With its strong policies on internet censorship, China isn't considered the friendliest country for fans of popular location-based games like "Ingress" and "Dragon Quest Walk." But at least to this Mainichi Shimbun reporter, one of its high-quality alternatives available to play in-country bears a striking resemblance to "Pokemon Go."
I've hit Pokemon Go's maximum trainer level of 40, and I've been nurturing a new obsession with Dragon Quest Walk since its release in September 2019. These kinds of augmented reality (AR) games, which are now popular worldwide, are said to have positive effects on users' health because they make players walk around with their smartphones.
In late November 2019, I was sent on a week-long business trip to China. But I was devastated to discover that China's restrictions on geolocation services like Google Maps, which many AR games rely on for their services, mean a lot of my preferred games are unplayable in the country.
Then someone told me about an app known to its fans as "Let's Hunt Monsters," which became somewhat famous in Japan after being billed as a Chinese version of Pokemon Go. The game, developed by major Chinese information technology firm Tencent Holdings Ltd., is not available on Japanese app stores, and apparently can only be played in China.
On Nov. 20, I touched down at the airport in Nanjing, capital of China's southeastern Jiangsu province. There, I immediately tried to download Let's Hunt Monsters to my iPhone X, but for some reason I couldn't find it on the Chinese app store.
In China, a censorship and surveillance project operated by authorities called "Golden Shield Project" blocks access to Google search, social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as messaging apps like Line. So, my investigation to find a solution as to why the game was missing could only proceed using Yahoo! Japan's portal site and other permitted search engines.
After some struggling, I found I probably couldn't access the Chinese app store because my Apple account is registered in Japan. By the time I was finally able to download Let's Hunt Monsters via a new account I made for the trip, it was already my third day in China.
In Pokemon Go, users not only come across the eponymous creatures, but also facilities like "PokeStops," which dispense items to catch Pokemon, and gyms where players join forces to defeat strong Pokemon. Various events can occur when interacting with these objects, which appear on a map identical to the real-world terrain. It's a feature commonly seen in location-based games such as Dragon Quest Walk, too.
When walking around the city of Yangzhou while playing Let's Hunt Monsters, I spotted some obvious similarities to Pokemon Go. Catchable characters appear randomly on the map, facilities provide items to whoever taps them on their screens, and other locations that resemble gyms were also in evidence. A message similar to the one seen on Pokemon Go, which tells players not to enter dangerous areas while playing the game, also pops up when you load the game.
The resemblances continue into the gameplay for adding critters to your collection, which is done by throwing spherical objects at them. A colored ring that repeatedly contracts and expands in diameter serves as a target for the monster you wish to nab, and a "curveball" throw technique can be pulled off by spinning the ball-like item in a circular motion before releasing it. The "orb-jects" even shake three times to indicate that a monster has been successfully caught. Captured characters are also registered on an encyclopedic database, just as in Pokemon Go and Dragon Quest Walk.
The only major difference is that the characters have traditional Eastern designs, including what appear to a mustached warlord and a girl clad in yukata-style clothes. Its graphics are also really quite stunning, with smooth character animation. The game itself is of a high quality, almost like playing a next-gen Pokemon Go. Immediately after release, Let's Hunt Monsters was apparently so successful it ranked among the top five most popular apps in China.
While in China, I met Dominic Galeon, a staff writer for a newspaper in the Philippines and a fan of Japanese anime and game culture. When I showed him the game, he laughed and called the Chinese game "Nisemon" -- a pun mixing the Japanese term for a rip-off copy and Pokemon.
As I expected, I couldn't play Pokemon Go itself in China. Logging in, I was greeted with an empty map showing my real-life surroundings of roads and rivers -- but no Pokemon or PokeStop. Conversely, I couldn't play Let's Hunt Monsters after returning to Japan, with the app only showing a message telling me there was an issue connecting to the internet.
After my trip, I asked Pokemon Go developer Niantic Inc. what they thought about Let's Hunt Monsters. On the subject of expanding into China, its CEO John Hank previously told the Mainichi in an October 2018 interview that: "We are very interested in figuring out a way to bring our game to China and we are working on that but I don't have a specific timeline I'd like to comment on."
But this time a representative of a subsidiary company in Tokyo got back to me: "We are sorry but we cannot provide comment on other companies' productions." I did however get an explanation as to why the map appeared on Pokemon Go when I booted it up on the trip; the game uses an open-source map accessible even in China called OpenStreetMap.
A similar map also appears on Ingress, another game developed by Niantic. I saw others playing the game in China, so it's likely people have access to it depending on their location. As in Pokemon Go, an empty map without monsters or other items appears in Dragon Quest Walk, which also uses Google Maps.
I also submitted questions via an online submission form on Tencent's official website, such as "Did you get cooperation from Pokemon Go when developing Let's Hunt Monsters?" As of Jan. 18, I've yet to receive a response.
ACE Research Institute analyst Hideki Yasuda, who is familiar with the state of games in China suggested this kind of situation was becoming less common, saying, "In actual fact, knockoffs are now becoming rarer in China."
He added, "Recently, it has become more common for the Tencent side to work together with Japanese game developers to adapt the games for local audiences before distributing them."
For example, Tencent teamed up with major Japan video game firm Nintendo Co. to release the popular Nintendo Switch games console in China in December 2019. Elsewhere, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Inc. is distributing the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" video game series in collaboration with Japan's Koei Tecmo Games Co., which has reportedly become popular in China.
"Entry of foreign capital into the Chinese market is restricted, and censorship by authorities has gotten tighter in recent years. Under these conditions, Japanese games businesses are expanding by collaborating with Chinese firms," explained Yasuda.
It may well be said that the Chinese version of Pokemon Go, whose development appears to be shrouded in secrecy, shows a tough but shrewd side of Chinese business.
(Japanese original by Kenichi Omura, Integrated Digital News Center)