Gaming is serious business in China

China is home to more than half a billion game users – and Auckland game developer Allan Xia wants to help New Zealands gaming industry tap into the opportunities the market offers.

China has 575 million game users, is home to the world’s largest gaming company, and has a gaming market that has doubled in revenue in five years.

But New Zealand has a way to go when it comes to engagement with China’s video game industry, says Auckland illustrator and indie game developer Allan Xia, who is helping bridge the gap between the gaming sectors.

In August, Xia collaborated with NZTE to host a Chinese delegation at the New Zealand Game Developers Conference (NZGDC18).

The visitors comprised a delegation from the gaming department of Chinese tech giant Tencent – now the world’s largest gaming company  as well as Jade Jiang (director Nexus, a Chinese game community hub and incubator) and Zifei Wu (founder of Pathea Games, which develops the Chinese indie hit My Time At Portia).

NZ game developer Allan Xia

Allan Xia is founder of boutique creative agency Kognika, and the Auckland biennial indie arts festival Chromacon. (Photo: Asia Media Centre)

The visitors’ programme saw them presenting at the conference, participating in a roundtable with New Zealand industry players, and meeting New Zealand game developers.

Tencent is Asia’s first company to pass the US$500 billion (NZ$744 billion) market cap. But despite its scale, it wasn’t hard to get the company to agree to meetings with small Kiwi developers, Xia says.

“We’re in somewhat of a honeymoon phase – there is a real synergy between the need for diverse new content and innovation in China, and creativity from New Zealand developers.

Even for giants like Tencent, content is king. Unlike our traditional export industries, the size of the company doesn’t matter as much as the talent and originality behind truly engaging experiences.”

Roundtable event with participants from the China & New Zealand gaming industry

Participants from the China and New Zealand gaming industry took part in a roundtable during the NZ Game Developers Conference. (Photo: Richard Dunsheath)

‘Significant’ potential for Kiwi games in China 

New Zealand Trade Commissioner to Guangzhou Richard Dunsheath says NZTE partnered with Xia on the visit because of his collaborative approach.

“Allan is passionate about games, supporting New Zealand’s creative industry and bridging New Zealand’s partnership with China.

China’s gaming market is growing rapidly and has doubled in size since 2013, says Dunsheath.

“You see people playing games everywhere in China – in subways, cars, restaurants, while walking in the parks. The players are not your stereotypical gamer – for example, I often see elderly people or businesswomen playing with friends at lunch.

Kiwi games have “significant potential” in China, says Dunsheath. “Our ideas are creative and innovative. We have over 30 games companies in New Zealand, many of which are top-rated and award-winning.”

According to a survey of New Zealand Game Developers Association studios, developers earned a record $143 million in the financial year ended 31 March.

Dunsheath says: “The biggest challenges for New Zealand game companies growing in China are finding the right partner and structuring a win-win relationship; protecting your intellectual property; and localising the game to meet local standards and to appeal to the Chinese players.”

Woman playing game at arcade

The gaming market in China is growing rapidly. (Photo: Asia Media Centre)

Low awareness in New Zealand

Xia says New Zealand’s awareness of the rapid growth and evolution of China’s games industry and market remains low.

“It still surprises me that many New Zealand developers lack a strong China strategy, or they look at it through the past. If there is one thing that’s certain about China, it’s that it is always changing.”

He has been surprised by the number of people who don’t recognise Tencent’s name – particularly when the company bought a controlling stake in Auckland’s Grinding Gear Games in May.

Xia led his first “art tour” to China last year, organising a pavilion representing five Kiwi game companies at the WePlay Games Expo in Shanghai. He also led a team of multi-disciplinary Kiwi creatives to the Chengdu Creativity and Design Week. 

Unfortunately, WePlay clashed with the annual PAX Australia gaming convention and he struggled to attract developers away from a more familiar event. “I talked to quite a few developers and received responses such as, ‘I thought everyone pirates in China?’

“For developers who have released commercial titles in the past few years, it would have been easy to notice the number of Chinese users rising dramatically on Steam [the largest PC games platform].”

Xia’s background (he was born in Sichuan, China) means he can read Chinese-language reviews of games on Steam, which often feature requests from Chinese users for localisation support.

Wellington’s Peter Curry, one of the developers of strategy simulation game Mini Metro, was the only developer who travelled to China with Xia.

Mini Metro already has a successful audience in China, so Peter understands the potential of the market,” Xia says. “Many Chinese fans and game developers were stoked to meet Peter in person and Mini Metro even ended up winning an award in Chengdu."

Mini Metro is an example of good game design crossing cultural barriers in China, he says. “Since Mini Metro is about designing your own subway map, it’s actually more familiar to Chinese audiences than Kiwis, since many major cities have robust subway systems."

Rapid changes in the Chinese market

The market is also changing quickly. Console games were only legalised in 2015, having been banned in 2000, and mobile and PC games continue to dominate the market. The past couple of years have seen a proliferation of platforms and rapid growth in users, with players hungry for new experiences.

My Time At Portia is one example, Xia says. The best-selling Chinese indie game of 2018 (300,000 copies sold globally; 140,000 in China) is part of a new trend in which China can drive global sales.

“It sold so well in China that it bumped the title onto the best-selling charts on Steam for just over a week, and that started the snowball of Western sales. It’s shifted around now; the market in China is so big it can affect the West. “

But Xia warns the sweet spot might not last long.

In the past, video games released on Steam were not subject to the same ratings and approval processes as the Chinese film industry. The government have already begun tightening regulation, he says. Games on Tencent’s new games distribution platform, WeGame, are subject to regulation.

Xia has his own company, Kognika, and he’s the founder of Auckland biennial indie arts festival Chromacon, which aims to connect New Zealand artists, illustrators and designers with the wider public – showcasing their original creations and innovative ideas.

He himself is working on a commercial version of a game he developed for an exhibition at Auckland Museum last year, working with writer Renee Liang. Golden Threads, a “choose your own adventure” interactive experience, explores 175 years of Chinese immigration to New Zealand. 

Golden Threads game

The stories in Golden Threads are inspired by real historical figures and events.

Hes found Chinese companies are interested in the project – and with the support of New Zealand Film Commission funding, he’s now working to expand the “edutainment” game’s storyline to include other countries that have a history of Chinese immigration. 

“This part of history isn’t really taught in China as well, and I’ve found many are interested in the subject matter.” 

Xia plans to head to China in November for another “Chroma Art Tour”, and is working towards establishing partnerships with Chinese organisations to allow for ongoing exchanges. The programme will include showcasing New Zealand developers at the WePlay Games Expo and attending the CiGA development conference in Shanghai, and visiting studios, developers and publishers in other Chinese cities.

China’s gaming industry and market is at a critical stage with big changes and exciting new opportunities, Xia says. He sees a need for Kiwi developers to maintain contact regularly to cross-pollinate ideas and build long-term strategies.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes, but I think the expectations need to change and that requires people to go to China.”

– Asia Media Centre

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