Kabam’s mobile game, Marvel Contest of Champions, has been downloaded more than 75 million times and has over 7 million consumers who play every week. It’s one of Marvel’s most popular mobile games, having generated over $300 million in revenue to date.
Last month, Kabam released the iOS version of its mobile brawler in China, which offers the largest mobile audience in the world. The company decided to self-publish the title, which required a lot of additional work, but the game quickly shot to the number #1 most downloaded game in China shortly after launch and continues to perform strongly.
Kent Wakeford, chief operating officer of Kabam, explains how the company will now reap the rewards of the foundation it built for mobile game publishing in China.
How has Marvel Contest of Champions evolved?
Kabam and Marvel have a deep relationship. The game was created through a series of meetings with the product teams, thinking about an environment in which you can have this experience where you can pit any Marvel character against another. We found an old Marvel comic book called Contest of Champions and it was like a lightbulb went off.
Our creative team took that fiction and created a whole experience with gameplay around that, and expanded it with new characters. That’s how the concept ideated. Kabam Vancouver, which has a lot of former Electronic Arts developers from the console business, created an experience with that “wow” factor for a mobile device.
How does this game tie into the Marvel Universe of movies and television shows?
Over 100 people are working on this game. We’ve worked closely with Marvel to create a pipeline 12 months out with all of the key beats from collaborating on films like Captain America: Civil War, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Netflix’s Daredevil series so our game ties into the big beats.
We’ve also been able to create our own fiction and expand the Marvel Universe from the creative talent within Kabam. Our team in Vancouver had an idea for a character that could live within Marvel, and spent time working with the Marvel creators to create Guillotine. She’s a new heroine with whole backstory and narrative. Marvel put that character into the re-released Contest of Champions comic series. We developed VenomPool—we brought Venom and Deadpool together to create an over-the-top character with crazy powers. We’re working on another Kabam-created character that will be released in July.
How has this partnership with Marvel evolved?
It’s a two-way collaboration. The Contest of Champions comic was republished based on the power of the game. Not only have we done a great job of making a game fans love to play, but we’ve added to the Marvel Universe.
And we’re just in the beginning stages. You’re going to see a lot more collaboration beyond the new July character, and we’ll be working on a lot more tie-ins with the films and TV shows coming out.
Can you give an example of how you worked with a recent film like Deadpool in the game world?
In the Contest of Champions fiction, the Collector collects all these heroes and pits them against each other. We had Deadpool take the place of the Collector and make everything challenging with special quests for people to get in and play. It took advantage of the humorous aspect. We have a Deadpool character in the game, and we also introduced VenomPool at that time.
Can you talk about the global popularity of this game?
Kabam is a global gaming company. Our games are played in close to 130 countries around the world. Our goal is to make sure consumers have access to great games, and when married with great IP, that it resonates around the world. We’ve launched Marvel Contest of Champions in over 100 countries. North America remains the strongest market for the game. A big part of that is the history of Marvel in the US, but we have millions of people who play the game from South America to Europe to Russia to the Middle East. And now we’ve launched the game in China.
What makes China a unique mobile games market?
China has become the world’s largest mobile gaming market. It generated over $6.5 billion in revenue in 2015, and it’s growing faster than any other market in the world. The Marvel IP does very well in China. They have a lot of loyal fans around this brand. When we talked to Marvel about bringing this game to China, we thought about what we needed to do to bring this iconic brand to China.
What was the process like to deliver a Chinese version of this game?
We had to change the experience for Chinese consumers. We spent four months changing the technology and developing the technology and data infrastructure. We’ve created a pipeline so that we can bring a product into China. We spent six months working with AWS to get all of the hosting for the game right with no latency. We had to solve issues across two major network backbones (China has two, where in the US there’s only one). We needed to allow people to go back and forth across these networks.
China also has a different device fragmentation than other countries with a lot of lower-end devices. We had to make sure the game worked across all of them.
There are also regulatory requirements. You have to work with two different ministries to get licenses for the game so we could publish. And we only published on iOS. You can’t self-publish on Android in China because those app stores are all local. We will bring our game to Android, but we’ll need a partner.
How has the actual game changed for Chinese players?
The gameplay features are a lot different because of consumer play patterns and tastes. Chinese players are more sophisticated. They progress faster through the games. We created systems that added depth and a deeper story that connected everything, so they could see their powers increasing. We created an RPG Gear system and a Quick Fight system, so they could quickly fight through.
We also changed the visual presentation. There’s a lot going on on the screen in China.
Instead of strictly translating the game, we designed the text to the local market. We recreated the narrative with the understanding of the emotional feeling that the Chinese consumer would get from the words. We rewrote the game for the Chinese market.
How are you marketing the game in China?
Kabam’s initiative to self-publish in China created a structural advantage that we can now bring all future games that we create into the Chinese market. All the blood, sweat, and tears are going to pay off now, and in the future. Going into China, we’ve had an office on the ground for five years with 200 employees. What we needed to build up was a marketing infrastructure. We put people on the ground in China to work with all of the ad networks and social platforms. We integrated all the tracking solutions and SDKs. We had to understand and translate the results of spending on media.
We’ve been able to optimize the advertising creative and understand what resonates with consumers, the landing page optimation, what visuals Chinese gamers like to see from an app icon perspective. And then in the media planning, we can buy and optimize and get CPI (cost per install) that are equivalent in China to what we get in Western markets. Now we can buy media just like we do in the West and target consumers and look at the yield. It’s an amazing infrastructure that we’ve created, and we learned a tremendous amount.
We were the #1 downloaded game in all of China, and it’s the result of a lot of effort across the board from the studio to the publishing group.
What opportunities have the Chinese chat apps opened up for marketing this game?
In-app chat is extremely popular in China. Tencent Games are often in the Top 20, and a large part of that is because they have the power of WeChat, which is the largest social platform in China. It’s the power of that channel that can drive consumers into games and drive installs. We’ve been doing a lot of work with WeChat. We’ve spent marketing dollars there, and have seen the impact and benefits of marketing through those social channels.
We worked through Disney and Marvel’s WeiBo channels to drive excitement of the game socially. Social channels in China for mobile have a much tighter correlation to the success of games than they do in the West. WeChat is tightly integrated into the gaming system. QQ is another Tencent platform that is very popular.