On Dec. 8, 2022, Genshin Impact was nominated for the Best Ongoing Game and Best Mobile Game and won Player’s Voice at the Game Awards 2022. The ceremony is considered one of the most prestigious events in the gaming industry. Genshin Impact received the most nominations from the Game Awards of any Chinese-made game. A video game developed by Chinese game developer miHoYo, Genshin Impact was first released in September 2020 and quickly gained popularity for its stunning visuals, engaging gameplay, and compelling storyline. With unprecedented and continued success, many believe Genshin Impact is the benchmark and future of the Chinese video game industry.
Building on Genshin Impact’s success, in February of 2022, miHoYo rebranded itself to “HoYoverse.” The statement HoYoverse released indicated that the company seeks to expand and “aims to create and deliver an immersive virtual world experience to players worldwide through a variety of entertainment services.” KK Chen, a game design student at the University of Southern California (USC), has played Genshin Impact for two years. KK argued miHoYo’s rebranding allows the company to compete against Tencent and NetEase Games, the two most prominent companies in the Chinese video game industry.
Despite Genshin Impact’s success, many voices are still doubtful of Genshin Impact’s impact on the Chinese video game market. Several oft-mentioned problems of Genshin Impact include difficulty differentiating from Japanese animation, suspected plagiarism and China’s restrictions on the video game industry. Many Genshin Impact players and video game developers have different views on the game itself and the Chinese video game industry
An important feature of Genshin Impact is its cross-platform playability across multiple devices, attracting many mobile phone user players. David Kwon, an undergraduate student at USC, was recommended by his friends to play Genshin Impact. “They told me Genshin was like a mobile game, and I could play it on my iPhone,” Kwon explained that device compatibility was one of his largest issues with other video games. Cross-platform playability allowed him to play Genshin Impact on a mobile device.
Chinese Culture in Genshin Impact
Jun Ishibashi, a USC student working as a game developer for Vireal, a student-owned virtual reality game company, said, “If you look at the Chinese video game market, most games are owned, at least partially, by Tencent. miHoYo is quite independent but also tries to bring out traditional Chinese values in the game.”
Many non-Chinese players assumed Genshin Impact was a Japanese game because of its anime-esque style. However, Genshin Impact distinguishes itself from other anime-style mobile games by highlighting Chinese culture at the same time. KK argued incorporating cultural elements is one of the strategies for the game to pass the government’s game review and receive positive reviews from Chinese players.
Ishibashi argued that one of miHoYo’s successes was its appeasement to the Chinese government. “[In] one of their character’s launch videos, 神女劈观 The Divine Damsel of Devastation, the character sings 京剧(Peking opera), which was conducted by Yu-peng Chen 陈致逸, a Chinese musician who graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. That won the approval from the government by categorizing the game as 文化遗产 intellectual property.”
“During 2022’s Spring Festival, Genshin Impact released a video titled “神女劈观 (The Divine Damsel of Devastation)” KK argued in the video, the game character Yunjin sings a Chinese opera song that highlights traditional Chinese culture. According to his research, Chinese elements in video games are attractive to Chinese audiences. “Chinese culture will give Chinese players a sense of cultural identity, so they want to learn more about the game.”
Genshin Impact’s Backlash/Copyright Issues
Kwon said that although Genshin Impact is one of the most well-known mobile games, the game doesn’t have a strong reputation. Kwon argued fans accused Genshin Impact of having a toxic fandom culture; some players obsess over characters and ignore the controversies surrounding the game.
A Chinese student, Tyrazx Li, has played the game since 2021. Li said, “Even though I played quite a few years of miHoYo’s games, I know how this company copies other games, like Devil May Cry, Monster Hunter, and NieR: Automata. I know miHoYo is not violating copyright, but it’s still obvious. You take a glance at it and you know where it comes from. I am just a player, but I don’t want to promote this in the industry.”
Regarding the criticism that Genshin Impact received, such as copying the Nintendo game Legend of Zelda, Ishibashi argued, “Games borrow from each other a lot. Even as small game developers, we borrow from other games. You always borrow things that are successful. I don’t think it’s bad to borrow something good; Genshin Impact definitely made the game more appealing and more accessible. You just have to do some game development to understand what copying a game is. I wouldn’t criticize it just because it borrowed from the other games.”
Supporting Ishibashi’s perspective, Dmitri Williams, a professor of communications at USC and long-time researcher of the video game industry, argued, “First of all, the game industry is full of people copying ideas. The same as it is in writing books, making TV shows, or making music. That said, the Chinese game industry as well as Chinese technological industries are certainly more guilty than others on average for stealing ideas and IP. With blatant knockoffs, this has become part of the Chinese industrial complex to see a superior product somewhere else and then to copy it and make it better, faster, and cheaper without giving rights or licenses to the original producer.”
On ways that China could change its bad reputation on plagiarism, Professor Williams said, “If China were part of an open and free market and were subject to the decisions of some kind of international body that would adjudicate these kinds of issues, then it could be seen as a full and fair partner. But China set itself up to be a separate place, and it said ‘We don’t have to pay attention to your rules, we are different, and we are special,’ and therefore, it excluded itself. So most of the world sees China as a cheater in the system, so there’s no respect, which I think is the thing that China wants the most. But you won’t get respect as long as you are playing by a different set of rules.”
Challenges for Game Industry in China
KK also addressed bureaucratic concerns about game development in China. “In China, there’s a strict audition policy, and the games need a banhao (版号, Version Number) from the government before they get published. In the past few years, the policies got stricter, there were fewer games able to get published.” KK argued, “[If] these policies continue, it could constrict the game producers to make game content.”
Ishibashi argued, “The game [feels] more like a Japanese game; in that sense, the government has tried to crack down on the games being too animated in recent years. The game verification guidelines indicate that when you launch a game in China, it has to go through the hands of the Chinese government. They have to review it for appropriate content, things that benefit the party.”
Ishibashi explained government restrictions are one of the main reasons Chinese video game companies are expanding to overseas markets. “From what I heard, the Chinese game industry is expanding outside because of the restrictions on it. The whole [political] environment at the moment is against the game culture in China. China is implementing policies that disable the user from playing video games for a limited amount of time (the current policy is 3 hours a week for the players who are under 18 years old).” Ishibashi indicated that the Chinese markets and investors are concerned that the consumer market in China is too tiny, encouraging Chinese game companies to seek opportunities overseas.
Additionally, the barrier that the Chinese government’s policy created applies both inside and outside the Chinese game market, which has limited the growth of the Chinese game industry. Professor Williams argued, “Because of the way the Chinese Central Party has set policies in China, there are pretty significant trade barriers … The Chinese government put a substantial barrier to entry for U.S. firms to do business in China primarily by saying that any business has to give away the majority of their interests to the local Chinese partner.”
Chinese Game Industry Culture
Cai, a student from China who has worked in the mobile game industry as a communication specialist, thinks the current Chinese mobile game industry treats games as products. Companies only want to duplicate profitable games. “[In] the American video game market, they try to win the reputation; they have competition that brings out good video games that are considered art. But in China, it’s more ‘Let’s create a product, and this product can bring us profit,’ and that’s enough. It’s two different cultures. That’s why a lot of video games are making a lot of money but are not good art.”
Future of the Chinese Game Industry
Cai said, “The Chinese game industry has a long way to go. It’s impossible to see changes in 10 years for the Chinese game market. Chinese parents think video games are toxic and are like drugs, while the companies and investors treat video games as crap. It’s just not a good place, it doesn’t have nutrition or soil for video games to grow, and they don’t really have the ability to grow art in that land.”
At the moment, Professor Williams believes content restrictions toward games in China will not be reduced. “Right now, there are a lot of cultural and political reasons to have policies. On the one hand, it’s trade protectionism from outside forces … and then there’s also lots of social control with what kinds of content the CCP think is appropriate. It has a significant policy of what kind of games would be okayed and approved by the government … And then also these ideas are around for what is culturally appropriate for minors, and CCP has significant controls around the time played by people under 18. It’s possible that that may get even stronger because of the cultural and political pressures on the CCP to be seen as protecting children and upholding their set of values. The system of barriers and government-supported piracy leads to a lack of innovation, and the closed intellectual boundaries at the border lead to a lack of intellectual growth and discussion, and progress. Until that changes, I doubt you will see the individual firms change their behaviors. You may see more successes like Genshin Impact when a Chinese developer bucks the system and does something different.”
The development prospect of China’s game industry is still full of difficulties. Although games like Genshin Impact are full of controversy, they make Chinese games stand out in the world game market. We can only continue to follow up on the changes in the policies related to Chinese culture and games and hope that the policies will be relaxed in the future.