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

Releasing on Steam from behind the Great Firewall

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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Jason Coskrey