Genshin Impact, a smash hit from China, beats Japan at its own game

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Genshin Impact, a smash hit from China, beats Japan at its own game

TOKYO — One of the world’s hottest mobile video games, Genshin Impact has all the characteristics of a Japanese invention: giant robots; human sized swords; characters with huge eyes and pointed, rainbow-colored hair; And a strange fixation on women in maidservant clothes.

There’s just one catch: It’s sugar.

Released in late 2020, the game is the first real international smash hit for China’s video game industry. In its first year in the market, it made $2 billion, a record for mobile games, according to Sensor Tower, a firm that tracks mobile apps. And, unlike other popular Chinese sports, it is believed to have derived most of its revenue from overseas.

The game’s success points to a changing balance of power in the $200 billion a year global video game industry, long dominated by Japan and the United States.

With cash flowing in from the country’s vast domestic market, Chinese developers are looking to develop overseas. They see Japan – the world’s aging video game superpower – as a ripe target, and Chinese companies have begun buying up Japanese talent and taking lessons learned from years of imitating Japan’s industry leaders. started implementing.

In some respects, China has begun to outpace its Asian neighbor. It has built world-class engineering capabilities over a decade of outsourcing work to Japanese video game companies, and Chinese companies like NetEase and Tencent are investing in game development the kind of investments their Japanese competitors can only dream of. Huh.

But Genshin Impact also reminds that China’s video game industry may have achieved technological mastery, but it still faces significant creative shortcomings. Although it has some Chinese elements, Genshin is an almost picture-perfect reproduction of one of Japan’s most popular video game genres: fantasy role-playing games.

The game’s creators at the Shanghai-based company miHoYo, proudly refer to themselves as “otaku”, a Japanese term often used to describe people whose lives include Japanese pop culture such as manga and anime. Aspects are consumed.

The game’s reliance on Japanese motifs is a powerful demonstration of that country’s considerable soft power, and China’s limited return on its efforts to manufacture the same. China’s video game sector, like the rest of its entertainment and culture industry, has struggled to produce distinctive, original content with international appeal – a symptom of its authoritarian government’s tight control over business and society.

Even though China has grown into an economic Goliath, it has had difficulty shaking the image that it is better at copying other people’s ideas than it is at coming up with its own.

Still, imitate it or not, Genshin is a nod to many insiders of the challenges facing the Japanese video game industry. Under fierce competition from the United States, Europe and, now, China, it has relinquished its once dominant position over the past two decades.

Even many of those who initially dismissed the game as cheap knockoffs have been won over by its quality and attention to detail. From a technology, art direction and game play perspective, Genshin represents a huge leap forward for China, said Yukio Futatsugi, chief executive officer of Grounding Inc., a game developer in Fukuoka, Japan.

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“To be honest, it’s a good game,” he said. He said it made a lot of people in his industry think “we’re in trouble.”

Genshin is notable for its fantasy world-building and wide appeal not only across countries but also across demographics: the game is unusually popular with women.

Dozens feature tons of female characters that players can use to explore a vast empire, visit dungeons, battle monsters, and a mysterious traveler embroiled in a war between humanity and the gods. You can complete quests to advance the epic narrative of the story.

In what may be a first for China, Genshin’s mythos has inspired the kind of global backlash that has long-defined success for Japanese games: cosplay, fan art and endless online dissection of characters and their magical kingdoms, Tayvat. (this was it most mentioned Game on Twitter in 2021.)

Players in Japan have mostly seen Genshin as a tribute or knock-on to the latest entry in the country’s most beloved fantasy game franchise: The Legend of Zelda.

Generous borrowings from the game’s most recent chapter – called Breath of the Wild – are mixed with a grab bag of references to other Japanese cartoons and video games, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s film “Castle in the Sky” and Roll. -Playing game Dragon Quest.

Mihoyo added a new area to Genshin, called Inazuma, which is based on Tokugawa-era Japan, to overcome initial suspicion among Japanese players.

The illustration isn’t necessarily positive: the country is a cloistered, xenophobic archipelago shrouded in radioactive fog. But for Japanese players, those negative aspects have been overshadowed by positive portrayals of Japan and its video game culture, said Yusuke Shibata, who runs a YouTube channel where hundreds of thousands of players watch him play the game.

Japan accounts for about one-third of Genshin’s revenue, even though play time and downloads – at least on mobile – lag behind the country’s top domestic games.

Genshin is free to play, but it has generated a dragon’s collection of revenue from Japanese games through another concept: charging players for a chance to win new characters and powerful equipment. The concept is known as gacha, a Japanese term used to describe the country’s beloved capsule toys.

Players win prizes through a lottery system, and their chances of getting the best – many of which are only available for a limited time – vanish. This temptation to gamble has garnered complaints from players and regulators both in Japan and China, but miHoYo has allayed those fears by making it entirely possible to play games without spending a dime.

It is one of several Chinese games that have broken into the Japanese market – the other on a smaller scale. Only four years ago, Japanese developers had a monopoly on top games in Japan, said Daniel Ahmed, a senior analyst at Nico Partners, a video game research firm. Now, about a third of the top 100 mobile games in Japan come from China.

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For years, China’s video game industry was largely cut off from the world as the government banned consoles and strict censorship. A watershed came in 2018, when the government temporarily cut the approval process for releasing the games domestically. Many studios that once focused only on China turned their eyes overseas, where it was far easier to release. A new freeze on home game releases has further accelerated the change.

Chinese companies trying to sell games overseas have faced suspicion from the country’s tech industry and authoritarian tendencies. Genshin has faced questions over its Chinese origins, with the game initially receiving a frosty reception in Japan over rumors that it contained Chinese spyware. Inside China, Genshin is censored, and overseas, players are barred from conversing on politically sensitive topics such as Taiwan or Xinjiang.

This year, miHoYo made some female characters’ outfits less revealing, a decision that some fans applauded but others called an example of the danger posed by China’s regulations. Broadly speaking, Chinese authorities have warned video game developers about becoming overly reliant on Japanese themes.

Mihoyo declined several interview requests, citing the busy schedules of his executives.

Futatsugi, a Japanese game developer, has been among the beneficiaries as Chinese companies look overseas. In 2021, he received a substantial investment from NetEase, giving him more freedom to express himself artistically.

“There is no company in Japan that would pay us money to make the kind of games we want to make,” he said, adding that “Chinese companies are the ones that most recognize the value of our company.” It doesn’t hurt that it’s allowed to keep 100 percent of the intellectual property from the enterprise.

Mr. Futatsugi says the most serious threat to Japan’s video game industry does not come from China. Instead, he traces the root of the problem to Japan itself, pointing to its aging population and shrinking market, licensing agreements that keep profits out of the hands of creators, and the reluctance of conservative companies to adopt new ideas. to adopt.

Still, industry analysts warn that the injection of money will drive talent away from top Japanese companies, accelerating the industry’s decline, said Seichi Mitsui, who heads the consulting firm Game Age Research Institute.

“If Japanese companies don’t defend themselves – not only individually but by banding together as an industry – they may not be able to brake,” he said.

Ben Dooley reported from Tokyo and Paul Mozur from Seoul. John Liu Taipei, Taiwan, and . contributed reporting from Hisako Uno from Tokyo.

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