A popular but controversial mobile role-playing game has become the first Chinese-made title to net game of the year honors from not one but two major app stores.
The story-based action role-playing game — playable on phones and tablets as well as PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch — invites players to explore and battle through the beautifully rendered world of Teyvat. As they progress, they assemble a growing party of anime-style characters, each with different skills and magical abilities.
Since Genshin Impact’s release in late September, the free-to-play title has been a critical and commercial success, not only in China but also worldwide. It’s the biggest-ever global launch for a Chinese game, scoring favorably on authoritative Western game review sites like IGN and PC Gamer. It has enjoyed thousands of hours of airtime on Twitch, a major game-streaming site, and made $400 million dollars in just the first two months after its release — equivalent to more than $6 million per day.
Genshin Impact is also notable for being the first-ever global hit role-playing game made for mobile, as previous such titles had only ever achieved regional success.
“Gamers aren’t accustomed to encountering free-to-play titles of this caliber on any platform, let alone mobile,” Randy Nelson of Sensor Tower, an app market research site, told tech news outlet VentureBeat. “There really isn’t another mobile game like it.”
Though popular and well-designed, Genshin Impact has also faced backlash over its monetization system. Buying the in-game “wishes” with real cash is essentially a crap shoot: Players can win in-game characters, items, and upgrades, but the chances of nabbing the rarest ones are slim.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most outspoken critics of Genshin Impact can be found in China, where the game’s historic achievements this week met with little fanfare. Since Genshin Impact’s first promotional materials were released domestically in March, Chinese gamers have relentlessly accused the game of copying its precursors — particularly The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game made for the portable Switch console.
At the ChinaJoy digital entertainment expo in August, an angry gamer even staged a small but dramatic protest against Genshin Impact by smashing his PlayStation 4 near the game’s large booth. Other attendees, meanwhile, shared photos of themselves extending middle fingers toward the booth.
The game has had PR blunders as well. In one widely publicized case, after Zheng Xiang, a livestreamer also known as Zard, was given early access to the game, he said he became incensed when miHoYo forced him to delete comments he had posted on social media about the game being boring and a visual clone of Zelda — even though his overall review of it had been positive.
“I’ve never been forced to delete a Weibo post before,” Zheng Xiang wrote, referring to a China’s microblogging platform. “I’m truly sickened by this. They’re such bullies.”
When Genshin Impact was officially released in September, savvy gamers discovered that a lowly guard character shared the name Zheng Xiang, which many interpreted as a petty slight to the livestreamer.
A screenshot from the website of Genshin Impact, a Chinese-developed mobile role-playing game.
Since March, two factions have emerged among China’s gaming community. One, the so-called Mi Guards, named after miHoYo, defend the game for its original content and storyline. Genshin Impact’s big budget, they argue, is a major step forward for Chinese-developed games, which have traditionally aimed for maximum returns on minimal investments in production.
Swarms of critics, meanwhile, argue that miHoYo’s copycat behaviour and monetization scheme set wrong-headed precedents.
“In the eyes of Chinese gamers, such monetization methods deviate from the spirit of games,” Zhao Yanlin, managing editor of the gaming news site GCORES.com, told Sixth Tone. “They end up suspecting that the developers purposefully set up payment traps in the game just to enrich themselves.”
MiHoYo declined Sixth Tone’s interview request, but the studio previously candidly told media that Breath of the Wild was a major inspiration — though Genshin Impact, they added, stands out because of its original story and unique gameplay, such as its element-based combat system.
According to Zhao, the Genshin Impact team probably didn’t go out of its way to plagiarize Zelda, though this may not matter much to China’s hardcore gamers, who are a proud bunch and tend to hold domestically produced games to especially high standards, comparing them with their best-in-class peers from the West.
“Chinese are extremely sensitive when it comes to appraising and recognizing games for their quality,” Zhao said. “They might even be described as ‘harsh’ in how they evaluate domestic games.”
Despite Genshin Impact taking home game of the year accolades, the scale of China’s gaming industry still lags behind the West, where developers churn out quality titles with industrial efficiency, said Zhao. Few Chinese studios are willing to invest huge sums into making games, perceiving the risk to be too great.
“On its own, a single success story like this doesn’t really say much about China’s gaming industry overall,” said Zhao.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A promotional image for Chinese-developed mobile role-playing game Genshin Impact, 2020. From the game’s website)