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