Joy un­con­fined

Games expo Chi­naJoy of­fers a glimpse of the in­dus­try’s fu­ture

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The China Digital En­ter­tain­ment Expo – known as Chi­naJoy – is the largest games show in Asia and com­pa­ra­ble to the big­gest shows in the west. Draw­ing 350,000 peo­ple over four days at the end of July, this year’s expo spanned ten halls in the Shang­hai New In­ter­na­tional Expo Cen­ter. Al­though out­wardly sim­i­lar in for­mat to Gamescom or the newly open-to-the-pub­lic E3, Chi­naJoy pro­vides a cross-sec­tion of a mas­sive in­dus­try whose prac­tices and pref­er­ences dif­fer sub­stan­tially from those of the west. Fur­ther, it presents western pub­lish­ers in a very dif­fer­ent light, demon­strat­ing the ways that they’ve be­gun to adapt them­selves to the Chi­nese mar­ket.

The big­gest mul­ti­plat­form for­eign pub­lish­ers – Mi­crosoft, Sony, EA and Ubisoft – oc­cupy a sin­gle hall, which is no­tably qui­eter than ev­ery other area at the show. There are no queues at Mi­crosoft’s booth, where play­ers can try a se­lec­tion of Xbox One, PC and in­die games in­clud­ing Halo Wars 2 and Tokyo 42. Game con­soles were banned in China from 2000 to 2015, and their pres­ence at Chi­naJoy – as well as the pres­ence of pub­lish­ers that tra­di­tion­ally rely on them – is un­der­stand­ably lim­ited.

Sony fares bet­ter thanks to an of­fer­ing tai­lored to the Chi­nese au­di­ence. A size­able amount of booth space is given over to Mon­key King: Hero Is Back The Game; an­nounced at the show, it’s an adap­ta­tion of a 2015 an­i­mated movie, it­self based on Chi­nese lit­er­ary clas­sic Jour­ney To The West. PSVR also fea­tures heav­ily, draw­ing sig­nif­i­cant crowds; VR and AR ex­pe­ri­ences are a reg­u­lar fix­ture at Chi­naJoy. Yet EA’s mas­sive open-plan booth is al­most empty, de­spite a BMX bik­ing show de­signed to lure at­ten­dees in. Games in­clude Plants Vs Zom­bies, Need For Speed On­line and FIFA On­line 3; all are ei­ther on­line-only or mobile games, which re­flects the pop­u­lar­ity of these for­mats in China.

Ubisoft’s booth is the busiest of the four, and of the western pub­lish­ers its port­fo­lio is the most clearly tar­geted at the lo­cal au­di­ence. You’d ex­pect that from Ubisoft, to be fair: the pub­lisher has had a stu­dio in Shang­hai for 20 years, pre­dat­ing not only other for­eign stu­dios but the Chi­nese do­mes­tic games in­dus­try it­self. Space is given over to a cen­sored and lo­calised ver­sion of For Honor; Steep; and a suite of mobile games de­signed for the Chi­nese mar­ket, in­clud­ing two Might & Magic games, Heroes Dy­nasty and

Era Of Chaos. Ubisoft’s booth also houses a pop­u­lar mer­chan­dise store, and there’s a queue for the Rab­bids- themed VR roller­coaster ex­pe­ri­ence, in­tended for shop­ping malls, ar­cades and cin­e­mas, that’s be­come some­thing of a fix­ture on Ubisoft’s event cir­cuit.

Around the fringes

of the hall are smaller stalls of­fer­ing still more AR and VR ex­pe­ri­ences. An in­die VR ac­tion game,

Zhan Dou, is a good deal busier than EA’s booth de­spite tak­ing up a tiny frac­tion of the space. There’s also a pop­u­lar demon­stra­tion of a real-life ro­bot fight­ing game, where play­ers con­trol minia­ture bots us­ing a mo­tion-track­ing kit strapped to their arms and back.

The iso­la­tion of these for­eign com­pa­nies is due to par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of Chi­nese busi­ness law. Each op­er­ates in­de­pen­dently here: Mi­crosoft China runs the Xbox booth, while Ubisoft is a rare ex­am­ple of a western com­pany that is in­cor­po­rated lo­cally. More com­monly, for­eign de­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers get per­mis­sion to op­er­ate in China by part­ner­ing with a lo­cal com­pany. So al­though most over­seas pub­lish­ers op­er­ate at the fringes of the show, for­eign se­ries are else­where found at­tached to Chi­nese com­pa­nies like Ten­cent, Alibaba, Per­fect World and Netease.

These are spread over four halls across the north­ern side of the expo cen­tre. Ten­cent, as China’s most ubiq­ui­tous cor­po­ra­tion, has a hall al­most to it­self. Here, Chi­nese mobile MMOs and strat­egy games min­gle with for­eign names like World Of Tanks and League

Of Leg­ends (Ten­cent owns a ma­jor­ity stake in LOL’s de­vel­oper, Riot Games). Bl­iz­zard has a mas­sive pres­ence in its part­ner Netease’s hall: China has been an im­por­tant mar­ket for Bl­iz­zard for many years, and its games are fre­quently de­signed with a Chi­nese au­di­ence – and Chi­nese govern­ment ap­proval – in mind. Netease is also the pub­lisher of

Minecraft in China; the game has had an of­fi­cial pres­ence there since April, and has its own huge themed booth on the show floor. Across most of the show, games fa­mil­iar to western au­di­ences min­gle with lo­cal games at a ra­tio of about 30:70 – with roughly equiv­a­lent pop­u­lar­ity. Korean MMOs such as Black

Desert On­line are pop­u­lar, how­ever, as is the NC­soft-pub­lished Guild Wars 2.

What stands out, par­tic­u­larly when com­par­ing Chi­naJoy to its western equiv­a­lents, is the ab­sence of sin­gle­player and nar­ra­tive-fo­cused games. The most pop­u­lar ti­tles in China are so­cial or com­pet­i­tive, and the rel­a­tive scarcity of con­soles means that au­di­ences nat­u­rally grav­i­tate to­ward mobile and PC games. Free-to-play is the stan­dard. Al­though Chi­naJoy is around the same size as Gamescom – and much big­ger than E3 – it feels larger still thanks to the sheer num­ber of out­wardly sim­i­lar games. There are no mas­sive queues for

Un­charted or Fall­out. In­deed, the fact that mobile man­age­ment sim Fall­out

Shel­ter is the only Bethesda game at the show of­fers some per­spec­tive on why these sorts of games have sud­denly be­come im­por­tant to western pub­lish­ers. It’s not just about get­ting ac­cess to the App Store or Google Play in the US and Europe; the right mobile game also pro­vides a way in to the Chi­nese mar­ket that few other types of game can of­fer. It’d be rea­son­able to ex­pect more pub­lish­ers to fol­low suit.

New as­pects of the in­dus­try that can seem pre­car­i­ous in the west, par­tic­u­larly VR and es­ports, have a much more con­fi­dent pres­ence at Chi­naJoy. Both have be­come, es­sen­tially, mar­ket­ing tools. In an In­tel-run hall given over to PC hard­ware, rows of VR stages demon­strate a va­ri­ety of fu­tur­is­tic gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in­clud­ing a team shooter where one player on each team ‘en­ters’ the game

For­eign de­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers get per­mis­sion to op­er­ate in China by part­ner­ing with a lo­cal com­pany

through the use of a VR head­set, mo­tion con­trollers, and an up­right mo­tion-track­ing rig that al­lows them to run and crouch on the spot. Else­where, In­tel’s Ex­treme Masters es­ports se­ries fea­tures top-level

StarCraft II; Hi-Rez Stu­dios’ Pal­adins, which has proven very pop­u­lar in Asia, has its own tour­na­ment.

These are the most tra­di­tional man­i­fes­ta­tions of VR and es­ports. Else­where, they’re em­ployed as boothen­hanc­ing bolt-ons. Al­most ev­ery stand has an at­ten­tion-grab­bing stage show, and es­ports tour­na­ments are weirdly in­ter­change­able with cos­play con­tests and dance shows as ways of draw­ing the eye. Be­spoke VR ex­pe­ri­ences ful­fil a sim­i­lar role within booths, pro­vided along­side browser and mobile games as a way of pro­mot­ing a game’s wider brand. Given the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the con­sumer adop­tion of VR in the west, mar­ket­ing prac­tices like this ap­pear to be part of the tech­nol­ogy’s fu­ture.

Al­though Chi­naJoy of­fers a snap­shot of the Chi­nese game in­dus­try, it’d be wrong to as­sume that it en­tirely re­flects the tastes of the na­tion’s game-play­ing com­mu­nity. As a govern­ment-run event, the fo­cus is on games that have passed the cen­sors and are at­tached to dis­trib­u­tors which have been au­tho­rised to sell their prod­ucts in China. As such, some of China’s most pop­u­lar games, such as Play­erUn­known’s Bat­tle­grounds, are not playable on the show floor. As E309’ s East­ern

Prom­ises ex­plained, for a game to be of­fi­cially re­leased in China it re­quires val­i­da­tion from the Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Press and Pub­lish­ing, or GAPP. Ap­pli­ca­tion for GAPP ap­proval can only be sought by Chi­nese com­pa­nies, which is why the vast ma­jor­ity of for­eign pub­lish­ers op­er­ate with a Chi­nese part­ner. The list of pro­hib­ited con­tent is long, but in­cludes bloody vi­o­lence, any po­lit­i­cal themes, dis­tor­tion of his­tor­i­cal fact, in­ci­ta­tion of un­rest and erotic con­tent. The lat­ter is some­what ironic, as Chi­nese games are fre­quently more heav­ily sex­u­alised than their western coun­ter­parts and western games seek­ing to crack the Chi­nese mar­ket are of­ten sex­u­alised to match.

Torch­light II, a cutesy US-de­vel­oped ac­tion-RPG, has as its Chi­nese mas­cot a fe­male war­rior in an over­flow­ing corset and spine-break­ing pose.

Chi­nese play­ers do play cen­sored games, how­ever, pri­mar­ily through grey­mar­ket dis­trib­u­tors and Steam, which re­mains (for now) strangely ex­empt from many of the stric­tures im­posed by the GAPP. This means that there is an au­di­ence in China for games that can­not tech­ni­cally be of­fered to the pub­lic at Chi­naJoy. Sev­eral pub­lish­ers use this to draw play­ers to their booths, fea­tur­ing pro­hib­ited games in ad­verts, trail­ers or streams, all of which are ex­empt from the re­stric­tions on playable demos in the coun­try. Play­ers are drawn to stages by livestreamed Play­erUn­known’s

Bat­tle­grounds tour­na­ments, and the sol­dier from Counter-Strike ap­pears along­side char­ac­ters from Chi­nese mobile games on ban­ner ad­ver­tis­ing. The Ubisoft booth promi­nently fea­tures

As­sas­sin’s Creed: Ori­gins de­spite the se­ries hav­ing never been of­fi­cially re­leased in China. Yet the grey mar­ket has cre­ated an au­di­ence for As­sas­sin’s

Creed that num­bers in the mil­lions, and the movie did well here; China will get its own As­sas­sin’s Creed soon in the form of

Blood Sail, a mobile MMO with an anime-in­spired art style. The cen­sors will very likely ban Ori­gins as they did its pre­de­ces­sors, and as such it’ll never be playable at Chi­naJoy. The pres­ence of the brand makes sense for Ubisoft re­gard­less.

Chi­nese pol­icy has grown steadily more strin­gent over the last ten years. Chi­naJoy demon­strates both a do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional in­dus­try in the process of tran­si­tion, but what it is tran­si­tion­ing

to is not nec­es­sar­ily clear. As hun­dreds of thou­sands of play­ers crowded Shang­hai in the last days of July, the Chi­nese govern­ment an­nounced new plans to crack down on the VPNs that many use to play banned games through the coun­try’s Great Fire­wall. While in many re­spects this year’s show high­lights the many doors open­ing be­tween China and the western game in­dus­try, it was also a re­minder that doors can swing shut, too.

Cos­play con­tests are com­mon­place, but this is a rare sight: most stages fea­ture scant­ily clad young women, not men

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