Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
Minecraft's iconic Steve character will finally land on Chinese computers and smartphones thanks to a licensing deal with a Chinese game publisher.

Minecraft’s iconic Steve character will finally land on Chinese computers and smartphones thanks to a licensing deal with a Chinese game publisher.

Sam Machkovech

When Microsoft opened its wallet in 2014 and traded $2.5 billion for Mojang, the public broadly nodded in agreement. That’s right, the creators of Minecraft. Those guys are worth a lot of money.

But all the doubters questioning that skyrocketing valuation saw another feather fall on Microsoft’s cap this week: Minecraft‘s PC and smartphone versions are finally coming to China. On Friday, Microsoft and Mojang announced the start of a “five-year exclusive partnership” with Chinese software publisher NetEase, Inc to roll out the game in Chinese computer and smartphone markets. The game’s Chinese rollout date and release details are yet to be announced. , and neither company has confirmed how much money was exchanged for the deal.

China doesn’t hurt for games originally published in the West, but minecraft is arguably the world’s most popular video game. Microsoft was able to release the game on Xbox One consoles late last year, but those consoles have yet to penetrate the Chinese market to the extent that PCs and smartphones have, and the fact that even Microsoft had to license the game to someone else instead of releasing it from launching its own campus in Shanghai is a stern reminder of the obstacles that stand in the way of Western software developers.

“By far the most challenging aspect of doing business in China is dealing with the government,” said former PopCap executive James Gwertzman at the 2010 Game Developers Conference (which I covered for a previous employer). There, he gave one of the most elaborate speeches in recent memory about the launch of Western games in the communist, regulation-heavy nation.

Do you want to release video games in China?  Time to file paperwork for as many as six permits.
Enlarge / Do you want to release video games in China? Time to file paperwork for as many as six permits.

PopCap Games

Game publishers must obtain a total of six licenses to launch a game in China, and most of those licenses cannot be obtained by foreign companies. As a workaround, Gwertzman suggested to the GDC crowd that interested companies “should work with a local partner … or marry someone from China and let them open the domestic business. That’s a common approach.” In the case of his previous role as PopCap executive, Gwertzman clarified that “we can’t be a publisher in China as a foreign company – we have to be a developer working with local publishers.”

Microsoft is presumably in the exact same regulatory boat, and the choice of partner is telling; NetEase already has a great western gaming reputation thanks to its partnership with megawatt gamemaker Blizzard. The company currently handles the Chinese publishing duties for every major Blizzard video game, and it will soon publish the company’s next major shooter title, Overexpected.

Coming soon: bad press about the name “Steve”?

Six years ago, Gwertzman’s speech predicted a battle Microsoft and NetEase could soon face if they roll an official Minecraft game out to China. It starts with government regulations.

Shortly before the Chinese government rolled out rules on social-mobile video games, a flurry of negative articles appeared in the state-run press.
Enlarge / Shortly before the Chinese government rolled out rules on social-mobile video games, a flurry of negative articles appeared in the state-run press.

PopCap Games

“Whenever the government is about to regulate something in China, a lot of scary articles appear in the press first,” Gwertzman said. At the time, he talked about an increase in social networking gaming on sites like RenRen. The country’s state-run press reported negatively on these kinds of video games, complete with horror stories about dying children. Soon, the government instituted rules prohibiting certain behaviors in those games, including “stealing” other players’ in-game items and mafia-style game concepts.

But in a recent phone interview with Ars, Gwertzman suspected so Minecraft will probably avoid such unnecessary attention with the upcoming launch. “Minecraft is on the right side because it encourages teamwork and learning,” he said. “I get it Minecraft as the perfect example of a game that will gain public support [in China].”

Even though six years feels like an eternity in media and pop culture, Gwertzman’s speech still stands out for China’s rapid changes in media regulation. Rules about licensing and locally run businesses haven’t evolved much, as companies like Netflix can attest, while the only major change on the game-specific side of regulation comes in the form of lifting the country’s notorious ban on consoles (although that elevator still came with a lot of strings attached).

Now the CEO and co-founder of back-end technology provider PlayFab, Gwertzman says most of what he said in 2010 still applies. The main caveat is that game publishing has become a lot smoother thanks to fewer rules for publishing on mobile platforms like the App Store. That said, he continues to believe that “bigger” games with massive multiplayer communities are more likely to be “closely watched” by the government.

“You need a local partner in China,” Gwertzman told Ars. “NetEase is on the shortlist of major publishers working with Western companies, and Tencent is another of the giants. There aren’t many others. It makes sense for Microsoft to look for a partner, and it shows how complicated the The China market is. Microsoft has one of the largest presence in China of any Western company, but despite that huge presence, even Microsoft has to establish such a partnership.”

China’s mix of internet café culture and smartphone gaming popularity is likely to be a good fit for a series like Minecraft, but the country’s longstanding penchant for microtransaction games (as opposed to fully licensed purchases) makes the core game a little harder to sell. Expect the Chinese version of the game to either require a subscription for online access or put a heavy emphasis on paying for the “skins” and costumes. In addition, Gwertzman points to local culture conversions as an important factor in a Western series selling well in China, saying that PopCap’s Plants vs Zombies did not take off overseas until it launched in a “Great Wall” edition.

This article has been updated to reflect the 2015 launch of Minecraft on Chinese Xbox One consoles.

By akfire1

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