The original version of this article can be found at Haogamers.
(Disclaimer: I helped to set up and manage Stardust Command’s Western social media, and am employed by Another Indie, who is working with XD.com to publish indie title Lost Castle.)
For the last few months, Chinese developers and gamers have been anxiously awaiting Tencent’s latest project: a store-front to rival Steam in China. While Steam is gaining popularity in China, the store’s western stylings and tricky payment systems have prevented the store from reaching the heights of popularity that it has in other nations. However, Steam has been incredibly popular in inspiring China’s independent developers to create premium games instead of the free-to-play games that have recently begun to spring up throughout China. The idea of a company as big as Tencent supporting paid gaming in China excited many developers, who saw this as a chance for Chinese gamers to be exposed to paid gaming under the protection of one of the world's largest gaming companies. So you can understand the shock, surprise, and disappointment the indie developers felt when they discovered that Tencent’s Danji was engaging (albeit sneakily) in piracy.
They did what now?
The whistle was blown by developer Wu Hao of upcoming sci-fi title Stardust Command, who pointed out that a lot of AAA games listed on QQ’s latest website were… suspicious. While many of them did have a price tag attached, many of them had a “free” version available, and when this version was selected the user was taken to a site outside of Danji after being shown the following disclaimer: [caption id="attachment_8894" align="aligncenter" width="389"] An unconvincing attempt to take the moral high ground.[/caption] The message translates as a fairly standard excuse claiming that the content on this site was being uploaded by users and that Tencent was not responsible for the content of the external page. Tencent did state that content could be removed if copyright holders provided proof of a copyright violation. Bear in mind that this was being used for games like Homeworld 2 and Starbound, so the excuse seems flimsy at best. And it got flimsier.
To make matters worse, after some serious investigation, the developers discovered that there was no upload page that allowed the uploading of more than 5MB of data. This means that it was impossible for anyone other than the page’s owner to upload content. And despite assurances that the linked content had nothing to do with QQ, the site was (ironically) copyrighted by Tencent. Meaning that Tencent appeared to be both uploading and distributing pirated material. And was really bad at hiding it: Unsurprisingly, China’s indie developers were upset by this sudden turnaround and one developer, who wished to remain anonymous, confided that “Since we discovered that danji.qq.com is officially supporting the spread of cracked indie games, we deeply doubt what they will do next. We've all been invited to publish on Tencent’s game platform; if we refuse, it's quite possible that our games will be cracked and put onto danji.qq.com.” But things were only getting worse and Tencent was about to add insult to injury.
But that’s not all
While all this was going down, Tencent’s team was eagerly fanning the flames of a second controversy- this one revolving around Tencent’s GAD competition and a loose understanding of the term “incubation.” The GAD is Tencent’s well-meaning attempt to get indie developers on side, and it started with a competition this last May. The idea was to showcase and support the best indie games from Chinese territories as a way to kick off an ongoing program of support and investment by Tencent into China’s indie community. The winners were announced in May and since then things have been very quiet on the GAD front, until August 2nd when all the winners of the GAD were listed as being successful beneficiaries of a Tencent incubation program. Tencent claims all GAD winners as part of its incubation program.
For those of you unfamiliar with incubation programs, these come in a variety of forms but always involve a high level of support from a parent company during the game’s development. Tencent’s definition of incubation meant the winning of the GAD prize. Just that. Something that some of the developers disagreed with... especially since the prize money has yet to be given. One person in particular, Brandy Wu of XD.com was particularly vocal in her disagreement, as XD and their indie-friendly appstore TapTap had been providing GAD-winning game The Swords with support for some time. “It’s totally dishonest to list [The Swords] as incubated by [Tencent] when in fact they had nothing to do with them,” she stated in an interview with Haogamers. A Tencent representative contacted Wu and explained that The Swords could be taken down from the list of incubated games but would have to forfeit its GAD victory and the (undelivered) prize money. Unsurprisingly, this response did not please Wu and instead of keeping quiet, she decided to share amongst China’s developer groups. The response was unanimous disapproval and rage from a group already pissed off by the company’s earlier piratical antics.
Tencent representative explains to Wu that if she rejects the “incubation” label, they cannot claim the prize.
What happened next
What followed seemed to surprise everyone: Tencent backed down. On August 3rd, less than 24 hours after the piracy had been noticed, Danji was purged of illegal games, and later that evening, the winners of the GAD were removed from Tencent's incubation list. Later, a Tencent representative sent a couple of voice messages into an indie developers group explaining the situation regarding the “wrongly named list,” stating: “We intended to save the list for our prize winners. And we are currently trying to establish cooperative relationships with those games. Actually one of the developers was already employed by Tencent. If you think the title of the list is problematic, we can change it.” The representative answered to Wu’s “The Swords has nothing to do with Tencent” statement thusly: “Sunhead authorized XD to participate in our competition. The Swords has been recognized by all the three parties, so it’s not correct to say the game had nothing to do with Tencent.” Despite the (slightly feeble) final defence by Tencent, the subject was dropped and list renamed to remove the “incubator” tagline. The outcome of these events shows a clear powershift. Where once Tencent could get away with bending the truth, now it cannot. And it realized very quickly that it had overplayed its hand when the indies began noticing their blatant attempts to legitimize piracy. Only a few years ago this was Tencent’s playground and unless a challenge came from one of the other Big Three tech companies, anything was fair game. But on August 3rd 2016, Tencent locked eyes with the little guys... and Tencent flinched.