Originally published on Forbes.
With all of the news about Pokémon GO, the instant mega-hit mobile game by Niantic Studios (funded by The Pokemon Company, Google, and Nintendo), it seemed obvious to take a look at the use of the game in the world’s biggest gaming market: China. According to Niko Partners estimates, approximately 420 million Chinese gamers generated $5.5 billion domestically in mobile gaming revenue in 2015, the first year China surpassed the US market, which generated $4.5 billion that year.
However, as of July 20, 2016, the game is not legally available in China, and Google is also not “really” in China. Google Maps are not available in China, and that’s the basis for the map that underlies the location-based game. This will make it very challenging for Niantic to launch the game in China as is. Still, as an avid gatherer of market intelligence on China’s digital games market, I had heard through my information channels that gamers were flocking to download thePokémon GO via virtual private networks (VPN) or other means, and that a significant volume of activity around downloads of the game was being observed in China.
After being swept away myself in the frenzy of playingPokémon GO in Silicon Valley, I decided to conduct a Niko Partners online gamers survey in China to see if people there are playing Pokémon GO on their smartphones despite not having access to it on local app stores. The answer was “yes.” Within two days of the global launch of the iOS version we surveyed consumers to see whether they know the game Pokémon GO. This was a self-selecting survey, meaning we did not have any screening criteria for participants. If they wanted to answer, they could answer.
Within a couple of days we had 350 respondents. Of those, more than 60% said they know of the game. In addition, 48% said they have tried to play the official game via convoluted efforts. Only 11% of the 350 said they were able to play, and 37% said they were not able to despite their efforts. Slightly more than half of those who said they have downloaded the game had downloaded the iOS version, and slightly less than half downloaded the Android version. The Android version is more difficult to download in China than the iOS version.
The biggest issue was difficulty in registering a Google account, as most Chinese do not have them and it did not work well from within China despite the use of VPNs. The second biggest issue was that the VPN was unstable.
That did not stop people from trying to play the global version of the game, though users said they would prefer to play a local version (it probably would be far easier to download it and play it). However, gamers with older phones (such as a Samsung Galaxy from 2012) or phones that have been jailbroken have a particularly challenging time playing the game. Many iPhones in China are jailbroken to bypass Apple’s restrictions, and many Android phones more than a few years old.
Niantic’s older game, Ingress, is built on a map that also utilizes Google Maps. Pokémon GO is most likely using the Ingress map, and therefore the map does not exist in China. Hence, in a game that depends on a map and location services, there is a big problem without these components. Gamers in China therefore are downloading additional software to play on a virtual map of other cities, such as Los Angeles, while walking around their neighborhoods in China. Also, while early Chinese adopters of Pokémon GO say that it would be more fun to play with local people in local parks, the truth is that China is not as much of a culture where people go to parks and socialize with strangers as is the United States or some other western countries.
There are step-by-step instructions online about how to download and play Pokémon GO in China (http://www.youximiao.com/news/gongive/2564170.html). Essentially they guide the iOS gamer to purchase an Apple ID in “New Zealand” or “Australia” for 1-2 RMB on Taobao. Then the gamer uses that ID to log into the App Store in New Zealand or Australia, where they can download the game to their phone in China via a VPN. It is tougher for Android, as it requires a Google account, Google Play and other Google services. You need to play via a VPN, and gamers in some West and North cities in China are having an easier time of that. A list of the cities where it is easier is here:http://www.youxinial.com/news/gognive/2564739.html.
If and when Niantic launches Pokémon GO in China legally, the game would need to incorporate battles and leveling up, ranking and even PK earlier and often within the game to satisfy the attributes of team-based games that Chinese gamers have come to demand and love. Meanwhile, the quest to capture Pokemon will guide Chinese gamers to figure out how to participate in the game, even if on a virtual overlay of a map of a city that is an ocean away.
Meanwhile, copycat software is prevalent in China (and many other countries). In the case of Pokémon GO, the copycat game, City Elf Go (“城市精” – some translations call it City Fairy Go or City Spirit Go), was launched in China several months before the branded game hit global markets, a timeframe that is rumored to coincide with the beta test of Pokémon GO in Japan. City Spirit Go had already become the leading iOS download in China’s App Store, and as of July 18th it was the #2 iOS download according to App Annie publicly available data. It is not an augmented reality game like Pokémon GO is, but I suspect that there are several Chinese AR location-based games in development now. Even though it would be nearly impossible to surpass Pokemon’s meteoric success, one may find its way to the top of the rankings in China soon.
According to a search on the application query site of the Trademark Office of the State Administration for Industry & Commerce of the PRC, Nintendo has already applied for a trademark in China for Pokémon GO, under application numbers 12915395, 12915396, and 12915397. And according to the Baidu search index, the most searched words recently have been “Pokémon GOofficial website”, “Pokémon GO release date”, “Pokémon GO China”, and “Pokémon GO download”. The top 5 cities for searches are some of the country’s biggest cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Shenzhen. It seems that Chinese gamers are ready to (Pokémon) Go!