Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, foreigners have been leaving China in droves to escape the country’s strict “zero-COVID” restrictions, which had limited people’s domestic and overseas travel for nearly three years until rules began to relax recently. So when NetEase, the second-largest gaming company in China, said it had an expats-led studio working on a game out of Shanghai for the last three years, I was a bit surprised.
Helmed by lead producer Oscar Lopez and creative director Eve Jobse, Miaozi launched its first title globally on Steam last Friday. Called Cygnus Enterprise, the game, in the studio’s own words, is a “cross-genre single-player sci-fi game for PC that puts the player in charge of an outpost on an alien planet” and “alternates between small-scale city management and action RPG gameplay.”
Both NetEase and its rival Tencent have been placing more focus on overseas expansion as regulatory clampdowns hamper their domestic success. Aside from acquiring small Western studios, the two Chinese titans have been recruiting international talent. Tencent’s most lucrative studio TiMi kicked off its North America operation in early 2020 and its internal rival (the firm is known for encouraging in-house competition) Lightspeed similarly set up shop in LA this year. NetEase also opened its first US studio in Austin this May.
While the months-long lockdown in Shanghai this spring drove many foreigners to exit China, Miaozi’s international employees stayed put and found the situation had little impact on their work.
“Luckily for us, it worked really well,” Lopez said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We didn’t leave China during COVID times. China was a really safe environment to be in, and we basically focused on our development. The company and our team had all the infrastructure needed to develop from home in case it was needed at some point.”
“You can develop anywhere in the world,” he continued. “It’s better if you’re face to face, of course; it’s always easier to engage in communication and solve problems. But the truth is that [the pandemic] didn’t affect us much.”
The naming of the studio speaks to the team’s affinity for China. Miaozi is short for the sound of cats, “meow”, and “baozi”, a type of soft, fluffy, filled bun that’s common in China — two things that the team of 50 employees loves.
“Downstairs around the office, there’s a convenience store FamilyMart, and what people often get during lunchtime are these baozi, and everyone love these baozi,” Jobse explained affectionately the daily routine familiar to those who have worked in Shanghai. “But they also love cats. There’re a lot of street cats there outside and people pat them and feed them food.”
“We wanted to have something that is kind of cross-culture and loved by everyone, and something that Chinese and the rest of the people in the team would understand,” Jobse added.
In designing the game, the creative director sought inspiration from Chinese science fiction, which generally conveys a more uplifting message than their Western counterparts — the government has been encouraging “positive energy” in news, arts, and culture rather than cynical, negative sentiments in recent years.
“We’ve been able to make a science fiction game that is both innovative and also positive,” noted Jobse. “Science fiction IPs right now are very, very focused on the negative and the dangers of space or the dangers of alien creatures.”
She went on to reference the influence of The Wandering Earth, a blockbuster Chinese sci-fi film loosely based on a short story by Liu Cixin, the author of The Three-Body Problem.
“It’s actually quite a lot of inspirational little details that [we] could take from. For example, The Wandering Earth really has this whole spirit of collaboration and working together [to] overcome this obstacle… Even if they’re from different cultures or different backgrounds, they want to work together to achieve a common goal.”
As with a lot of other industries, the development of China’s gaming sector is shaped by foreign investments and partnerships. International gaming publishers coveted China’s rapidly growing internet population, and Chinese gaming firms were eager to learn from their more established Western peers. NetEase itself has a long history of working with foreign publishers — last month marked the end of its 14-year licensing deal with Blizzard Activision to operate the latter’s games in China.
Cutthroat competition in the Chinese market has given rise to a generation of internet firms that puts emphasis on short-term earnings over long-term innovations. It’s a delicate balance. Lopez reckoned that his team has a high degree of creative freedom as long as certain expectations are met. “Within our studio where we produce games, we are objective-oriented. We are meant to produce a game within time and budget. In those boundaries is where our freedom lies,” he said.