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How the Xbox One and PS4 are helping bring Chinese indie games to the West

For 14 years — starting in 2000 — the Chinese government enforced a ban on video game consoles. Between 2014 and 2015, both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 made their long-awaited and overdue debut. Microsoft described its release as a “monumental day” and celebrated by lighting up the Shanghai skyline in bright Xbox green. Sony’s chief executive Kaz Hirai told The Telegraph that “I think that we will be able to replicate the kind of success we have had with PS4 in other parts of the world in [China].”

The appeal of the Chinese market is obvious. It has massive population and a rapidly expanding entertainment culture. While the mobile and PC markets are already flooded with games, the console space remains a largely untapped source of potential customers.

But the launch of consoles in China isn’t just good for companies like Microsoft, Sony, and game publishers looking to reach a new market. It has also helped open the doors for a small but growing community of indie game creators in China hoping to reach outward to the rest of the world world. “Making mobile games is not something we are good at,” Beijing-based developer Gao Ming says of his studio Spotlightor Interactive. “What we are good at is console games. Those are the kind of games and communities that we have enthusiasm and dedication to make games for. We now have this chance.”

Xbox Shanghai skyline

The Shanghai skyline in Xbox green
Microsoft

Today sees the launch of Candle Man on Xbox One, Spotlightor’s first console title. The company was originally founded in 2009 by Ming and partner Ma Xiaoyu, and got its start producing interactive design instillations for a range of commercial clients. In their spare time the team would tinker with game ideas, and in 2014 the studio released its first game Chrono Express on iOS. But while the mobile market is dominant in the country, it’s not Ming’s passion. “A lot of Chinese indie game developers grew up playing console games instead of mobile games,” he explains. “I’m one of them.”

He initially created Candle Man as a prototype for the Ludum Dare game competition in 2013, in which the goal was to design a game around the vague theme of “10 seconds.” His interpretation was a sentient candle who could walk and light itself, but could only stay lit for a limited time before it would die. Eventually he put an early version of the game on the web portal Kongregate, where it caught the attention of Chinese publisher E-Home Entertainment and Microsoft’s id@Xbox indie games program.

The latter development has led to some opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available to the studio. In addition to bringing the game to its console, Microsoft has featured Candle Man at its booths at events like the Game Developers Conference and PAX West, introducing it to a large audience of developers, press, and enthusiasts. “These opportunities are very valuable for Chinese indie game developers like us,” says Ming, “who concentrate on design and development of the game, but don’t have much connection with the public.”

Candle Man first released on the Xbox One in China last year, and — unlike most Western indie games launching in China — it only underwent a small amount of localization before its global launch. The team worked with an American writer for the dialogue, which has a distinct fairytale vibe, while an English actress took on the role of the game’s narrator. Candle Man is a fairly straightforward 3D platforming game, but its storybook presentation and light-centric gameplay give it a darker, more somber feel that fits nicely with the relaxed gameplay.

Spotlightor Interactive

Spotlightor Interactive’s Beijing studio
Spotlightor Interactive

The game joins a small list of Chinese indie games that are coming to consoles in the US. Last March, developer Dotoyou launched Koi on PlayStation 4, published by Oasis Games through the new Sony Computer Entertainment Shanghai label. “There are lots of game developers here and China is predicted to have a high growth in console gaming,” Oasis’ Martho Ghariani said at the time, “but for this to happen local developers have to have a way to reach gamers outside of China.” The company followed up Koi by publishing a number of Chinese-developed titles for PlayStation VR.

None of these games have been a breakout hit yet, but Ming believes it’s only a matter of time. The important thing, he says, is for indie game developers in the country to focus on making personal experiences, and not chase international success. He likens it to Chinese rock music and animation during the 1970s and ‘80s.

“The music and animations by that time had caught attention from overseas, but the interesting thing is those works were not created for the overseas market,” Ming explains. “They were made for the local audience in China. So, I think nowadays, it’s not necessary for Chinese indie game developers to start by striving for the international market, and becoming an international studio who only works in China.”

“What we need is to be ourselves,” he adds. “And be good at it. Make games that we find interesting and moved by; only then will we have a chance to gain attention and acknowledgment from players abroad. I believe cultural products like this should always be local and personal.”


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