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The rise of prestige Chinese games

New wave of games from China mimics, sometimes exceeds, high production of Western AAA games

The swashbuckling antics of Sun Wukong, Monkey King and preeminent hero of the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West, is being retold in the upcoming Black Myth: Wukong, a gritty Dark Souls-inspired action-RPG that was met with tremendous enthusiasm across the globe. Within one day of the release of its pre-alpha gameplay, back in August 2020, the video chalked up nearly 2 million views on YouTube — and 10 million views on Chinese video streaming site Bilibili.

Yet the release of this trailer wasn’t the result of any concerted marketing effort by Hangzhou-based indie studio Game Science, which is mostly made up of former Tencent employees. As explained by Game Science founder Feng Ji on Weibo, the 13-minute trailer was originally used to attract potential employees to the studio, with Ji admitting that there are several technical flaws in the gameplay footage. Of course, this didn’t prevent the video from generating significant buzz among the local gaming community. In fact, it’s this very commotion that propelled Black Myth: Wukong’s popularity globally, suggested Xuan Li, the founder of Chinese games publisher Thermite Games.

“When it was first released, it [Game Science] didn’t even contact IGN. They just released it on Weibo and Bilibili [...] and it broke the record,” Li says. “Everyone, every single one of us were talking about it and then IGN picked it up, ‘Oh, there’s a game, looks like a great next-gen AAA game, [an] AAA action game from China that nobody knows about.’ So they picked the trailer, put it on their website, and it blows up.”

So celebrated is Black Myth: Wukong, that it’s not uncommon for local online media to herald the rise of local prestige games, using terms like 3A 国产, meaning domestically made AAA games.

But what was once an anomaly in the Chinese games industry may not be so in the near future. Black Myth: Wukong wasn’t the only game that emerged from China to widespread international acclaim in recent years. Titles such as the open-world role-playing game Genshin Impact, sci-fi simulation Dyson Sphere Program, and battle royale Naraka: Bladepoint are noted for their AAA-esque level of polish and production value — traits not usually associated with games from the country.

Dyson Sphere Program
Image: Youthcat Studio/Gamera Game

“People outside of China don’t think Chinese people are making these premium games, because we are not known for the games that are focusing on the gameplay or the quality of the game. We’re more about the microtransaction and the monetization, stuff like that, right?,” adds Li. “[The] Chinese market is [the] biggest gaming market in the world, but it’s not being respected as one because we have so many mobile games and PC games that are only focusing on how to milk the games.”

The Chinese games landscape has long been dogged by perceptions that it makes mostly free-to-play mobile games rife with microtransactions, a feature that’s less of a dirty word within China compared to the Western games industry. But the tide seems to be turning, beginning with Chinese developers looking to craft prestige video games that are developed not only for the domestic market, but outwardly toward a bigger, global audience. Already, a bumper crop of existing and upcoming Chinese games — titles like FIST: Forged In Shadow Torch and Wuchang: Fallen Feathers — rely less on monetization features, and more on adrenaline-fueled action, photorealistic graphics, and a captivating narrative.

Setting this trend in motion are changing circumstances behind the Chinese games landscape, including the lifting of a 15-year ban on video game consoles. In 2000, China imposed a ban on nearly all game consoles, citing the addictive nature of games on its youth. Yet in 2015, the nation decided to scrap the restrictions entirely, with companies such as Microsoft and Sony entering the market and launching their consoles in China. While sales of consoles in the country have been sluggish — the console market hit $1.84 billion in 2020, compared to mobile game revenue of $29.2 billion in the same year — there is growing demand for consoles, fueled by the increasing disposable income of Chinese urban households. Coupled with the global popularity of consoles, which is a staggering $92.2 billion worldwide in 2020, this presents an opportunity for local game developers.

FIST: Forged in Shadow Torch
Image: TiGames/Antiidelay

Part of this feeds into the growing penchant for story-rich games both among local and global players. “I do think that one of the reasons why Chinese gamers now are looking forward to more story driven games, precisely because [...] a lot of them are becoming a whole lot wealthier, they have a lot more disposable income,” explains Josh Ye, a journalist for South China Morning Post, who has covered China’s emerging tech sector, including the games industry. “After all, story-focused games are more a premium experience.”

All these are exacerbated by the various obstacles with publishing games for the local games market, such as the sheer difficulty of obtaining game license approvals, which has slowed down following China’s campaign to combat gaming addiction. Daniel Ahmad, a senior analyst for Niko Partners, noted there is a limit for the number of games approved for sale in local gaming platforms every year in China.

“It’s a soft cap, there isn’t an official number out there I can give you. But generally speaking, there’s around 1,200 games approved every year since 2018,” Ahmad says. This means that only the most suitable games — ones that would get through the famously finicky government regulations — will be awarded the license.

“If you are a Chinese publisher, you wanna focus on the games that are going to perform the best, as opposed to trying to publish everything. It used to be, you know, before 2018, you could publish whatever you want really, and it would get approved, it would just take a bit of time,” Ahmad explains. “Now, you have a certain limit, obviously you’re still gonna try to apply it, as many as you want, but if there’s only 1,200 games releasing every year — even Tencent doesn’t get as many licenses as they used to back in 2017.”

In the same vein, Ye agrees that this scarcity will probably force local game developers to invest more time and resources in producing the most qualified games. “The same logic dictates that that would force a lot of game developers to really produce the top quality game they can, because they know that there’re only maybe five games company [that] can obtain licenses, so there is also very fierce competition in China,” Ye elaborates. “Overall, video gaming companies like Tencent [and] NetEase, they will start to frame their like, ‘Okay this is our big AAA game this year’, they sort of, you know, [decide that] “let’s maybe make money” but to sort of display their- showcase their development powers. So I think we can definitely expect a whole lot more top-of-the-line quality games coming from China.”

Such a global approach has been adopted by Mihoyo, the developer of Genshin Impact. The studio has been setting up international offices following the game’s unprecedented popularity, when Genshin Impact became the biggest global launch of a Chinese game in history with 5.3 million international pre-registrations via its website.

Genshin Impact
Genshin Impact
Image: Hoyoverse

For Ahmad, the immense popularity of Genshin Impact and the recent rise of prestige Chinese games is due to how it is rife with East Asian cultural references, while still melding the gameplay, presentation and aesthetics of games that are more palatable for a global audience. “In the case of Genshin Impact, they’ve been able to create something that feels like a console game, plays like a console game but really under the hood it’s been scaled from a mobile-type game,” he says. “And so a lot of these developers who have a lot of experience in developing mobile games, online PC games are taking a lot of these learnings, and they are combining it with global influence when it comes to gameplay and platforms […] they’ve been able to scale it across to PC, to console and to reach audiences on those platforms that are more likely overseas.”

These are some characteristics that certainly appealed to Josh Broadwell, a player who has been playing Genshin Impact for some time. The game’s cultural elements are a big factor in keeping him playing, along with an attentive mix of diverse cultures and the minute details, from environmental design to architecture, that are weaved into the game’s setting.

“Mondstadt is a fairly generic European-inspired city, and the region surrounding it doesn’t have many standout features. You’ll hear a lot about how they value freedom in their relationship with the gods, but it doesn’t make much sense until later when the story unfolds,” Broadwell says. “Liyue, the Chinese-inspired region, is completely different, with more distinct architecture, a better developed soundtrack, and lore and quests tied more closely with the story. Here, the focus is on humans co-existing with the gods and earth, so you see a wildly different take on environmental design and even setting as a result.”

Another key part of this recent wave of games was partly due to how the Chinese games industry has been a popular resource for many AAA companies — from EA to Microsoft — to outsource parts of their game development for many years. This, too, has given Chinese developers the knowledge and skills necessary to create their own AAA games.

“There will be a wave of these premium quality games from China, from those companies that we never thought would do things like that,” says Li. “And other studios are experienced, either indie studios or they’ve done a lot of outsource, like art and tech outsource for the AAA companies outside of China. They have done enough of that, and they are making their own games right now, and they are supported by a lot of investment companies because we think that [they] would be the future of Chinese gaming.”

For Naraka: Bladepoint, developer 24 Entertainment has long envisioned the game for an international market, while weaving its own cultural background into their own brand of battle royale. This is not only done out of something as fundamental as enhancing profitability, but also because the game’s battle royale design “needs a lot of players to make it work”, according to Ray Kuan, the studio’s producer. To that, 24 Entertainment initially chose to create a universe that would encompass various cultures, rather than that of just East Asia alone.

“In building the world of Naraka, we decided not to limit ourselves to Chinese wuxia martial arts stories,” says Kuan. “Instead, we aimed more for a world where the boundaries are blurred, one full of Eastern-style deities, magic and mystery. This open approach to lore design allows for richer, more diverse characters while also leaving the door open for new characters with different cultural characteristics in future. But upon receiving feedback from overseas players, the team instead chose to focus on designing a roster of heroes inspired by East Asian culture.”

Naraka: Bladepoint
Naraka: Bladepoint
Image: 24 Entertainment

In this way, 24 Entertainment is still leaning toward what works best for the studio: creating an invigorating battle royale game. “I think it would be a big mistake to just zero too much in on the fact that there’s something special about these Chinese games that makes them successful, other than reasons we already know that are already typically associated with other games,” says Ye. “[They’re] good quality games, they are well-run games, [...] I think that you need to give credit where credit’s due: They are well-polished, good games just overall.”

Naraka: Bladepoint was revered by its community of players precisely because it does something different: letting them engage in a brutal battle royale with melee weapons and fisticuffs. Results from an overseas beta from winter 2020 revealed that international players prefer grappling and maneuvering around the map, including interest in melee combat. That was the direction the team decided to focus on for their game. “We stuck to those gameplay elements that made us stand out, kept gathering feedback, and closely analyzed it before making adjustments,” says Kuan. “We optimized the game to the best of our ability, developing the systems and functions found within even further, such as the face customization feature.”

It was a gambit that paid off for the studio. Kyle Campbell, an avid fan of Naraka: Bladepoint, said this is what appealed to him most as a player. “What I love about the game is its combination of free-flowing combat and ridiculously deep combat mechanics. Naraka is one of those games where just moving around the map is a ton of fun. Air dashing from treetop to treetop and hook-shooting to gain the high ground on an opponent makes you feel like gravity doesn’t apply,” says Campbell.

This is a sentiment that was echoed by Jason Coles, another Naraka: Bladepoint player. “The art style and melee-based approach to a traditionally shooter-based genre was what made Naraka stick out to me. I love melee combat, and while I also love battle royale games, I’m rubbish at shooting. Naraka offered a chance to play one that I’d actually be good at.”

The biggest question would probably be then: Why are all these happening right now? Given the numerous obstacles at play, from the escalating game licensing issues in China, to the barrage of new and growing restrictions surrounding the Chinese games market, it didn’t seem likely. Yet this new wave of prestige Chinese games is nonetheless the result of a succession of factors, including the saturation of the free-to-play mobile games in China, which has also led to a renewed hunger for more genres of locally made games.

“A lot of the games in China right now are free-to-play, they are designed a certain way, they’ve always drawn [from the] traditional MMO genre, or theme, or gameplay style,” says Ahmad. “And so, the market has become saturated with those over time. So there’s a lot of room for broader genres to take off, and that includes on mobile and in the free-to-play space too. Essentially, there’s a lot more room for different game genres, types, themes, but also business models, so [we’re] seeing a lot more developers experiment with creating premium games or even subscription games to some extent.”

That’s not to say that this would be a simple task for these Chinese developers, many of whom are work as small teams and would largely be perceived as indie developers in the western world. Despite their level of polish and production, these games still suffer from the typical challenges that plague most indies: discoverability. Then there are additional issues, such as language barriers, with many developers who are either not as fluent in English, or are just unaware how they can better reach a western audience. To these, however, Ahmad shares that there is already a growing industry of Chinese publishers dedicated to working with Chinese developers.

“Some of these are from publishers themselves, as in some of these are like Tencent-backed or there are from other publishers in the country, and others are just new companies that have sort of sprung up from staff, or through experience in the past who are now working to essentially offer a complete solution to these Chinese developers, so whether it’s localization or marketing or whatever, those publishers now have tons of games in their portfolios,” he says.

It’s still a long road ahead, but it’s also an opportunity for the Chinese games industry to move beyond the stigma of only making free-to-play mobile and MMO games, which are mostly seen as cheaply made cash grabs.

“When you look at Game Science and Black Myth: Wukong,” says Ahmad, “they left Tencent, [...] because they were working on a free-to-play game, a MMO game around the same theme: Journey to the West. They wanted to create their own single-player story premium-type game where they didn’t have to rely heavily on having a very large user base and high monetization of it longterm, where they can just focus on a single product and release it.

“[Chinese developers] are taking all their learnings of the past 20 years, and we’re seeing a shift from China being the outsourcing center of the world, to now producing its own content.”