Now, when all that remains of the year is leftover Christmas food and Steam’s annual end-of-year sale, we have an opportunity to take a look at 2018 in the rearview mirror before it fades into oblivion. And that is exactly what I am about to do now! No, I won’t bore you with a summary of the video game year 2018 with its loot box controversies, bankrupt game studios and annoying Fortnite obsession. I am gonna go much narrower, nerdier and more personal than that. I am gonna attempt, in an admittedly over-simplified way, to describe what I discovered about the Chinese indie phenomenon during the time I spent mingling with its key people. But before we dig into it, I will just give you a tiny bit of context so you understand how a Scandinavian fella like me ended up in a position to say anything interesting on this topic.
At the beginning of this year, I came to China for the first time and was quickly and thoroughly introduced to the growing Chinese indie game community by my generous hosts and fellow video game nerds at indienova. During the coming seven months I wrote a long and boring paper on the Chinese indie phenomenon based on interviews and surveys I conducted there. I will in this article briefly present the gist of it so you don’t have to read through 102 pages of academic grinding and raw data.
What could possibly be a less relevant and interesting topic than the definition of indie? Not a lot I wager! But squeeze in “China” somewhere in that question and suddenly it gets a lot more interesting. In China, an indie developer is not referring to one of those million-pixel hipsters and unrestrained geeks that floods the market with so many games that you’ve simply given up keeping track of what’s new. But to understand what Chinese indies are all about you must know a thing or two about the Chinese game industry and its market first:
China is home to two of the game industry’s real titans: Tencent Games and Netease. The former one, which is a subsidiary of the multinational investment conglomerate Tencent Holding Ltd, is not just China’s, but also the world’s biggest game company. Together, Tencent Games and NetEase had annual revenue of 23,7 billion dollars last year. How is that possible? Well, most people in China owning a device with display play games. As you can imagine, that amount to quite a lot of gamers in a country with the population of China. This year, that number measured to 619,5 million gamers, and a game industry worth 37,9 billion in revenue. That makes China’s game market the biggest in the world!
“So, there must be plenty of consumers to sell your games to?” you exclaim enthusiastically, imagining a paradise for those indie game developers who want to spread their works. Well, that totally depends on what you mean by “indie”. In China, indie is not as much of a matter of team size, publishing independence or simply not being AAA as it is a matter of dissociating oneself from a set of tendencies commonly observed on the Chinese game market.
When describing the meaning of independent game development to me, the developers I’ve met in China didn’t describe it as a David and Goliath scenario between small and big studios, but rather as the relationship any developer has to his or her work. More specifically, “being indie” meant deriving ones motivation from passion rather than commercial gain, as well as a willingness to go against the trends of the market.
The by far most popular types of games in China apart from casual games are competitive multiplayer like Battle Royales, MMORPGs, and MOBAs, especially the free-to-play kinds. If you are a developer that explores less popular genres or try to invent a new concept altogether, you will end up producing games for the minorities, and to willingly do that requires a certain passion for creating games. Luckily, some developers in the country have that passion, and those are the indies of China. To them, the opposite to an indie game is not necessarily a AAA game, but rather what they call a “commercial game” - a game which is designed for the sole purpose of generating money, often on the expense of the games artistic integrity.
One example of such games is the endless number of copycat games produced in China, sometimes given attention in the West for bluntly copying already existing works and reskinning them. There have even been cases where big companies like Blizzard is attempting to sue Chinese game studios working with copying others for plagiarism.
Another type of game very common to the Chinese market is so-called Kejin (氪金), which directly translate to “charging money”. Kejin games are often free to download and play, but includes a lot of in-app purchases, and often mandatorily demand player’s pay for better experience and even pay-to-win models. This kind of games is often commercially successful in China.
Contrary to all these variations of games, one developer told me that to her, “indie game” referred to an original, single-player, premium game. All indies might not agree on that very specific set of qualifications, but what they all seem to have in common is that they pride themselves of being driven by self-expression and creative aspirations rather than commercial interest. I dare to say that this attitude alone makes them highly valuable for the development of the country’s domestic game industry, as it puts them in the vanguard of innovation and creativity that drives the game medium forward. Because in all honesty, China is not a country known for its cultural exports, and video games are not an exception to that. For example, the people I met in China knew more Swedish video games than I knew Chinese games, which is odd considering the size of the respective industries. The reason for that is not that China can’t make good games, because they can (and do), but rather that the skill and creativity of the country’s developers all too often are used to create products that feel neither interesting nor original.
With all this said, I am just getting to know the Chinese game industry and it’s growing the indie game community, and I know that as soon I can say something fairly accurate about it, it has already changed. That’s just the rate things change in the vibrant and unique landscape of the Chinese game world.