Level Up KL 2022 saw many of the gaming industry’s best and brightest pass their wisdom on to like-minded up-and-coming developers and one of them was Neon Doctrine CCO and Co-Founder Vladyslav (Vlad) Tsypljak who told us more about the process of publishing games, particularly in China.
Vlad Tsypljak got his start at EA as a QA specialist but soon found himself as a community manager at Frontera Games in Taiwan. Using what he learned about the Asia-Pacific gaming industry he later co-founded his own game publisher: Neon Doctrine in 2015 where he holds the position of CCO.
In his Level Up KL 2022 Talk Vlad spoke more about what indie developers can do to get their games picked up by publishers but in our interview, he went into more detail about the publishing industry itself, particularly his company’s dealings with China.
There are a number of strict laws in China regarding video games. Minors in the country are not allowed to play games for more than 3 hours a week and each video game must be approved by the government before it can be published in the region. This can cause a lot of issues for Chinese developers as well as foreign developers looking to bring their games to the Chinese vast market of gamers. Here’s more on the topic from Vlad:
You guys have experience publishing games in China which have strict rules on releasing games. What is the difference between publishing games there and publishing games globally?
Vlad: Oh, man! That’s a whole other talk! It changes every several months but right now [October 2022] if you’re a foreign developer, you cannot publish games in China. That means you can’t publish the game on local Chinese platforms like Steam China, BiliBili or others. You can still release your game on Global Steam and if it has a good enough Chinese translation and local marketing you could still reach the Chinese audience but it’s becoming more complicated because the official rule that they’re starting to enforce is that the game needs government approval and also needs approval to be advertised, marketed and streamed in the country.
As a foreign developer, you can’t do it, it’s impossible if someone says they can do it for you, they’re lying. So far, they’re still going through the backlog of several years and it’s only Chinese-developed games that can get approval. It’s only about 60-70 games per cour, about 300 a year that get approved for now but they froze it last year and now it’s open again so the situation is super volatile and it’s not getting better.
Also, 80% of the games getting approved per cour are mobile games, 3-4 are PC games, and then another 2-3 are console games. The Chinese Switch E-shop has around 12-15 games on it in total and that’s it. PlayStation and Xbox are just dead in the water. Steam China has like 130 games on it compared to Steam Global, it’s like nothing and the sales aren’t there either, it’s barely 1 percent of the sales in the region. So yeah, the short version is if you’re a foreign developer, you can’t do it.
How has the approval process affected you?
Vlad: We are in a unique situation because we own a company in China and we have an import/export license, we have the government stamp of approval to release games in the Chinese market so we’re in a great position. Honestly though, besides us, there is nobody else from foreign companies.
The process changes every time. Now they have a five-point system where they judge the games based on five different elements: quality, technical ability, religious themes, political themes, and I forgot the other one.
There are a lot of rules and regulations you need to make. There are multiple reasons you might need to change the games. For example, you can only have simplified Chinese in your game, no other languages. If you have any textures or street signs in other languages, they need to be redone in simplified Chinese.
Then you need to implement a lot of SDKs [software development kits] from the government, one is to track the chat since certain words are not allowed to be typed, I’m sure you can guess which ones. Then you need to implement an age gate that will access the person’s webcam so the webcam can activate and check the person’s ID and age. This is because of recent acts that say kids can only play up 3 hours a week. Their other SDKs you have to implement to track that so that they can’t use their parent’s ID to get into the game.
And there is a bunch of other stuff you have to implement into the game. No violence, gore, blood, skeletons, time travel, religious themes, political themes, and more.
For any games that you publish in China, do you have a clause for what happens if it fails approval?
Vlad: We don’t sign games just for China. With foreign games, there is no clause because they can’t get published on Chinese platforms. That’s the end of the story. We still do the PR and marketing and localization but there’s zero chance they can ever go through the process.
With Chinese games that we sign, it’s just a waiting game because developers don’t have any other options either. If they don’t get the approval they can’t really publish it on Steam global either because they’ll go to jail otherwise. It’s just a waiting game.
Sometimes you hear that people in mainline China are playing foreign games, how do they do that if the games are banned
Vlad: Because the ones that got the license back in the day still have the license. It’s new games that can’t get the license and a bunch of them get shot down for all sorts of reasons. For example, Capcom spent so much money trying to get Monster Hunter World to China and they got it. They released it together with Tencent but two days later the Monster Hunter movie comes out. The Monster Hunter movie from America has an offensive joke about China. The Monster Hunter movie gets banned in China and the Monster Hunter game gets removed. Tencent loses billions of dollars from that. There is no clause, if it happens it happens.
People can still get them from Steam and Stuff like that. In the past, the way it worked was just piracy websites. If they ban Steam global, the process will probably just revert back to that. People are just going to pirate games or websites are going to set up paywalls to sell pirated games which they have done in the past.
Can you share some opinions about game preservation between gaming studios and publishers?
Vlad: A lot depends on the contract you sign. If it’s a successful game, as part of your contract, either the developer or the publisher may work on a port. The contract will decide who maintains the code and maintains operations, as well as for how many years are they going to maintain operations because it’s not going to be indefinite.
A lot of it depends on your own agreements with the developers or vice versa with the publishers. They may outsource the ports. There’s a big debate within the industry about saving games after they’ve been released. After 10 or 15 years how can we keep in a file all of these titles that are released so far no one has found a solution other than ROMs which are illegal.
We love a good bit of whimsy in our games, but whimsy sometimes comes in the form of spending too much of your budget on a Hollywood actor or something like that. As a publisher, what is your tolerance for whimsy?
Vlad: It really depends. We try to make the most of the money we spend when it comes to marketing and promotion and stuff. If it makes sense and it’s something cool we can try out we’ll keep pushing it, if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. Within reason though.
Let’s say that you’re hiring a cameo artist to do a 20-second clip on Twitter. Depends on the game and budget, if it’s a big-budget title maybe we’ll be willing to spend money but if it’s like an indie game perhaps not. It costs around 3-5K USD to make one of those 20-second clips but then they’re like, oh if you wanna use it for marketing and commercials, then the costs just keep on coming and it ends up being 4k so no. If it’s a bigger game we’ll consider it but it depends on the scope and budget of the game and if it makes sense.
You also have to remember that all of the money spend on marketing also goes on to recoup. It’ll have to be paid back eventually. That being said, different publishers operate differently. Some of them have a lot of marketing budget but generally, that’s why you have a minimum spend and a maximum spend in your contract so you can’t over and under-spend.
There’s been a lot of discussion about minimum guarantees, ever since the Epic Game Store came out. What do you think about that kind of lavish minimum guarantee?
Vlad: For us, we always say no. If you want us to pay you for the opportunity to sign your game, well you can just kindly f*** off and find someone else.
From our perspective, we would rather spend that money actually marketing the game and making it better than just giving the developer money just because they want money. If it’s money so they can run their studio, pay the salaries, rent the office, or buy some equipment or software, that’s fine but if it’s just because they want money then no. They can find someone else.
What do you think console storefronts could do better about getting indies out there?
Vlad: Well, one thing is that they can provide more data for us to evaluate like how many wishlists is the game getting and if we’re getting enough visibility. With Nintendo for example, you can’t see the number of wishlists, they have that data but they don’t share it. A lot of it comes down to accessibility and making it more user-friendly because a lot of the backend systems for different console platforms are still the ones that were designed and used in the 90s for physical distribution.
There’s a lot of old stuff in there and some of the certification processes can be very confusing and overwhelming, especially for first-time developers. There’s no tutorial or anything. They [console manufacturers] are trying to improve it, they try to run workshops and things like that so it is getting better but I’d say a lack of knowledge and transparency about how the backends work is one of the biggest hurdles. We also can’t talk about a lot of it because it’s under NDA.
Getting Devkits can also be hard especially if you’re in Southeast Asia. [In some countries] You just can’t get a dev kit, they’ll just take it away at the border. So that’s a big issue. But it’s a bit better because developers can remotely use dev kits in other countries. Still getting the physical ones into this area can be a challenge.
In recent months there’s been a bit of animosity between indie publishers with a lot of bad actors out there. As an indie publisher, what do you think the good ones need to do to restore trust?
Vlad: More transparency. That is one of the reasons we set our contracts public so at least there is some awareness to see what a decent structure looks like with these kinds of things. A lot of the stuff is still being super gatekept so unless you’re in one of the fancy circles you don’t know what’s happening especially in SEA, the Middle East, South America, and Africa. Unless you are a white dude in North America or Europe it’s very difficult to get into the scene. So definitely more transparency and just sharing the knowledge.
We’re thankful to Vlad Tsypljak for taking the time to do this interview. While the game industry is starting to open up more in terms of developers and programmers letting their voices and experiences be known, the publishing side of the industry is still something we don’t often hear about. This is especially true when dealing with regions like China and Southeast Asia.
Vlad’s insight into these subjects is worth noting for any who wishes to develop and publish games in the region or those that just want to know more about the publishing process in general.
For more information on Neon Doctrine and their publically available publishing contract, check out their official website.