Don't be afraid of Dragons

Dirk Ziems

Don't be afraid of Dragons

The cultural differences between Europe and Asia are a common obstacle to fast and simple product adaptation. concept m conducts psychological research in Cologne and illustrates by the example of mobile games which hurdles have to be overcome.

Gamescom, the annual trade fair for video games in Cologne, Germany, attracts more than 370,000 visitors, over 1,000 exhibitors and shows the major trends of digital entertainment. Mobile gaming becomes increasingly important. Once a niche market, it plays a central role for the gaming industry today.

But looking at it from a psychological perspective, what makes those small games on the smartphone so special? Unlike console games, mobile games only require a short attention span of a few minutes. That means players think of the game when they want to kill time – queuing, between two meetings, on the bus.

Two genres are particularly successful: match and puzzle games like Candy Crush on the one hand, where players have to solve problems at different levels, and battle games like Clash Royale on the other hand, which has been downloaded over 100 million times. These games have a rather competitive character and users can also play against each other.

These smartphone games are usually based on the “freemium” model, also known as free-to-play, meaning they can be used immediately after the download. Money is charged at later stages, for example for additional levels or equipment that players can access via in-app purchases.
These games enjoy global success. According to various studies, they account for the majority of app store sales. The games are often developed for one regional market in a first step; and if they are profitable, they get adapted for other markets.

At this interface between a regionally successful product and a global top seller, psychological market research can provide valuable insights by identifying potential problems for the adaptation. The three central factors that research has to take into account are game dramaturgy, payment system and visual language.

Game dramaturgy needs to be adapted

The way people play varies across different regions – and across age groups. In Asia, players prefer competitive games. By defeating a virtual opponent, you are working on your perseverance and competitiveness, with an impact on your real life and career. Making your way through ever more challenging levels represents tangible progress for the player. Younger players in Europe show a similar urge for boosting their egos and quantifying themselves this way. For older players, on the other hand, the main function of mobile games is entertainment, distraction and short breaks from the daily routine.

Not everyone accepts the payment system

The two-stage payment system – free download, later in-app purchases – is widely accepted in Asia. European users of such games are somewhat skeptical about this payment system. They have internalized the existing cultural pattern and expect that all consequential costs are already included in the original purchase price. But this attitude has been changing recently – and once again, especially younger users seem more and more willing to accept and make in-app transactions.

Visual language reveals cultural differences

The visual language of many games poses the third big obstacle for the transition from regional to worldwide success. European players sometimes have a hard time getting used to and even understanding Asian, comic-style visual language with its very particular aesthetics, which are sometimes playful, sometimes a little feminine.

This applies to the semiotic level in particular. In Asian culture, dragons represent wealth, and every player knows this instinctively. In Europe however, dragons are rather perceived as opponents. Little rewards that the game characters can collect and eat during the game are another example. In mobile games from Asia, these rewards often look like dumplings, which Asian players immediately associate with regaining one’s health. This code does not necessarily work in Europe.

Psychological research is able to precisely identify such obstacles to the adaptation of mobile games for other regional markets. Respondents are asked to verbalize their thoughts while playing. In addition to that it uses creative and projective techniques like drawing characters from memory and describing associations triggered by the visuals in the game.

The authors:
Rochus Winkler and Dirk Ziems, Co-Founder and Shareholder, concept m. Hoon Bang, Marketing Team at Nexon Europe
Published article on planung&analyse on 6. September 2018

For further questions please contact:


Rochus Winkler
Co-Founder and Shareholder


Dirk Ziems
Co-Founder and Shareholder

Dirk Ziems
Dirk Ziems ist Experte für tiefenpsychologisches Marketing und berät auf Basis von Markt-, Medien- und Kulturforschung weltweit Unternehmen und Konzerne in zahlreichen Branchen und Ländern. Als Mitbegründer der Global Research Boutique Concept M und der Marketingberatung Flying Elephant begleitet er Themen wie die Adaption von Erfolgsprodukten in neuen kulturellen Kontexten, das tiefe Verständnis neuer Konsumgenerationen in China und USA, die Transformation der Werbekommunikation in der neuen digitalen Medienwelt oder die Neuorientierung der Brands in Post-Corona-Zeiten. Dirk Ziems ist auch als Gastdozent an verschiedenen Universitäten tätig.

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