China

Unpacking Tencent’s global gaming ambitions

A Protocol analysis shows the Chinese tech behemoth doubling down abroad on areas Beijing has restricted at home.

Young players at a gaming competition.​

Tencent leads Chinese companies in gaming patents filed abroad.

Photo: Bertha Wang/AFP via Getty Images

While China cracked down domestically on game developers this summer and strictly capped minors’ play time, Beijing was also encouraging large video game publishers to keep growing overseas.

Tencent is already the world’s largest video game vendor and it’s evolved into a global innovator in the gaming industry. But where is Tencent pushing the frontiers of global gaming tech next? Protocol has a sneak peek.

Protocol did this by reviewing over 350 Tencent gaming patent applications issued over the past 10 years by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the United Nations agency for IP. While there’s no such thing as an international patent, firms can file patent applications with WIPO as a first step to getting streamlined patent protection in other countries.

Tencent’s patent skill tree

Tencent is increasingly investing in international patent filings for its video games, but what kind of patents are being filed?

Patents come with codes that work like the Dewey Decimal System in your local library. They indicate the topic, or genre, of a patent. We reviewed the most commonly used codes among Tencent’s gaming patents. Here’s what we found:

Image: Protocol

Protocol’s major findings:

  • Before the 2017 boom in filings, Tencent’s WIPO gaming patents were focused on preventing cheating in online games and managing game servers and networks. But since then, its patents have focused on making and improving the games themselves.
  • Tencent obtained dozens of WIPO patents to improve user interfaces, maps and heads up displays (HUDS) with intuitive prompts, pings and displays.
  • In the last three years, WIPO patents for shooting games have boomed. Many of these improved targeting mechanics using auto-assistance and AI. Tencent has a stable of shooter titles that have found success at home and abroad, especially Call of Duty: Mobile from Tencent-owned TiMi Studios.

It’s true that domestic regulators have cracked down on violent games and warned game makers that “violent content and those breeding unhealthy tendencies … should be removed.” Nevertheless, Tencent continues to invest legal resources in IP for shooting games overseas.

Tencent beefs up global IP

Protocol | China’s analysis also found that Tencent’s gaming patent filings with WIPO have increased dramatically in the last 10 years, reflecting its growing stake in overseas markets:

Image: Protocol

Tencent's game patents filed to WIPO tripled over just five years, signaling increasing investment in global IP protection for its gaming vertical. Tencent also shifted away from primarily submitting patents to manage online games. Now, its WIPO patents are for developing new tools to make games.

Gaming patents account for a small percentage of Tecent’s WIPO patents, but they have risen consistently since 2016. (The small drop in 2020 filings may be due, in part, to a process lag from WIPO. Patent data was collected up to August 2021, and at that time filings for this year were on track to at least match 2020.)

Patents are not a proxy for true innovation because they are often used by large firms to erect legal barriers, rather than to protect new ideas and technology. Still, because filing patents requires committing both legal and technical resources, analyzing patent filings can tell us where a firm is directing its attention. Studying WIPO patents in particular indicates which patents Tencent might believe are valuable in international markets and worth the cost of patenting abroad.

Tencent continues to attract domestic regulators’ attention — just last month it removed one of its most popular games (a gambling-lite fish-shooter) from app stores in China, fearing it might irk regulators. Still, even as regulators nerf some Tencent games domestically, it’s clearly leveling up overseas.

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