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How Apple is allowing gamers in China to play Grand Theft Auto

Loopholes in the system and Steam's grey market: A crash course in how games are bought (and sold) in China

Video gaming
This article originally appeared on ABACUS

If you want to do business in China, you have to play by China’s rules. The gaming industry is no exception.

Plenty of games have been blocked from sale in China. Sometimes it’s because of content: The gore and nudity of the Grand Theft Auto go against guidelines banning games with obscenity, violence and drugs. And sometimes it’s a bureaucratic snafu, like the case of Monster Hunter: World -- caught up in an organizational mess that means no games have officially been approved for sale since March.

Oh, and only Chinese companies can apply for licenses -- so any foreign game companies have to partner with a local company if they want to sell their games in China.

But that doesn’t mean literally zero games have appeared in China since March. Turns out, despite the all-powerful reach of the authorities, there are other ways for people to get their games.

Apple’s loophole

You know how I said Grand Theft Auto isn’t available in China? Officially speaking, it’s not available on PC or console. But GTA San Andreas is on the iPhone.

The Information spotted a loophole in the system: The iOS App Store in China.

Selling your game on the App Store in China used to be as easy as selling it anywhere else in the world. In 2016, authorities cracked down, demanding that Apple check the publishing licenses of games. So Apple complied, asking game makers to provide their license number when submitting a game.

But asking for a license number is one thing. Actually checking that number is another.

Turns out that game developers learned how to game the system, because The Information says that putting in any number in that field is enough to pass the check and get a game published on the App Store.

Ta-da! Now Grand Theft Auto is on sale in China.

Gamers in China are protesting by refusing to accept refunds for Monster Hunter: World

It’s not the same story on Android. The Google Play Store is blocked in China, so most apps and games are distributed on a variety of local app stores -- and those are subject to far more stringent checks than Apple’s “give us a number, any number” license check.

But it might not be this way forever: Luis Wong from Indienova points out that Apple has also been feeling a lot of heat from the government in recent years. For instance, the government has gone after VPN apps on Apple’s App Store, demanding that they be removed.

How does a game get approved in China?

Getting a game approved at all in China is an ordeal in itself. But it’s made even more difficult by two departments merging.

Look, this bit is kinda boring and complicated, so we drew it out for you:

Complicated, right?

In summary: You have to jump through a whole bunch of hoops to get your game published. But you can’t even do that right now, because one of the departments is merging with another department -- and while they’re restructuring, they have not approved any more game licenses for sale. This has been going on since March.

There is no clear indication as to when this licensing freeze will be lifted, with the South China Morning Post saying that it’s likely to last for another four to six months as the government works on the new licensing system.
But it’s worth noting that China’s gaming industry has already taken a huge financial hit as a result. For instance, Tencent, the world’s top grossing games publisher, has seen US$271 billion wiped off its market value since January.

But there’s another way…

The final option for Chinese gamers is one that the country’s hardcore gamers have used for years: Steam.

Steam is not officially available in China, and the government has banned Chinese citizens from joining discussions on Steam… but they haven’t banned the store itself.

GTA V? It’s on Steam. Monster Hunter: World? It’s on Steam. Almost everything available elsewhere in the world is available in China on Steam, and it’s how gamers in the country have been surviving.

But gamers have long worried that their magical solution may be short-lived -- that the government will shut down Steam for good, like Facebook or Google.

With that in mind, you’d think that an official version of Steam in China would be welcomed by gamers -- but it’s not. Gaming company Perfect World is teaming up with Valve to launch an official version of Steam for China, but gamers worry that it will be a heavily censored version, with a small subset of games available on the global version.

But the other way to look at is that Chinese gamers are a rebellious and vocal bunch. So of course, they don’t want any regulation.

This isn’t the first time that Chinese gamers had to face heavy-handed regulations. Remember, the Chinese government tried to flat out ban console gaming for 15 years, but the market eventually came to life. And now China is the most sought-after market in the gaming business.

It’s like what Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.”

Steam is finally coming to China… but gamers think it’s dead on arrival


For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.