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As expats flee China’s zero-COVID, this developer created a sci-fi game for NetEase • TechCrunch

As expats flee China’s zero-COVID, this developer created a sci-fi game for NetEase • TechCrunch

As expats flee China's zero-COVID, this developer created a sci-fi game for NetEase • TechCrunch

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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, foreigners have left China in droves to escape the country’s strict “zero COVID” restrictions, which had limited domestic and overseas travel for nearly three years until what the rules are starting to loosen up recently. So when NetEase, the second-largest game company in China, said that an expat-run studio had been working on a game in Shanghai for the past three years, I was a bit taken aback.

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Led by lead producer Oscar Lopez and creative director Eve Jobse, Miaozi launched its first global title on Steam last Friday. Called Cygnus Enterprise, the game, in the studio’s own words, is a “multi-genre single-player sci-fi PC game that places the player in charge of an outpost on an alien planet” and “alternates between a Small-scale city management and action RPG gameplay.

NetEase and rival Tencent have placed greater emphasis on overseas expansion as regulatory clampdowns hamper their domestic success. In addition to acquiring small Western studios, the two Chinese titans are recruiting international talent. Tencent’s most lucrative studio, TiMi, launched operations in North America in early 2020, and in-house rival (the company is known for encouraging internal competition) Lightspeed also moved to Los Angeles this year. NetEase also opened its first US studio in Austin in May.

While the months-long lockdown in Shanghai this spring caused many foreigners to leave China, Miaozi’s international employees stayed put and found the situation had little impact on their jobs.

“Fortunately for us, it worked really well,” Lopez said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We didn’t leave China in the time of COVID. China was a really safe environment, and we basically focused on our development. The company and our team had all the necessary infrastructure to grow from home in case it was needed at some point. »

“You can expand anywhere in the world,” he continued. “It’s better if you’re face to face, of course; it is always easier to communicate and solve problems. But the truth is that [the pandemic] didn’t affect us much.

The name of the studio reflects the team’s affinity for China. Miaozi is short for the sound of cats, “meow” and “baozi”, a type of fluffy, fluffy bun that is common in China; two things the team of 50 employees love.

“Downstairs around the office, there’s a FamilyMart convenience store, and what people often get at lunchtime is these baozi, and everyone loves these baozi,” Jobse lovingly explained the familiar daily routine. to those who have worked in Shanghai. “But they also love cats. There are lots of street cats outside and people are petting them and feeding them.

“We wanted to have something that was kind of cross-cultural and that everyone liked, and something that the Chinese people and the rest of the team would understand,” Jobse added.

When designing the game, the creative director was inspired by Chinese science fiction, which usually conveys a more uplifting message than their Western counterparts – the government encouraged “positive energy” in news, arts and culture rather than cynical and negative sentiments in recent years.

“We’ve managed to create an innovative yet positive sci-fi game,” Jobse noted. “Sci-fi IPs are currently very, very focused on the negative and the dangers of outer space or the dangers of alien creatures.”

She then referenced the influence of The Wandering Earth, a bestselling Chinese science fiction film loosely based on a short story by Liu Cixin, the author of The Three-Body Problem.

“It’s actually a lot of little inspiring details that [we] could draw from. For example, The Wandering Earth really has this whole spirit of collaboration and working together [to] overcome this obstacle… Even if they are from different cultures or backgrounds, they want to work together to achieve a common goal.

As with many other industries, the development of the gaming sector in China is shaped by foreign investment and partnerships. International game publishers coveted China’s rapidly growing Internet population, and Chinese game companies were eager to learn from their more established Western counterparts. NetEase itself has a long history of working with overseas publishers – last month marked the end of its 14-year licensing deal with Blizzard Activision to exploit the latter’s games in China.

The fierce competition in the Chinese market has given rise to a generation of Internet companies that emphasizes short-term profits rather than long-term innovations. It’s a delicate balance. Lopez felt his team had a lot of creative freedom as long as certain expectations were met. “In our studio where we produce games, we are goal-oriented. We are expected to produce a game on time and on budget. It is within these borders that our freedom lies,” he said.

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