Ask the Developer: Lionbird Games on indie devs going global
AppLovin is a global brand and platform, which means we have the opportunity to work with developers from different markets all around the world. In our Ask the Developer series, we speak with developers to learn their strategies, best practices, and expert insights.
For this installment of our Ask the Developer series, we sat down with Lionbird Games, one of the winners of the Indie Dev Prize at Casual Connect Europe 2018. Nine winners were selected for an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco, where they participated in a workshop at our office. Winners spent three days being trained by our experts in monetization and app optimization, and they received advice on how to grow their businesses.
Lionbird Games is a four-person team based in Hong Kong that built a portfolio of over forty games which has produced over one trillion downloads. Yep—a team of four indie devs has produced a trillion game downloads collectively. We sat down with Lionbird co-founder and business manager Jingle Ho, UX designer James Chan, and game developer Alex Kwok to talk about the indie dev scene in Hong Kong and how to take a game global.
Finding their strengths and weaknesses
One of the biggest challenges being a small game developer is finding what works. For Lionbird, success came from developing casual games quickly. “Since we were a small team, we planned on creating casual games from the start,” says Ho. “The thing that worked well for us was reskinning our games, selecting the ones that performed well, and choosing the right skins.”
By trying things and failing quickly, Lionbird has never shied away from killing underperforming projects. “We look at retention,” recalls Ho. “For Battle Shot, we looked at the data and realized that our resources were so limited that we just decided to kill it.”
Looking at Lionbird’s portfolio, you’ll notice a formula emerging. The team takes the same formula for their Evolution World line of games by developing a new skin for each game to appeal to different players. There’s one for fans of the Attack on Titan anime and even one for cat lovers called Cat Evolution World. The gameplay of evolving different characters stays the same, but the different art styles attract different audiences while minimizing development time.
The Lionbird team quickly realized that in order to be successful, they needed to go global. One of the biggest challenges they had to tackle was localizing their games. “All of our games are localized into 10 different languages,” said Ho. “We create the Chinese and English versions ourselves and have freelancers localize in the rest of the languages.”
But moving forward, localization will be more than just changing the text in their games. Their latest game, World Creator, lets players build their own world via a 2048-style puzzle game. They quickly found that in order for World Creator to succeed, they would have to create custom content for each region. “We have versions for the US, UK, and Russia, but players were asking us to make the game featuring their own countries,” said Chan. The team is currently working to bring new countries to World Creator, including France, China, and Japan.
While Lionbird has found success in its current portfolio of games, it’s not perfect. Ho admits they could work on marketing, testing, and UA. “We’ve avoided doing marketing mainly because we didn’t get any funding investment. We started the business ourselves with just USD $10,000,” he said. The company has experimented with marketing and UA previously, but only on Facebook with limited success. Lionbird currently has a Facebook page with over 35,000 followers and is trying targeted Facebook ads for its World Creator game. The company plans to focus on UA in the immediate future.
During their trip to the AppLovin San Francisco office, the Lionbird team was most excited to learn about UA and what KPIs to look for when prototyping new games. “If we didn’t have the support of AppLovin today, we wouldn’t be here in San Francisco. It’s a high cost for us,” said Ho.
The difficulties of breaking into China
It might seem easy for the Hong Kong-based Lionbird Studios to bring their games to China, but that’s far from the truth. “We launch all of our games worldwide, except for China. Everyone wants to get into China but it’s a strange market,” admits Ho. “We’re a Hong Kong company and even we’re considered a ‘foreign’ company. Being a foreign company means Lionbird can’t set up a bank account or obtain a business license without knowing a Chinese citizen to help them.
Additionally, the Chinese market is a challenge for small developers like Lionbird because of the highly fragmented Android app stores. Since Google Play isn’t allowed in the country, Chinese OEMs create their own app stores, which means there are hundreds of Android app marketplaces in China. “For us to integrate all of the platforms, it’ll take us months,” said Ho.
Looking at the future
When we asked what’s the future of mobile gaming, Lionbird was skeptical about emerging platforms like AR and VR. “Users are playing games while they’re waiting for the bus or in line at the coffee shop,” said Ho. “If you’re doing AR or VR games, it’s not going to work in those situations.” However, Ho believes there will continue to be a market for mid-core and hardcore games, just not on mobile. The team said they still play on PC and console, and that’s not going to change. It’s easy to see why VR has growing pains, as it requires expensive, specialized tech and desire for a specific experience. AR does a better job of allowing us to straddle the real and digital realms, but it still requires expensive and bulky hardware. It’s clear that consumers prefer to play mobile games as the platform shows sustained growth, making up 50% of all gaming revenue in 2018.
While Lionbird is currently a team of four, Ho has ambitions to build the team out to a full-fledged studio. “Hopefully we can have 30 to 40 employees with small teams that work together to come up with new games and ideas.”
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