China's censorship of mobile apps and games: a death knell or opportunity for some game developers?

China´s tight grip on it´s people's access to information is sadly nothing new but the recent banning of mobile games and apps without SAPPRFT approval has certainly scuppered many developers´ plans and potentially wiped out some small Chinese studios.

But I'm seeing a silver lining, at least for one of our forthcoming titles.

Here´s the trailer for BIG Bad English. It´s a game for Chinese speakers to learn useful English by throwing them into realistic, branching conversations.

It´s sink or swim. You will learn rapidly, build your confidence and sharpen your reflexes through humiliating immersion mixed with social combat.

Under the SAPPRFT rules, a game cannot have any English words. So that is definite Game Over for my plans to submit it for approval.

My first reaction when hearing about the new regulations was to quietly close my laptop, walk calmly to the garden before flailing madly at the heavy bag.

Then I thought briefly that maybe our game could actually be in line with the Censor´s ideals because the core gameplay involves battling obnoxious Westerners who try to seduce and undermine you.


A few weeks ago we released an update to our mobile game Woodland Run and the stats don't lie. The game has been getting a steady amount of installs in China despite the SAPPRFT clampdown on mobile games so it got me thinking that people will always find a way to circumvent blocks and restrictions.

Even with the tightening of the Great Firewall perhaps the sheer volume of crafty Chinese mobile gamers may make the Chinese mobile market app viable.

China has the numbers

A digestible nugget which helps put the enormity of the opportunity in perspective is that China´s population of 1.35 billion makes up close to 20% of the Earth´s population while my little country of Ireland contributes just 0.06%.

It has been estimated that between 90 to 100 million people in China use a VPN or other low tech tricks (like changing their App Store to another country) to bypass the Great Firewall so it hypothetically still is a huge market

Can you actually make money with your game or app in China if in-app purchases cannot be made and ad interactions are not counted?

So we know the BIG Bad series of language learning games will never officially make it past the censor but let´s say 0.001% from the 100 million with VPN access does.

It would definitely boost daily and monthly usage metrics nicely and we´d get a tonne of analytics data. Well maybe not...cautious Chinese players would probably opt out of sharing any

data but surely sizable installation numbers are a plus for any studio.

However, we could potentially be in the odd situation of having zillions of downloads from China and not making a bean.

Confused app developers report not seeing any Admob impressions despite healthy Chinese downloads. Google is banned outright in China (Drive, Play etc too) so forget about in-app sales on Android.

We definitely got in-app iOS purchases from China in Woodland Run. Maybe the censor is a fan.

Give it away. It always comes back.

Having been involved in small press comix publishing for years I´ve come to learn that it always comes back to you. You may spend a relative fortune on getting your product into other´s hands for free but eventually you will reap the rewards even if indirectly.

There are close to 3 million Chinese version speakers in the USA alone and I'm sure some are keen to master natural and real world English skills so there would definitely be a knock-on effect from being a popular or even popular pirated app within China.


But it´s got me thinking...the tech savvy Games of Thrones loving, Overwatch deathmatching Chinese person who will always find a way to get around the restrictions must already have a high level of exposure to English...and maybe they actively want to learn English.

An unapproved arcade mobile game like Woodland Run or Crossy Roads installed through VPN chicanery most probably has no direct financial benefit for the developer but a free, episodic educational title like BIG Bad English might flourish.

What if we embrace the subversive appeal of a being a “banned learning system?¨

I’m not talking about overtly political messages but just acknowledging it as you play as a Chinese person trying to make it in the English speaking world.

In every BIG Bad game there is a Bureaucracy Hell level where Benji needs to deal with angry and incompetent civil servants. For example in BIG Bad Spanish he needs to get his holiday visa extended while in Mexico. You're put on hold, you trundle from floor to floor, department to department and are bounced from building to building trying to get the elusive stamp or document.

So in the Chinese we've decided Benji is a game developer trying to get his game approved by SAPPRFT.


Bob @clamnuts

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Woodland Run is now available on iOS and Android.

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