American McGee Sets the Record Straight on China's Game Policy

Mike Wehner | 27 Nov 2012 17:00
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MW: Would you consider it to be easier to develop games from China than in the U.S.? Why or why not?

AM: Game development, no matter where in the world you do it, is a difficult task requiring careful coordination of multiple disciplines and personalities on a (frequently) daunting scale. Doing it in China doesn't make it easier or harder - just makes it different. Is eating Chinese food with chopsticks easier or harder? Once you get the hang of it, it's just different. Everyone runs around Thailand wearing t-shirts that read "Same same, but different". It's like that.

MW: On the flip side of this, what are the benefits of developing from within China? Are there any government programs that assist in either promoting gaming as a hobby or offer a hand in making titles currently in development more appealing to the Chinese market?

AM: There are a multitude of government and industry programs in place that provide things like incubation or investment funding, resource acquisition assistance, university to work programs, discount or free housing for businesses, tax breaks, cost breaks (on hardware, data centers, etc), and other forms of direct or indirect support for businesses small and large. My personal belief is that a business should be built to sustain itself from the outset without support from government or institutions and that's how we've built Spicy Horse. This belief was born out of (and reinforced by) years of witnessing other businesses scale too fast on government assistance, then flame out when the subsidies vanished. I feel strongly that one reason Spicy has remained when others have failed is that the studio has always been self sufficient and only as big as the market demanded.

In so far as government might encourage hobbyist game developers or indies - not so much. The Chinese game industry is a license-driven oligopoly (only government licensed operators can publish to the market). That means the existing players have absolute control over the delivery channel to the consumer and can effectively dominate every rung of the ladder from hobbyist to indie developer to competing operators entering the market. The free market equivalent would be the high barrier to entry posed by ever increasing costs to develop games for consoles - and the difficulty of publishing to shelves dominated by the top 5 Western publishers. How easy is it to be a hobbyist PS3 developer? Both systems are bad for customers and business in the long run, but both are experiencing disruption in the form of mobile gaming.

MW: As the Chinese videogame market grows, does the government appear to be easing its grip on just what type of content is published, or is it the opposite?

AM: Just as the ESRB eases its "grip" as consumer tastes and sensitivities change over the years, so too does the Ministry of Culture update its policies. In fact, foreign advisors are now being invited to help shape the guidelines so that publishers and developers can release a wider range of content. Keep in mind that from the perspective of a particular regulation body - in most countries - the goals are quite similar: encourage domestic growth of an industry while ensuring consumer "safety". The definition of safety might be disputed - but I personally like the idea that the Chinese government actively works to suppress superstition and cults throughout games and media. China is a secular country and has regulation in place to maintain that. Carl Sagan would love that aspect of China (while likely hating other things, but he's dead, so hey).

MW: Are Chinese gamers as sensitive to these changes (in games like Homefront, for example) as the government appears to be? Do you get the impression that, if a game was released with China as the main antagonist, that gamers would boycott or otherwise refuse to play it?

AM: Because Chinese gamers have their own massive internal games industry to enjoy they spend no time thinking about sensationalist promotion from THQ's PR department or the content of Homefront. How many gamers in the US know the names of any of the Chinese titles that generated 10x more revenue than Homefront (that's almost all of them, btw)? Or what changes the Chinese version of the ESRB might have asked those developers to make to those games prior to launch?

If a game were released in the US (with China as the antagonist or not) it would go unnoticed by the vast majority of Chinese gamers. But, like in the US, there is a highly vocal segment of the Chinese gaming community - and they might decide to get up in arms about China being portrayed as the bad guy. Same as certain groups in the US might get upset at a Chinese videogame suggesting that the US military industry complex is the most evil and violent organization the world has ever known. But then they'd flip to the next picture on the Chinese equivalent of Imgur and forget all about it.

MW: Lastly, what does the future look like for the Chinese videogame market? As gaming becomes an increasingly popular hobby the world over, what changes -- if any -- will need to be made with the way the Chinese government reviews and approves interactive entertainment?

AM: If I knew this I'd be a super rich man in five years. Sadly, from where I'm sitting, all I can say is "growth and more of it". The Chinese game industry is already the world's largest and continues to grow at double-digit percentages every year. If they continue at this pace they'll probably take over the global game industry - and then all your skeletons will have to put some flesh on. Scary.


I'd like to thank American McGee for taking the time to offer some insight on what - at least from his experiences - seems to be an overblown demonization of China's policies regarding movies and games. When it comes to different cultures, it's always important to have an inside perspective, and in this case a friendly reminder that it's not just China that has guidelines in place regarding certain types of content.

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