November 27, 2011
I’m at a coffee shop in Wudaokou, the university area of Beijing, and I must look a bit absurd as I thrust my head from side to side, laughing. I’m actually playing a new iOS game called Crows Coming from a game developer called Vision Hacker.
In this free game, you move your head to control a scarecrow and hit birds before they reach the ground. Reaching #4 in the app store in mid-November, the game uses Vision Hacker’s original technology to track face and body movement, which is based on their vision research at Tsinghua University.
“We want to present a new kind of game – we call it a move-your-body game. You can play something like [Xbox] Kinect on your mobile device,” says cofounder Wenbin Tang, who has finished his studies but not yet graduated. With undisclosed investment, Vision Hacker’s student-run team managed to create Crows Coming in 3 months.
This eccentric game is currently available in English, and they also plan to create a Chinese version. I ask Tang, a Chinese native, why he is targeting an international audience. He replies, smiling, “Why not? If our product can make the user happy, we can do that to both Chinese people and US people.”
Meanwhile, another venture-funded game studio called AblazeDream, founded in 2009, has more strategic reasons to go global. “Although China has a large market, it may not be the best first market for creative agencies like us,” says cofounder Haku Wangke, who is studying at Peking University. Besides fearing copycats, he thinks that Chinese users might not be ready for an innovative, Western-style game; they usually prefer more traditional user experiences.
Part of the reason AblazeDream can sell outside China is that most games are not language-based; in fact, the Beijing developers want to use their latest game to create a new form of communication. Released in beta on Android in October, KAPOW lets you fly through the air on the back of another character. But it puts a new spin on “social”: you play alone, but you choose one of your phone contacts to represent the other character. During or after the game, you can send them screenshots depicting your customized avatars in all sorts of contorted positions.
According to AblazeDream, these screenshots provide an initial topic of conversation to stay in touch, flirt, or rekindle old friendships. “We want to create a new language between people,” says Wangke, who thinks Facebook and Twitter shouldn’t be the only ways to communicate.
Another game studio relying on the international language of fun is Coconut Island, founded in 2009, with offices in Shanghai and Germany. The Chinese market makes up only 5% of their revenues. Inspired by Plants vs. Zombies, they create mass-appeal games not based on one country’s history or culture. A simple game called iDragPaper started as a test for receiving US dollars, but it soared in popularity in the United States and Europe, garnering over 10 million downloads.
For cofounder Wesley Bao, working out of China is a mixed blessing: “The good side is we’re in China. The bad side is we’re in China, too,” he says. He has trouble finding creative developers in China, where the game industry is young and many big game companies do less-creative outsourcing work. But China is filled with cheap labor and waves of students who want to learn to make iPhone games.
Bao says passion is most important in his new hires, and I suspect many game studios in China operate the same way. The Chinese-born cofounders I spoke with were all excited and engaged – they made me play their games, and they chattered about their future plans, as if what I held in my hands were only the tip of the iceberg. Language may be a barrier for other types of startups, but games – with the help of the app store – are set to be a huge Chinese export.
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