What is a Mini Program? How Do They Work and Why Should Game Developers Care?

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Kevin Ford

June 18th, 2019

Mini-programs have become a major deal and they aren’t going away. Sure, mini-programs use new technology, but their rise in the game market is becoming difficult to overlook.

Each week, we hear of more news that pushes games which are complicated and bigger than ever before. They feature massive open worlds, challenging multiplayer experiences and lifelike graphics. This forces game developers to think they must create the biggest games in order to compete.

When we look at China, we see something different happening. Chinese developers are aiming for smaller, flawlessly formed games. These smaller, app style games are referred to as mini-programs. They’ve taken over the economy in China and offer developers a new way to become a leader in the tech market.

What exactly is a mini-program? What makes them so popular and how can they offer you success in the app economy of China? We’ve got the answers you desire.

What is a Mini-Program?

These mini-programs are small downloadable apps. They run as part of a larger app, such as WeChat. While they are small, they pack a powerful punch and are taking over both Android and iOS app ecosystems within China.

When you want to pay your bills, order a ride, play games, or schedule your next doctor’s appointment, there is a mini-program to handle it. Their status in the Chinese app market causes us to open our eyes and pay attention.

How Does a Mini-Program Work?

Mini-programs are just streamlined versions of games or apps. They are currently available in the Chinese app environment.

Each program is 10 MB or less. This means it can be downloaded and installed within seconds. Consumers find the app by searching for it within the mini-program store in the larger app or by scanning a QR code (a common activity for many Chinese consumers).

When the program is installed, consumers enjoy the functionality by replacing many interactions that would typically have been done inside the app.

To illustrate what’s happening, let’s use WeChat once again. As consumers, we want to shop at JD.com, but we don’t have that app installed on our device. Instead, we can go to WeChat. By scrolling down on the homepage, we find the JD.com mini-program. From there, we can make our purchase without going to JD.com.

Why are Mini-Programs so Important in China?

Mini-programs have become increasingly popular with Chinese users. By January 2019, these users spent almost nine minutes each day on WeChat mini-programs. WeChat mini-games go viral as they drive up the session lengths.

At first, these mini-programs weren’t so successful. In fact, the initial reaction wasn’t favorable. Back in January 2017, mini-programs first debuted, but unimpressed users found them difficult to find.

Tencent then tweaked the discovery process and the first mini-program became successful. Jump Jump was a hit later in 2017. This forced consumers to realize that mini-programs could offer more functionality inside their favorite apps, like WeChat.

What we saw after this was an explosion in the number of mini-programs that were available to consumers. We also noticed an increase in the overall usage time.

In fact, in November 2018, WeChat achieved a total of a million mini-apps within its platform. This ecosystem measures at half the size of the Apple App Store which had 2.1 million applications last year.

What’s also impressive is that WeChat mini-programs reach 200 million users each day and a billion active users monthly. Doing the numbers, you see that means a quarter of the online population in China uses WeChat mini-programs every day.

Why Should Game Developers Care about the Mini-Game Opportunity?

The primary reason that developers should take notice is that mini-programs offer an incredible opportunity, unlike ever before. It’s the best way to release new mobile titles.

Of the mini-programs currently on the market, more than 40% of them are games. Following that, we see about 15% services and more than 10% e-commerce. We aren’t sure why this occurs, but recognize the chance of success is high right now. Between the combinations of a mini-programs lightweight nature and the casual nature of it, now is the ideal time to release small games.

Another reason mini-programs are so popular among developers is interesting. By releasing a game into the mini-program sphere, game developers are able to work around China’s game freeze.

For example, Google is banned in China, but there’s a way around it. Google released a new game on WeChat. It’s a mini-program and titled Guess My Sketch. This proves that mini-programs within larger programs aren’t regulated quite as tightly as the general app economy.

The immense size of WeChat makes it a game developers dream channel. Not only does it provide access to an insane amount of people, but it also offers massive influence over them. Sure, you can have an app that integrates with WeChat, but it’s not the same thing as providing a mini-program in the platform. Having a program that’s available to consumers and totally integrated with its vast functionality provides some amazing benefits. With this platform, developers achieve a broader reach and better gameplay experience. Ultimately, this leads to a higher chance of creating a program that goes viral.

Kevin Ford


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