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China Cracks Down on Unlicensed Mobile Games:How to Navigate the Chinese Game Approval Process

By: Yanfei Wang and Benjamin Premack

With 685 million gamers, China is the largest mobile game market in the world. In the first half of 2020, China’s App Store generated $6.7 billion in revenue, accounting for 30% of the global mobile game spending. The US App Store accounted for $5.8 billion during the same time period.[1]

Apple has removed thousands of unlicensed mobile games from its Chinese App Store each day since July 1,[2] closing a loophole that allowed US iOS developers and publishers to circumvent domestic regulation and access the highly lucrative Chinese video game market before obtaining official approval.[3] In early 2020, Apple reminded iOS developers to obtain licenses for their games before June 30 but did not clarify what would happen if they failed to comply.[4] Now we know.

Currently, 60,000 games are listed on Apple’s Chinese App Store and approximately one third of them are unlicensed.[5] Apple removed more than 2,500 of these during the first week of July, representing a combined gross Chinese revenue of $34.7 million.[6] Now that the backdoor is closed, US game companies need to follow the official approval and licensing process to access the essential Chinese mobile game market.

This article aims to provide background for US game companies regarding why Apple has removed thousands of mobile games, and guidance for companies which need to navigate the Chinese video game approval process.

What are the Chinese Administrative Regulations for Online Publishing Services?

China’s approval and licensing program for online video games, including mobile games, was established in 2016.[7] The Administrative Regulations for Online Publishing Services (the “OPS Regulations”), regulate all internet service providers that make digital works available to the public in China. Initially, the OPS regulatory review process was administered by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China (“SAPPRFT”). In 2019, the National Press and Publication Administration (“NPPA”), also known as the National Copyright Administration, replaced SAPPRFT as China’s regulatory authority for online publishing.

Major Chinese Android app stores have strictly enforced the OPS Regulations since their inception. Apple, however, delayed compliance and allowed game companies to list their games on the App Store without completing the OPS regulatory review process and obtaining an ISBN from the NPPA.[8]

China is Closing the App Store Loophole

Apple’s business practices have not gone unnoticed by Chinese regulators and the Chinese people. In July 2018, China Central Television featured a special news report criticizing Apple.[9] In response, China reinforced the OPS Regulatory approval and licensing process and changed the regulatory agency from SAPPRFT to the NPPA. In April 2019, NPPA then issued new application documents and instructions and sent a clear signal that it would strictly enforce the OPS Regulations.[10]

One of the most notable video games impacted by China’s renewed emphasis on strict enforcement is Ndemic Creations’ Plague Inc. Originally published in 2012, Plague Inc. is a strategy game that has the player guide a deadly new disease as it spreads across the world. In a recent update, Ndemic introduced a “Save the World” mode, in which the player attempts to prevent the outbreak of the disease rather than help it. Despite having its license denied by the NPPA in 2018, Plague Inc. was widely available to Chinese consumers through the App Store loophole and gained significant popularity in China in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, Plague Inc. was banned by the NPPA and removed from the Chinese App Store.

One of the challenges for video game developers and publishers is the limited number of foreign games that can be approved for distribution in China in a given year. The NPPA regulates these approvals based on internal volume, structure, and layout planning. This likely indicates that there is an undisclosed annual quota. During the first quarter of 2020, the NPPA approved 377 domestic games and 27 foreign games.[11]

As a result, US game companies whose unlicensed games are removed or at risk of being removed from the Chinese App Store should initiate their game approval and licensing application with the NPPA as soon as possible if they plan to continue operating and profiting from their video games.

An Unofficial Guide to Navigating the Chinese Game Approval and Licensing Process

Chinese law prohibits foreign companies, joint ventures, and Wholly Foreign-Owned Enterprises from publishing games in China. A US game company that wants to apply for NPPA approval and licensing must first find a domestic Chinese partner: a Chinese publisher with an Online Publishing Service License and a Chinese operating company with an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license.

The relationship between the US game company and their Chinese partner must be formalized in a written licensing agreement that lays out the terms by which the Chinese publisher can use and sell the game, which is considered a foreign copyrighted work. The applicant must register a copy of the licensing agreement with the NPPA before they can apply for approval and must submit a copy of the licensing agreement along with the other required application materials.

What follows next, the content review, is the most critical stage of the application process.

During the content review, the NPPA conducts a thorough examination of the game including its storyline, characters, dialogue, missions, instructions, music, game scenes and advertisement. The Mobile Games Content Regulation (2016 Version) contains detailed criteria for what content is allowed and what content is prohibited.[12] As an example, a game that contains a map of China must not show Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Tibet as separate from China. Neither can games depict a foreign military invasion of China, dead bodies or massive casualties caused by biological or nuclear weapons, or images of illegal drug use, underage drinking, or smoking. Games must also have an underage player game addiction prevention system, and dialogue must be drawn from a censored dictionary. The review process takes up to 80 days from the date a complete application is accepted by the NPPA. An applicant whose game is denied approval by NPPA can appeal the decision or resort to the Chinese court system to challenge the refusal.

The Chinese video game regulatory system serves as the gatekeeper to the second largest gaming market in the world, an audience of 685 million Chinese gamers as of 2019. According to Niko Partners, mobile and PC game revenue in China was in $33.1 billion in 2019 and is projected to pass $46.7 billion by 2024.[13] If the NPPA maintains its current pace, China will approve 20-30 foreign games each month for a total of only 240-360 new publication licenses this year. Advance planning, good counsel, and familiarity with the OPS Regulations and content control regulations is essential for US game companies who want to sell their game in the Chinese game market.

Originally published on on August 7, 2020.

About the Authors

Premack Rogers P.C. is the Pacific Northwest's leading interactive entertainment law firm with more than 35 years of industry experience.

Yanfei Wang is a summer associate at Premack Rogers P.C. Yanfei is a third year law student at the University of Washington School of Law where she is pursuing her juris doctor degree with a focus on international business law. Before attending law school in the United States, Yanfei practiced corporate and business law in China where she advised multinational corporations on complex cross-border transactions.

Benjamin Premack is the co-founder and managing partner of Premack Rogers P.C. Benjamin is a strategic partner and trusted advisor of video game developers and publishers who do business around the world. He represents them on all aspects of their legal needs, including international intellectual property licensing and management.

This article is provided by Premack Rogers P.C. for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

Direct questions to

[1] More Than 2,500 Mobile Games Removed from China’s App Store in First Seven Days of July as ISBN Crackdown Bites.

[2] Apple leaves foreign developers scrambling as unlicensed games removed from China App Store.

[4] Apple Sets Deadline for Gaming Apps to Comply with Chinese Law as Government Tightens Grip.

[5] Apple Closes Chinese App Store Loophole, Causing Thousands of Games to be Removed.

[6] More Than 2,500 Mobile Games Removed from China’s App Store in First Seven Days of July as ISBN Crackdown Bites.

[7] Article 27 of Administrative Regulations for Online Publishing Services effective March 10, 2016.

[8] “ISBN” refers to the publication identification number issued to games in China that are approved by the NPPA. See: China Roundup: Apple Closes a 4-Year-Old App Store Loophole.

[11] The NPPA does not publish information on games that failed the approval process.

[12] Mobile Games Content Regulation 2016 version, effective May 24, 2016.

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