Protocol | China
Steam stays global in China
A gaping backdoor on the gaming platform remains open. For now.
Photo: Greg Baker/Getty Images
After years of operating in a legal grey zone in China, Steam finally released a local version on Tuesday. Chinese Steam users had nervously awaited it since Jan. 16, after local partner Perfect World Games confirmed rumors of the launch. Gamers feared it would mean they'd be banned from the global store and lose the games they had already purchased. But those fears haven't (yet) come true.
For the past decade, Steam has been a convenient, if jury-rigged, bridge between Chinese gamers and the outside world. The Steam international store can be accessed in the Chinese language, and users can pay in Renminbi, but games sold in the store don't go through Chinese regulatory review, as they would on other platforms.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, Chinese Steam users were still able to access the old online store and its vast trove of games. Instead of replacing it, the Chinese store merely coexists with the global one. The local Steam platform currently offers 41 games, all of which have obtained approval for distribution in China. Among them are blockbuster names like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, as well as several popular games by Chinese developers. That number can't compare to the tens of thousands of games sold in the global store, but that's not surprising. Players joked on social media that the Chinese Steam launch is still 41 times better than Nintendo Switch; in 2019, it offered just one playable game in its online store.
Some predict this new Chinese version will act as a legal cover, allowing Steam's global store to evade a Chinese ban and keeping a valuable backdoor open. Others are more pessimistic. "The firewall for Steam's Chinese store is on its way," one Weibo user predicted. The concern is justified. In May 2020, Sony's PlayStation suspended service in China after authorities discovered a backdoor in its store allowing users to access censored games. When service resumed a month later, the backdoor was gone.
China has exerted strict control over game distribution since the early 2000s, although the market for pirated PC games has also flourished. For a game to be sold publicly in China, it has to pass a rigid review process, where violence, sex or even a hint of politics can scuttle approval. In 2018, nine months passed during which Chinese authorities didn't greenlight a single game.
Because of these constraints, the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Switch online stores offer far fewer games in China than elsewhere. Players serious about skirting the restrictions get those consoles smuggled from abroad. Steam users hope to avoid a similar fate.