While visiting China this fall, I noted how overwhelming it was to be an Android developer targeting local Chinese consumers. Not only was the market base relatively small at about 15 million devices a month ago, there were several different forked versions of the Android operating system and dozens of app stores.
The issue is that because of Google’s frayed relationship with the Chinese government and its unwillingness to censor its content, the official Android Market faces an uncertain future in the country. So several unofficial markets are cropping up in its place and it’s a headache for small to mid-size developers to figure out how to distribute and promote their work.
So The9, a Shanghai-based gaming company that’s trying to reinvent itself around mobile, says it’s securing partnerships with the country’s three major carriers, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, and 30 Android app stores that can guarantee distribution for developers.
It has its own mobile-social gaming network called The9 Game Zone, that’s powered by GREE-owned OpenFeint that launched a few weeks ago. The platform helps with localization needs like translation, payment support and it plugs into local social networks like QQ, Sina Weibo and RenRen, since Twitter and Facebook are banned in the country. It adds all the commonplace social features that are standard in gaming networks like leaderboards, challenges and achievements.
The9 is trying to make a comeback around iOS and Android after losing the license to publish World of Warcraft in China, a move that made its annual revenue decline from 1.7 billion Chinese yuan ($269 million) in 2008 to 108.2 million yuan ($16.2 million) in 2010. With the remaining capital on its books, The9 has placed all of its chips in smartphone gaming. It recently launched a $100 million mobile fund with Chengwei Ventures, ChinaRock Capital Management and China Renaissance K2 Ventures that may help it source new lucrative intellectual property for the local markets.
It also recently partnered with OpenFeint to localize the company’s platform for the Chinese market (since many U.S. or Japanese-operated gaming networks will naturally have problems coming to China because of censorship issues or because they don’t understand the tastes of local consumers). The9 faces competition from web giants like Tencent, which presumably will put force behind its own mobile platform, and venture-backed companies like Beijing’s PapayaMobile.