Publishing an iOS or Android mobile game in China is not as simple as uploading it to the Apple App Store or Google Play and checking a couple of boxes.
For one, Google Play is not available in China. In its place is an ecosystem of 400+ android app stores, each with their own submission process.
And before your game can be published, it must receive a unique “game license” after undergoing a strict government approval process that can seem daunting to outsiders (which is why companies like ours exist to make it easy).
By law, all games published in China must be so licensed – from PC games to mobile games, to HTML5 games to Mini-games inside other apps (like WeChat and Douyin). However, in practice, the government currently seems to focus primarily on games that are paid and/or draw revenue through in-app purchases.
But we think the rewards are worth it to gain access to this massive $30+ billion market of 640+ million hungry gamers. This article is a brief overview of how you can tap into it.
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Basic Business Requirements:
- Chinese corporation or business entity. You need this because foreign and foreign-invested companies are not legally allowed to directly publish or operate online PC or mobile games, and are therefore ineligible for a game license.
Foreign and foreign-invested companies are not legally allowed to directly publish or operate online PC or mobile games, which account for most of China’s digital game sector. That said, two U.S. publishers (Apple’s App Store and Steam) manage to be rare exceptions, currently allowed to operate in China without a Chinese partner.
Nevertheless, the only option for foreign companies to distribute their games in China and fully comply with Chinese law is to find a Chinese partner that can then register and publish the game on your behalf.
The partner will handle marketing and distribution, and Chinese publishing partners will usually take a portion of the profits after the app store has taken its 50%. Still, this is extremely common practice and most foreign companies choose to do this to gain access to China’s massive and highly profitable market.
Note: If you partner with AppInChina, we can give you a much better profit-sharing arrangement than most Chinese publishing partners. Contact us to find out how.
- Software Copyright Certificate (SCC). An SCC is proof of registered Chinese copyright for any piece of software, and thus any entity, foreign or domestic, individual or company, can apply for one. However, in the case of games, keep in mind that only a Chinese corporation, business entity, or individual may publish a game in China.
Both the Apple App Store and all independent Android app stores will ask for a valid SCC number during the submission process, though currently the Apple App Store is not verifying SCCs that are submitted.
Link: The Complete Guide To Software Copyright Certificates In China
- Game Registration Number (GRN / ISBN), which is administered by China’s National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) – formerly the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) – after your game has gone through the content approval process. This will be a 13-digit International Standard Book Number (ISBN), used for this purpose. Apple also tends to refer to this as the “game approval number”.
- As with non-game apps, it is unlikely that you will need an Internet Content Publishing (ICP) license to publish your mobile game in China, but it is possible in rare circumstances. It will certainly be necessary if your game is to have a supporting website, for marketing or otherwise. Your Chinese partner can help you determine whether an ICP License is required in your case.
Link: ICP License Details
- Beware of scams. In that past, some scam artists claiming to be “agents” have told developers that they need their services to acquire an “agent number” as part of this process. Rest assured, there is no such thing. Only the above licenses and their associated numbers are necessary for this process.
Game Content Requirements & Restrictions
In order to accept revenue, your game must be approved by the NPPA, which has a detailed list of content restrictions your game must meet to be approved. Overseas game developers and publishers often end up making a number of changes to their games to meet the Chinese censors’ approval.
Link: Content Restrictions for Games and Apps in China (2020)
In 2019, a few additional clarifications were given along with the new submission process:
- No more mahjong or poker games. At least for the time being. Thousands have already flooded the market and are widely seen as encouraging gambling.
- No corpses, skeletons, zombies, vampires, pools of blood, or blood of any kind in any color. When a character or player is killed, they should simply disappear. Changing the color of blood will no longer be enough.
- No collecting of concubines and wives, no matter how historically accurate they may be in your feudal China game.
- Cultural considerations. In an expressed desire to increase the quality of games on the market, the government encourages developer to keep China’s core social values in mind and promote China’s traditional history and culture. Games must contain “correct” information regarding politics, law, and history, as interpreted by the authorizing agency.
- Security Assessment Form. You probably already know that the Chinese government restricts any speech that has potential to “disrupt the public order”. Although games are not typically forums for political activism, any social aspect to your game where players can communicate with each other is required to have process in place for reporting and handling these violations. You will need a Security Assessment Form on file with the appropriate government agency that details your system and process.
- Real Name Verification. Even if your users can create their own onscreen user names, the Chinese government requires that users register accounts with their real names. Because mobile phone numbers are registered to individuals, the easiest way for developers to link real names to accounts is through verifying the user’s phone number and tying that to their account. Many apps regularly verify the user’s number by using it as their login scheme – typically by texting a temporary login code to the user that expires within 60 seconds.
- Anti-Addiction Plan and Measures. Since 2008, China has taken youth gaming addiction and myopia very seriously. Unless your game is simple, such as chess or a puzzle/matching game, it will have some complex online login component and will require controls to be put into place to restrict the time, duration, and manner in which children under 18 play.
Link: Chart: Six measures in the “Notice on Preventing Minors from Addiction to Online Games”
Working Within The Great Firewall of China. Popular cloud services, online libraries, and dependencies such as AWS, Google Play Services, and others are blocked in China. For your game to function properly, you will need to utilize services that work within China. We help our clients identify alternative solutions so they can minimize the amount of conversion work they have to do, and keep their game going as fast as possible.
Link: How To Integrate a Chinese Cloud Service For Hosting
Even if the content passes the censors, you cannot publish your game as-is. Some localization for the Chinese market will be required:
- At bare minimum, you will need to translate all your text into Mandarin Chinese (simplified), and record your voice actors in Mandarin Chinese as well.
- Artwork will need to be changed if it has English words in it, and you may want to redesign certain aspects of your characters, stories and maps to better appeal to the local culture.
- There will be a number of localized SDKs you must integrate in order to fulfill technical and content requirements, as well as the requirements of each app store. These include mobile platform/app store SDKs, social media, Payment, In-Game Advertising, and other SDKs if/where relevant.
App Stores In China
Third-Party Android App Stores
- Each independent Android app store in China has its focus, and some focus only on games. You may be more visible and therefore more successful in one of these stores with your game.
- Because you must integrate the store’s SDK, you will need a separate version of your game for each Chinese app store where it is published. Keeping these separate packages updated on each store means you should target your games to the stores where you will be most successful, in order to decrease your overall maintenance burden.
- Keep in mind that Google services are generally not accessible in China, so publishing your game on Google Play will not allow it to reach Mainland Chinese consumers.
Apple App Store In China
- Apple runs a separate Apple App Store in China. You must publish directly on the Chinese version of the Apple App Store through Apple’s developer’s console for your iOS game to be available in China.
- The submission process to China’s Apple App Store is pretty straightforward, with an English interface. You must submit a valid ISBN/GRN as part of the online application process, but (so far) the SCC can be skipped.
Mobile Game Revenue Share Models In China
- Chinese Android app stores take 50% off the top of all revenues. All purchases and ads must go through them, thanks to the required SDK integrations. This is an unavoidable fact of publishing your game in China.
- The Apple App Store takes a 30% revenue share.
- Of the remaining amount, Chinese publishing partners (not AppInChina) usually take around 70%. This means that, if you go the route of a traditional publishing partner, you will receive about 15 cents for every dollar you take in. Contact us for a much better deal.
- Although these fees and revenue shares are significantly higher than in the rest of the world, even a moderately popular game can make millions of dollars in profit for its developer due to the sheer size of the market and number of Daily Active Users (DAUs).
Publishing and Approval Process
Games that have in-app purchases are required to go through the NPPA approval process for the gaming license. Games that make money from ad revenue only are in a bit of a gray area. Currently, the regulations are unclear as to whether they must go through this approval process or not.
Submission to NPPA
You will need to prepare the following items to submit with your game to the NPPA for licensing approval:
- Basic information about the game: Name, description, developer and publisher, etc.
- Publisher’s Business License
- ICP Certificate (if required)
- Printed Screenshots: At least 10 color pictures reflecting the core content and basic appearance of the game work, including at least 1 picture of the main menu of the game with the game name.
- Full text of all the text in the game: The full Chinese text detailing all Chinese characters that appear in the game, including but not limited to system prompts, NPC dialogues, mission story descriptions, inventory item names, etc. This must be provided in electronic form.
- Explanation of the game’s anti-addiction features: Including an explanation of how it works. If the game does not require these, then the reason should be explained.
- Administrator accounts: Adult accounts divided into high, medium, and low access levels to test the game’s anti-addiction features and review content.
- Game Installation Package: This can be submitted physically (three copies on three CDs) or simply be a link to download the game installation package.
- Demo CD Rom: A CD (3 copies) containing a game demo video at least 10 minutes long. The video must show the game health warning/advice screen, game title screen, main interface and menu of the game, all character images, all accessible scenes, and all systems that can be experienced. Games with combat systems must be displayed, and the actual combat demo must be at least 2 minutes long. If you have an anti-addiction system, you must also show anti-addiction tips and benefits at each key time point.
Link: Game License Registration Procedure (SAPPRFT)
Approval times for game submissions is officially 80 days from date of submission. However, depending on the current backlog and review process, you can generally plan on:
- One Month or Less – Simple games with no storyline or a very simple plot, with no political, national, military or religious content. Examples include: Pattern matching, board games, puzzle, sports, runners and flyers, music and rhythm.
- 4-6 Months – Other domestic mobile games
- 6-8+ Months – Foreign games
The more complicated the game, the longer the approval process may be. Also be sure to allow time for multiple potential rounds of feedback, adjustment and re-review. Note that the NPPA does not have a channel for expedited processing.
Once your game is approved, you will be issued a Game Registration Number (GRN) which is an ISBN. This is proof that your game has been approved for distribution in China, and you will need to submit it to both the Chinese Apple App Store and any Chinese Android app stores where you want to publish your game.
Link: AppInChina’s Chinese Game License Database
You will need to individually submit your game to each app store, along with the required information.
Link: How To Publish My App In China
Our general advice is to publish to at least the top 10 Android app stores in the country, and of course the Chinese Apple App Store for your iOS version. Better advice is to also figure in carefully at where your game fits into the top game app stores in the country, because they each have their own focus and.
Note that, in the past, there was a loophole that the Apple App Store did not appear to be verifying ISBN or SCC numbers. However, as of February 24, 2020, the Apple App Store has required all games have a valid game registration approval number (GRN / ISBN), with a deadline of July 31, 2020. To date, Apple does not appear to be verifying SCC licenses.
The AppInChina Advantage
Publishing your mobile game in China is impossible without a Chinese partner. AppInChina is the most trusted app and game publisher in the Chinese app market today, and we do things a little differently.
Our generous revenue-sharing models give you more money and flexibility, and are within reach for even small and mid-tier mobile games. If your game is gaining a strong following in your home country, it will likely reap even greater rewards on the Chinese market.
Contact our English-speaking team today and let us make this difficult process easy for you.