Recently, we were able to share a story from one of the most read game business blogs in China on our WeChat Stories. We’re happy to translate this fun story of how this family business got to #1 in reservations on the charts of TapTap, one of China’s biggest mobile game app stores.
A Chinese gaming news site. Visit them at youxiputao.com
Today, the life of small and medium-sized teams building 2D games may not be easy.
In terms of the overall environment in China's game market, whether it is the waiting for your game to be shipped or updates added, or the amount of the investment you need for these games, it has brought a lot of challenges to the survival of small and medium teams.
Focusing on the category of 2D game development, the Matthew effect in the category will only increase. The products made by large companies with high investment have attracted most users' attention and made the users' tastes more and more tricky to pinpoint, so it becomes a challenging thing for small teams to catch up.
But what if I say that there is now a small team with no investment background with major publishing studios, the producers are new to the industry, and the R&D team is only eight people, and not only did they successfully complete the game but also with amazing interest from gamers? Doesn't it feel unrealistic?
This team is Skybox. Their product "Breeze Girl" is a two-dimensional horizontal action mobile game developed based on Cocos Creator. It has received nearly 100,000 views on TapTap, and once ranked first on the reservation list. After two updates, there are still at an 8.8 rating.
Recently, Game Grape interviewed Li Qiang, the co-founder of Skybox. He repeatedly emphasized to me that as a small team, there are too many "special features" for them to be able to share with us today. But shared a few with me.
"It only took eight months to get the ISBN number"
Game Grape: Can you briefly introduce your team?
Li Qiang: We are a Beijing company incorporated on October 16, 2018.
There is a special relationship in our family, father and son entrepreneurship. I am equivalent to taking on the role of an investor and public relations and business, and my son is a producer.
Although he has little experience before, he is a hardcore 2D game player and has a strong learning ability. So our family decided to help him and set up this company with the goal of making 2D games.
Our goal from the very beginning was to expand the company, so when recruiting, we also selected many people with experience in large studios to form the team. Now our R&D team has about seven or eight people, not including me.
In the first year of the company's establishment, we did some small games. On the one hand, it is to develop the team. On the other hand, it is also to train our producer, help him from zero foundation in game creation, and independently complete some planning, front-end and back-end programming, special effects, and other work.
But later, we felt that it was really inappropriate to use such a team to make mini games, so we decided to make mobile games. In April and May of 2019, we launched a product called "Breeze Girl."
Our team completed the demo of this game in May 2020, and we submitted the version for an ISBN soon after. Although it was affected by some epidemics, it only took us about eight months to get accepted to sell our game.
Our game has been updated twice, one in July last year and the other in February this year. Everyone's comments on our products are pretty good.
Our team is so small, and the 2D games are such a category with many games already in it. To be honest, we still have a certain sense of achievement to achieve the current level we’re at.
GG: What is the cost of your game?
LQ: If you include some learning costs in the early stage, it is probably almost a million USD. Of course, this is far from massive investment, but I think we took it slow.
GG: Is it relatively smooth for you to apply for an ISBN in China?
LQ: Getting the ISBN number is not as difficult as you think. Many small and medium-sized teams cannot get one, mainly because they do not understand the entire application process for ISBN registration.
Because I was originally in finance and management, I deliberately learned this set of procedures. We have a complete set of procedures, applying for copyright, trademark, web articles, ICP certificate, and finally applying for the ISBN number, all of which cost almost nothing.
However, many teams do not understand, and they can only use some third parties that handle the ISBN. Some third parties will deliberately pass on this anxiety, which makes people feel that the ISBN is not easy to get.
So I think many of the various voices about the difficulties of getting an ISBN in the industry are untrue.
GG: But many teams are indeed stuck waiting to get an ISBN number.
Li Qiang: Yes. We also saw that many teams waited very hard, worrying and panicking every day.
Some teams like the ones we know are basically disbanded, and some only have two or three people left, and the money has been spent. If you didn’t pay attention to this issue, you might have lost all chance.
GG: Do you think going overseas with your games would be a good way to deal with ISBN issues?
LQ: I think the same goes for going overseas because now the competition on the internet is global.
Some teams cannot wait for the ISBN in China and have no choice but to go overseas for distribution, but they also have to face competition when they go overseas. In the end, the publisher can only suggest that they rip off the characters' clothes and make them more mature and sexy to get a return on investment. How to say, to survive, sometimes you have to put down your face and do what’s needed.
So I think that with everyone's deep cultivation in the game industry, the competition in this industry will definitely become more and more fierce. Therefore, we always have to compete for the top. Only with excellent product performance can we have enough cash flow to feedback the team and develop excellent products. It's not that the industry ecology is bad, and the small and medium-sized teams die a lot, but it is still inseparable from their own efforts.
The logic is the same, no matter what industry you are in.
"The game industry spends money like burning paper"
GG: In your opinion, what are the real difficulties of small and medium-sized teams now?
LQ: I think the first is the cost of capital.
The biggest reason for not being able to do it is that there is not enough financial support. Many passionate producers have lost their research and development motivation because of the lack of funds, and the product died prematurely.
And even if you have money, whether you will spend it or not is another aspect which is related to work experience. We can endure better than other teams because my son and I have different experiences.
Compared with entrepreneurial teams formed entirely by young people, we can fill some gaps in experience—for example, the ISBN mentioned earlier and the experience in cost control and human management. Because I have held management positions in some companies before, we will have more advantages relatively.
And relatively speaking, we do have a little more money than other small teams. Just saying that with my personal financial resources, I can work on this product until it’s completed.
And lack of money will lead to the second problem, lack of talent.
For entrepreneurs, it is very rare to find two or three like-minded friends to work with at the beginning. But having this number of people is definitely not enough. To grow further will be very difficult without funds.
GG: So in the end, it's all about money?
LQ: Not exactly. Another problem is the stability of the team. Even if you spend money to recruit people, if others leave, then your project may stay in limbo.
This factor is not all about money. The lack of team cohesion and the inability of the producer to control the project will bring this risk.
In addition, for a relatively young team, sometimes young and energetic, if there is friction in the team, the team may break up as soon as temper flares up. In addition, as time goes by, some people in the team fall in love, get married, and have children. Various factors will lead to the project's failure, which is completely unpredictable.
GG: Is there any way to avoid this risk?
LQ: I think for a small and medium-sized team, its core producer should be the team boss. Only by mastering various basic skills and resources such as technology, art, etc., will it not cause a fatal blow to the entire team when a member is lost.
GG: What is the biggest problem for your team?
LQ: One aspect is our internal growth efficiency. Although our producer has grown rapidly, he still lacks experience in the industry, and he may still need time and opportunities to explore and practice.
On the other hand, although we are not so short of money, we want to increase production capacity and make products more beautiful, my personal investment is definitely not enough. It is also difficult for us to expand our enrollment in terms of scale because once the number of people increases, this money will be consumed... The game industry really spends money like burning paper. Inexperienced bosses do not know, and my monthly savings starts to look low.
"Every test is a surprise"
GG: Now that the art of two-dimensional games is so great, will it also increase your cost?
Li Qiang: For us, art is not the biggest investment. In general, fine art is only about a quarter of our cost, and we can totally afford it. We mainly make our gameplay more hardcore, so the investment in technology is relatively high.
I think the art costs of a 2D game aren’t the big issue. The main issue is that the cost of trial and error is actually higher for polishing the gameplay. Therefore, everyone is reluctant to develop products from scratch but prefers to do micro-innovation based on some successful products and make the art look better, so it is a new product again.
But we have no foundation, so there is no micro-innovation. And the 2D player hates plagiarism the most, and we don't want to copy either.
GG: Don't you worry that the art quality won't keep up?
LQ: Although we spend less, the quality of our art is not bad.
Compared with big studios, it is difficult for a small team to make appointments with the top and most well-known freelance artists because big studios may make appointments for one or two years of work in one go, and the prices are still high. People have no chance at all.
So we can only go to Weibo, Mi Painter, and other platforms to find them and chat with artists one by one.
Fortunately, our producer has done deep research on 2D elements, and he clearly knows the basic requirements for 2D art. We will find artists who are above the basic requirements but may not be so famous for the time being to help us stabilize the overall quality of game art. Then look at the head artists, and if anyone happens to have the time, they can help us with a painting or two.
In this way, our art quality seems to be at least on par with mainstream manufacturers. It is rare for a team of a similar size like ours to reach the level of artistry we have.
Of course, there is still a gap between us and the top 2D games. But our overall quality is still good, and our production capacity is guaranteed. I think this is a path those small and medium-sized enterprises can make.
And the high threshold for art is not entirely a bad thing because high-quality art brings us a high return, and it is also very cost-effective for the purchase volume.
GG: In fact, there is a trend of 3D art inside 2D games. Is the popularity of 3D elements in 2D games more demanding for you?
LQ: Our main goal is to be a "side game" for players. Players can't play only one game. They will be divided into "main and auxiliary." We will not form a competitive relationship between ourselves and these higher-end games.
GG: Since you are also short of money, have you considered looking for a big publisher to invest in?
LQ: Big publishers are often picky when it comes to investing. Teams that appear to be safer are more likely to get investment.
For example, Luozhou Studio built "Taiwu Painting Scroll." They sold 2 million copies for 68 yuan before the first launch, and they have tens of millions of cash in holding. It seems very safe to invest in such a team.
We have also seen many big publishers, but we haven't decided yet. Maybe we haven't reached that level of safety in their hearts. After all, we are not star entrepreneurs, and we also lack the halo of industry qualifications. You may have seen too many dead entrepreneurial teams like ours, so there are still some concerns, which is not surprising.
As an investor myself, I am also willing to invest in a mature product, the team is stable, and the game will be launched soon. Who doesn't want to make money right away? Who wants to invest so much money in a team with no emotional connection, and who looks ordinary? If our producer wasn't my son, I wouldn't necessarily give him the money.
The same is true for distribution. At present, no major manufacturers want to help us distribute. But we look pretty bad now, not to the point where we can announce it and expose it. Let's keep a low profile and polish the product.
When the product is ready, people will naturally pay attention to us. With the investment, our production capacity will be able to come up. Now that we have no money, we will grind slowly and work with our own money.
GG: But I think your reviews on TapTap are pretty good.
LQ: It doesn't look good, but our products are actually outstanding. This is not a blow to our player base is very active.
Players are very patient with our products. During our mini-games, we have accumulated a considerable number of players. Many players came to our mobile games from that time. They have witnessed our growth step by step and know that we are a startup company, so in terms of expectations, they will not ask us like the leading publishers. Each of our tests is a surprise.
Like our test in February, many players participated. Generally speaking, for a good 2D mobile game, the second-day retention should reach 60%. We're only 30%, doesn't that sound bad? But you have to know that we have too many bugs at the moment. In this case, there are still 30% of people who are patient and willing to play. I feel delighted.
So our next step is to make the product quality as good as possible to live up to the expectations of these players. Then divide the lost players into types, analyze why they left, and gradually find solutions to optimize the game better.
Of course, we also hope that capital parties in the industry who want to help our father and son realize their ideals will contact us, and we will definitely live up to everyone's expectations.