I’ve been developing in China for longer than I care to remember and always wanted to develop an indie game. Over the course of the last year this dream has become a reality and I've opened my own game studio and we've begun work on our first game, Stardust Command. Until recently doing this in China would be almost impossibly but due to three major changes over the last few years China is undergoing an indie revolution.
This is may be because "Chinese games" are often portrayed as copycats and while this may be historically accurate, the recent upsurge in the Chinese indie community aims to set this right. So, where is this indie upswing coming from, who are the developers and what are their motivations? The answer to all these questions can be found in three events that have given the Chinese indie scene a much needed shot of caffeine.
1. The slowdown of mobile gaming industry
China has the largest number of mobile game developers in the world and in 2015 around 300 mobile games were released everyday into the Chinese market. You see, the majority of people in China don't have a long video gaming history and for many, mobile phones were the first affordable device capable of playing video games. Because of this there was a huge boom in the mobile gaming industry from 2011 to 2015. Massive amounts of resources were gathered to develop games not because they wanted to make games, but because everyone knew that mobile game could make a lot of money. There were more than 20,000 companies developing mobile games by the end of 2015, this was more than the rest of the world combined! There was a saying in China, "林大鸟多"(The bigger the forest is, the stranger the bird species gets), so you get copycats, clones, and all those unethical practices that made the headlines, and gives the negative reputation to "games made in China." After 2015 was the market was monopolized by tech giants, namely Tencent, and Netease. These two companies made up of 70% of market revenue with everyone else having to compete for the 30% leftover. This forced a lot of medium and smaller game studios to shut down and investors became much more conservative with their money. For a while things looked gloomy. But not everyone who made games in China was driven by money alone and the low tide of mobile gaming industry washed many "gold rushers" away. The people left behind were the people with passion and commitment gaming. Naturally these individuals bond together, form teams, studios, and alliances and begin working on the second wave of Chinese gaming development. In short, these are China's indie revolutionaries.
2. The re-entry of consoles in China
Console games were "illegal" in China, up until 2015 when the PS4 and Xbox One became the first consoles legally sold in China for over a decade. The Chinese missed out on everything before the first Nintendo (NES or Famicom), and everything after it. Imagine growing up in a world without Nintendo 64, PS1, PS2, PS3 etc. The only reason that Nintendo was actually allowed to sell consoles in China was due to their partnership with a local company called "小霸王" and were sold as "Learning machines" for kids. As you can see from the picture below the office-style keyboard is pushed as the main selling point and the controllers hidden from view.
The lifting of bans on consoles opens a whole new market in China. Game developers can make games for PS4 and Xbox One, and hopefully some of them will be available in English for rest of the world to see what the Chinese indie scene is capable of.
3. Great Gaben arrives in China
Steam has gained a lot of traction in recent years in China. Most Chinese gamers had their first encounter with Steam in China while trying to download Dota2, where fans were "forced" to download and use Steam to play. For a long while, Steam had a lot of Chinese users, but they only had 1 game in their inventory! Then came GTA 5, for years the Chinese wanted to role-play law abiding American citizen and experience American life in games (mostly reckless driving, and shooting pedestrians in the head part). GTA 5 was marketed so well to the Chinese that a big portion of them decided to not pirate the game and buy the game. The steam version was also very cheap (during sales of course). GTA 5 also has a fully localized Chinese version, which contributed massively to its popularity in China. According to SteamSpy, China ranked 2nd in GTA 5 purchases and players. For a while, Steam had a lot of Chinese users, but they only had 2 games in their inventories (guess which).
Then came Gabe Newell. After seeing how well GTA 5 did in China, he set his gaze on Chinese wallets. Now, Chinese wallets typically don't contain Visa or MasterCard cards but China's home grown Union Pay. Chinese typically don't have a Paypal account, but instead use Alipay (from the maker of Taobao). After a massive update Steam began supporting these Chinese payment methods and also added the Chinese currency. This means regional pricing for China which typically means that Chinese games are much cheaper than rest of the world (except India) and about 20% cheaper than American Dollars (but you must be physically in China to buy games on steam with Chinese Yuan, so don't switch your Steam region yet!). Not only that but Gabe greeted Chinese people with "Chinese New Year Sales". Now, Chinese users average 9 games on steam and ranked number 4 in purchases. That's not bad considering a year ago no one really knew what Steam was!
The takeaway from all of this is that China now has a games market capable of supporting more than just free-to-play games and as Chinese gamers become more and more accustomed to paying, the market will only grow. We'll be charting out progress with Stardust Command on our Twitter and Facebook.