A number of weeks ago, we published a Critical Intel column titled “The China Syndrome”. Rob Rath’s piece examines the perceived issues game developers and filmmakers have reportedly dealt with in regards to including Chinese antagonists in their work, and the compromises made in order to localize media for the Chinese market.
American McGee lives and works in China, and is the founder of Spicy Horse games, the company responsible for the popular American McGee’s Grimm and Alice: Madness Returns. He has been involved with the videogame industry for nearly two decades, with credits dating back to early id games such as Doom II. So, when the opportunity presented itself to speak with him regarding our Critical Intel piece, and the country he calls home, we simply couldn’t pass it up. What follows is the complete interview.
Mike Wehner: American, first of all thank you for taking the time to answer some questions to give our readers a bit of perspective on just what it’s like to live and develop games while being based in China. Our recent Critical Intel piece details some of the issues that both movies and videogame have had finding a home in the Chinese market.
American McGee: Happy to participate. I’d like to start off by saying that my initial reaction to that article was that part of me wanted to write a response but another part of me felt that the writer’s underlying agenda and/or complete lack of knowledge on the topic would make it a waste of time. Also, I don’t want to apologize for China’s internal policies – anymore than as an American I want to waste time defending the US engagement in never-ending global warfare. Neither situation is to my liking, but these are things largely outside of our control. So, my biggest issue with the article is not that someone should stand up for the Chinese Ministry of Culture – but that such a factually inaccurate and aggressively slanted article shouldn’t go unchallenged.
MW: Some games, like Homefront, were reportedly pressured to change the antagonist of the story from China’s People’s Liberation Army to North Korea’s military force in order to avoid any conflict with various Chinese entities. Even seemingly innocuous titles like Football Manager 2005 came under fire for including Chinese sports teams.
AM: Before getting to your questions I need to first knock down the Homefront straw man. It appears the writer used this piece from Kotaku as his source. First off, Homefront was never intended to sell to a Chinese audience. There was no “pressure” from the Chinese government. And being a 360/PS3 game, it isn’t allowed for sale in China, regardless of content – just as all 360/PS3 games are banned from sale in China and have been for 10+ years.
Next, the suggestion that the “exec team will be banned from entering into China” is ridiculous. As if some Chinese government department spends time researching which Western videogame (which only sell in the West) might offend and then links publisher executives to the title and bans those executives from entering the country? This would be akin to the ESRB (yes, I know it’s not a government agency, but you can’t go to retail in the US without it) maintaining a list of which Japanese developers participated in the creation of Japanese-only “Schoolgirl Up-Skirt Mosquito Adventure” and ask the TSA to ban them from entering the US.
There are numerous instances in the article where the Ministry of Culture (and the Chinese government by extension) is cast as a vengeful, worry-inducing and wrathful agency bent on punishment and blacklisting. This writer (and readers) should examine the regulatory bodies of nations around the world – he’d likely explode in a fit of outrage out how the US DOT handles import licensing on electric vehicles manufactured outside the US (effectively making it impossible for Americans to afford this safe and efficient form of transportation.) Governments create and enforce regulation. So what? Don’t like those regulations? Don’t do business in those countries.
MW: On the outside, this makes the Chinese media market look extremely intolerant of, well, just about everything.
AM: Again, readers should take a moment to think about all the game content from around the world that’s NOT allowed into the US. Where the US openly accepts hyper-violent content and bans pixel sex, the Chinese ban hyper-violence and are also none-too-keen on amorous avatars. The Chinese have regulations – same as most places in the world. That those regulations don’t align with our expectations shouldn’t invite words like “intolerant”. This is just bad reporting. Who are we to dictate what’s acceptable when it comes to content guidelines in countries other than our own?
MW: As the main man behind Spicy Horse, have you experienced any pressure from any Chinese government entity to either tweak, or outright remove, any aspect of the titles you’ve put out?
AM: No. Over the past 6 years we’ve created titles for release online (Grimm, BigHead BASH, Crazy Fairies), at retail (Alice: Madness Returns), on mobile (DexIQ, Akaneiro, etc.) and for marketing purposes in China (worked with Coke on a product-launch marketing game). I’ve seen all of these titles in one form or another in China. Never once has anyone asked us to adjust the content contained within.
When it comes to publishing directly in China, which we’ll soon do with Crazy Fairies, some minor changes will be required -putting flesh on characters who are mainly skeletons in the International version, for example. This is no different from having to remove the blood on Alice’s Vorpal Blade for the box cover of the original PC game. You follow the regulations, submit to the Chinese equivalent of the ESRB, make changes as needed, and then publish. If you get it wrong on the first submission, they don’t arrive with pitchforks and burn your studio down.
Our interaction with Chinese government has mostly come when they visit the studio. The mayor of the district we’re in or our local government officials like to stop by for photo ops and to check out our “high tech” industry. We get nothing but support and kindness from them.
MW: Did you experience any hurdles in building a game company within China that you might not have had issue with elsewhere?
AM: Of course! Those hurdles are what make it worthwhile – what make it interesting to me. But compared to the idea of an evil Culture Ministry lording over our developments, those challenges are quite mundane. There’s bureaucracy, regulation, standing in line at the bank, jumping through hoops to get business licenses in place – but these things exist in one form or another everywhere in the world.
MW: What are the biggest development differences you’ve experienced (or biggest changes you’ve had to make in the way you operate) when moving from the U.S. to China?
AM: I get to speak Chinese with the people in my studio on a regular basis?
Seriously, it would require a full-blown book to explain all the lessons learned and outline the differences that drove that learning. Probably the most critical lesson of all was “be flexible”. I’ve witnessed many entrepreneurs arrive in China with the goal of changing or “fixing” things (usually overnight). They bring with them foreign ideas about production methods, building company culture, growing a business or instilling external values in local teams and almost always end up angry and disappointed. Then they either learn to be flexible or they fail.
For me personally, I’ve had to be more humble, more willing to admit when I don’t know something, more open to learning new things each and every moment of every day, more sensitive to the people around me (especially when it’s a culture not big on direct expression), more willing to ask for help and rely on others, more patient and more thankful. I don’t take things for granted here – what’s been built has been built the hard way by people (including myself) learning as they go. Lots of mistakes get made, but a lot more knowledge gets generated in the process. Overall, the experience has been hugely rewarding – and despite the challenges, I feel lucky to be here in the middle of it all.
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.