Will Chinese Android app stores finally lower their fees?

By Todd KuhnsLast Updated on Dec 19, 2020
Will Chinese Android app stores finally lower their fees?

Chinese Android app stores have long demanded some of the highest mobile app and game distribution fees in the world.

Although there are a few small, lesser-known app and game stores in China that offer free publishing, the vast majority of app stores in China demand a 50% cut of publisher’s revenues. This includes app stores operated by the major mobile phone producers, which are pre-installed on every phone sold in the country. Compared to Google Play’s distribution of 30%, this is considerably higher than publishers are accustomed to in the rest of the world.

However, much as Epic Games has been pressuring Apple to lower its distribution fees, there are signs that adjustments may be coming to the Chinese market as well.

Genshin Impact, a free-to-play action-RPG which released on China’s mobile stores in September 2020, quickly became one of the country’s hottest games, taking in a record $245 million in its first month, with 17 million in mobile downloads during its first four days of release.

This is a notable achievement, considering its publisher miHoYo bypassed the app stores completely by offering its APK to consumers as a direct download from its website. The Android version is also now available on the Chinese game store TapTap.

There is hope that the very public pressure and significant revenue losses faced by app stores when a high-profile publisher or hot property like Genshin Impact decides to go direct will force the stores to consider lowering their fees.

Most notably, Apple has already bowed to pressure by lowering its cut to 15% for publishers making under $1 million each year.

So is “going direct” a viable option for new app or game publishers starting out in China?

First, keep in mind that Genshin Impact was able to successfully distribute directly because of the massive amount of hype and marketing miHoYo generated. More than 20 million people had pre-registered for the game before its release. The vast majority of those (15 million) were from China.

But unless your game comes to China with a built-in audience, publishing a game or app outside of the Android and Apple App stores in China will not yet be a viable option for the vast majority of developers simply because of the sheer size of the market. With every app and game fighting for the attention of about 1.6 billion Chinese users, the fact remains that app stores remain a vital part of most smaller developers’ marketing strategy:

  • Most Chinese mobile users are already accustomed to searching for their favorite app stores first for software, which usually includes the phone manufacturer’s pre-installed store.
  • The top 15 Android app stores in China average 1 billion total active users each month. This is too large of a built-in audience for most publishers to ignore, and indeed the primary draw for most developers entering the Chinese market.
  • Most Western developers and publishers are not sophisticated enough to develop an effective Chinese marketing strategy because they lack knowledge of the Chinese market, consumer preferences, and China’s various media outlets and social influencers.
  • Despite their high fees, app stores provide valuable marketing tools your product, both organically through effective App Store Optimization (ASO) and paid User Acquisition (UA) campaigns.

Also, non-Chinese publishers must remember that, while it is not illegal in China to distribute your games outside of normal channels, it is illegal to publish a game in China without a game license. If you put up a website with your APK and hope for the best, it will quickly be taken down once it is discovered by the Chinese authorities, and there is no recourse for reinstating a banned site. Such moves are also likely to impact your ability to get a game license in the future.

While we hold out hope that the Chinese Android app stores will be pressured to lower their fees as Apple has done, the sheer size of the Chinese market means that even 50% of a successful mobile game’s revenues translates to too much big money for publishers to leave on the table. The approach we recommend is to partner with a Chinese partner to develop an effective marketing strategy through the top 10-15 app stores in China to distribute your game or app to the masses.