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The fragile state of Steam in mainland China - and why it's important | Opinion

Jack Forsdike explores the role Valve's marketplace plays in giving Chinese consumers access to games, and the industry access to the world's largest games market

Steam is treading on thin ice in mainland China, and the majority of commentators within the Chinese gaming circle are confident that the platform's days are numbered. But what role exactly does Steam currently play, and what would change if it were to be banned outright?

Steam's position as the leading PC games distribution platform currently extends even to mainland China, where it uncomfortably sits in a complex, gray area as an unofficial distributor. Steam supports Chinese language, and more crucially, it is possible to pay for games on Steam using the Chinese currency Renminbi either through WeChat Pay or Alipay, the two largest e-payment services in China.

Jack Forsdike

Games accessible on Steam are not licensed for domestic release, and yet, for many international developers, Steam opens the door to an ever-growing number of Chinese gamers that they'd have no hope of otherwise reaching. This obviously goes both ways, with Steam providing both Chinese gamers and developers with a window to the global games market which starkly contrasts with the strictly regulated domestic market enclosed by layers of bureaucracy.

Ironically, this bureaucracy – where games license approvals have previously been shut off for months without notice, and only 50 to 60 applications are granted a month when approvals are actually being made – means that Steam not only offers Chinese developers and gamers a way to the international market, but it also provides a platform where they can connect to one another.

There are many games listed on Steam that only offer Simplified Chinese (the form of Chinese spoken within mainland China), with some achieving sales numbers nearing a million, pushing them to the top of the Steam sales charts – despite a lack of English language support. This indicates that there's a sizable market of Chinese gamers out there who are forced to rely on a foreign platform such as Steam in order to support their own country's developers.

The impact of this on developers is impossible to measure, but it surely has repercussions. An announcement of domestic game license approvals being granted for the first time in nine months as of April of this year was good news, but in the months following, many of the companies listed as having their license granted had in fact either already given up on the project and switched focus, or had ceased operations entirely, so domestic developers are clearly feeling the pressure.

There's a sizable market of Chinese gamers forced to rely on a foreign platform like Steam to support their own country's developers

However, the window that Steam provides, while not yet slammed shut, has been slowly closing for some time. The best way to describe access to Steam from within mainland China currently would be as disrupted.

The main website was blacklisted by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in December 2021, making it inaccessible without a VPN, but the client itself is perhaps more complicated. It's not entirely banned as the website is, but connections are slow and unstable, with Steam frequently being unable to connect.

Fortunately for Chinese gamers, there's currently a convenient solution: games speed boosters. These boosters effectively serve as a 'games-only VPN,' and are most well known for allowing Chinese players to access global multiplayer servers for games such as League of Legends and PUBG at a decent speed, giving players a chance to play online games that do not have registered servers within mainland China.

However, as connections to Steam have become less and less reliable in recent years, countering this issue has become another key feature of these boosters. The main factor in the surging popularity of using boosters to access Steam is that they do not throttle speed in the same way some VPNs do, which is vital for downloading sizable games – and, most importantly of all, they are entirely legal and therefore easily available, with many of China's largest gaming companies even offering their own games booster clients.

While being legal is currently the main selling point for boosters, as it means multiple client options can be found by even the least tech-familiar gamers through a simple search on Baidu (China's leading search engine), it also brings with it their biggest weakness: instability.

League of Legends is one of many popular online games that does not have dedicated servers in China, but Chinese gamers are able to access them via VPNs and boosters

Anything legal can be made illegal, and games boosters are on a slippery slope. In April, when games license approvals were opened, another less positive piece of news slipped under the radar: Tencent's official games booster announced that it would no longer support games not operating in mainland China. Whether this was self-censorship from the world's largest gaming company, or whether they received a polite nudge, either way it was an indication of how quickly things may change.

Obviously there are currently many other options on the market, so only Tencent's booster removing its international support meant little. But were an industry-wide ban to come in on games boosters, either forcing them to no longer support access to either Steam or foreign games servers, or outlawing them entirely to the same status as common VPNs, then the impact would be felt globally.

The window that Steam provides, while not yet slammed shut, has been slowly closing for some time

There's certainly enough evidence to suggest this ban could be on its way – aside from Tencent's recent change, there have been many examples of consumption of foreign media being regulated. The classic sitcom Friends became available on multiple streaming platforms earlier this year, but fans quickly noticed any LGBT-related content had been erased. Similarly, in January the film Fight Club was released with an 'alternative' ending before the original ending was restored following outcry, and the new Minions: Rise of Gru film more recently received the same treatment following its release in Chinese cinemas.

So, if this ban really were to materialize, what would it look like? A ban would most likely mean that gamers and developers in China were finally left without a legal method of accessing Steam. For Chinese developers who had the financial incentive of releasing their game on Steam, they'd most likely find a VPN to help with this. But for the regular gamer, especially those less tech-proficient, the struggle to find a VPN may be enough to put them off accessing Steam.

This outcome would be especially likely if pirate websites offering free downloads of games otherwise unavailable became popular following the ban, which is almost a given considering the popularity of pirate sites hosting film and TV shows that don't have an official distributor in mainland China. Furthermore, a hard ban would most likely mean that Chinese payment methods were no longer available, providing another major blocker on Chinese gamers wanting to use Steam – especially as Visa cards, which would be the best international alternative, are fairly rare to see in mainland China.

This series of inconveniences would no doubt come together to cause a severe decrease in Chinese gamers using Steam, as although many hardcore gamers who already possess sizeable Steam libraries would find a way – for example, by using a VPN and buying Steam keys from third party websites – there would also be a large number who would not.

The largest decrease would be seen in the creation of new Steam accounts from within mainland China. For reference of just how many gamers this may affect, a 2018 estimate puts the number of Steam users in Mainland China at over 30 million. Given the rise of the Chinese market in the last four years, it is reasonable to estimate that the current number of Steam users in mainland China has also grown considerably.

A ban would most likely mean that gamers and developers in China were finally left without a legal method of accessing Steam

Only developers themselves have the statistics to roughly estimate how many of their sales come from mainland China, but it's safe to say that losing a significant number of these sales would be enough to impact games studios globally, which is why it's so important for developers to not only be aware of this issue, but also be prepared for the impact on their Steam sales that it would have. This loss of sales on Steam would be exacerbated by the fact that there wouldn't be a reliable alternative for PC gamers, especially since the difficulties with domestic publishing previously mentioned stop that route from being a feasible option.

An increase in the sales of 'illegally' imported consoles and physical copies of their games may be another potential outcome of people looking for the most convenient way to game after a ban on Steam. While technically illegal, these consoles and games can be found in nearly every major shopping centre in mainland China, as well as on major e-commerce sites like Taobao. However, a crackdown on these imports and sales could obviously also come at any moment, so while consoles may see a short-term boost in popularity in this scenario, it's hard to see them becoming a long-term solution.

Unfortunately, it may simply be the case that it's only going to get harder and harder for both international and Chinese developers to reach gamers in mainland China, and many commentators within China are already mentally prepared for a scenario where they have to rely on domestic-made games that have been granted licensing for domestic release to get their gaming fix.

However, were this ban to be carried out, it'd undoubtedly be a huge loss, both economically for developers worldwide, and culturally for a new generation of Chinese gamers that would have the window to international games shut in their faces.

Jack Forsdike is a games and translation specialist based in China