, which is something that Western game developers can learn from, says Google Play’s vice-president Tian Lim in an exclusive interview with Geek Culture.
“What I’ve seen is that in different regions where mobile computing came first, developers tend to build for the world first and more early. They understand the amount of diversity in the kinds of devices out there and I’d say the general theme is that APAC developers tend to think more mobile and global first and we had to take some of those lessons and teach that to Western developers,” he explained.
That said, developing games with a varied audience in mind is also only one part of a successful equation involves mobile gaming. The other is with the hardware and making sure that the software and hardware combination, regardless of which brand it belongs to, all work seamlessly.
All of that may sound easy on paper, but there’s actually a lot of work being put out behind the scenes. Having empathy for the end user and how they might be using an app or game across a myriad of Android devices is probably one of the hardest things that Lim and his team at Google Play have to constantly maintain, as it is critical for any app to achieve worldwide appeal. The extended prevalence of mobile devices, where individuals can own two or even multiple phones and tablets, means that the number of apps that can serve the needs of everyone likely exist somewhere, but are waiting to be discovered by users in the digital store. With over 3 million apps available on the Google Play Store as of July 2022, however, standing out can be a real challenge.
Let’s not forget, too, that there are pockets of Android device manufacturers out there who, while using Google’s industry-leading mobile operating system, do not necessarily rely on Google’s App Store to power user experience. The rise of alternate app stores is led by the likes of Samsung, which offers a companion app store alongside Google’s, and Huawei and Amazon, who have developed their own independent and standalone stores. Throw into the mix “app stores” that cannot be found via official channels to consider, and one can see the challenges Google faces in building the trust and credibility of the Play Store.
“I think people underestimate how hard it is to serve the 3 billion Android devices on the planet, but there are just so many different kinds of devices, and making it possible for developers to reach all those 3 billion devices is extremely hard. Devices in India have radically different configurations, chipsets, and screen sizes than devices here in Singapore, or in America. So, finding ways to efficiently and effectively let developers get to those kinds of devices is extremely hard,” shared Lim, who, prior to joining Google from Hulu in 2017, also had stints in all three major gaming companies – Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo.
Walking through the halls of Google Singapore, most of the premises are still quiet as it seems that not many of the Google staff have returned to the office. However, for Lim who is based in Google’s HQ in Mountain View, it’s a trip that he makes once every few years. As the vice-president, almost every app that one would download for your brand new Android phone goes through the Play Store, and Google has paid out US$120 billion in developer earnings to this date. Most recently, Google adjusted its commission to 15% from the previous 30% as a service fee for all in-app purchases starting in 2022.
Looking at the healthy revenue the Play Store generates, Lim and his team don’t play favorites and acknowledge that it’s in the interest of users to have all app developers succeed on its platform, though he recognizes that developers need to learn to think big if they want their apps to outperform another, especially when conquering the global market. But the Google Play team takes an effort in ensuring the experience is as seamless as possible.
“One of the big innovations for my team was the Android app bundle, which was a way to change how we delivered apps to all these different devices. So the APK delivered to your Pixel 6 Pro here would be radically different than the actual bits I would deliver to an entry-level device or lower-end device in India. That’s a big deal because the delivery uses up less storage and mobile data, so that’s just really tough infrastructure to build around the planet. I think that apps and games have gotten so sophisticated, and so the amount of business tooling needed to help them tune apps and games is so hard.”
While we cover mostly a good deal of top-tier smart devices on this site, a layer of mid-range smartphones tends to often get overlooked with the exception of Google’s Pixel 6a. If the Google team only has exposure to top-end phones, then every app experience would naturally be stellar but that’s certainly not the case with Lim’s team.
The biggest takeaway Lim has for game developers who want to aim for the greatest success for their title is actually to serve the world, rather than race with others to provide, say, a less important triple-A quality fidelity in games. While mobile gaming does get looked down upon by the more established gamer base in some circles, its size continues to surpass both the console and PC market.
Having held positions at Nintendo, Xbox, and PlayStation, Lim explained rather stoically that those users pale in numbers compared to mobile users around the world.
“I come with this slightly biased coming from triple-A games. And, believe me, I’ve spent hundreds of hours on my PlayStation 5 with Elden Ring. Going back to 3 billion devices, where are they? They’re in radically different geographies than we’re used to. We’re talking about India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
I think the games that really succeed across that broad swath in geography and geographies are the ones that were built for the world first like Garena’s Free Fire. They thought about their potential users in India, Latin America, and so on. As a consequence, they had to build for very low-end devices as well as high-end devices, and don’t get recognition for building such an amazing title,” he adds.
And the biggest change when it comes to the mobile gaming space has to be how business models have changed over time when it comes to monetization. Despite the backlash it has received from the traditional PC players, Diablo Immortal has done successfully well for Activision Blizzard’s bottom line. On one hand, it might irk (which is putting it gently) the traditional players who had grown up on Diablo, but financially, it was the right call for the company to make.
“Let’s face it, there’s no better price of entry than free. I think it’s taken a while for the right free-to-play business models to emerge and become accepted. So you’ve seen a broad swath of different kinds of approaches to monetization. And you can kind of begin to see that we’re beginning to converge to a place that feels ‘okay, this isn’t too bad, like, I’m getting really good value for my money’. And I think that’s fundamentally what’s been happening over the past five years.”
Nowadays, free-to-play games still tend to lean heavily into cosmetics just like in the past, but change is on the horizon. Brand collaborations is the latest trend to wash over the mobile gaming landscape, with recent opportunities popping up in the form of Transformers x Mobile Legends and Free Fire’s Attack On Titan event. The other potential road would be subscription model similar to Netflix and Xbox Game Pass, which Google has a similar offering of. Called Google Game Pass, it’s only available in select markets (Singapore isn’t on the list), but offers a good platform for user access to apps and games that might be overlooked.
“We’re getting to a place where Play Pass is really beginning to bring some of the top games and apps together in a really interesting package and developers who have participated in Play Pass generally see improved monetization,” shared Lim.
Now that the ingredients are in the bag, what else defines a successful developer from the rest of the pack? Lim believes that the answer lies in solving problems in a localized context.
“What’s inspiring about apps is the different kinds of problems that they solve and they tend to be more local. The things that are more powerful to me are the kind of local startups that are really serving local audiences. You’re really solving local problems that you yourself or your families are facing,” said Lim.
Gerald currently straddles between his love of video games and board gaming. There’s nothing that interests him more than trying out the newest and fanciest gadget in town as well. He dreams of publishing a board game sometime in the future!