After years of uncertainty, Steam China is finally here. It's a version of Steam exclusive to those living in mainland China that only sells games that have been properly licensed by the Chinese government. At first glance, the main store page looks just like regular Steam (with the language set to Simplified Chinese, obviously). There's a carousel of recommended games to try and lists of best sellers or hotly anticipated upcoming games.
Look a little closer, though, and you'll see that Steam China lacks the things that, from our perspective, make Steam what it is: lots of games and a community to tie everything together.
Steam China has only 53 games and DLC
In the gif above, I'm scrolling through the front page of Steam China, which you can compare to the regular version of Steam. The first big thing you'll notice is a completely different selection of games than what's offered on Steam's international version. Steam China only sells games that have received a government license certifying that they abide by a long and complicated list of restrictions. That one rule cuts Steam China's available catalogue of games and DLC down from 21,131 to just 53. It suddenly feels a lot like what Steam was like back around 2010, when its storefront was a list of games hand-picked by Valve.
With only 53 games and DLC to sell, it's hard to see why anyone in China would want to switch over to Steam China. Multiplayer games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 are trying to entice players with the promise of faster local servers, but considering Steam's initial surge in popularity in China was due to PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, which isn't on Steam China, I don't think that will win over most players.
The games that Steam China does sell are all available on regular Steam. And Steam and Steam China use a single account where purchases will transfer, so if you buy Witcher 3-style RPG Gujian 3 on Steam's international version, you'll be able to play it using the Steam China client. That's true for other games so long as they're licensed for sale in China and thus available on Steam China. It works in the other direction, too: Any game bought on Steam China can be played using the international version of Steam.
You can also download the Steam China client if you want, but I was unable to get it working. The installer is written in Chinese and, despite multiple attempts, I couldn't get past an error that tells me to run the installer again (which does nothing to fix it).
Steam's forums and community are gone too
The other big difference between Steam and Steam China is the absence of message boards and community features. They're gone entirely, which isn't all that surprising. When I visited Shanghai in 2019, I discovered that even though Steam was easily accessible without a VPN, all of its community features were inaccessible, with links leading to them simply not working.
One weird exception to this is Steam user reviews, which are available on Steam China. What's interesting is that instead of having two separate review systems for Steam China and Steam's international version, both clients pull from the same pool of reviews. Dyson Sphere Program, for example, has over 18,000 positive reviews on Steam China and Steam, which shows just how closely linked parts of these two platforms are despite being mostly separate entities.
Though it was never easily accessible anyway, seeing Steam China without the Steam Workshop, forums, community pages, guides, and everything else makes this version feel barren.
A lot of developers I've spoken to are concerned about whether Steam's international version will stay freely accessible to Chinese players. If the Chinese government were to block Steam's international version, those developers would lose out on access to a global community of customers—and players would be denied access to thousands of uncensored games. That could seriously affect games like Tale of Immortal, a Chinese-only RPG that launched on Steam two weeks ago and became one of its most popular games with over 170,000 concurrent players. It isn't on Steam China currently, and the process for obtaining a government license can sometimes take years—a death sentence to small independent studios.
And, after looking at the Steam China storefront, it's an easy fear to understand. Aside from the promise of local servers in certain games, what's the incentive for users to switch to a version of Steam with far fewer games? At this point, the only thing that could make Steam China viable is if Steam's global version went away altogether.
That hasn't happened yet, though, and it's anyone's guess what the future holds. More games will likely be added to Steam China in the coming months as they clear China's long approval process, but we'll keep you updated on any major developments regarding the international version.