In Part 1, we talked about how to get through the certification process for all platforms, including relevant government info, banned content, and how to work with publishers. We also hinted at the possibility that PC devs may have an extra option for the Chinese market. Part 2 will delve into detail about various methods you can employ for your own success.
The Perks of Being a PC Dev!
PC devs rejoice! You are the lucky platform that doesn’t HAVE to get certified, but only on a technicality. For some reason (no one knows why) digital game stores have been able to bypass China’s content restrictions. With this knowledge, you have two options: 1) working with a Chinese publisher 2) going it alone. The choice is up to you, but both have benefits and risks you should consider based on your needs and capabilities.
Working with Chinese Publishers
“I thought that if I use a publisher, I would have to go through the approval process.”
I thought this as well, however, many of the studios that have a Chinese partner haven't certified a single game, and from my research, most publishers don’t care. The Chinese game industry, due to the government's disdain for gaming, grew largely independent from its involvement. As such, companies have a more profit-driven approach than strictly adhering to government expectations. Additionally, same as when using publishers when going through the approval process, you will (likely) pay no costs for localization, marketing, QA, etc. Compensation is typically in revenue share.)
"OK, but I REALLY want to do it alone. What do I have to do?” Simple, minimum effort answer is: translate your game. BEFORE you rage click the close button for that stupidly obvious answer, there are many things you should consider. Your game WILL sell in China as long as it’s published on Steam, Epic, or GOG. While I have not talked to a dev who hasn't had some level of success in China, that doesn’t guarantee it, and the degree of success is impacted by the effort you put in, and, let’s be honest, luck.
The next section will provide information on the benefits and things to know using both a Chinese partner.
“All your base are belong to us!”
Translation is the bare minimum a dev can do to improve odds of success in China. If you don’t, someone in China will, then distribute it on pirate sites. As Gabe Newell said, “piracy is a service problem.”
If you're using a publisher, they will do this for you. Since you are not paying for the translation from them, it is in their best interest to provide the best translation possible to ensure the success of the game. This means you can rest easy, but to make your partner’s job easy and ensure that your portrayal comes off as accurate as possible, you should create a localization kit.
For those who do not know, this is a collection of characters, terms, and terminology that are specific to your game. It provides context into your character's personality, items, etc. Remember, Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to translate for in the world. Make sure to provide as much context as possible. As Deck 13 and Dangen use publishers in China, this was the method that they endorsed.
*IMPORTANT NOTE* If you are planning updates, DLC,, or things that may alter content in the future, be very clear and communicative with your publisher so they can plan and assist you and making their translation work as efficient as possible.
This means that for those of you electing to go it alone are in an uphill battle, assuming you’re not fluent in Chinese yourself, though this can cause its own problems.
Your Chinese linguistics speed run
Chinese script is divided into two systems: Traditional (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas communities) and Simplified (Mainland China and Singapore). Since we are talking about the Chinese market specifically, if you choose to only translate for one language, make it simplified. But let’s be honest, you should be translating for both.
But you have a couple options, all of which carry their own risks/benefits. So choose carefully and use the resources you have available.
Google Translate - Just… no.
I didn’t even want to put it as an option, but felt compelled to stop the one or two of you who thought this would be a good idea. The likeliness you will have errors is a near certainty. The ONLY reason you should ever use this option is if you have taken a vow of isolation and become a hermit. Your game deserves better. Go grab a Chinese language book and a [your language] to Chinese dictionary to, at least, give the translation a snowball’s chance in hell.
Now that you’ve made the correct decision to NOT use option A. Let’s talk about translation services. First, I suggest you check out Nikolay Bondarenko’s article on localization where he goes into more detail about this, including expected pricing and negotiation tactics (the article is from 2018 and pricing may be adjusted, but it will get you a rough idea). With translation companies, you will get a high-quality, professional translation. However, if you use a service, you will have no means to quality check the work unless you hire another company to proof-read it. Let’s face it… you’re not doing that.
Your pitfalls here are that many companies are going to use Computer Aided Translation (CAT), give it a human check, and send it out. They aren’t going to play your game to understand how things work in context. They have no financial or personal stake in your game's success. They will do their best, but items or game specific terminology may get lost in translation. This was used by Might and Delight, however, their games feature very little text outside of menus. Which may be the ideal decision for those in similar positions.
As mentioned in Nikoalay’s article, Chinese translations are fairly cheap when compared to other languages, however, some devs may lack funds for their labor of love.
Using your game community!
Crowdsourcing is a great way to build engagement among your community. Chances are, if you have had some relative success in the past, you likely have at least one, if not a small group of people, who have various skills and talents that you lack. Why not see if any are willing to volunteer or provide them with some modicum of compensation? It builds a deeper sense of community for your game and, more likely, those people are going to tell others about their favorite game that they got to work on - free advertising for you.
This is the tactic that the UK developer in my study used. They had a volunteer from outside mainland China (this will play a small role later) who translated their game. The dev mentioned they wanted to pay the volunteer, but really had no way of knowing how long they worked on the translation, or what a fair rate was. But they agreed that the dev would provide job/school references for their work. This resulted in a very positive response towards the translation in China. Though, because the volunteer was from outside of China, a handful of dialect issues existed in the translation, but the dev mentioned that the number of comments on this were a very small minority in the overwhelming praised translation. It seems like using translators who grew up outside China is fine, just something to be aware of.
The risk here, would be of some troll behavior, but this can be reduced with some double check by other members if you are fortunate to have a handful of participants.
But this assumes you already have released a game with some success.
Using your IRL community
If this is your first go of things, you probably don’t have game community to rely on, but your local university could have volunteers or amateurs that may be studying linguistics, or a handful of willing Chinese students. In 2018, almost 10% (~662,000) Chinese students studied abroad. The unfortunate caveat of this is the current state of the world.
This dumpster fire of a pandemic won’t last forever (hooray vaccines!) so finding students will be something you will want to consider for the future. This is the method that Running with Scissors used in their translation. It should be noted that this was also the only dev in the study that used voice acting in their game.
First, RwS translated the subtitles and script by using a translation company for the first pass. They, then, approached some Chinese students at a nearby university and offered to pay the students to voice act their game. This is where we will bring back some of that removed/altered content discussion and troubled translations from professional services.
When directing the voice actors, RwS allowed them to change the script as necessary. For the studio, it was more important that the script sound natural than force the dialogue a certain way. This resulted in more than a few script changes to clean up translations and, as their game focused on social commentary, make it more understandable for Chinese players. However, as stated in Part 1, some content had to be scrapped because there was no way to translate it effectively.
Now this is where things get a little wonky. As mentioned earlier, written script is uniform among their respective uses. However, spoken Chinese is not. While there are over 200 recognized dialects, these are grouped into five major dialects and tied to their respective regions. While this could create problems for Chinese players to understand, you could also make it work to your advantage by working various dialects into characters that gives them distinctive personalities. Just note that even Chinese people can have issues understanding other dialects.
When I was in China, I had a discussion with my national guide about accents and dialects. She said that “Shanghai-ese” (no bonus points for guessing where that dialect is from) was the most difficult for her to understand and often had to ask our Shanghai guide to repeat herself. I’m sure many Germans can relate when talking with their Bavarian countrymen. Let’s face it, we all have that one area of our respective countries that we all have issues understanding. Damn Cajun accents.
Now, translation is one matter, but your biggest cost will likely be the editing process. Audio engineers fluent in Chinese are difficult to come by outside of China (shocker!). If you can find one, it’s likely going to be at a premium. For Running with Scissors, the editing process required a lot of double work by the editor. The actors would first say the line in English, then in Chinese. This allowed the editor to place the lines in the game accordingly without misplacing dialogue. So if you wish to have audio translations of the game, assume that it will may double the cost and completion time.
But how was the response for all this effort? Running with Scissors' goal was to break even and ended up making their money back multiple times over and got “an overwhelmingly positive" response from Chinese players. “We will absolutely be launching Postal 4: No Regrets with a Chinese localization.” However, they’re not sure if they’ll be using a Chinese publisher this time.
One counterpoint I found, when meeting with another German publisher, their voice acting was not received positively. This is something that may be influenced by quality, genre, “purists”, (think anime viewers who refuse to watch in anything but Japanese) or other aspects that I can not quantify at this time. If anyone has any experiences of their own, I would love to hear them and would love to add more information to this post.
One Last Translation Note
If you are translating your game in Chinese, make sure that your text and text boxes are adjusted for Chinese characters. The UK dev I spoke to said the biggest issue he came across was that he had to increase the font size for better readability, which also caused him to adjust the text box size. Something to make sure gets on your localization checklist.
Becoming Known in the Unknown
Let’s be honest, indie devs struggle when it comes to marketing. [Shameless self-plug here] How do you compete with multi-million dollar budgets and teams of dedicated staff ? Sure, Steam offers some tools for discoverability, but you're still a needle in a needle stack. Epic is highly curated and your chances of getting on it are slim, GOG offers some options as well, but has a much smaller customer base compared to Steam. If you’re struggling to be found in markets and platforms you’re already familiar with, how are you going to promote your game in a market you don’t even speak the language of?
The obvious first answer is, use a Chinese publisher. Again, this will all be done for you. They take the risk, you sit back and collect your rev share. But if you are dead set on keeping that revenue for yourself, here are a couple tips from the devs I have talked to.
Seek Out and Engage
There are a couple of things you can do, but none of them are going to be easy or quick. The UK dev that I spoke to was the most driven about this. They went onto Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and communicated with people who had played their previous games. It obviously requires a lot of attention, effort, and patience as many of the players do not speak English to an extent that would be effective to express themselves. So here is where Google Translate can, and will, be your best friend. You’re going to need to communicate, and it may not be perfect but your attempts to communicate with them WILL go a long way.
According to the UK dev, they would talk to players about their game. What they liked about it, didn’t like about it, and suggestions they had. Because the dev had received so much support for their game, they made a special Chinese New Year event. According to the dev, it was nothing ambitious, just a simple collect-a-thon of popular Chinese New Year items, but the response and appreciation they got from Chinese players was enormous. The devs view of this was that Chinese players support the dev’s game because the dev supports their culture. The takeaway here to devs is that a even little effort can go a long way in China.
When talking to Dangen, they also reached out to Chinese gamers, but they let the gamers come to them at trade shows like Teipei Game Show. Having their game playable at a trade show allows personal interaction with those who already have shown interest and not just cold marketing to people online. This allows you to get valuable feedback, have more open-ended conversations with the fan and their culture, and creates a personal connection with them.
Chinese influencers are incredibly [don’t say ‘influential’] important [nailed it] to the success of your game in China. Might and Delight admitted that they did the base effort as far as reaching a Chinese audience. However, one day, they noticed they received a huge spike in sales that came from China. “There were thousands and thousands of Chinese players.” After doing some digging, they found that a large Chinese influencer played one of their games and suggested it to their fans. A fortunate stroke of luck that shows what can happen if you jump onto an influencer’s radar.
This is one of the reasons Dangen suggests using a publisher. Publishers are able to more accurately do on purpose what Might and Delight did by accident. Influencers operate no differently than those in the West. The large ones are just as, if not more difficult, to contact due to language barriers. Dangen said even if they got creators asking for keys to play their game, they would have no means to vet them or know if they are just people looking for a free game.So understand that as you reach out in the Chinese market, it will be harder for you to decipher friend from fraud.
Ultimately, the choice is yours on how much you are going to rely on luck, make your own, or leave it to those better able to help your game succeed.
How to reduce piracy of your game.
Let’s address the pirate in the room. China is notorious for piracy. I, myself, have a “Rolex” watch (surprisingly still in working condition), and bought my friend a “Versace” purse. There are a myriad of reasons for this; culturally, economically, and politically. Let's just be honest. Your game WILL be pirated. But you have the ability to reduce that piracy if take up a couple of the ideas.
Games, especially foreign games, can be obscenely expensive for Chinese players. In China, all games are taxed at a 17% value-added tax. However, where things really go off the rails is foreign games face a 130% tariff in the country. This high financial barrier causes many games to be economically out of reach of many. Additionally, it should be known that Chinese people are notoriously frugal. Luckily, if you are selling on Steam, pricing is mostly done for you due to Steam’s dynamic pricing. So in this case, just let Steam handle it. That said, if you are publishing a game for the first time, most of your sales from China will be when the game is on sale. As many veteran devs can tell you, Chinese buy a LOT of games at reduced pricing.
Many Chinese players don’t know English, or another language, very well. The lack of Chinese language games in the past have created a competition of sorts. Chinese translation teams compete against each other to get the first Chinese translation of a game out to market. Thus, not only is it a matter of time until your game is translated by a translation team, you won't have to wait long. Repeating Gabe Newell’s quote, “Piracy is a service issue”, and if you aren’t providing the service of translating your game, someone else will.
3. Make a demo
As mentioned, Chinese players are thrifty with their money. Often times, the biggest barrier to a player is just the unfamiliarity they have a game. As Mike Jaret of Running with Scissors mentioned, when it came to piracy, "Sometimes people just want to try shit." They don’t want to pay for a game they are unfamiliar with. My Steam library is filled with these types of games, as many of you likely have. If you want to cut down on people pirating your game, make a free, kickass demo, and Chinese players will swarm. Deck 13 used this method with their publishing of CrossCode.
4. Make frequent updates
Frequent content upgrades is a method that the UK dev used. On Steam, updates are automatically downloaded so that players can be ready to play the updated version immediately. However, on pirated versions, the player must to wait for the new update to post on pirate sites, download the new version, and install it properly. By making constant updates, it makes the game more convenient to own a legitimate copy of, especially for multiplayer games.
5. Engage with the community
Running with Scissors is a developer who stopped short of saying they embrace piracy, but they don’t consider it a problem. In fact, much of their fan base and development staff started out as fans who pirated the game. Mike Jaret joked that “I would guess that about 50% of our staff have pirated our games.”
Their philosophy stems from wanting to build a strong base of excited, passionate fans. "People will pay for it, if you aren’t spending all of your time trying to sue them," says Mike Jaret.
6. Use a Chinese partner
I have spoken to several devs about Digital Rights Management (DRM) who have expressed anything from apathy to outright disdain. However, one dev, when talking about their Chinese partner, mentioned that Chinese DRM is a black box and some of the most advanced he has ever seen. This may be due to the economic environment that Chinese devs and publishers have had to survive in. However, Dangen mentioned that they don’t actively do anything with DRM unless their partner suggests specific changes be made.
That said, one interesting surprise a dev mentioned was that their partner in China pays off pirate sites to not list their game during a launch window. After that period, it was business as usual, but the publisher wanted to make sure that the critical launch window was able to be reaped as much as possible. I wasn’t able to extract just how much these publishers pay the sites, but no other dev had heard about such things happening. So if any devs out there have any more information or experience on this, I would love to hear more.
It is a lot to digest, I know. But I hope that after reading this, many of you have gotten new ideas, willing to try new things. Go after a market you thought you wouldn't go after. But the door is open for you PC devs out there, and I hope you take it.
The End is Nigh?
Well… probably not for at least a little while. However, this is the same government who put an immediate stop to all game approvals in the country. In June 2018, Steam partnered with Perfect World, a Honzhou-based publisher, to create Steam China, a SAPP-approved version of Steam with only approved games. Additionally, Valve has announced that Steam will officially enter China this year. This has prompted some speculation that China may be preparing to shut down Valve’s international Steam in China. However, Steam China’s reception is… tepid at best. International Steam currently shows 28% of active accounts are set to Simplified Chinese as their primary language, however, Steam China only lists 30 million users mostly due to the release of DOTA 2.
Chinese authorities are also now starting to crack down on VPN use as well. In 2019, China started fining people for using ‘unauthorized VPNs’. Which, prior to these laws, is estimated that almost a â…“ of Chinese people use VPNs. However, every dev that does seek to make it in the Chinese market without a publisher, should understand that, in the blink of an eye, your access is gone.
Global Steam is the easy path into the market with a little effort. But if you start having conversations with publishers now and Steam China becomes the only option, at least you have already made in-roads with a partner who will help you get approved. And if that day comes, you can bet there will be a lot of devs lining up to get attention from these publishers. Better to start before the potential rush.
It should also be noted that, if the government closes this loophole, Chinese publishers, being the gatekeepers to the market, MAY raise their revenue shares to parity those found in the movie industry mentioned in Part 1. Ultimately, it will be up to each individual dev to decide if they feel a lesser revenue split is worth their time, especially considering the changes they would have to make to their game.
However, there’s something every dev needs to think about very early in development. If you are looking to enter the Chinese market, you will save yourself a lot of time and resources if you plan a Chinese market entry in advance. Know what content may get flagged and make an alternate asset for it. Many of you will be working with various contractors who move from job to job. So if you decide you want to go through certification, have alternate assets made beforehand. Many devs don’t have the resources to dedicate to making a full “China only” version, but these are personal decisions you, as a developer, must make.
The ease of access to the Chinese market is shrinking, but for now, Steam, Epic, and GOG still remain bastions of unfettered access. Be it with a publisher, or on your own, you can make it in the Chinese market.
If you liked the information or have anything you would want to add or have questions on, contact me at [email protected] and please don't forget to subscribe and comment below on what strategies you are going to try out!