Chinese Game Challenges:
Tencent’s First Attempt at
Ben Wilkinson graduated from the University of Bristol in 2019 with a masters in translation. He has been working as a freelance translator and localization specialist for the past four years, working on various projects from games and entertainment companies such as Netease, Tencent, and Perfect World.
The Chinese games market has been booming in recent years, being valued at $26 billion in 2017, and has been battling against the United States in the past few years for the spot of the highest-valued games market in the world. This young and ever-growing market has seen the inception and meteoric rise of two of China’s most prominent game developers and publishers: Tencent and NetEase, which in 2018 owned 69% of the gaming market in China combined. In recent years, Tencent has been increasing its influence in the West through the acquisition of lucrative American companies such as Epic Games and Riot Games, and has made attempts to enter a number of its own home-grown IP into foreign markets outside of China.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of any of Tencent’s ventures into markets outside of China was the launch of Arena of Valor. Arena of Valor is the localized version of China’s hugely successful game Honor of Kings (王者荣耀), which has broken several records in its home country and has become a cultural phenomenon there. It is safe to say that Honor of Kings has been one of the most popular and culturally significant games in the world over the past five years, with approximately 200 million active players at any one time, making it one of the largest communities of a single game in the world, only falling behind other phenomenally successful games such as Fortnite.
It is therefore no surprise that Tencent saw the potential of their game and wanted to attempt to replicate the success they had in China abroad. However, in order to enjoy the same level of success which Honor of Kings enjoyed in its domestic market, Tencent believed that Arena of Valor would need some changes. Thus, in 2016, development began on a localized version of Honor of Kings with the intention of making a game that was appealing to the market outside of China. It was clear from the start that this would be a monumental task, and one of Tencent’s most ambitious projects up to that point.
When translating and localizing a game from one region to another, there is both a cultural chasm and linguistic chasm that must be overcome in order to successfully market the game in the target market. After all, even a completely text-based translation is just as much a cultural exercise as it is a linguistic one. A game, however, is not just a text; it is an interactive ludic product developed and marketed with a specific purpose: to be fun and enjoyable to the largest number of players within the target market. The localization of a game is therefore a venture that carries reward and risk in equal measure; a successful localization will allow a game to flourish in markets outside of its original domestic market and therefore greatly boost the profitability and popularity of the game on a global scale. However, a failed localization can be ruinous both financially and commercially, resulting in both damage to the company’s revenue and possibly their global reputation.
Over the past couple of decades, localization has been an area of great importance for game publishers. In the age of the internet, the chances for huge success and profit are well within reach for many game publishers as long as they understand the market in which they release their games and make adjustments accordingly. Therefore, there has been an increased emphasis on the idea of culturalization within the game localization industry in recent years. Culturalization can be considered a sub-branch of localization where the focus is not on the adaptation of the text but “rather about tailoring at a more fundamental level, so that gamers perceive the game as something as ‘local’ in nature or at least very locally relevant,” in the words of game culturalization expert Kate Edwards.
Culturalization is the adaptation of any cultural aspects of a game that may be considered unattractive, offensive, or incomprehensible to the target audience and the proactive adaptation of games to make them more attractive and culturally relevant to their target market. It is therefore a very relevant localization strategy in the modern age, and particularly for publishers who come from a culture and market that is vastly different from the target market.
Honor of Kings screenshot.
Tencent is a Chinese publisher, and therefore shares China’s cultural heritage of approximately 5,000 years of civilization. Having such a rich history and culture, it is common for Chinese games to contain characters from mythology and well-known periods of their history, with many games entirely based on Chinese legend, mythology, and classic stories. The Chinese are knowledgeable and proud of their history and culture, which makes it no surprise that many Chinese games draw on these themes. Video games are a form of cultural expression and video games are therefore a reflection of the culture from which they originate. It thus stands to reason that Chinese games generally reflect the culture of their Chinese creators.
Due to the difference in culture and way of living, Chinese gaming market demographics, practices, and methods of consumption are all distinctly different from those in the Western world. In China, the gender demographics of the gaming market are split almost exactly in half, with an almost equal number of females and males participating in regular gaming activities. The main method for video game consumption in China is also through smartphones, tablets, and PCs, with only a small number of console gamers, meaning that even the way in which the Chinese market is used to consuming video games is distinctly different from other countries.
Additionally, the government regulates the gaming industry and the publishing of every new game which enters the market with a rigor that is unseen elsewhere. The direct government intervention in the sale and release of video games in China, not present to anywhere near the same degree in any other country, has profoundly affected the video game culture of China.
Arena of Valor screenshot.
Tencent therefore had a monumental task set before them if they wanted their localization of Honor of Kings to be a success comparable to that of the original. There was not only a linguistic barrier but also a cultural one and potentially a disparity in market demographics compared with the domestic Chinese market.
Due to the cultural chasm which exists between the Chinese and English-speaking worlds, it comes as no surprise that Tencent decided to do a complete overhaul of their immensely popular mobile game Honor of Kings (王者荣耀) to create a new, fullylocalized title called Arena of Valor for the international market. Within China, Honor of Kings has been a cultural phenomenon, grossing $1.61 billion in 2017 and almost $2 billion is 2018, and has continued to go from strength to strength through 2019 and 2020. This success in the home market, along with a gap in the market in the West for more “serious” mobile games was what led to the wholesale culturalization of Honor of Kings into Tencent’s new localized game: Arena of Valor.
When Tencent started their production of Arena of Valor, one of the main differences between the Chinese domestic market and those abroad was the way in which consumers played their games. When development was drawing to a finish in late 2017, console gaming and PC gaming still dominated the US gaming market, however mobile gaming had been steadily growing around the world, leading to mobile occupying 42% of the global games market in 2017. It was this development which gave Tencent confidence in their product in the West, with their PR manager Chris Schmidt even saying that he believed “there is enough of a critical mass of people here on mobile in the United States and Canada… Phones have gotten to the point where they are powerful enough to play great-looking games and that fans want to experience a more involved, intensive, experience rather than the casual games people play most of the time here in the states.” Tencent’s aims were clear; they wanted to bring their successful product to a new market in an attempt to capitalize on a growing niche that had yet to be fulfilled in the international market.
The localization of Honor of Kings and Arena of Valor seemed to adhere to one of the fundamental principles of localization: to create a game that provided an experience equivalent to the original. The driving principle behind Arena of Valor was to create a game that would essentially blend into the international market through a thorough ‘domestication’ of the original content into a more westernized aesthetic.
Arena of Valor’s localization team appears to have used an active culturalization strategy as their guiding principle, with the entire game being remade from the ground up in order to appeal to audiences outside of China; removing all Chinese cultural references which the localization team believed would not appeal to the international market. Nearly all of the original assets, including the game’s logo, menus, interfaces, in-game character models, and other non-textual assets, were all modified to appeal to the target audience, with very little being left unchanged.
One look at the initial start-up screen and main menu inter-face for each game presents users with two rather different aesthetics. Where Honor of Kings is generally lighter and more cartoony, with a more colorful blue color scheme, Arena of Valor is much darker and tends to focus on an aesthetic based around realism. This demonstrates an appeal to the target market by the localization team; markets in the west have long favored realism and darker aesthetics with more “serious” games, hence the popularity of games such as Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption 2.
When Arena of Valor was developed and eventually released in 2017, the mobile gaming market was yet to be taken seriously by many gamers in the West, therefore it was a reason-able assertion on the part of the localization team that in order to break into the western market and create a popular mobile game, they would have a higher chance of success if they marketed the game as a “serious” game on mobile, rather than just another mobile game.
Another noteworthy difference between the two versions of the game is the functionality and integration with social media. While Arena of Valor can be linked to a Facebook account, it is merely optional and not actually necessary, whereas
Honor of Kings requires a QQ or Wechat account to be bound to it in order to play it long-term. Due to the preeminence of Wechat as a social media platform in China, currently almost everything can be linked to a person’s Wechat account, including bank accounts and payment services to name just two. The integration of Honor of Kings with Wechat in particular allows for a dynamic which is not possible through any social media platforms outside of China such as Facebook, as the social media platform does not have the same amount of penetration into daily life as Wechat does now in China.
The binding of social media accounts with in-game accounts has created gaming communities which are focused around competition within relatively tight-knit social groups along with sophisticated incentive systems which encourage players to continue playing for tangible rewards. The culture around gaming in the West has not seemed to favor the reward-based culture that can be seen in China and this may have some-thing to do with the nature of Chinese society in which both the players and game companies are in a fiercely competitive environment; players want to improve their in-game status for social credibility and companies want to ensure that players keep on coming back to their game.
In MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games, the in-game characters are the main point of interaction between players and the digital gaming world. These heroes are also able to be purchased or acquired, making them not just a point of interaction between game and players but also an in-game commodity. As a result, there is often a great emotional connection between MOBA game players and the in-game characters, which is strengthened through character backstories, purchasable skins, and other customizable features that may be used as a point of customization or interaction between player and character.
Being an ancient society with one of the most ancient literary traditions in the world, it is no surprise that China has developed its own sophisticated mythology and legends based upon its history. Modern-day Chinese culture is greatly influenced by these stories of the past, with its media unceasingly reproducing great literary works, well-known stories, and historical periods as movies and TV shows to the extent that there is even a specific genre used for movie and TV adaptations of ancient stories and myths.
The European Commission has said that “video games can act as a vehicle for images, values, and themes that reflect the cultural environment in which they are created and may act on the ways of thinking and the cultural references of users.” It therefore comes as little surprise that Honor of Kings has a distinctly Chinese aesthetic, with over two thirds of the characters being related to Chinese culture. One of the elements that has contributed to the game’s success has been its appeal to users by using characters the players are already familiar with. Games are a product of the culture from which they are created, meaning that the appeal of games can be lost on audiences from other cultures. Honor of Kings is very distinctly Chinese in its style; the in-game characters and character design, the models and systems used within the game such as the integration with Chinese social media, and the application of various in-game reward systems that have become a staple of the Chinese mobile game market, are all designed for the Chinese audience. With such a distinct Chinese style, the localization strategy for Arena of Valor was to focus on creating a distinctly “Western” version of the game, with the expectations of the target audience always taking precedence over the game’s original content.
“Games are not static, nor is the market in which they exist, or the society and culture for which they are developed.”
This localization strategy has led to an almost complete overhaul of the characters from the original game. There are only five characters that are actually shared between the two games, with only three of those characters actually being related to Chinese culture at all. The omission of most of the original character lineup demonstrates the localization team’s culture-oriented domestication strategy, where their main goal was to appeal to the widest possible audience. This is further shown by the inclusion of DC comic book characters in the international release of Arena of Valor, characters that have never made it onto the Honor of Kings roster before or since.
This localization project by Tencent is an example that demonstrates just how fluid a localized game can be, bearing little true resemblance to the original with even some elements of gameplay being adjusted for the target market. Perhaps, due to Tencent anticipating the playing styles of the two markets being different, the actual makeup of the two games’ rosters also have evident discrepancies between one another. The Warrior and Mage classes account for approximately 64% of all characters within Honor of Kings, meanwhile the same two classes in Arena of Valor account for approximately 51% of all the characters. These numbers suggest that the players of the two different markets favor different gameplay styles which led to the adjustment of the gameplay in an attempt to appeal to the Western market.
When looking at localizations of games, it is worth evaluating whether the purpose for the creation of the localized version is more or less in keeping with the original. In this case, we can safely say that is not the case; the two versions of the games were developed in different years and into different markets which each had their own set of factors which would determine the success or failure of Tencent’s game. Games are not static, nor is the market in which they exist, or the society and culture for which they are developed. When Honor of Kings was first released in 2015, the Chinese mobile games market was in a completely different situation to that of the global mobile games market in 2017 when Arena of Valor was released. Honor of Kings was released into a market free of competitors in its genre and on a gaming platform that was already firmly established in China. However, by the time of Arena of Valor’s release, there were already well-established MOBA games for mobile devices in these markets and Arena of Valor also had to compete against games in the console and PC markets as it was released on a gaming platform that had yet to establish itself in many other markets around the world. The localization of Arena of Valor was therefore very thorough, with the team replacing and changing everything which they believed may conflict with the target audience’s expectations or that may appear thematically or aesthetically out of place within the game. Through following this culturalization strategy, the original art-style and even gameplay have been adjusted to no small degree, creating a game that is essentially a parallel version to the original.
Overall, Tencent made an extremely thorough localization that was designed to appeal to the culture of the target market and even ‘blend in’ with it rather than stand out. But it perhaps did not turn out to be quite the commercial success Tencent was hoping for. Despite a relatively warm initial reception and a Metascore of 80 on Metacritic, with a User Score of 7.4 and a score of 4.4 in the Google Play Store Arena of Valor has never managed to replicate the success of its Chinese cousin. Looking at Arena of Valor’s gross income of $200 million from its release to March 2019, it would appear at first glance as though the game can be considered a success in its own right, albeit a minor one. However, after comparing it to other competitors in the mobile market such as Tencent’s PUBG Mobile which has grossed more than $320 million outside of China since its release in 2018, or Epic Games’ Fortnite which has managed to gross just shy of $500 million on Apple handheld devices alone in 2018, it is evident that Arena of Valor did not meet expectations. The fact that Honor of Kings itself has made $4.3 billion dollars in total in its slightly under five years of existence, which averages out to a gross revenue of approximately $860 million per year, demonstrates just how disappointingly Arena of Valor has performed overall.
Overall, Arena of Valor is a significant example of a top-selling domestic Chinese game from a successful and established company being localized for the international market. The localization strategy was heavily focused around culturalization as a means of attempting to reproduce the appeal of the original game in a new target market. It was perhaps not as commercially successful as the patron of the localization expected, but it was an ambitious attempt to overcome cultural barriers with a combination of strategies and techniques that sought to broaden the concept of game localization and challenge what game localization as a concept allows, further blurring the lines of fidelity, creativity, artistic license, and ownership. This localization shows that even localization projects from larger companies can still fail to achieve success in their target market, and this project specifically was afflicted with assumptions that the game should conform to the target market, thus any aspect of the original game that may have given it a unique and different appeal in the new market was changed in favor of more conventional, westernized content.
Arena of Valor is a great example of how a game can resonate profoundly with its audience in one market, yet completely fall flat in another. This demonstrates that success in one market can not necessarily be replicated in a new market, regardless of the size of the company, the investment into the project, or the scope of the product’s development and marketing itself. Successful localizations are able to transcend cultures and appeal to audiences worldwide, but what this localization demonstrates is that sometimes even actively attempting to appeal to the target audience will not necessarily guarantee success.