At night, Shanghai transforms itself into a new city. Bars, restaurants, and small shops start to open in the alleyways and neon red lights begin to shine throughout China’s largest city. Its nightlife, as well as its economic growth, makes this city the best place to see how the country has changed. At the end of July each year, Shanghai also becomes the hub of the Chinese videogame scene for one week. China Joy, the largest consumer and business game show in Asia, opens its doors for people from all over the world who arrive to try to understand what’s happening in China. However, there is another side to China Joy, far away from the spectacle of the show floor. Tonight, 30 minutes away from the city center, dozens of independent game makers from all over China are gathered at Indie Light, the first independent game bar in Shanghai.
The independent game scene in China has been dormant for years, shadowed by the tidal wave of free-to-play games and the ban of games consoles in the country that lasted from 2000 until 2015. During that period of time, when no one could no longer buy a console legally in China, online free-to-play games for PC were the most common way to play in the country, and Chinese companies like Tencent and NetEase saw an opportunity to bring massive social games that didn’t require high system-requirements. Games like League of Legends (2009), CrossFire (2007), and Westward Journey Online (2001) were some of the most played titles at internet cafés, becoming the face of videogames in China for years to come. With the growth of mobile games in the early 2010s, the free-to-play model was then used and optimized for mobile platforms, especially in genres like MMORPGs and MOBAs.
Mobile became the new way to play in China, and so features like auto-play and player-vs-player combat—and, less predictably, storylines based on the Three Kingdom era (AD 220-280)—became the norm. China’s internal mobile game market was large enough to become the most valuable in the world by 2016, and is a major factor as to why Western game studios have been trying to decipher how it works recently. However, not even Supercell—the company behind Clash of Clans (2012), and who tops the charts on almost every other store in the world—has been able to challenge Chinese companies in the grossing ranks.
In terms of videogame development, although there have been numerous groups making games since the early 90s, visibility and distribution continues to be the biggest constraint in China. In past years, things have started to change, especially after Steam localized its services and started accepting local payment methods, as well as offering special prices for players living in China. At that point, because of the long tradition of free-to-play games and piracy, nobody thought that Chinese players would be willing to pay for games, and even less for independent games. But they did. Games like Monument Valley (2014) and This War of Mine (2014) have China as one of their biggest markets, showing that Chinese players are willing to pay for games, and through legal channels too.
That latter point is especially salient as China’s reputation for piracy has been a burden it carried for years, not only in videogames but in almost every type of goods. And with the birth of mobile distribution, hundreds of Android stores offered free downloads of premium games, exacerbating the issue. In that sense, putting a pricetag on a game distributed in China seemed an idea fated to fail. But, as with every other country, there are always people who are willing to pay for the value they receive. Making things easier, Steam and other digital stores offered games to China with a lower price than in other territories, and accepted local payments. Now that Chinese players were able to show a demand for more thoughtful games, and that they’d pay upfront for them, independent creators saw an audience waiting for them to deliver.
Tony Xiong is one of the attendees of the party at Indie Light. He is one of the most influential local game critics and designers who got into independent games after playing Limbo (2010) for the first time. Xiong has been one of the witnesses of how independent games in China have evolved in the last 20 years. “The indie community has been booming since 2014, and attracts not only those who have been creating games silently, but also those who are now working in big companies and want to create their own games,” he said. He also mentions the rapid expansion of game jams in China as a catalyst for the growth of the community: “In the game jam hosted by indieACE in June, there were around 800 jammers in total, and five simultaneous events happening in Beijing, Shanghai, Guanghzou, Xiamen, and Chengdu.”
At Indie Light, there are at least 50 game makers and supporters of the Chinese independent scene, having drinks, eating food, and participating in a round of retro game soundtrack trivia. Xiong is hosting the contest and everyone seems to be having a good time. Outside the bar, game makers exchange their experiences on how they create their games from cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Beijing. Although having never met before, they are by no means strangers, as they have been discussing for months on WeChat groups—the largest messaging app in China. As with a few others in attendance, the reason they are in Shanghai this week is not China Joy, as their games have nothing to do with the flash, bangs, and monetization systems of the games shown there; they are here because of Indie Play, the main independent games festival in China that will open the following day.
Simon Zhu has been supporting the independent scene for a decade. After being one of the organizers of GDC China and CGDC (China Game Developers Conference), he started to orchestrate Indie Play as a way to make independent game creators to meet at a single event. “In [the last] two years, I could feel there are more indies coming out, but the problem is they lack communication and even [those living] in [the same] city don’t know each other,” he said. This year, there are 40 games being showcased and Zhu managed to bring along international speakers like Rami Ismail (Vlambeer) and Patryk Grzeszczuk (11 bit studios,) as well as Akira Yamaoka for the event’s party. Indie Play feels like the Chinese IGF, where game makers meet each other and the people interested in their craft. This event also helps game makers ask for guidance and help, in a country where laws and procedures can change at any moment.
Some months ago, the Chinese government issued a new regulation that requires every mobile game to acquire the approval of a Chinese government agency before it’s released. If a game that’s already out doesn’t have this seal by October 1st of this year, it will be removed from the App Store and other Android stores. For big companies, this extra step is easily introduced to their standard procedures. But for smaller studios and individuals this could be the end of publishing mobile games independently in China due to the costs and delays they will suffer. On PC, the regulation is not enforced yet and Steam operates without problems, although that could change, as Wang Tears from indienova, the largest independent game site in China, said: “As a foreign company selling games from all over the world in China, Steam might encounter some regulation issues in the future.” Nobody knows if PC games will come next under the Chinese government’s hammer, but for now, digital distribution has enabled Chinese independent games to thrive. One example is Lost Castle, a local independent game created by Hunter Studio and published by Another Indie, which has sold more than 100,000 copies on Steam, showing other studios that “going indie” is possible in China.
Candle Man is one of the games being showcased at Indie Play, it’s a puzzle exploration game in which the player controls a candle man who needs to light small candles scattered and hidden on each level. The team is also trying to add a narrative to the game and that has been its focus for the past few months. At the awards ceremony later that weekend, the game will win in the Best Game category. But for now, Gao Ming, the producer and designer of the game, is busy talking with players at his booth. He has been running his own studio for seven years in Beijing, after graduating from Tsinghua University where he studied arts and computer science. Candle Man will be his biggest game yet. Ming and his team have been working on the project for a year, since they made the first prototype during a Ludum Dare game jam. Now they are preparing its release for Xbox One at the end of 2016. “We need to make more games and learn more from the experience,” he said. “I think there is no quick path for Chinese indie developers.” Ming is one of the most known faces in the independent game scene in China, and due to that, the success of Candle Man could encourage more people to try and follow in his footsteps.
Another game at the Indie Play festival is Luna, a hand-drawn point and click adventure game being made by Lantern Studio, with three of its members living in Shanghai and one living in London. The game is based on an old animation project from one of the members, and they successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign early this year to fund it. Luna is a game that is being handcrafted in every detail, from each animation sequence to every puzzle design. At Indie Play, Luna won the award for Best Visual Art, but most importantly, the team received direct feedback from people who played the demo. Like other game creators in China, the team behind Luna knows that making games in China is harder than in other countries, but they are optimistic: “Chinese game business environment and policies are more strict for small indie developers than in other countries. But Chinese gamers are eager to see how our own games can represent our local culture and spirit,” one of them said. They are aiming to release the game in 2017. Meanwhile, other Chinese studios like Rocket Punch, who are working on Code: HARDCORE, are also turning to crowdfunding as a way to fund their projects.
Indie Play seemed like the total opposite of China Joy, where all the big companies were showcasing their games and businessmen were having meetings at nearby hotels. The independent games are also on the other side of what Tony Xiong calls “capital games” and their creators. “They only know how to copy games that are popular in other countries and maximize their income by controlling the distribution channels and by using the ‘Skinner Box’ theory,” he explained. “They only treat games as a tool to make more capital gain, so I called them capital games.” Despite the uncertainty of the future and the dominance of the big players in the Chinese videogame landscape, the independent scene seems to have a bright future. Indie Play showed not only a handful of original and ambitious games that will come out in the next months or years but also a community that supports its members and that is ready to show its potential to the rest of the world.
Photos courtesy IndiePlay