Originally published on Forbes.
Far and away the leading powerhouse in the global mobile gaming space, China boasts more than 420 million mobile gamers who spent $5.5 billion domestically in 2015 on mobile games for smartphones and tablets. The numbers are only expected to trend up from here, with gaming on iOS and Android projected to balloon to a whopping $11.1 billion annually over the next three years (source: Niko Partners 2015), and taking market share away from PC online games. These gamers are decreasing their time playing PC online games, or perhaps just entering the gaming market anew by playing mobile games.
When mobile games started to gain popularity a few years ago they were almost entirely casual games, such as puzzle or kids games. In the past year or two the market has embraced mid-core and hard-core mobile games, such as RPGs or strategy titles. This has led to mid-core and hard-core PC gamers to take a second look at mobile games, and in China they have embraced them. Another outcome is that these PC gamers have found a way to play mobile games on their preferred platform, the PC. They do so by using mobile game emulator software. One example known in the West and quite popular in China is BlueStacks.
Mobile game emulator software enables gamers to essentially transform their personal computers into a larger version of their smartphone, in order to be able to play the fun and challenging mobile games on a bigger screen with easier controls. Easily accessible and available for download across the Internet, such emulators mimic games for Android and iOS.
As such, I have an hypothesis that the growth of the mobile games segment that now includes mid- and hard-core titles is actually going to benefit sales and use of PC hardware in the face of the decline in the use of PC online games, because the enthusiast gamers that play such games prefer to play on the PC platform.
As soon as the mobile games market included mid- and hard-core titles, mobile gaming emulators for started to emerge, and in China the use of this type of software is quite pronounced. As I started to wonder just how many Chinese gamers have heard of or used emulator software, I put together a Niko Partners survey of Chinese enthusiast gamers to find out. Of the 514 surveyed, the majority had only been using mobile emulator software for less than a year (which makes sense considering the evolution of mid- and hard-core mobile titles). The surprise was that 30.9% of respondents stated that they use emulators to play mobile games on PC, and more than 65% of those who do actually use an emulator for two or more games that they are currently playing. It is possible that leading mid- and hard-core mobile games are deriving 20% of total revenue from people playing on a PC with a mobile games emulator, rather than on a mobile device. These are most likely the hard-core gamers, those who spend the most time and money on games.
When looking at some of the apparent signposts for the steady rise of emulators in China with relation to the mobile games segment, one key factor to note is that data usage in China is still expensive, particularly for 3G networks. Heavier games tend to eat up significant battery power on mobile devices, and gamers dive into a game on their smartphone only to run out of battery power shortly after. With emulators, the gamer doesn’t need 3G mobile Internet since the PC has fast broadband connectivity built-in. This means they can conserve power on their phones while still enjoying the game.
Exhibit 1: Drivers for Playing Mobile Games on PCs
Further, the use of Android emulators on PC plays a major role in augmenting the overall mobile gaming experience. Because many emulators incorporate “chat apps,” not only do gamers get to play an Android-based game on their PC’s enormous screen with easier game controls and a true keyboard (as opposed to a touchscreen), they get to simultaneously chat with their friends on mobile chap apps directly from their PC.
Exhibit 2: Mobile Game Emulators Used by Niko Survey Respondents
While the most popular emulator in China is currently Kaopu Helper (as of July 2016), Silicon Valley-based BlueStacks has been gaining market share as well, especially for Tencent and NetEase games. Many others exist.
Exhibit 3: Top 10 Mobile Emulators by Downloads on the Baidu Software Center
Chinese online streaming communities, such as Douyu and Longzhu, are also host to another massive trend that could bolster the use of gaming PC hardware, and that trend is eSports — competitive video game tournaments that have become something of an international phenomenon. The same is true on Twitch in many other countries, but Twitch is not active in China.
It may still be too early to determine whether the use of mobile game emulators will positively influence gaming PC hardware. On the one hand, if mobile hardware, battery life, and the mechanics by which we play games on our smartphones continue to improve, then emulators may end up not being as necessary as they are now. On the other hand, some gamers just prefer the big screen and easier controls of a PC, even as they consume more and more mobile games worldwide, and especially in China.