What’s It Like To Launch An Indie Game From China?

The first thing you notice about Lost Castle, an enjoyable 2D side-scrolling action RPG, is that the art style makes the characters, heroes and villains alike, kind of cute. Bosses aside, some look almost cuddly, in a macabre sort of way.

Underneath this visage lies an action-packed, challenging and enjoyable game in which more than a few deaths are inevitable, even when playing with a friend. Gary Ho, one of the Hunter Studio developers who accompanied the game from China to Kyoto, Japan, for BitSummit, a yearly indie game festival, in early July, said he wanted to make a “cute Dark Souls.”

The game’s underlying difficulty is apropos given the inherent challenges of indie development in China.

Governmental restrictions hinder some projects, and those that do see the light of day are mostly free-to-play mobile games and online titles. Chinese indie developers looking to make premium games do so in a challenging environment at home and face a tricky path abroad.

With Lost Castle, Hunter Studio solved the first problem on its own. When the developers wanted to expand internationally, they turned to Another Indie Studio, a game publisher based in Beijing. The company helps brings Western indie titles to China, is helping Lost Castle move in the opposite direction, and has gained a wealth of knowledge about the indie scene in China.

“These guys, they did really well, they were really happy, but they wanted to move outside China,” said Iain Garner, a Scotsman living in China who serves as PR and Social Manager for Another Indie Studio. “Obviously it’s a completely different world out there because of China’s isolation, because of the Great Firewall, etc. It’s really tough, especially for indie developers, to get out when they’re developing a game.”

The Chinese government doesn’t make things easy for indies.

One hurdle to clear is the General Administration of Press and Publication, or GAPP. The agency is responsible for the regulation of various forms of media within the country. Games have to be submitted and approved by the government before being sold in China. The system is an obstacle for local indies, especially smaller teams that lack the resources to manage the myriad of rules and regulations, and also for foreign entities hoping to penetrate the market.

“If you don’t get the Chinese stamp of approval you can’t sell games within China,” Garner said. “So that’s been an ongoing issue for us, especially bringing Western games into China. Sometimes it’s really difficult to get that approval. The rules are quite nebulous. Sometimes you’ll get through with something and the next time you won’t. Sometimes skeletons are totally banned and sometimes skeletons are totally fine. Sometimes blood is totally banned and sometimes a little bit of blood isn’t.

“You never know what’s going to be picked up on, which has been really quite difficult. The process for a PC or console game is 2 months. So if they reject it, you then have to restart the whole process again. The government is not making life easy, I would say.”

A lack of concrete guidelines makes the waters even choppier.

“There are certain things that you know you can’t do,” Garner said. “Anything political, or anything that’s going to hit any sensitive subjects, you know is completely out. There’s a lot of fear of violence and obviously sexuality and things like that. Sometimes you just don’t know. You hear all manner of stories, like World of Warcraft having to take out skeletons and replace them with zombies and things like that. Rules that just don’t seem to make a lot of sense. There’s obviously a plan, but we’re not party to it, so we don’t understand it.”

There are some who believe World of Warcraft was pre-emptively edited by the local publisher to head off any potential delays or problems, due to the vague nature of the guidelines.

Local indies who hope to expand their reach beyond China face even more obstacles. The language barrier is an obvious one, but the country’s infamous internet restrictions also present a challenge for promoting Chinese indie games abroad.

“It’s really hard,” Garner said. “For me to do my job there, everything has to go through a VPN, everything. If I want to put a post on Twitter, if I want to put something on Facebook, I have to be using a VPN at all times. It’s a big challenge.”

Governmental restrictions aside, the gaming scene in China was for many years the bastion of free-to-play mobile titles and online games. Indie developers had to fight against a wave of these titles and there was, for a time, not as much motivation for indies to make premium games.

“Selling games in China is very hard, because China has a lot of players who do not want to buy games,” Ho said, alluding to the prevalence of free-to-play titles. “Chinese players don’t buy games they don’t want to play, so you have to make your game more attractive so they will want to buy it.”

Lost Castle, according to Ho and Garner, has found success in the country, proving there is a market for quality premium indie titles. The game was also an early access title on Steam outside of China.

“It’s sold almost 70,000 copies in China,” Ho said. “People enjoy it and have fun playing it with friends.”

Steam has been one of the agents of change in China. Because it’s possible to pay with local bank cards, many have found it easier to pay for premium titles, which in turn gives indie developers more incentive to make them.

“Finally Chinese gamers had this ability to pay for games, which had never happened before,” Garner said. “As a result, a lot of developers decided to make the switch from free-to-play to premium-game developers because they knew there was enough interest in China that if you made a decent game, the Chinese players would buy it to support the local countrymen.”

While China’s ban on consoles was recently lifted, it hasn’t made much impact since many people game on the laptops they use for school.

“Games like Lost Castle that aren’t very processor or graphics heavy, they tend to do quite well because students can download them, play them, enjoy them,” Garner said.

Garner see the game as the start of a trend within the burgeoning Chinese indie scene.

“It’s growing really quickly,” he said. “Although there’s all these restrictions, there’s also a huge generation of indie developers there who grew up with video games, especially people my age (28). They grew up playing pirated copies, they had pirated Nintendos and they grew up with that. Then they watched everything go to mobile and because of the way the industry went, they had to follow. There was no other way to make money in China other than free-to-play mobile games, and a lot of them weren’t happy with that situation.

“So now that there’s this other option for them, via Steam, via access to the Western markets, they’re really, really going for it. And they’re producing some great stuff. Lost Castle is the first. There’s a whole wave of people behind us who are producing equally amazing content. It’s a really exciting time to be there, despite all the problems. There’s a real ambition there that you don’t see elsewhere.”

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13 Comments

  1. DoubleG says:

    No mention of FTL? That came out of China back in 2012.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Subset Games is based out of Shanghai, and as such exists within the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone, which reduces (but does not eliminate) some of the government oversight that the article mentions. I can’t find any information on Hunter Studio, so I don’t know where they’re based, but if they’re not in Shanghai or HK, I suspect they face more stringent requirements.

      • DoubleG says:

        Interesting, thanks! Had no idea.

        • syndrome says:

          Meh… The authors of FTL are both US citizens. Subset is in Fremont, CA.

          These guys got to showcase it in Shangai only because they used to live there, and then (after it received praises in its prototype form) it got kickstarted. Btw, you couldn’t kickstart back then if you weren’t a citizen of US and UK.

          I’m glad it’s a good game, but high-profile game development is still largely a somewhat prestigious — elitist even — first-world activity.

          It’s a pity that many talented people are barred from reaching their full potential, and I know some; the whole humankind is utterly inefficient because of this geocaste system — where it’s incredibly important >>where exactly<< a genius was born, to the point that if his/her birthplace is a couple kilometers to the east, (s)he's technically not a genius, and sometimes not even a human being. FFS

          Perhaps the US could do something about it? Aren't they exporting their democratic ways to those in need?

          • TheAngriestHobo says:

            Hm. Since you posted that, I went back to do a more detailed search, and now I’m completely confused as to where Subset is based.

            My (brief) initial search indicated Shanghai, which seemed to make sense given that both employees previously lived and worked in China. After your post, I decided to do a more detailed search, and I’ve very shaky indications that it might based in Fremont, CA, as you suggest. However, the strongest evidence I’ve found suggests that they’re based in Seattle, Washington.

            I’m starting to wonder if this all a big tax-evasion scheme. :P

          • Phasma Felis says:

            Not that the West doesn’t have a lot to answer, but I don’t really think you can blame us for the Chinese government being assholes.

    • grrrz says:

      Yeah despite the fact Justin Ma has asian origins and both creators lived in Shanghai at the time (because working for 2K China), they’re both from the US; probably made the game there and got back to the US after. Simple as that.
      Also I’m not sure rules in Shanghai are so different for regular chinese citizens. (HK is a whole different matter).

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    heretic says:

    Enlightening article, thank you!

  3. GWOP says:

    If you are wondering what’s up with the skellingtons, Crimson Peak was denied release in China because “The Film Bureau objects to films with distinctly spiritual content, because they “promote cults or superstition” in violation of the Communist Party’s secular principles… ”

    So yeah. Big Brother is spooked easily.

  4. rer_oracle says:

    I just returned from a year-long stint in China, where I was doing some podcast work on the side. Getting a VPN like Astrill or Express VPN isn’t really that much of an issue, but when the Chinese government want to throw the hammer down, they can pretty much close the gates. I also had some interesting issues where I couldn’t get a connection to work period, and at one point, I woke up to my computer booting up at 3 am. I don’t know if that was scheduled maintenance or what, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were poking their noses around.

    I found the most maddening thing was the seemingly random nature to these rules and the arrogance behind the justifications. When I couldn’t play Rocket League online without a VPN, I did a quick reddit search to confirm, and sure enough, that was the case. Users on the forum were asking why, and another user, presumably a Chinese one, said something like “you’re welcome for your privilege to be in our country.” Okay, you have that right, but at some point, you’re setting up so many roadblocks that companies just don’t want to do business anymore. I’ve also been on location at app development companies in China that had a direct line from Hong Kong and didn’t require a VPN. I think a lot of it has to do with who you know…Tough going either way. I hope indie developers keep at it!

  5. schafer0222 says:

    nice article

  6. schafer0222 says:

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  7. BlaahBlaah says:

    I don’t want to be a whining pedant, but this sentence is horrifically convoluted:

    “Gary Ho, one of the Hunter Studio developers who accompanied the game from China to Kyoto, Japan, for BitSummit, a yearly indie game festival, in early July, said he wanted to make a “cute Dark Souls.””

    And in the next paragraph “apropos” is totes inappropes, the word you’re looking for is “appropriate”.