First impressions of the Great Wall: What devs can learn from a wonder of the world

First impressions of the Great Wall: What devs can learn from a wonder of the world

By Dr Dave Ranyard

June 13th 2016 at 11:07AM

Dave Ranyard reveals how a recent trip to China helped inspire his future dev plans

My first visit to China made me both scared and excited. As a new indie, an exploratory trip to China is a speculative luxury. But when I was invited by an old friend to join a cross-border investment roadshow, I decided to take the plunge – just as I did when I left Sony three months ago.

As I travel on airmiles, I had to leave a day early, but at least this gave me a day to visit China’s most amazing construction: the Great Wall – and what a sight it was.

Just the basics are astounding. 5,500 miles. One million workers. Four trillion bricks. A seemingly impossible task, just like starting a studio. But they broke the wall down into sections and subsections, dividing it into more manageable chunks. Good advice for me as I see the enormity of my own ambitions ahead of me.

After a few days of meeting other CEOs, start-ups and investors from China and Silicon Valley, I realised that the Great Wall itself is like a reflection of China today.

Firstly, the scale of China is staggering. There are 1.4bn people and 560m smartphones. Email has been leap-frogged and everyone uses WeChat to communicate, send files and even pay for stuff.

As a new market it is simply huge, and it is interesting to note that Western platforms like Facebook Messenger lag behind the functions on offer from their Eastern equivalents. They openly admit they are good at copying, but what seems obvious after a couple of days is that they also improve on the original by using a very pragmatic approach to design and development. 

Another great takeaway for an aspiring start-up: wealth. The Great Wall didn’t come cheap. It was a huge investment of time, money and infrastructure on an incompressible scale. Everyone I meet tells me there is a ton of cash in China and they are keen to invest abroad. I have asked a few people where the money comes from with a variety of answers: it has always been here, it’s pent up capitalism or China makes everything the world uses – the most likely one, I reckon. 

They do, however, have clear guidelines as to how to evaluate you as an investment. This is some great advice I was given by a Chinese American as to how he evaluates a company to invest in:

  1. Geography: is the economy stable?
  2. Sector: is the business in a growing sector? Games and VR both pass this with flying colours.
  3. Is the business model sound?
  4. Is the team good, great or outstanding?
  5. Is the product worthy of investment?

"The Chinese are good at copying, but they also improve on the original by using pragmatic design and development."

What an achievement the Wall is. It would be impossible today, even in China. It is clear to me that people here pride themselves on personal and societal achievement. Before coming, many friends told me how crazy it would be, which is true. But, actually, I am really impressed by the infrastructure. 

Drivers must forgo using their cars one day per week, with heavy fines as penalties. Interestingly, the structure is designed for overall efficiency, much the same way we organise our development teams. There is a clear influence from Californian start-up culture and everywhere has incubators or WeWork equivalents, allowing teams to focus on their key goals.

I have learned much more than I ever expected on this trip and, just as I have fallen in love with the accomplishment of the Great Wall, I am falling in love with the country and culture of China itself.

One of the developers I met here gave me some advice: maybe I could use some Chinese architecture in my products to help them sell in China. I think I will and, actually, I think it will help them sell in the rest of the world, too.

Dr Dave Ranyardis an independent developer. He previously led Sony’s London Studio, creating multiple titles for PlayStation VR. He will discuss virtual reality development at Develop: Brighton.

Article originally published in the June 2016 issue of Develop.