Game development in China is no longer just a domestic thing. Foreign power houses such as EA, Zynga and Ubisoft have major studios working on big titles in China. However, many of their best console titles won't reach Chinese players until either the game is released in PC in Chinese or pirated by Chinese hackers. Small foreign developers are springing up all over China, looking to make it big here by doing something many foreign developers haven't been able to do: make a game in China that can reach the world.
One such developer, Balance Worlds, was started in China to do pretty much what its name says, "to make games in China for the global market". Christopher M. Pfeiffer the CEO of BW, and a friend of mine, talked to Kotaku about some of the reasons why he came out to China to make video games.
Pfeiffer, originally from the States, had worked on big titles such as Resistance Fall of Man and the Ratchet and Clank series. He came to China with his partner Max Garber in 2007. Wanting to open their own studio, the two of them decided to open it in Beijing China.
"The reality is, I like it here," said Pfeiffer. "It's kind of like how life imitates art in the sense that I got into game development, and I really loved the process of development — you know, game design is like this chaotic rush to something great.
"China was in development on a country-sized level, and it was kind of an intoxicating feeling."
When they first started, Balance Worlds was a team of only five guys. Pfeiffer recounted having problems hiring and getting people in China on-board. As they matured and started to do more work, they've been able to hire more people and build up the company. Currently, BW has 35 employees, 28 of whom are Chinese.
Many of them, like Pfeiffer, explained how China's long history as an art outsourcing factory and the cheap cost of living and labour was a big draw. American McGee, the famed game designer of American McGee's Alice and American McGee's Grim, also said similar things when I interviewed in him in in 2010.
But with cheaper cost of living, cheaper labour and a workforce capable of producing artwork, why base yourself in China, I asked. Pfeiffer explained it as being more than just cheap labour but also different approach in game design and sales models that has him looking towards China as place where he can make his games.
"What I think of China, is that it's more experienced in game design in terms of online free-to-play and also when you talk about social game experiences I think China is in the lead in that area," said Pfeiffer. "The West because of the console world has been ahead in production values, and what BW is trying to do is take Western production values and mix it with Chinese game design and monetisation which is where they are superior right now."
The free-to-play business model that Pfeiffer referred to originated in Korea and really took off in China, so much so that many of the top games in China apart from World of Warcraft are indeed free to play.
Pfeiffer also pointed to a cultural benefits of being here. He gave an example about "arts daily", a daily critique of artwork by designers and artists during the early part of game development, as being one of the ways Chinese culture has helped him run a smoother ship.
"People would do arts daily where everybody sits down in front of a big theatrical screen and have all the artists picking on someone's art in the West," said Pfeiffer. "You can't do that here, here people first of all don't want to publicly humiliate their friends, and they won't be too comfortable receiving the feedback.
"The way we get feedback in China is that we will get anonymous emails to the creative director," he added, " and if we use someone's ideas it gets used and if we don't no one feels stupid about it."
Pfeiffer also lists lower taxes as another Chinese advantage.
Pfeiffer and his team at BW are working on their first game, Bomb Buddies, a Bomberman-esque free-to-play online browser game that can be played all over the world. He says that the team basically played every version of Bomberman available to see if they could make a better game, in the end Pfeiffer believes BW can create a similar game with better graphics, gameplay, social and fun factors.
While Bomb Buddies is their first game that will be released, BW was previously working on a shooter but they had to change gears and turn it into Bomb Buddies.
About BW [Balanced Worlds]