Key Points:

  1. Arknights achieved remarkable success within months of its launch, exceeding 400 million yuan in monthly revenue, with Chinese players contributing significantly.
  2. The game’s popularity extended beyond China, reaching the top spot on Japan’s AppStore, surpassing established Japanese games like “FGO” and “monster marbles.”
  3. Arknights combines role-playing and tower defense, with a gameplay reminiscent of a complex version of “plants vs. Zombies,” featuring exquisite Japanese cartoon characters.
  4. The game’s success can be attributed to its excellent quality, player-friendly design, engaging gameplay, and intricate storytelling, fostering discussions and fan engagement.
  5. LowLightK, the game’s designer, embodies a shift towards recognizing game designers’ contributions, akin to chefs in restaurants, emphasizing creativity over commercialization, and encouraging secondary creation, fostering a vibrant Doujin culture around the game.

On the occasion of the first anniversary of Arknights` launch in May 2020, the monthly flow of a very popular mobile game in China exceeded 400 million yuan[1], of which Chinese players contributed 300 million yuan in revenue that month.

In July 2020, Arknights reached the top in AppStore, Japan, surpassing the established Japanese mobile games “FGO” and “monster marbles”.[2]

Poster to celebrate the game’s first place in the app store in Japan.

A game that has been online for just one year is now popular all over Asia, and it has also set off an upsurge in the Nijigen cultural circle in Europe and the United States.

Arknights is a game that combines role play and tower defense, and its core mechanism is a bit like the complex version of “plants vs. Zombies”. The biggest feature of this game is the exquisite Japanese cartoon characters. Before Arknights, similar games included “FGO” and “Blue Fantasy”, are basicly made by the Japanese. Since the dubbing actors in the Arknights game are all Japanese, many people even thought it was a Japanese game at first, but the game, from the fund to the creator, is completely made in China.

So, how did this Japan-style game made by Chinese people?  What advantages does it have to support its rapid popularity in China and Japan?

Excellent quality

Arknights from the official launch to become popular, in fact, did not take a long time. Within a few months of releasing in China, it has reached the top of the App Store paid list in China many times. And after less than a year, it also released in Japan, South Korea and the United States. It has achieved great commercial success in all regions.

Why can Arknights suddenly become this popular? First of all, it needs to be attributed to the ingenious design of the game itself.

Screenshot of the game’s main interface

The gameplay of the game itself is relatively excellent, for light players who focus on the nurturance part, they can not only choose to design good strategy to achieve customs clearance, but also reduce the difficulty of the game by improving the attributes of the characters in the game. For players who are willing to use their brains, they can use a variety of well developed tactics to achieve the victory, and there are even mechanisms such as “crisis contracts” that allow players to constantly challenge more difficult levels.

It is worth mentioning that there is no in-game revenue reward for this super-difficult level, only a number to prove it, and that number will disappear after the level is over. This design reflects Arknights’s player-friendly attitude. It not only gives players the depth and difficulties, but also allows most ordinary players to enjoy the fun of the game.

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In order to give slow players a good experience, Arknights has also specially designed a “bullet time system” to make it easier for players to release their skills to defeat enemies at certain moments, which is very friendly to casual players.

Similiar designs can also be found in all aspects of the game, such as the balance between free players and paying players, and the balance between heavy players and light players, which is very commendable.

Heavy players can choose to spend hours in the game to improve the character’s stats to challenge higher goals, while light players can choose to spend only 15 minutes a day to collect daily resourses.

Similarly, Arknights has made a lot of efforts in the story of the game. Its stories is more in-depth and connotative than ordinary mobile games. Despite far from reaching the level of mainstream literary works, players still enjoy discussing it, and there are many plot parsing videos about Arknights on China’s well-known video website Bilibili ( also in Youtube).

Why can Arknights’s simple story become a selling point? The reason is that the design is very ingenious.

At first glance, the writing of the plot will be a bit hazy, but it only takes a little brain work to draw the outline of the whole story, very much like a mini-reasoning story. The advantage of this kind of story design is that it gives players the pleasure of decoding puzzles without being frustrated by the difficulty of reasoning and not being able to know the answer.

Many of the furniture used to decorate the walls of the game include homage to other cultural symbols, from the Beatles to the matrix.

The creative team stuffed a lot of content in the game to understand the riddle elements and all kinds of Easter eggs. This makes many players happy to try to dig out every egg and detail. This kind of fragmented narrative pattern is very popular in recent years, being widely used in games such as Dark Souls series and Bloodborne.

The design of many Eater eggs pays homage to all kinds of classic Japanese animation works, and it is also easy to become a social topic, so that players can chat while playing games, and then get further spread among the target user group.

The level of art detail of Arknights is very high, belonging to the upstream level in similar games in China. At the same time, the soundtrack produced by the team for the game is also very excellent. In similar games, Arknights’s investment to “music” is unique. After important characters appears in the game, the official will specially write game theme songs for them.

Arknights also releases specific songs on important Chinese festivals or at specific time points, such as the Chinese Lunar New year, during the crucial moments of the struggle against COVID-19, and the National College entrance examination in China.

CD Covers

These songs are not BGM. They are not really related to the content of the game, but the game’s creative team still wrote these songs of great quality and posted them directly on the Internet, so much so that players jokingly called HYPERGRYPH, the developer of the game, as a record company disguised as a game company. There is no doubt that the creative team has a dedication to music that ordinary games do not.

In fact, compared with the same type of games, the quality of Arknights is higher than the average level, but still far from reaching the masterpiece level. As mentioned above, Arknights’s gameplay and plot are actually pretty good, but not perfect. The core is the ingenious design that can be accepted by different types of players.

Arknights is not so much a rich and excellent game as a game that caters well to the needs of the market.

However, in China, Arknights is indeed a rare creation, which is an important reason for its instant popularity. Because in China, it is both difficult and easy to create a successful game.

In China, it is both difficult and easy to make a good game.

The situation of game practitioners in China is actually quite bad.

On the one hand, the Chinese government has extremely strict supervision over “games”. On the other hand, China’s Internet industry is extremely developed, with large companies with a market capitalization of hundreds of billions of dollars, such as Tencent and NetEase, which are involved in the game industry. The influence is quite huge. Strict regulation has further led to the monopoly of large companies, because small companies are unable to cope with authorities.

China’s censorship of the gaming industry is often apolitical, but the result is worse than that. Chinese parents and the government literally believe that games are a bad thing and will damage the health of teenagers. You can read the detailed description in another Pandayoo article, “The policy of video games for minors in China“.

Therefore, the relevant policies set a high compliance threshold for the gaming industry, which makes it difficult for small game studios to enter the market.

For large game companies like Tencent and NetEase, what they think about is not how to make a good game, but how to hand over a beautiful financial report, just like Electronic Arts.

The game is known as the “ninth art”. The success of a game depends largely on how high the quality of the game is and whether the creativity is unique. But for large companies, this “artistic element” is often accidental. This is not a good thing for listed companies, because they need to rely on games to make money, so large game companies in China tend to focus on factors other than game creativity, such as publicity, quick launch, operational strategy, and so on. As for the game itself, as long as it can reach the standard level.

Tencent’s well-known mobile game PUBG Mobile is a typical example. “PUBG” was so popular two years ago that Tencent immediately bought the rights to the game and developed a mobile version. The follow-up release publicity and a series of industrial assembly line operations have made the game very popular.[3]

In order to ensure the company’s success in the PUBG-Like field, Tencent even asked its two teams to start working on a mobile version of the game at the same time, allowing the two internal teams to compete with each other in the market to ensure the final victory will be company`s

Obviously, the role that game designer can play in Chinese game companies is negligible, and the revenue pressure of large companies occupies an absolutely dominant position in creating process.

Although some practitioners will leave from large companies to start their own game companies, but many of them still run their studios with the management method of big corporations. Even worse, these people may have very good computer skills or know part of a project, yet them do not really know the big picture of how to develope a game. Without the support of big companies, very few of them succeeds.

Indeed, there are some lucky practitioners who can succeed independently of these big companies, but these successes are hugely accidental, and due to various capital and regulatory reasons, these games are difficult to release in domestic distribution channels.

“The Scroll Of Taiwu” is a very hard core martial arts roguelike game launched two years ago.

For example, “The Scroll Of Taiwu“, which is unexpectedly popular on steam, “Flow” produced by Chinese game producer Chen Xinghan while studying abroad, “Chinese Parents” with memories of the college entrance examination of a Chinese generation.

These games are not attached to China’s big capital and domestic distribution platform, but they also mean that they cannot enter China’s mainstream market. Except for the occasional popularity of individual game consoles, more games can only be known in a small circle or just disappear directly.

On the other hand, some successful game producers, due to their lack of understanding of business management, will also make very naive decisions when starting their own companies. For example, on the eve of the official operation of another well-known game, “Girls’ Frontline“, there was a disagreement between the founding team, which almost led to the stillbirth of the game. [4]

All these reasons lead to the reluctance of venture capitalists to enter the game industry. Without the help of investment, even if some young teams are quite talented, it is difficult to show that.

In such a market, Chinese game industry practitioners are very painful. They have only two choices, one is to work as a gear in a large company, and the other is to create their own games with little material benefits.

There is no doubt that the success of Arknights is a shot in the arm for domestic game producers. Because it represents the possibility that a group of people who love games may succeed as long as they do the games that players like with a professional attitude.

Lowlightk’s Toho project illustration work.

LowLightK, the designer of Arknights, has been involved in fan societies since college, drew a number of dojin manga books, and participated in the production of the game “Girl in Bread suit“. He met like-minded companions and founded the well-known game “Girls’ Frontline” as a veteran. Later, due to personal reasons, he resigned to start a business and made Arknights, a popular game.[5]

The growth history of LowLightK is very clear and can be replicated. For other young people who are interested in the gaming industry and want to produce their own works, LowLightK’s personal experience will encourage them.

Before that, for a young Chinese, if he wanted to become a game producer, he or she chose to be one in a million like Chen Xinghan and bloom his talent overseas, or join a game company that is controled by big capital in China and do things you don’t like. Now, they can try to imitate LowLightK, and this path can be imitated, which in itself is a gratifying thing.

In addition, the success of LowLightK and others also means that game designer go from behind the scenes to the front stage, which is also a good thing. In the past, the success of Chinese games is more related to the success of capital. For example, the “PUBG Mobile” mentioned above is a typical example. After the success of the game, people did not remember the names of any producers, only Tencent.

And in HYPERGRYPH,LowLightK is the soul of the project. As a game designer, LowLightK is like the head chef of a restaurant. The style and finished products of the restaurant are determined by the chef, while the quality and style of Arknights are determined by LowLightK. There is a strong personal imprint in this game. Respect for creators rather than capital is one of the important reasons for Arknights’s success.

The great success of Arknights will make venture capital institutions more willing to consider the works of these young people. If you seriously cater to the needs of players, you can achieve commercial success, and this success itself can be replicated.

Although there are accidental factors in the success of Arknights, its probability of success is much higher than that of “The Scroll Of Taiwu“, which is acceptable to investors, so that creators and venture capitalists can hit it off, and more Arknights can be born in China.

Before Arknights, the commercial success of works such as “Girls’ Frontline“, “Collapse Gakuen” and “Onmyoji” has gradually proved the maturity of China’s mobile game market. The great success of Arknights once again confirms a very simple truth-as long as you are willing to seriously make a game that meets the needs of players, success is not a small probability event. As long as you do the game that players like with a professional attitude, you may be able to succeed.

A prosperous Dojin culture is a gift from China to the world.

In addition to the game designer, LowLightK is also a well-known “Toho fun” in the circle.

The so-called “Toho Fun” refers to people who have a crazy love for the famous Japanese individual game “Toho Project” and its derivative works. These people not only know the game “Toho Project” very well, but also are willing to promote the game series and even make a second creation based on it.

ZUN, the creator of “Toho Project“, is also a very interesting person. When he created the “Toho Project” series, he arranged the plot, game planning, program, art and music by him alone. Yes, alone.

At the same time, ZUN is also a person who opposes over-commercialization. “Toho Project” is originally a game sold in a dojin party, so ZUN encourages others to make secondary creations based on it, and encourages creators to sell their own works at dojin party.

But he resents the use of “Toho Project” by big companies to make excessive profits. If a game created by a community based on “Toho Project” is only sold on dojin party, ZUN will not intervene. But if you want the game to be able to log on to PS4 or App Store for large-scale charging, ZUN will often stop it.[6]

At the same time, ZUN also rejected the animation company’s request to animate “Toho Porject“, saying: “if the it is animated, the second creation may be blocked by the company. Because animation companies want to make money by selling related products.”

As mentioned above, LowLightK’s creative career began with his colleagues in the university, and his works are based on “Toho Project“. LowLightK knows a lot about the various memes and secondary settings of the game. So when designing Arknights, he left all kinds of seemingly intentional or unintentional “Easter eggs” in the game, which will give rise to a lot of Arknights’s meme, and trigger an upsurge of Doujin creation.

Arknights’s game music is excellent, and the creative team has an extraordinary dedication to music, which is also very similar to “Toho Project“. In addition to its own high quality of the game, the very distinctive music is also the most praised by its fans. Although the release methods of the two games are very different, they both take many young girls as the protagonist of the game, pay special attention to music, and have similar means of plot expression. Given the producer LowLightK’s love of “Toho Project“, it’s hard not to think of the inextricable connection between the two.

Fans Video Competition organized by game officials. You can see these videos here.

Like ZUN, the Arknights production team officially encourages secondary creation. Every quarter, they hold a video solicitation event on Bilibili, China’s largest sub-cultural video website, to encourage players to create videos based on Arknights content. HYPERGRYPH also provides direct in-game rewards to producers of the most popular videos.

At this moment in China, Arknights is not only the hottest Nijigen game, but also have the biggest number of Doujin creation which are not limited to videos. Illustrations and even a variety of efficient jokes and emojis can also be found, enriching the content of games outside the game.

See Also: The History of Nijigen Culture in China

LowLightK also tries to maintain a more prosperous peer community. The power of a company and a studio is sometimes limited, but with the help of enthusiasts, the virtual world will be more prosperous. Prosperous Doujing culture can greatly extend the vitality of the original work itself.

Based on the birth and prosperity of a work, the secondary creation ecology itself is an extremely rare phenomenon. If Arknights’s co-creation ecology can reach the height of “Toho Proejct“, it is very gratifying. Because Doujin creation needs a good platform as the basis, works like Arknights are actually rare. A prosperous Doujing culture will promote the progress of the whole industry and make the creation more diversified.

If you are a fan of Japanese ACG culture, I highly recommend you to try this game. I believe you can have a lot of fun in the game. You can download the game on appstore and google play, and there is a special discussion section on reddit has.




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