Here are the best-performing Chinese Android app stores for one of the country’s top developers

By Kim-Mai Cutler Comment

With dozens of stores and a virtually non-existent presence from Google’s Android Market, marketing and distributing Android apps in China is a rat’s nest for most small studios.

Because Google is holding off on formally supporting Android Market in the country because of its strained relationship with the government and censorship concerns, there is a battle going on right now between dozens of independent Android app stores. There’s AppChina, Tencent’s app store, Gfan, HiAPK, etc. and many, many more.

So which ones actually work?

We talked to Punchbox to find out. They’re a Beijing-based studio that has seen about 20 million downloads on Android for their game Fishing Joy in China alone. Considering that analytics firm Flurry picked up around 35 million active iOS and Android devices in China last month, it’s quite possible that Punchbox’s game is on half or more of the Android phones in the country. Their parent company Chukong, has also recently raised $14 million from Sequoia China, Disney’s Steamboat Ventures and Northern Light Venture Capital.

Here’s where they’re telling us they’re seeing the most downloads from:

  • HiAPK or HiMarket: This market, backed by NetDragon, brought Punchbox 3.5 million downloads.
  • GFan: This grassroots destination, which started as a forum and then later evolved into an app store, attracted 3 million downloads.
  • Wandoujia: This store, backed by former Google China head Kai-Fu Lee’s Innovation Works, brought 2 million downloads. It launched in August of 2010 and calls itself the iTunes of Android in China.
  • Anzhi, or GoAPK: Backed by Chinese gaming giant Shanda, Anzhi delivered around 2 million of Punchbox’s Android downloads in China. Also known as GoAPK, Anzhi is one of the oldest Android markets around having started in 2008.

As for the official Google Android Market, it came in about 10th among all of the Android app stores that Punchbox uses. The company suspects most of those are from smuggled phones too. As we’ve reported earlier, there are many issues Google would have to contend with to formally bring Android Market to China. Most of the larger platforms like Tencent usually review all of their apps before they launch and censor any sensitive ones. This is not compatible with how Google currently runs the app store, where any developer can put up any app at will. (They’re taken down after the fact if they violate any terms.)

Overall, Punchbox has seen 38 million downloads on iOS and Android, up from the older 30 million download figure they recently announced. (It was an older number they had prepped for several weeks for a press release.) The company has seen 11.9 million downloads on the iPhone, 4 million on the iPad and 21 million on Android. The company sees about a quarter-million downloads per day on both platforms.

Punchbox’s U.S. director Lei Zhang says the company has used very different strategies in China and the U.S. In China, they started out with a fairly standard approach using Google’s Admob and Tapjoy, but then they split out into a more heavily media-dependent one until the game started to pick up organically.

“We had to spend more marketing dollars in the U.S,” he said. Here in the U.S., Punchbox also started out in a standard way with Tapjoy and Flurry, but the company has also tried Fiksu and Free App King. At this point, Punchbox has gotten down to paying about 50 cents per install in the West and is growing purely organically in China.

“It’s more expensive here and it’s more about combining paid channels to get the visibility,” he said. “It’s not hard to get a short period of visibility but it’s hard to maintain.”

Despite the momentum in China, the market is still very hard to monetize even with Apple adding local payment options last quarter.

“We still aren’t seeing a huge uptick of revenue or ARPU (average-revenue-per-user) yet in China,” he said. “We still high hopes for the market though.” That said, he did mention that there are more hardcore games that are monetizing at 100 times the rate Punchbox’s more casual, social-style games are seeing like Wistone’s War 2 Victory.

Because the market base is still relatively small plus fragmentation makes payments difficult to handle, Punchbox is relying on advertising like most other mobile developers in China are doing.

“The only thing is advertising right now,” he said. “Paid apps are not working in China. Freemium or in-app purchases are not practical with many different app stores.”