The World of Chinese - - Contents - )

Though China is home to 459 mil­lion gamers and Ten­cent, the world's big­gest game com­pany, cen­sor­ship and prof­itchas­ing shut out high-qual­ity im­ports and stran­gle cre­ativ­ity in do­mes­tic games. What will it take for China to come out and play?

Imag­ine be­ing an anti-hero pro­tag­o­nist hav­ing to fend off cops, tri­ads, and real es­tate de­vel­op­ers; ne­go­ti­ate the PLA’S no-fly-zone; and dodge rick­shaws, de­liv­ery scoot­ers, an­gry cab­bies, con­stant con­struc­tion work, chaotic street-food carts, and crowds of danc­ing gran­nies.

Pretty re­al­is­tic, for an ev­ery­day com­mute in a Chi­nese city (mi­nus the tri­ads, maybe)—but in the gam­ing world, it’s a far-off fan­tasy that’s even less plau­si­ble than be­ing the Mon­key King or a Three King­doms war­lord. Though China would be a great set­ting for a big-bud­get open-world game like the Grand Theft Auto se­ries (as shown by games like Kane and Lynch: Dog Days and the ac­claimed Sleep­ing Dogs), overzeal­ous reg­u­la­tors and an overtly ma­te­ri­al­ist model have stran­gled qual­ity and cre­ativ­ity in the coun­try’s nascent game in­dus­try.

Take the Oc­to­ber 26 re­lease of Red Dead Re­demp­tion 2: A wa­ter­shed for global gam­ing, this seven-year, 140 mil­lion USD project by Rock­star Games has so far pro­duced a 97 score on Me­ta­critic (ag­gre­gated from over 94 pro­fes­sional re­views). Hav­ing re­couped 750 mil­lion USD in sales in the first week of re­lease, it is likely to reap bil­lions more over the next few years and has war­ranted dozens of blogs, es­says, and think­pieces in praise of its

com­plex­ity, qual­ity, and re­al­ism.

Go­ing fur­ther back in his­tory, Rock­star’s GTA V clocked 90 mil­lion units sold and 60 bil­lion in rev­enue, mak­ing it “the most prof­itable en­ter­tain­ment prod­uct of all time” ac­cord­ing to an April re­port by Mar­ket Watch.

Yet the GTA V phe­nom­e­non by­passed China al­most com­pletely, and it’s al­most cer­tain that, de­spite al­ready be­ing hailed as game of the year, if not decade, RDR 2 will have the same im­pact on the main­land— which is to say, very lit­tle, beyond the kind of un­der­ground fan base who will pa­tiently await the PC ver­sion for mod­ding.

China is no longer vir­tu­ally cut off from the global gam­ing mar­ket the way it once was—so why do crit­i­cally ac­claimed games like RDR and GTA, and other fran­chises like Call of Duty, As­sas­sin’s Creed, Forza, and Far Cry have so lit­tle in­flu­ence on a mar­ket with a huge taste for Western en­ter­tain­ment? And why is it so hard to make good games in China?

The ques­tion seems even more vex­ing when one con­sid­ers that the largest com­pany in the gam­ing mar­ket is Chi­nese—al­though you might hardly even know it. Ten­cent, the con­glom­er­ate that owns Wechat (and with it, vir­tu­ally ev­ery Chi­nese phone user’s most in­ti­mate data), is the largest video game com­pany in the world. Its on­line plat­form Wegame, which bears an un­canny re­sem­blance to global ri­val Steam, has about 270 ti­tles on its ros­ter since its launch last year.

Ten­cent also has a 12 per­cent stake in Ac­tivi­sion, and pub­lishes both Ac­tivi­sion’s and EA’S games (in­clud­ing the As­sas­sin’s Creed se­ries) in China; a mi­nor­ity stake in Blue­hole, de­vel­oper of “bat­tle royale” game Playerun­k­nown’s Bat­tle­ground ( PUBG); and 40 per­cent of Epic, who makes Fort­nite. It made quar­terly prof­its in 2018 of 3.65 bil­lion USD, com­pared to EA’S 566 mil­lion USD.

This means that Ten­cent makes money even when ri­val hits, like PUBG and Fort­nite, go head to head— Fort­nite, which is cur­rently the most played game in the world, was ac­cused of pla­gia­riz­ing PUBG. The ac­cu­sa­tion is dif­fi­cult to dis­pute, but Ten­cent didn’t care, as it had stakes in both—along with the de­vel­op­ers of other main­land megahits like Clash of Clans and League of Leg­ends, both “Mas­sive Mul­ti­player On­line Role-play­ing Games” with wearily sim­i­lar ap­pear­ances, game­play, and en­gines.

But for all the cash and at­ten­tion they gen­er­ate, games like Fort­nite

and Poke­mon Go en­joy very lit­tle cul­tural ca­chet. Like the movie Avatar (which be­came a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non when first re­leased in China, as else­where), they seem to be in­escapable for weeks, and are then gone and for­got­ten, rarely to be missed. A pres­tige prod­uct like GTA V, on the other hand, has re­mained a cul­tural and com­mer­cial touch­stone even years after its re­lease.

One rea­son for this lack of “cred” is the lack of di­ver­sity in games. Tra­di­tion­ally, the gov­ern­ment has never warmed to their im­port, be­liev­ing video games to be bour­geois dis­trac­tions that pro­mote dan­ger­ous so­cial val­ues. When the Plays­ta­tion and Xbox be­gan their mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, Bei­jing slapped a ban on the im­port and sale of for­eign con­soles, which lasted 14 years, and was de­signed to pro­tect chil­dren from the phys­i­cal and men­tal prob­lems that games were be­lieved to in­flict.

The only con­soles that were al­lowed, other than the huge va­ri­ety of knock-off ver­sions in elec­tron­ics mar­kets, were do­mes­tic Guang­dong- made Xiao Bawang (“Lit­tle Tyrant,” al­though the of­fi­cial English name is Su­bor) pro­duced units like the “Study Ma­chine,” which Su­bor promised par­ents wasn’t a con­sole but a “tool of ed­u­ca­tion.” With the as­sis­tance of Jackie Chan in the ad­ver­tis­ing de­part­ment, Su­bor sold mil­lions of its “edu­tain­ment” units to par­ents who prob­a­bly had no idea their chil­dren were mer­rily crack­ing the con­soles to play for­bid­den fare like Su­per Mario or Street Fighter. By 2017, though, con­soles still made up only 0.7 per­cent of the gam­ing mar­ket, com­pared to around 40 per­cent in the US and Europe.

To­day, con­soles are al­lowed, but the re­stric­tions on con­tent haven’t re­laxed. If any­thing, they’ve wors­ened: Ma­jor over­seas ti­tles have been banned for fea­tur­ing China-based sce­nar­ios whose ap­pear­ance didn’t please the au­thor­i­ties ( Bat­tle­field 4; Kane and Lynch), by “dis­tort­ing his­tory and dam­ag­ing China’s sovereignty and ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity” ( Hearts of Iron), and “smear­ing the im­age of China and the Chi­nese army” ( Project IGI2: Covert Strike; Com­mand and Con­quer Gen­er­als: Zero Hour Ex­pan­sion). The adren­a­line-pump­ing plots of a few re­cent ti­tles—the full-scale in­va­sion of the US ( Call of Duty: Mod­ern War­fare), its re­vi­sion­ist takeover by Nazis ( Wolfen­stein 2: The New Col­lo­sus), or the rise of a cop-killing gang­ster (var­i­ous GTAS)— have also been deemed want­ing in “core so­cial­ist val­ues” by the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties.

After a puz­zlingly vague con­dem­na­tion that PUBG’S win­ner­takes-all game­play de­fied “China’s tra­di­tional cul­ture and moral prin­ci­ples,” some de­vel­op­ers tried mod­i­fy­ing their con­tent to es­cape cen­sure, with many re-cat­e­go­riz­ing their ti­tles as “mil­i­tary ex­er­cises” rather than “bat­tle royale.” Most cringe-worthily, an overzeal­ous Netease changed the plot of Op­er­a­tion: Wilder­ness to make clear that the game was a peace­keep­ing sim­u­la­tion, then in­serted pro­pa­gan­dist ban­ners all over the map (even the load­ing screen urged play­ers to “Strengthen your un­der­stand­ing of your mis­sion, strive for peace­ful op­tions! Wait­ing for other com­bat­ants to join the train­ing ses­sion”).

Then there are geopo­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions beyond the ac­count­abil­ity of even the most risk-averse dev: Last year, China re­sponded to the in­stal­la­tion of a new mis­sile-de­fence sys­tem by South Korea by launch­ing an un­of­fi­cial boy­cott on Seoul’s soft power, from Lotte Su­per­mar­ket (which has since thrown in the towel on the main­land) to new games from South Korea, whose pop cul­ture out­put nor­mally finds a ready au­di­ence in China.

In China, the in­dus­try has re­sponded to these cre­ative stric­tures much like most Chi­nese moviemak­ers—by re­treat­ing to the com­fort zone of an­cient set­tings and seem­ingly risk-free fan­tasy plots. There are, for ex­am­ple, count­less games set in the Three King­doms pe­riod or based on the clas­sic fall­back text Jour­ney to the West. Both set­tings are far enough in the past not to risk be­ing ac­cused of “his­tor­i­cal ni­hilism,” and are safe, fa­mil­iar, and easy to adapt.

These cre­ative re­stric­tions are bad news not only for the play­ers, but, in a less ob­vi­ous way, for the gov­ern­ment as well. A vast au­di­ence of over­seas and do­mes­tic gamers ends up view­ing the coun­try through a hack­neyed ur­ban land­scape of neon signs, dragon dances, roast duck, and red lanterns (as in the Hong Kong-based Sleep­ing Dogs). China’s lack­lus­ter soft power de­rives no ben­e­fit from an­ti­quated im­ages of a chaotic coun­try filled with rov­ing armies, blood­shed, courtly con­spir­a­cies, and civil wars, as

per­pet­u­ated by hit games like Jade Em­pire and Dy­nasty War­riors.

Re­stric­tions on the con­tent, dis­tri­bu­tion, and pro­mo­tion of con­sole games also mean that, while Ten­cent has a huge own­er­ship stake in many com­pa­nies, it is ex­tremely un­likely to ever pro­duce any of its own ti­tles for the con­sole mar­ket (and a com­pany like Rock­star, which takes years to craft its ti­tles and is rare even in the US, could prac­ti­cally never ex­ist in China). In­stead, the dom­i­nant plat­form for games and de­vel­op­ers in China is mo­bile, which tends to en­cour­age mak­ers to sim­ply churn out end­less vari­a­tions of the same for­mula, and see what sticks.

This has led to a mar­ket sat­u­rated in copy­cats, with an av­er­age of 27 mo­bile games re­leased ev­ery day, and a busi­ness ecosys­tem that strongly dis­cour­ages in­no­va­tion and depth. Mo­bile gam­ing in China is al­most al­ways based on free-to-play, payto-win model, in which one can down­load and play the ba­sic game for free, but are charged to prop­erly up­grade one’s char­ac­ter or weapon, boost one’s stats or spe­cial pow­ers, and dom­i­nate their poorer or more miserly op­po­nents.

To many se­ri­ous Western gamers, this man­ner of play is cul­tur­ally anath­ema—it’s buy­ing one’s way to the top, rather than seek­ing the sense of re­ward that comes from mas­ter­ing the game­play and grind­ing their way to an “hon­or­able” vic­tory. It’s also not likely to en­cour­age de­vel­op­ers to in­vest in cre­at­ing dense and ground­break­ing fare like GTA V, Res­i­dent Evil or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which win se­ri­ous ac­co­lades and ma­jor money in over­seas mar­kets like Ja­pan and the US.

In­deed, sev­eral top de­vel­op­ers, such as Jen­ova Chen (who cre­ated the award-win­ning Jour­ney) and Justin Ma ( Faster Than Light), have em­i­grated to the US sim­ply be­cause they were un­able to pur­sue their cre­ative am­bi­tions in China.

“In China’s game mar­ket, it’s al­ways money first, fun se­cond,” de­vel­oper Thomas Wong told the gam­ing site Kokatu.

Lately, though, the ever-tight­en­ing con­trols over games are threat­en­ing even the com­mer­cially fo­cused do­mes­tic de­vel­op­ers. Over two days in Au­gust, Ten­cent saw 20 bil­lion USD wiped off its mar­ket value after the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion re­leased a latenight reg­u­la­tory no­tice that sparked a moral panic over the con­tent of video games, their ad­dic­tive qual­ity, and even their in­flu­ence on the eye­sight of young play­ers. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have de­scribed some games as “poi­son”; oth­ers, like PUBG have had to re­move key el­e­ments with­out “core so­cial­ist val­ues.” In Au­gust, Wegame had to pull the seem­ingly in­nocu­ous best­seller Mon­ster Hunter: World a week after launch, cit­ing un­spec­i­fied cus­tomer com­plaints.

Still, Wegame’s losses have spelled gains for its ri­val, the PC dis­tri­bu­tion plat­form Steam. Though it’s spo­rad­i­cally blocked in China, Steam still at­tracts around 30 mil­lion play­ers on the main­land, look­ing to try over­seas ti­tles that are not ap­proved for im­port, like GTA V, or orig­i­nal ver­sions of games that have been heav­ily edited be­fore their China re­lease—like PUBG, which sold 15 mil­lion copies on Steam in China.

The lat­ter cat­e­gory also in­cludes in­de­pen­dent, in­no­va­tive Chi­nese-made games that don’t stand much chance ei­ther with unimag­i­na­tive pub­lish­ers or overea­ger cen­sors. One ex­am­ple is The Scroll of Taiwu, which has be­come one of Steam’s bestsellers, sell­ing over a mil­lion copies since its re­lease in Septem­ber for around 58 RMB apiece (8 USD, by con­trast with a ma­jor “AAA” ti­tle like RDR 2 that re­tails for around 60 USD). The sur­prise hit mar­tial-arts sim­u­la­tion took three years to code, and was pub­lished

specif­i­cally on Steam to avoid con­tent re­stric­tions and de­lays. Its suc­cess not only high­lights the dif­fi­cul­ties caused by state reg­u­la­tors, but the ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for indie ti­tles cre­ated for the Chi­nese mar­ket, but pub­lished and mar­keted out­side that ecosys­tem.

Not that games have to be par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial or edgy to be suc­cess­ful—other hit ti­tles in­clude Chi­nese Par­ents (《中国式家长》), a self-dep­re­cat­ing tribute to the Tiger Mom stereo­type that has the player ne­go­ti­at­ing pi­ano les­sons and afters­chool tu­tors to raise the per­fect vir­tual prodigy (male only, at the mo­ment), and Rings of Ely­sium, an­other bat­tle royale mul­ti­player.

Still, it’s a tricky area to ne­go­ti­ate, as cen­sors are con­stantly shut­ting down or block­ing over­seas gam­ing sites that don’t even pro­duce par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial con­tent. Ama­zon’s game-stream­ing ser­vice Twitch was grow­ing a sub­stan­tial user base in China be­fore it was sud­denly blocked in Septem­ber. Mean­while, Steam users in China can­not ac­cess “adult” games which are avail­able else­where, and its dis­cus­sion fo­rums are blocked in China. This is pre­sum­ably in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the au­tho­rized roll­out of “Chi­nese Steam,” a com­pletely sep­a­rate plat­form which gamers fear will lead to the ex­tinc­tion, in China at least, of the in­ter­na­tional ver­sion.

At the mo­ment, the crack­downs and bu­reau­cratic in-fight­ing are so se­vere that pro­duc­tion is now at a vir­tual stand­still. In March, it was an­nounced that the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Press and Pub­li­ca­tion would take con­trol of the ap­proval process of the gam­ing in­dus­try, along with the Min­istry of Cul­ture. Al­though it was for­mally cre­ated in April, SAPP’S gam­ing arm doesn’t have its own web­site or even a list of pub­lic con­tacts, and has not yet is­sued any ap­provals, mean­ing new re­leases are ef­fec­tively can­celled.

In 2017, there were over 9,000 ti­tles re­leased. This year, that num­ber dropped to 1,931. Once the freeze is lifted, which may hap­pen as late as next year, there is ex­pected to be a vast back­log num­ber­ing thou­sands of games. The freeze is likely to hit indie de­vel­op­ers par­tic­u­larly hard, with bank­rupt­cies and takeovers feared likely in the next few months.

More press­ing in the cur­rent cli­mate are the con­cerns of Strauss Zel­nick, CEO of Take-two In­ter­ac­tive, which owns Rock­star and its out­put. Re­cently, in a webcast hosted by Gold­man Sachs, Zel­nick com­plained that Chi­nese com­pa­nies are al­lowed to pub­lish their games in the US, and buy Amer­i­can com­pa­nies that do so, but not the other way round: “We, in or­der to go to China, have to have half our busi­ness owned by a lo­cal com­pany” he said over a con­fer­ence call, call­ing it a “com­pletely odd and un­equal sit­u­a­tion.”

The irony, though, is that TakeTwo is part­ners with the world’s big­gest games pub­lisher, Ten­cent, which has re­leased games like Arena of Valor in the US but is like­wise barred from pro­mot­ing Take-two’s finest pro­duce, like GTA, in China. “We’re thrilled to be in busi­ness with [Ten­cent],” added Zel­nick, diplo­mat­i­cally. “But we don’t have a choice, to be clear.”

A nos­tal­gia-themed restau­rant in He­nan al­lows din­ers to play vin­tage games from their child­hood

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