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China’s new gaming rules to ban poker, blood and imperial schemes

Posted by | Asia, China, Gaming, Government, iQiyi, netease, Netflix, online poker, Tencent, video gaming | No Comments

Lots of news has surfaced from China’s gaming industry in recent weeks as the government hastens to approve a massive backlog of titles in the world’s largest market for video games.

Last Friday, On April 10th, the country’s State Administration of Press and Publication, the freshly minted gaming authority born from a months-long reshuffle last year that led to an approval blackout, held a gaming conference and enshrined a new set of guidelines for publication that are set to move some to joy and others to sorrow. TechCrunch confirmed with an attendee present at the conference and a source close to the SAPP that the event took place.

On April 22, China finally resumed the approval process to license new games for monetization. Licensing got back on track in December, but Reuters reported in February that the government stopped accepting new submissions due to a mounting pile of applications.

The bad news: The number of games allowed onto the market annually will be capped, and some genres of games will no longer be eligible, according to information communicated at the gaming conference. Mahjong and poker games are taken off the approval list following a wave of earlier government crackdowns over concerns that such titles may channel illegal gambling. These digital forms of traditional leisure activities are immensely popular for studios because they are relatively cheap to make and bear lucrative fruit. According to video game researcher Niko Partners, 37 percent of the 8,561 games approved in 2017 were poker and mahjong titles.

While the new rule is set to wipe out hundreds of small developers focused on the genre, it may only have a limited impact on the entrenched players as the restriction applies only to new applicants.

“It won’t affect us much because we are early to the market and have accumulated a big collection of licenses,” a marketing manager at one of China’s biggest online poker and mahjong games publishers told TechCrunch.

China will also stop approving certain games inspired by its imperial past, including “gongdou,” which directly translates to harem scheming, as well as “guandou,” the word for palace official competition. The life inside palaces has inspired blockbuster TV series such as the Story of Yanxi Palace, an in-house production from China’s Netflix equivalent iQiyi . But these plots also touch a nerve with Chinese officials who worry about “obscene contents and the risk of political metaphors,” Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at Nikos Partners, suggested to TechCrunch.

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Screenshots of Xi Fei Zhuan, a mobile game that lets users play the role of harems to win love from the emperor. Image source: Superjoy Interactive Games

Games that contain images of corpses and blood will also be rejected. Developers previously modified blood color to green to circumvent restrictions, but the renewed guidelines have effectively ruled out any color variations of blood.

“Chinese games developers are used to arbitrary regulations. They are quick at devising methods to circumvent requirements,” a Guangzhou-based indie games developer told TechCrunch.

That may only work out for companies armed with sufficient developing capabilities and resources to counter new policies. For instance, Tencent was quick to implement an anti-addiction system for underage users before the practice became an industry-wide norm as of late.

“Many smaller publishers will have a harder time under this new set of regulations, which will require them to spend extra time and money to ensure games are up to code,” suggested Ahmad. “We’ve already seen that many smaller publishers were unable to survive the temporary game license approval freeze last year and we expect to see further consolidation of the market this year.”

China has over the past year taken aim at the gaming industry over concerns related to gaming addiction among minors and illegal content, such as those that promote violence or deviate from the government’s ideologies. To enforce the growing list of requirements, an Online Game Ethics Committee launched in December under the guidance of the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party to help the new gaming regulator in vetting title submissions.

More than 1,000 games have been approved since China ended the gaming freeze in December, though Tencent, the dominant player in the market, has yet to receive the coveted license required for monetizing its hugely popular mobile title PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

Uncertain waters in the gaming industry have wiped billions of dollars off the giant’s market cap and prompted it to initiate a bigger push in such non-game segments as cloud computing and financial technologies. NetEase, the runner-up in China’s gaming market, reacted by trimming its staff to cut costs.

The article was updated to correct the date for the gaming conference and clarify that the new guidelines were announced at the conference.

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NetEase is the latest Chinese tech giant to lay off a big chunk of its staff

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Asia, business, China, Didi Chuxing, e-commerce, eCommerce, Gaming, JD.com, layoff, netease, public relations, Southeast Asia, Tencent | No Comments

NetEase, China’s second-biggest online games publisher with a growing ecommerce segment, is laying off a significant number of its employees, adding to a list of Chinese tech giants that have shed staff following the Lunar New Year.

A NetEase employee who was recently let go confirmed with TechCrunch that the company had fired a large number of people spanning multiple departments, including ecommerce, education, agriculture (yes, founder and executive officer Ding Lei has a thing for organic farming) and public relations, although downsizing at Yanxuan, its ecommerce brand that sells private-label goods online and offline, had started before the Lunar New Year holiday.

Multiple Chinese media outlets covered the layoff on Wednesday. According to a report from Caijing Magazine, Yanxuan fired 30-40 percent of its staff; the agricultural brand Weiyang got a 50 percent cut; the education unit downsized from 300 to 200 employees; and 40 percent of NetEase’s public relations staff was gone.

A spokesperson from NetEase evaded TechCrunch’s questions about the layoff but said the company is “indeed undergoing a structural optimization to narrow its focus.” The goal, according to the person, is to “boost innovation and organizational efficiency so NetEase can fully play to its own strengths and adapt to market competition in the longer term.”

NetEase CEO Ding Lei pictured picking Longjing tea leaves in Hangzhou. Photo: NetEase Yanxuan via Weibo

Oddly, ecommerce and education appear to be some of NetEase’s brighter spots. The company singled them out alongside music streaming during its latest earnings call as the three sectors that saw “strong profit growth potential” and “will be the focus of [the company’s] next phase of strategic growth.” The staff cuts, then, may represent an urgency to tighten the purse strings for even NetEase’s rosiest businesses.

The shakeup fits into market speculation about company staff cuts to save costs as China copes with a weakening domestic economy. JD.com, a rival to Alibaba, is firing 10 percent of its senior management to cut costs, Caixin reported last week. Ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing plans to let go 15 percent of its staff this year as part of a reorganization to boost internal efficiency, though it’s adding new members to focus on more promising segments.

Alibaba took an unexpected turn, announcing last week that it will continue to hire new talent in 2019. “We are poised to provide more resources to our platforms to help businesses navigate current environment and create more job opportunities overall,” the firm said in a statement.

2018 was a tough year for China’s games companies of all sorts. The industry took a hit after regulators froze all licensing approvals to go through a reshuffle, dragging down stock prices of big players like Tencent and NetEase. These companies continue to feel the chill even after approvals resumed, as the newly minted regulatory body imposes stricter checks on games, slowing down the application process altogether and delaying companies’ plans to monetize lucrative new titles.

That bleak domestic outlook compelled NetEase to take what Ding dubs a “two-legged” approach to game publishing, with one foot set in China and the other extending abroad. Tencent, too, has been finding new channels for its games through regional partners like Sea’s Garena in Southeast Asia.

NetEase started in 1997 and earned its name by making PC games and providing email services in the early years of the Chinese internet. More recently the company has intended to diversify its business by incubating projects across the board. It has so far enjoyed growth in segments like music streaming and ecommerce (which is reportedly swallowing up Amazon China’s import-led service) while stepping back from others such as comics publishing, an asset it is selling to youth-focused video streaming site Bilibili.

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Selfie app maker Meitu eyes overseas gaming market with $340 million deal

Posted by | Asia, Beijing, China, Gaming, Garena, hardware, huawei, meitu, netease, New York, smartphone, smartphones, Southeast Asia, spokesperson, Tencent, Xiaomi | No Comments

China’s largest selfie app maker Meitu has been busy working to diversify itself beyond the beauty arena in China. On Wednesday, the Hong Kong-listed company announced in a filing that it has agreed to pay about HK$2.7 billion ($340 million) for a 31 percent stake in game publishing company Dreamscape Horizon.

Dreamscape Horizon, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed games group Leyou, specializes in making video games for personal computers and consoles, and owns 97 percent of Canada-based studio Digital Extremes. This global connection will potentially hasten Meitu’s overseas expansion, and the foray into games, on the other hand, will help the Xiamen-based firm capture more male users. (Operating out of Xiamen might have also been convenient for Meitu to meet the coastal city’s booming hub of game developers.) Out of Meitu’s 110 million monthly active users overseas, only 30 million are male.

“The collaboration with Leyou is not only focused on mainland China but also the global market,” says a Meitu spokesperson in a statement. “Mainland China currently accounts for the majority of Meitu’s earnings. The acquisition will broaden our business scope and diversify the geographic streams of our income.”

The overseas move appears to be a tactical one as the domestic gaming market is crowded with established players like Tencent, NetEase and hundreds of smaller contenders. The local environment has also turned hostile to gaming companies as Beijing steps up scrutiny amid concerns of titles being violent and harmful to young players. The result was a months-long halt in game approvals that dragged down Tencent’s stock prices and prompted a major reshuffle in the giant. And before long, Tencent announced it would deepen its ties with Garena to distribute games in Southeast Asia. The hiatus ended in December, but companies are still feeling the chill as China is reportedly mulling a further pause this week.

Meitu is most famous for its suite of photo-editing and beautifying apps, but hardware has been its major income source for years. For the first half of 2018, the company generated 72 percent of its revenues from selling smartphones optimized for taking selfies, a category proven popular in a country where touched-up photos have become the norm. But Meitu’s hardware business is shrinking as smartphone shipment slows in China and phones from mainstream brands like Xiaomi and Huawei now come equipped with filters. It has, however, found a new home for its barely mainstream smartphone brand after Xiaomi gobbled it up in November to lure more female users.

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China finally grants a game license to Tencent

Posted by | Asia, Beijing, China, game publisher, Gaming, ma huateng, netease, shenzhen, Software, Tencent, WeChat | No Comments

Tencent has finally come out of a prolonged freeze on game approvals as Beijing granted licenses to two of its mobile games this month.

According to a notice published Thursday by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, Tencent is one of nearly 200 games assigned licenses in January.

That’s big news for the Shenzhen-based firm, which has seen its share price plummet in the past months because the licensing halt crippled its ability to generate gaming revenues. Tencent is best known for its immensely popular WeChat messenger, but games contribute a bulk of its earnings.

Both games approved are for educational purposes so are unlikely to generate income at the level of Tencent’s more lucrative role-playing titles, such as Honor of Kings. Tencent has been at the center of government criticisms on games deemed harmful and addictive, and the firm has subsequently introduced so-called “utility games” in 2018 designed to promote traditional Chinese culture, science and technology.

That said, the tech giant could be raking in big bucks from a third-party game that also got approved this week. The title comes from China’s third-largest game publisher, Perfect World, with exclusive publishing rights handled by Tencent.

“The game is the mobile version of the extremely successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game with the same name,” Daniel Ahmad, an analyst at market research firm Niko Partners, suggests to TechCrunch. “We note that Perfect World Mobile is a core game that is set to be a high revenue generating title when it launches.”

China resumed its game approval process in December after a nine-month hiatus during which it worked to reshuffle its main regulating bodies for games. However, it left Tencent, the country’s biggest game publisher, and runner-up NetEase off its first batch of approved titles that month.

NetEase also scored its first post-freeze license in January and had better luck than Tencent, winning a nod for a multiplayer online role-playing game.

Despite the thawing, industry experts warn that approvals will come at a much slower rate than before as Chinese regulators look to more closely monitor game content, putting the burden on developers and publishers to decipher new industry rules.

“The size of the gaming company does not matter. It matters how fast the company can be adapting to the new set of rules and guidelines,” Shenzhen-based game consultant Ilya Gutov told TechCrunch in December.

“As the review and approval process for games resumes, we are confident that Tencent will be producing more compliant and higher-quality cultural work for society and the public,” a Tencent spokesperson said in December, highlighting its plan to churn out content that fits into China’s ideological agenda.

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