From a dormitory room at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, three postgraduate students who were obsessive fans of Japanese anime, comics and gaming, came up with their own formula for hitting the big time in mobile gaming.
In 2011, Liu Wei, Cai Haoyu and Luo Yuhao created “Fly Me 2 the Moon,” an action puzzle game. A year later, they founded a company called miHoYo, which has since expanded into an enterprise with more than 2,000 employees housed in an industrial park in Xuhui District.
MiHoYo created the “Honkai Impact” series and the female-oriented game “Tears of Themis.” But its most phenomenal success is “Genshin Impact,” a game that won “Best Mobile Game” and “Best Role-Playing Game” at Game Awards 2020, the video-game industry’s version of the Oscars.
The success of the game underpins Shanghai’s ambition to become a global hub for gaming and eSports — a priority the city is actively promoting along with eSports.
A report by market consultancy CNG shows that revenue from online games in 2019 in the city topped more than 80 billion yuan (US$12.3 billion), with a growth rate of over 12 percent. Of that, games developed domestically brought in nearly 70 billion yuan.
Revenue from mobile games exceeded 52 billion yuan, growing a third from a year earlier. Some 1.9 billion of that total came from game sales overseas, which increased by about a quarter.
The Shanghai gaming industry has been dominated by giants like Shengqu Games and Gaint Network, but newer players like miHoYo are emerging from what often seems out of nowhere.
“Genshin Impact,” the first miHoYo game to go global, really took off during pandemic lockdowns last year, when cinemas were closed and online game content filled the entertainment gap.
The game involves a set of twins who arrive in the fantasy world of Teyvat, where a god separates them. One of the twins, called the Traveler, manages to escape and meets Paimon. The pair then travel in search of the missing sibling, encountering magical adventures along the way amid colorful settings.
“Genshin Impact,” a free-to-play, action role-playing game, involves players who can control up to four characters. Some of the characters possess the ability to alter the environment, such as freezing water to create a path traversing otherwise impassable terrain. Players can obtain food from hunting animals, gathering wild fruit and vegetables, or purchasing vittles from a store.
The game features an action-based battle system using elemental magic, character-switching and a so-called “gacha” system, a form of monetizing games whereby players can pay to acquire characters, weapons or other resources to help them win.
Released in 2019, it was downloaded more than 17 million times in its first week. Within two weeks, it had grossed over US$100 million from mobile platforms, recouping development and marketing costs, according to the video-game magazine PC Gamer, which called “Genshin Impact” the “dark horse of 2020.”
The game was released on PC, PlayStation 4, Android and iOS last September. It has been translated into 13 languages.
Yu-Peng Chen composed the game’s original score, which was performed by the London Philharmonic and Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The music was modified to suit various export markets.
In a nod to Chinese culture and tourism, the game uses actual Chinese scenic sites like the gardens of Suzhou, the ancient canal town of Huizhou and beauty spots like Huanglong, Zhangjiajie and Guilin, combining them with fantasy scenes.
It also provides discounted tickets to the scenic spots.
Yin Chunbo, miHoYo’s vice president, said in an earlier interview, “We contacted the tourist sites when designing the scenes. But as a private enterprise, we worried that they might reject us. A letter from the Shanghai government smoothed our way.”
Company president Liu credits Shanghai’s environment of innovation and entrepreneurship for miHoYo’s success.
“We are the product of Shanghai’s advantages in talent, globalization, industry agglomeration and good commercial environment,” he said in an earlier interview.
At the company headquarters, miHoYo provides a free, casual atmosphere to encourage brainstorming among employees. Meeting rooms are decorated with elements of anime, comics and games, with game characters on the walls.
Employees are also free to decorate their work areas with similar ornamentation.
“We believe that progress in technology will drive the development of the games entertainment industry,” said Liu. “In the future, we will continue to seek technological breakthroughs and improve our capability in producing good content and special experiences for gamers.”
Players just love the company. One of them wrote a letter to miHoYo, saying he commuted four hours a day to and from work. The experience of crowded train carriages used to be a nightmare for him, he wrote.
Then he found “Genshin Impact,” and now the commute time just flies by and has become the most pleasant part of his day, he wrote.
MiHoYo is exploring ways to provide avid fans new products.
The company has released products from light novels, manga comics and anime. Some are related to the games and others are brand-new stories. It now also has its own animated IP character YoYo Lumi.
MiHoYo is not the only game company contributing to Shanghai’s building of a gaming and innovation hub.
It is one of what is called the “Big Four” of the industry, along with Paper Games, Lilith Games and Hypergryph. Paper Games is the creator of the popular dress-up Nikki game series, Lilith created “AFK Arena,” and Hypergryph released “Arknights.”
Established in 2013, Paper Games now exports its mobile games to more than 30 countries and regions, with nearly 400 million registered players worldwide.
“Love Nikki,” the third of the Nikki series, went online in 2015, the first to crack the global market. It now has more than 100 million users. Although its art and interface settings are more styled to Asian tastes, it has found popularity in Europe and the US.
When it first hit the market, dress-up games in Western markets were fairly simple. “Love Nikki” introduced role-playing and a more global view of characters and stories.
Two years later, its dating simulation game “Love and Producer” was released. It became quite a phenomenon in the domestic mobile game market, attracting a large number of female players.
In translation, the game began moving offshore in 2018. On the first day of its launch in South Korea, it topped the nation’s App Store list of free games.
Last July, an anime television series adapted from the game aired globally and has been watched over 142 million times.
The Nikki series’ fourth product “Shining Nikki,” released in 2019, overshadowed previous versions with its 3D graphics. It is already being marketed in Japan and will be available in more countries soon.
The Nikki series has elicited overseas interest in Chinese garments and culture, the team told Shanghai Daily.