It’s been a little under two weeks since new regulations were put into place by the SAPPRFT regarding the publishing of Mobile games in China. If you missed my previous article on the topic then I strongly suggest you read it first as it will help understand the overall situation as well as this article.
When the new regulations went in place on July 1st, Chinese developers found that their publishing tools, such as iTunes connect, would not allow them to publish their games without a code from the Government that proved their game had been approved. It is now known that SAPPRFT are taking this very seriously and we’re already seeing the impact from this. Below I’ll be discussing some new developments as well as responses from the SAPPRFT themselves. Whilst the responses do clear up some uncertainty about the new regulations, they also open up new questions and there is still some confusion as to how this whole thing will work and how it is of benefit to developers.
The first point I’d like to raise is how small developers are not happy with the new regulations. Many of them have already taken to social media to voice their complaints and some have a very valid reason to do so. A couple of developers, who submitted their games for approval, had the game rejected by the Government for having English language in the game. Now I should make clear that the game was indeed in Simplified Chinese, and only a few words were in English such as ‘Mission Start’ & ‘Lucky’. The English words weren’t vulgar or overused and some of them such as ‘HP’ were just common abbreviations of known words like ‘Health Points’. The only way the developers can get their game approved is to remove the English words and then resubmit their game into the back of the queue. A process that could be long and costly for a small independent developer.
This is an odd thing for SAPPRFT to regulate but they do point out that this regulation has always existed, but it’s never been enforced before. If you read my article on console games in China you’d know that they too have to be in Simplified Chinese in order to receive an official release in China, but I personally I can’t recall a time when they were so strict as to block a game from going on sale for having English text in the game. In fact I’m fairly sure that all foreign games published in China retain some English text and even Chinese games use plenty of English text in game as those uses are understood by nearly everyone across China. Many developers believe that this is a pointless regulation, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if big publishers don’t have to adhere to it, given how many of their games include English text.
SAPPRFT have been quick to respond to many of the complaints with stock answers that most would expect. Whilst a lot of it is just PR, some of them are fairly reasonable explanations and could actually benefit some. For example, SAPPRFT note that the Mobile market has grown to be huge in 2016 and so they want to make sure that the market continues growing whilst rooting out problems seen in the market today. Many games are poor quality, work against the interest of Chinese people, or are pirated apps from big games. They note that these type of apps go against the interests of the entire industry, which is true, and that the regulations they’ve put in place are essential to facilitate a healthier market for mobile games. The note about piracy will certainly give big Chinese & Overseas publishers some confidence in the Chinese market. Although, a Pokemon Go clone is the number 1 most downloaded game in China today (July 11th) so it doesn’t seem to be having any impact right now. It’ll be interesting to see just how strict the regulations will be against pirated apps and whether this actually will root out what is a huge problem with the app store today.
One other complaint that SAPPRFT addressed was the policy that required developers to send in a phone with the game pre installed + active SIM card in order for the game to be approved. Whilst the actual wording was somewhat ambiguous, the SAPPRFT have clarified that this is one of three options in order to get your game approved. You can actually just send the APK to them, which they will download and install on a test phone. Alternatively you can send your own phone in with the game pre installed in order to control the test environment yourself. That is one policy which has been cleared up, and I’m glad it has as it was ridiculous to expect all publishers to send in a phone with the game pre installed.
SAPPRFT also cleared up another unclear policy. With the news that some games would be processed in less time, rumours started to spread that there would be a ‘fast approval’ option and that if you paid you’d be able to get your games approved in less time. In fact, plenty of middle men started to pop up on sites like Taobao that offered intermediary services that promised to get your game approved faster at a small cost. Thankfully SAPPRFT has said that these services are illegal and that there is no fast path process to get your game approved. They note that they’ll be cracking down on anyone offering this type of service. They also clarified that the approval process is free of cost to developers. Whilst this is excellent news, it won’t stop small developers from worrying how the long approval process will affect them in an industry where making mobile games is all about getting the app on the store as quickly as possible and using the profits to start development on the next project. Long approval times will end up costing these small developers both in time and money, even if the actual process itself is free.
It is also worth noting that some small developers may not even be eligible to have their games approved without approaching a publisher. One of the requirements for having your game approved is to hold a publishing license and lots of indie developers will not have one. Many may not even be eligible to apply for one. What this means is that a number of small developers may find themselves having to partner with a larger publisher just to get their game approved. Not only will this take time, the publisher will be entitled to take a cut of the earnings which means this new process will give indie devs a small cut of what they would be earning could they self publish their games. There is still a lot of uncertainty around this regulation and how it will work for small developers but at first glance it seems like this is just another regulation that favours big publishers in China and is detrimental to the small guys.
Whilst a number of these regulations, such as the one about preventing piracy, can be seen as good and a step forward, the majority of regulations are seen as bad. Not only do developers have to have every game approved, which could take months, they also have to make sure their games abide by all regulations, that they have all the right licenses, and that they themselves can afford the cost of the whole process. Many in China are predicting that this will affect the growth of the industry as small developers decide to stop making mobile games. Big developers and publishers could also be affected as some games may now be blocked due to having too much violence or going against another cultural rule. However most big publishers, who have the funds to get around these regulations, will not be affected. Especially as many big publishers will no doubt try to work with the Government to get their games approved faster. We could be looking at a very different mobile market within China in just a few years from now, one where only big publishers are successful and there is no indie developers.
Some indie developers have gone as far as to sue the SAPPRFT. Shanghai based Chen Yu has started a crowd funding campaign to raise money in order to launch a legal case against SAPPRFT. His complaints are based on everything that I’ve written in this article and the previous one, that these regulations will have dire consequences on small developers whilst favouring big developers who can afford all of the big changes. Chen believes that many of the new regulations, such as having to obtain a publishing license/publisher, having to censor their games, and having to wait months on end for approval will mean the small developers will stop making mobile games as the return will not be enough for them after going through the process. It’s obvious to anyone that Chen will not win a court case against SAPPRFT. But what he may be able to do is raise awareness about the issues facing small developers and in turn the SAPPRFT may change the approval process in order to be more accommodating of small developers.
It’s a very interesting time to see what will happen to China’s mobile games industry. Right now I don’t see the regulations having too much of a negative effect on big publishers in the country. They will no doubt continue to publish games in a timely manner and as the majority of revenue in China’s mobile market is generated by big publishers, I don’t see it drastically impacting growth of the overall market. But small developers may find that they need to sacrifice their independence and find a job at a big publisher in order to continue making mobile games.
(I posted about the impact on foreign games in my last article, please read that to understand more)