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The quiet need for Chinese indie games

Spotlightor Interactive founder Gao Ming on the fight for originality within a developing games scene

Two years ago, my game Candleman was one of the more than 350 indie games comprising Microsoft's ID@Xbox project fortunate enough to appear in the Xbox booth at the Game Developers Conference. This was the first time an independent game from China had been invited to the US for GDC. It was our moment to introduce our studio to the world with an original creation we were proud of.

That moment was burst for me by a talk I watched titled "What To Do When Your Game's Being Pirated In Asia." When we introduce our creations to people overseas, it's not uncommon to face the assumption our work must be ripped off or derivative of other games. That hurts because it's not fair; many of us are original artists with something unique to offer. But it also hurts because it is fair; piracy and plagiarism dominate the Chinese landscape, and only recently has a combination of political, economic and cultural forces opened the door for those of us in China's growing indie scene trying to change what you know about our games.

Originality Is expensive

Plagiarism and piracy are not unique to China, of course, but still, each year, thousands of domestic games are approved for publication that can be considered derivative in some capacity. These practices thrive because they are generally low risk and high reward. Most Chinese companies choose to create imitations because it makes little sense to produce something original. Conversely, making an indie game - creating your own idea, refining it, throwing it away if it doesn't work - is all risk. This is true for indie devs everywhere, of course, but we are especially isolated in China, and it creates a negative feedback loop.

Candleman is part of a growing Chinese scene of original indie games.

Funding is the number one challenge. There's very little financing to apply for from academic, social or industrial institutions. As a result, many independent teams depend on capital from investors. However, in China, investment deals put the bets on the studio, not the project. The low cost and creative features of independent games promise investors large profits for very little stake. A 1 million RMB ($145,000) investment can typically let an investor obtain anywhere between 20 to 30 per cent of an indie studio's total income; that figure can reach over 50 per cent if multiple investors are involved.

When you take this together with the lack of a social safety net and the limited exposure opportunities for indie games in China compared to the West, you can see how difficult success can be to achieve for a developer trying to make it the right way. And why go down that path when the alternative has proven so much more lucrative?

"As the gap between Chinese players and the world narrows, the expectations for quality and originality are growing from Chinese gamers"

The language and cultural divide between our worlds has further made it so that even the best games from overseas have trouble connecting with Chinese gamers. The historic lack of thorough Chinese localization can make them feel impenetrable to many players here, especially when you're dealing with something as story-rich as, say, Pillars of Eternity. This makes them ripe for plagiarists, who need only keep an eye on financially successful games outside of China and copy them promptly for a substantial return. And this barrier extends beyond what developers can control on their own; Chinese players without a strong grasp of English only have access to a limited set of channels for industry news, meaning they often end up playing copycat products without even realizing it.

Much of this is changing with time. Gamemakers outside of China are placing renewed emphasis on reaching out to Chinese players, and they're doing so with a more nuanced eye to the unique ways in which language and culture impact consumers' choices. As the gap between Chinese players and the world narrows, the expectations for quality and originality are growing from Chinese gamers.

Creating from the bottom

But change must also come from within, and that transformation's seed is China's indie game scene: a far-reaching spectrum of passionate developers who have made a choice to work and create for themselves in a market full of opportunities to join larger, safer companies. For years, developers my age struggled to carve a space for ourselves in the worlds of PC and mobile.

"One of the best things that happened to my studio was a tweet from Phil Spencer telling people he beat our game. It's not a lot, but it legitimized our work to a world that doesn't trust our authenticity"

China's lifting of the ban on game consoles in 2014 changed everything. Video game culture and the communities associated with it are now rapidly evolving in China. Even studios with small budgets can now legally apply for console distribution and dev kits. Both Microsoft and Sony have invested a huge amount of time, services and resources to support compelling local titles. The ID@Xbox project made various documentaries to give player communities a better understanding of games and developers from China.

But even breaking down China's isolation in small ways can have a huge impact on the ground level. As a young developer, I participated in 19 Ludum Dare game jams, each an invaluable opportunity to meet other independent voices like myself while encouraging me to just get something out there, a lesson young developers everywhere need to embrace. Fan-driven gatherings like 2017's WePlay conference in Shanghai similarly give developers an opportunity to share ideas, expertise and resources most simply have never had access to.

One of the best things that happened to my studio was a random tweet from Phil Spencer simply telling people he beat our game. It's not a lot, but it legitimized our work to a world that doesn't trust our authenticity. And that sentiment goes a long way back home. I can't stress enough how much young Chinese people interested in game design today consider themselves hardcore gamers. And now that they have the opportunity to see their own designs launch on these systems, the realm of what's "possible" has exploded.

The truth, ultimately, is that we don't need to treat China differently than any place else. As one of the largest and oldest global cultures, we are inevitably going to make ourselves heard one way or another to the rest of the world. What matters, then, is what form that voice takes.

We can continue to define the world's relationship with China in terms of piracy - it would only be fair - or we can bridge the gap that makes original ideas so expensive. Even developers who have historically produced rip-offs are now seeking ways to transform themselves to profit in a market more focused on quality. The future doesn't lay in the wholesale elimination of pirates; rather, it rests in transforming which games we choose to give our attention to.

Gao Ming is the co-founder of Spotlightor Interactive, an indie game studio based in Beijing. Its game, Candleman, was published with support from Zodiac Interactive.

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