San Lang is a Chinese indie developer working on a documentary on indie games in China. In this interview, San Lang talks about the history and future for Chinese indie games, the relationship between indie and commercial endeavours, the importance of indie to the industry as a whole, and much more!
This interview was held back in early February, and quite a few things has happened since then, such as the GDC film festival. Follow the links in the text to explore the current situations of Sanlang and his documentary.
Greetings San Lang! I heard you’re working on a documentary. Tell me about it!
I started working on this documentary back in November, 2015. We have been recording the endeavours of many different developers since then, from which we choose five teams as key figures to follow closely.
We started co-funding at modian.com in October, 2017 and were able to gather 300 000 yuan through that. After that, we also got some funding from commercial companies, too. With the help of this generous support, we now have our documentary finished and ready to show.
We finished the shooting the last part now in January, so now we are in the middle of post-production. We’re about to finish the first version - which we refer to as our “rough cut” - which is set to be released in March. We were told in the beginning of January that the documentary was selected for the GDC film festival 2018 (!) and we announced this morning after tons of work, so I am very excited right now - forgive me for this!
Can you see a lot of changes happening in the indie scene since 2015?
It would be a very lengthy business to answer your question properly, so I’ll have to keep it short.
In 2014, due to the big success of Monument Valley, indie games were suddenly given much more attention. In 2015, a lot of Chinese indie titles started to turn up among recommended games on App Store and Google Play. Indie game events in China like indiePlay emerged too. More and more people started making their own games.
Inspired by Indie Game the Movie, I started my documentary too. During the two years of shooting this movie, however, I witnessed huge changes in the indie game industry in China.
First of all, in 2015, we saw how many developers were working on their own passion projects, and in 2016 the indie game community in China produced some great titles like Candleman and Code: Hardcore. The commercial giants started to notice indie games and opened new channels for them besides Apple and Google.
In 2017, as the quantity of these games continued to increase, the quality changed too. They started to become more commercially oriented than before: polished and eye-catching. In contrast, already established commercial companies paid more and more attention to indies, as they started looking for upcoming indies that they thought could be turned into goods.
In regards to the change in quality, I am still observing and analysing this trend. I think this change is simply the result of our need to survive, primarily. In 2014-2015, many developers turned to indie but didn’t have enough experience in development, project management, business and so on. Many teams couldn’t survive long enough to see their games finished. Even if they finally made the game. It wouldn’t sell. But they didn’t have too many constraints then, so we can see some really good and innovative ones from back then.
In 2016, however, some teams evaporated, as new ones appeared. The new ones are not just idealistic about their games, they have thought it all over, and they have experience in commercial game creation. They are realists about their projects. And the players and the media both got used to the indie phenomenon now, so they won’t pay as much attention. So that is why we see more realists now. No more excellent “indie wonders” now, they have become commercial. But in general, the quality is better now.
Why is indie games important or interesting at all?
I think indie games are important for the industry as a whole. Indie games can’t replace commercial games in regards to business. If you look at the history of video games, it becomes apparent. So I am actually against ideas such as that the future of indie games lies in indie, or that indie games will save the Chinese game industry.
Indie games, however, can be regarded as the experimental part of the game industry. They are doing what commercial companies won’t dare to do, which make the whole industry to develop.
We often talk about how important it is to encourage biodiversity, and this is also true for games. Diversity in games is important. Even if a game is not mainstream, it has its own value. Not to mention that indies keep producing new “species”, even monsters like Minecraft.
As an artform, indie games express the need of many developers and players. Indie games make the world a better place even without generation substantial profits, which is also important.
As human beings, we love novelty. Without the innovation indie games bring us, the world of games will soon get stagnant and totally boring.
That is why indie games are important and interesting.
So how would you like to see indie games develop in china within the coming years?
I believe that what we just talked about, how current indies are not really indie but rather pretty commercial, is just a transitional phase. As soon as the team can find a way to survive on their games, they will be able focus on exploring the “indie” aspect of their game creation.
For the commercial companies, it is just about observing to see what happens now, because they will not make the mistake of missing a good game. At this moment, there are few indie titles that meet commercial standards. Commercial companies will figure out how to use indie games later on. The commercial and independent parts of the game industry will find a way to cope with each other soon enough. There will be a balance within the following two years.
You are a multi-tasker. What type of work are you most comfortable with and excited about?
The most important work for me is that of game development. We actually have two games about to release. In regards of the documentary, we have a director and a team, and when we are in post-production, I don’t have a lot to do with that.
I am in charge of game events in south China, because I am one of the founders of CiGA (China indie Game Alliance) so I helped organize Global Game Jam last week for example.
The most joy I get, no matter what I do, is to be acknowledged by others. When players say my games are fun, it brings me much happiness. If the audience say my documentary is worth watching, I would be happy. When participants have a good time at the events I organize, it makes me happy too.
But what I love to do the most, in the end, is game development, although people might know me for other