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Between censorship and Steam, Chinese indie developers are hanging by a thread

(Image credit: Jenna Kwon)

West of the neon towers of Shanghai's Pudong district, along the Wusong River that winds through a quieter part of the city, a few hundred developers are challenging the conventions of China's unparalleled $33 billion videogame industry.

In a market defined by free-to-play online games, the term 'indie' doesn't mean much to a lot of Chinese gamers. But that doesn't stop over 10,000 attendees from gathering on the first floor of the enormous Shanghai Convention and Exhibition Center of International Sourcing to showcase and celebrate Chinese indie games. Called WePlay Game Expo, this conference is the only one of its kind in China—a haven for a fledgling indie scene whose future depends almost entirely on the regulations of China's government and, surprisingly, a Seattle-based company: Valve.

Steam is 100 percent the most important thing for our survival.

Anonymous developer

China has more gamers than anywhere else in the world (roughly 800 million), but its industry is saturated with samey free-to-play mobile and PC games—most oozing with pay-to-win schemes and loot boxes—which have reigned supreme since online gaming exploded in the mid-2000s. WePlay Game Expo and the developers who attend it are looking to change that.

It's like a miniature version of PAX West, the American game convention that invades downtown Seattle each August. Though there are a few big-budget, international games (a 2K Games booth sporting the divine visage of Borderlands 3's iconic Psycho greets me as I walk in), deeper into the swell of the crowd is where the coolest stuff is.

Near the middle of the hall, a pair of Touhou cosplayers struggle to control adorable robots in a game called Biped. I'm drawn in by the cutesy aesthetic, but Biped quickly reveals itself as a sinister cross between QWOP and Overcooked, a co-op puzzle platformer where the simple act of moving requires an uncommon level of dexterity. It's a wonderful kind of game that can strain friendships to their limit. 

Just a few years ago, a scene like this probably would've been impossible in China. Whether or not it will last remains uncertain.

Winds of change 

Wesley Bao is the founder of Coconut Island Games, one of China's few independent publishers and developers, and he estimates that only a tiny fraction of China's 800 million gamers regularly buy indie games.

Bao himself wasn't even aware of the concept of 'indie' as an aesthetic or game development culture until years after Coconut Island's founding. "Coconut Island started in 2009, and at that time all the games in China were MMORPGs or online web browser games," he says. "Those kinds of games are all free-to-play, but we wanted to do something new. After we started, I found a term called 'indie games' from the internet and I thought, okay, we might be indie games."

Bao was years ahead of the curve. In 2015, Steam added support for Chinese payment options like Alipay, exposing a few million Chinese gamers to a massive, unregulated market of games, many of which were independently made. Steam's Chinese audience doubled in just a year. And when PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds became a phenomenon in 2017, it doubled again. There are now an estimated 30 million Chinese users on Steam, making China one of Steam's largest demographics.

But Steam's popularity is just a drop in the bucket compared to China's gargantuan PC gaming industry, which pulled in $15.2 billion in 2018—over half of what the United States' entire games industry, including console and mobile games, made in that same period. Despite its size, China's PC gaming scene is largely dominated by free-to-play MMOs and clones of popular western games. Crossfire, for example, is a Counter-Strike clone by Korean developer Smilegate that boasts an astonishing 660 million players, most from China, and has grossed an estimated $10.6 billion as of 2018. You won't find many big singleplayer RPGs like The Witcher 3 or shooters like Control being made in China.

That online, free-to-play games became the standard in China is largely due to a 15-year ban on gaming consoles in June of 2000 and the prohibitive cost of playing PC games at the time. For many Chinese PC gamers, piracy or internet cafes were the only option. To adapt, Chinese game developers started treating their games as a service, making them free to play but monetizing in-game activities to recoup their costs. That, in turn, inspired the prevailing belief that Chinese gamers only wanted grindy, free-to-play MMOs. 

Going indie 

We think games are not only entertainment, they should be like movies or music. They can be art, and they can have a cultural impact on society

Wesley Bao

Over the past decade, people such as Wesley Bao began to challenge that belief. Noting the surprising success of a few experimental art games on China's Apple store, and exposed to international game communities through events like the Game Developers Conference, Bao was inspired by the indie games exploding into the mainstream and wanted to foster a similar kind of renaissance in China. "There was no community here," Bao explains. "So we had to make one. At the end of 2011, we started the first game jam in China."

Only a handful of developers showed up to Coconut Island's first game jam. But as the idea spread and other organizers got involved, like WePlay Expo and Chinese Indie Game Alliance founder Simon Zhu, game jams spread to dozens of cities, sometimes hosting hundreds of developers.

"Our vision is to make games that are impactful. We think games are not only entertainment, they should be like movies or music. They can be art, and they can have a cultural impact on society," Bao tells me as we sit just outside the main convention hall. Just a few dozen feet from us, Coconut Island Games' booth is a testament to that vision. It's styled like a Chinese classroom, complete wooden desks where laptops and even an old CRT television entice attendees with demos of Coconut Island's latest games. "We have a lot of opinions about society—a lot of things that we have a different opinion about, and we want to express ourselves."

In Chinese Parents, you have to make tough decisions on how best to spend your time and energy. (Image credit: Coconut Island Games)

That yearning for emotional expression and cultural commentary is what made Coconut Island's partnership with the developers of Chinese Parents a perfect fit. Developed by Moyuwan Games, a team of three people, Chinese Parents is an insightful, often touching, and frequently hilarious look into the stresses of growing up in modern China. Half puzzle game, half life sim, the goal is to balance personal development, having fun, and the soaring expectations of your family and China's rigorous education system.

Chinese Parents released on Steam in September of 2018 and quickly surged to the top of Steam's global top sellers list, proving Bao's belief that Chinese gamers weren't only interested in free-to-play MMOs. Though Chinese Parents was only available in Simplified Chinese, it sold well over a million copies—half of which came from Steam.

Chinese Parents isn't the only game to defy the stereotype. In a Starbucks just behind the convention center, I squeeze into a corner with a few of the developers of The Scroll of Taiwu. Like Chinese Parents, The Scroll of Taiwu launched on Steam in September of 2018 and soon became a global top seller. "We almost lost our minds," Adam, The Scroll of Taiwu's art director, tells me while sipping an iced tea. "We were totally crazy about it."

Similar to Chinese Parents, The Scroll of Taiwu was made by just a few people, though it was originally a passion project of a solo developer named Jay. Adam and another developer, who goes by the nickname Dinosaur, joined the team later along with another programmer who quickly quit because Taiwu was "too complicated" to make. And, believe me, The Scroll of Taiwu is complicated. Mixing elements from roguelikes and business sims, The Scroll of Taiwu is an intricately simulated sandbox RPG about rebuilding a family dynasty inspired by Wuxia, a genre of Chinese fiction focused on larger-than-life warriors and martial artists. 

With no programmer, Adam says that Jay had to learn how to code on his own. For three years, he worked his construction job from early morning until noon and then would stay up until 3 am working on The Scroll of Taiwu. During that time, Adam also gambled everything and quit his job to also work on the project full-time. What kept them going was a conviction that "people were wanting a new game, a different game," Adam says. "Not only with an interesting and beautiful story but also complicated game mechanics only for hardcore players—not for casual players." 

The Scroll of Taiwu provided exactly that. "We reached 300,000 copies sold in the first week," Adam continues. "Now the total is over 2 million, and we still sell around 2,000 copies every day. "It feels unbelievable. 90 percent of the people who own our game are from China."

Striking gold 

It's easy to focus on the success stories like The Scroll of Taiwu and Chinese Parents, but the reality is that most Chinese indie developers—just like indie developers anywhere in the world—will fail to ever make a financially successful game. That isn't for lack of passion or talent.

Nestled in the back corner of WePlay, a scattering of indie developers stand next to demo stations for their games, hoping the brief glimpses of action might draw in passing attendees. One game has gathered a small crowd of bystanders spectating a tense duel between a player and a giant monkey demon. Called Eastern Exorcist, this action RPG sees you travelling through eerie, hand-painted villages and forests fighting ancient Chinese demons and spirits. Though the combat obviously borrows from Sekiro, I was intrigued by one roughly translated cutscene in which the main character saves a captured fox spirit from a group of his fellow demon slayers.

A few feet over is a game called Self, a "Kafka-esque" surrealist text adventure about a boy trying to find his missing father despite no one else realizing he's gone. The little I played was fascinatingly bizarre, making surprising use of its economical 4-bit graphics to build the same tension brought on by an emergency television broadcast.

Though it wasn't at the show, A Gay's Life is an introspective journey that explores the social stigma that surrounds homosexuality in China. Partly an autobiography, the story forces you to navigate tough social situations, choosing between being true to yourself or caving to societal and familial pressures. All of this is summarized by a self-acceptance score that represents how you internalized your own sexual orientation while also responding to the perceptions of those around you. The multiple endings, I'm told, can range pretty wildly from successfully coming out to your family to being coerced into shock conversion therapy.

Another game, Rhythm Fighter, is a fusion between arcade beat-'em-up One Finger Death Punch and rhythm roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer—except you're fighting mutant vegetables. Levels are randomly generated and there are loads of skills and items to find, but what I love most is the cartoony aesthetic and adorable main characters—one is a dog that dressed like Snake from Metal Gear Solid. As I walk from booth to booth trying out new games and talking with their developers, their enthusiasm is underscored by a troubling uncertainty about the future.

The Steam loophole 

We want to make good games and we want freedom of expression, we just have to be careful to stay within the rules.

Anonymous developer

China's enormous videogame industry is beginning to stagnate, according to many of the developers I've spoken to. Part of that reason is simply due to oversaturation of similar games, but it also has a lot to do with the Chinese government's increasingly heavy-handed regulations and censorship.

For decades, the Chinese government has enforced strict censorship of all media and information. A pervasive firewall blocks access to Google, Facebook, Twitch, and hundreds of other websites. But strangely, Steam is not one of them. Despite its enormous market of unregulated games, Steam is easily accessed in China. Only its Steam Community features, like forums, are disabled, and no one really knows if that was the Chinese government's doing or Valve acting preemptively. For China's indie developers, Steam is an invaluable loophole in a bureaucratic system that would otherwise destroy them.

To legally publish a game in China, developers must first obtain the proper license. This requires submitting your game to be reviewed by the State Administration of Press and Publication which examines games to ensure they abide by China's strict rules. This includes everything from having no blood and gore, sexual content, or themes that run counter to China's state-sanctioned values. Looking around at the various indie games at WePlay, I quickly lose count of the games that might break one of these rules.

A small group watches as one player struggles with an intense boss battle. (Image credit: Future)

More recently, the government has mandated that developers implement anti-addiction measures like curfews and limits on play time per day. Games like League of Legends and World of Warcraft will kick minors off after just two hours of playing. "The government is very strict about all the content in games," one developer says. He, along with every other developer that spoke specifically about the government, requested to remain anonymous. "Because of this, the games can be published each year will be very few compared to two years ago, and so the investors will also be very, very few."

"We want to make good games and we want freedom of expression, we just have to be careful to stay within the rules," says another developer.

"It's very cheap to submit a game for licensing, but it takes a long time and that's what's expensive," an anonymous developer tells me. I'm told the licensing process can take up to six months, but no one knows for sure. Games are processed in the order that they're submitted and last year many had to wait much longer than normal while censors churned through an enormous backlog due to reforms that saw China's licensing process put on hold for nine months. A big company might see that as the cost of doing business, but for China's independent developers who are often scraping by to finish their games, waiting months to get a license could mean financial ruin.

That's why Steam has become an invaluable lifeline for China's small indie community. "I would say 100 percent of China's indie scene is alive because of Steam," says Zifei Wu, president of My Time at Portia developer Pathea Games.

A guide to China's games industry

(Image credit: Future)

If you want to learn more about the history of PC gaming in China and how its government regulates and censors games, check out our in-depth report that covers everything you need to know.

PC gaming is often celebrated as an open platform where players have the choice to control every detail of their experience—where to buy games and how to play them. But the dependency Chinese developers have on Steam to survive is a reminder that the experience of playing and making games on PC is far from universal. "If Steam wasn't available, we wouldn't be doing this," says another anonymous developer. "I think that's probably the case for most developers in China."

"Steam is 100 percent the most important thing for our survival," says a different developer. "Two years ago, I wasn't in the games industry at all, and Steam is the only reason I can survive."

Thanks to Steam, any Chinese developer can sidestep the approvals process and launch their game right away. And even though Steam's 30 million Chinese users is tiny compared to its overall gaming population, it's more than enough to sustain China's indie developers. But, like the government's constantly shifting regulations, that can change at a moment's notice.

Uncertain futures 

Steam China is terrifying. It's horrible.

Anonymous developer

This year, Valve and its Chinese business partner Perfect World have plans to launch a version of Steam that's just for China. One promised benefit is local servers that will guarantee a more stable multiplayer experience, but the downside is that Steam China will only sell games that are properly licensed by the government.

The big question is what happens to Steam's current "global" version when Steam China launches later this year. Is Steam China going to replace Steam? In an interview with Eurogamer, Valve's DJ Powers said it was Valve's "goal" to make sure that players didn't lose access to their library, saves, or other data. He also said that "nothing'll change about Steam global," but none of the developers I spoke to regarding Steam China take solace from those vague remarks.

(Image credit: wildfiregames)

"Steam China is terrifying," an anonymous developer tells me. "It's horrible. I'm not sure what it will be, but I hope players can still access international Steam."

If Steam is blocked it could devastate China's indie community.

The problem, I'm told, lies largely in how China's firewall operates. It's no secret that VPNs can be used to slip through Chinese censorship and access restricted websites, but that method isn't consistent. During my time in Shanghai, my ability to access websites like Google using a VPN was never a guarantee. Sometimes it would work, often it wouldn't.

Naturally, China's government won't explain how its firewall works. The power, I'm told, comes from keeping its citizens in the dark. The endless rumors and speculation create a kind of white noise that makes it impossible to know for sure what's going on or, more crucially, what could happen next.

Multiple sources say access to encrypted connections fluctuates with China's political climate. During times of political unrest, like the Hong Kong riots, VPN connections won't work for many Chinese citizens. Then, over time, they'll mysteriously start to work again. It's an ebb and flow driven by the dichotomy of China's authoritarian government and capitalist private business sector.

"The reality is that the government has the ability to fully shut down access to the outside internet but chooses not to because it would impede business and hinder China's economy too much," one developer says. "Whether it likes it or not, Chinese businesses need some measure of access to the outside world in order to make money. But the goal is to add as much friction to the process as possible to make it a huge headache for the average user, to deter them from using VPNs."

(Image credit: Future)

If Steam is blocked, it would technically still be accessible via a VPN. But that constant friction would likely force many of its 30 million users to play games elsewhere, and present major problems for developers. It's easy to imagine the damage of having a critical patch delayed by unreliable access to Steam, or to not even receive the feedback you need to make that patch in the first place. 

Coupled with strict government regulations and the general feeling that its videogame industry is beginning to stagnate, China's indie developers are in a tough spot. No one knows what's next, but worst-case scenarios loom just ahead. What's clear, one developer tells me, is that Chinese indie games cannot rely on their turbulent domestic industry. If Chinese indies are to survive, they have to go global. Nearly every indie game I saw this weekend was working on English localization. Considering how Japanese, European, and North American culture has influenced games, I'm excited that one day we might have more RPGs that explore Chinese mythology or games that, like Chinese Parents, give insight into fascinating pockets of life in China.

As uncertain as the future might be for these games, Steam is still the best path forward. But that also means the people who make them will have to continue living with the unease of knowing their means of survival could disappear at any moment. As I sit with Wesley Bao just outside the convention hall, I ask why he persists in the face of all this censorship, bureaucracy, and adversity. "We love games," Bao says, smiling. "We don’t really have any other choice. To make games is our life."

Illustration by Jenna Kwon.

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.