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The unexpected worldwide success of a Chinese video game

Released on September 28, 2020, the Genshin Impact video game is one of the most popular games worldwide, with millions of players and revenues in the billions of dollars.

Genshin Impact is a role-playing game (RPG in technical jargon) available for free both for mobile devices and for PC and consoles but, unlike the most successful games of recent years, it was not produced in Japan or in the United States, but rather in China. This is an important detail: China does not have a great tradition in the video game sector, and the success of Genshin Impact demonstrates the great efforts made in recent years by Chinese companies to compete in a market historically dominated by only two countries.

To succeed in this, the developers of Genshin Impact, the Chinese company miHoYo, which so far had not created particularly successful video games, were inspired by classic Japanese RPGs, copying their aesthetics and game mechanisms. That of Japanese video games is a highly recognizable aesthetic, taken from that of Japanese comics (manga) and cartoons (anime), and is particularly used in RPG games, in which it adapts perfectly to an imaginary made up of fantastic worlds. , monsters and robots. From this point of view, Genshin Impact looks like a Japanese game altogether.

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Many have compared it to Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a video game released in 2017 for the Nintendo Switch console, considered one of the best games of the last ten years. Like Zelda, Genshin Impact is also an “open world” game, in which there is a virtual world in which the player can move freely by choosing where to go and which “missions” to do (in games that are not “open world” the the player is instead in a certain sense forced to follow a predetermined path to solve the “missions”).

Unlike Zelda, however, it is a free game and does not necessarily require a console: you can in fact download and play on your smartphone – or even on PC and Playstation – without having to pay anything. Within the game, however, it is possible to purchase new characters, weapons, clothes and other special items, which can help the player to upgrade their character.

But there is a big difference compared to other free games in which you can buy virtual items (such as Fortnite): Genshin Impact is defined in technical jargon as a gacha game, a Japanese word that indicates those distributors in which by inserting a coin you receives a small toy inside a capsule.

The toy cannot be chosen but is received at random, and the same mechanism has been applied in video games such as Genshin Impact: after paying, you receive a random item that can be more or less useful to help the player. Many have compared this mechanism to gambling, since it is not possible to predict which item you will receive, and you risk spending a lot of money in the hope of receiving what you want sooner or later.

Most of the sales of Genshin Impact's gachas, however, took place abroad, and not in China. In recent years, Chinese video games had China itself as its reference market, but in recent times this is changing and the success of Genshin Impact is proof of this: in just one year it has grossed 1.8 billion euros, becoming the third game for earnings in the 2021 ranking of the most successful mobile games.

The success of the game abroad has several reasons, as the New York Times recently explained. First of all, there has been a contraction of the power exercised for years by Japanese video game companies, which has favored the growth of Chinese ones. Many of the latter have tried to mimic the way Japanese video game companies work, in many cases hiring some of the best Japanese programmers and developers to improve their products.

It is a process that took place within a few years: only four years ago in Japan the video game market was essentially a monopoly dominated by Japanese companies; today, however, about a third of the top 100 mobile games in Japan were produced in China.

The other factor that has contributed to the growth of Chinese video game companies has instead a dealing with China's internal politics. For years, the Chinese government has been trying to contain the addiction of young people to video games, which it considers a worrying problem.

Last August, for example, it had banned those under the age of 18 to play video games for more than three hours a week (and in any case only from 8 to 9 in the evening on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and on public holidays). In addition, in 2018, the Chinese government had stopped issuing new licenses for publishing video games in China for nearly nine months. All this had prompted Chinese companies to invest in foreign markets, to circumvent the government blockade.

Paradoxically, Genshin Impact has therefore become more popular abroad than in China, where it is subjected to severe censorship that imposes, among other things, changes to the appearance of the characters and prevents the online chat from talking about topics prohibited by the Chinese government, such as the autonomy of Taiwan or the repression of the Muslim minority in the province of Xinjiang.

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