Increasingly, China has been clamping down on the gaming industry. Over the last few years they’ve made it more difficult for gamers to travel to land-based casinos in gaming centers like Australia, New Zealand, Macau and the Philippines.
The government has attempted to reduce its citizens’ access to offshore casinos including to the popular Red Stags Casino, and has made it more difficult for gaming studios and distributors to publish new domestic titles. For customers, it’s become almost impossible to buy imported video games in the country.
Now, for the first time in over a year, there are indications that Beijing is easing up on its restrictions though observers are warning that the gaming community should be wary. Last month the government approved a new batch of both domestic and imported gaming titles, the first such approvals in 18 months.
Chinese video game developers Tencent and NetEase were the biggest beneficiaries. Both received approvals for imported games that the operate or distribute in China as well as for domestic titles that they have produced. Both companies were severely constrained by China’s 2021 decision to “localize” foreign-developed games (approve the games for the local audience) before they could become available to the country’s hundreds of millions of gamers.
However, said Tencent Chief Executive Pony Ma in December in internal discussions, approvals in China are expected to be tightened and it will be harder to obtain new licenses. “Tencent Games must focus on the best products and not waste any opportunity to get new approvals……If you refer to the suspension as the worst, then we can say it is over from that perspective. But we are still cautious at this stage, as we need to see what happens [in 2023], at least what happens in the first quarter, about if the regulators will continue to approve imported games?” wondered one executive from a listed gaming company who asked not to be named. “But we don’t expect [this] year to get worse either, as the authorities are overwhelmed with other crises and tightened regulations on the gaming industry may not be their priority.”
The National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) is the agency responsible for licensing video games in China. It gave NetEasen approval for Badlanders, a shooting game which has already been released internationally on Steam and 3 licenses to Tencent – one for the Alchemy Stars tactical role-playing mobile game, one for the Undawn action role-playing game and one for the mobile Yuan Meng Zhi Xing.
Meanwhile, Blizzard has stepped back from increased Chinese involvement after NetEase rejected a partnership extension with the US-based game developer.
Despite Tencent’s Ma’s caution, other industry insiders familiar with China expect that the government will continue to ease up.
Zhang Yi, chief executive of iiMedia Research said “The large companies are getting more licences. To a certain extent, it means the strict regulation of the past few years has achieved results. Looking forward, the industry will maintain a tone of optimism and opening up.”
TenCent and NetEase aren’t the only publishers who have reason to be optimistic. MiHoYo, Shanghai-based creator of the mobile Genshin Impact was one of the first publishers to receive the go-ahead after the Chinese government halted all approvals almost 2 years ago.
MiHoYo was able to publish the mobile Honkai: Star Rail last April, receiving a rare go-ahead after Bejing’s initial 8-month freeze. That installment of the flagship Honkai series was released on both mobile and along with games by Hong Kong-listed XD Inc., Shanghai-based 37Games and Shenzhen-listed Perfect World.
China-watchers have noted that they don’t see Beijing’s moves as much anti-gaming as much as efforts to limit Western media content in China and minors’ access to inappropriate material.
China may also be close to a solution that would allow its citizens greater freedom to travel to Macau and visit the casinos there. Beijing has been focused on stemming outward capital flow and money laundering but there may be a solution that would make it simpler and even less expensive for mainland Chinese players to visit foreign casino sites.
The suggestion has been raised that Macau should adopt the renmirbi, mainland China’s currency. Currently, the currency used in Macau is the pataca, which is what was used under the pre-China-rule Portuguese administration.
The pataca is pegged to the Hong Kong dollar which, in turn, is pegged to the U.S. dollar. Hong Kong dollars are used freely in Macau and are used at Macau’s casinos.
If Macau were to adopt the renminbi it would mean that bets in Macau’s casinos would be made in renminbi, a digital currency issued by the People’s Bank of China. It is fully-tracable by authorities and its use at Macau’s casinos would mitigate capital flight by eliminating illegal funds transfers from the mainland.
Political and corporate risk consultant Steve Vickers explains, “Macau junkets and their symbiotic relationship with the casinos have long facilitated capital outflows from China, but such outflows are now, in the context of [China’s] current financial weakness, a virtual national security issue. The digital yuan will provide Beijing with a means to limit and control significant outflows into the Hong Kong dollar and US dollar. If the mainland authorities are really set on control, an obvious next step could be a ban on use of HKD in Macau’s casinos – in time. None of these developments will be good for the American investors in Macau’s casinos.”
In the end though, Vickers believes that the change will be a positive step. “People are canny and will adapt. However, that will take time.”
Dean Macomber, a casino executive who works in Macau, the Philippines and North America, says believes that requiring play in digital RMB could might backfire by driving high-end players (and their money) further underground.
There are plenty of other currency channels that are even more difficult to control. Casino executive and industry analyst Vitaly Umansky who is based in Hong Kong says “How liberal will the Chinese government be at this stage? It’s impossible to say because we don’t really know how much enforcement there is going to be until we actually see some sort of normalised travel…..The Chinese customer is always going to prefer Macau as long as the Chinese government doesn’t make it bad to go to Macau”.