In every country around the world, people are playing games on their phones. But in no country are people more active in their play than in China, the most populous country in the world.
Bizarrely, the most popular mobile game in the world isn’t available in China: “Pokémon Go.”
The game also isn’t available in South Korea, the fourth largest market in the world for mobile gaming. So, what gives?
Surprisingly, it’s because of Google and the way that “Pokémon Go” is so tightly integrated with Google’s services. First and foremost, you login to “Pokémon Go” using Google:
But even if you circumvent that with a Pokémon Trainer Club login, the game itself relies on Google Maps data to power the game’s maps. But Google Services doesn’t operate in China. As of November 2012, China officially blocks all Google Services. This is the so-called “Great Firewall” of China: a means of censoring the internet deployed by the Chinese government.
In this case, the Great Firewall is keeping out Pikachu — and keeping the game’s creator, Niantic Labs, from earning millions in the largest gaming market in the world.
“‘Pokémon Go’ relies on Google Services for the game to run correctly,” Daniel Ahmad, a Chinese games industry analyst with Niko Partners, told Business Insider in an email exchange. “The game itself uses Google Maps as the game world and all the various Pokéstops/Gyms are stored in Google servers.”
In short: Since “Pokémon Go” is an online-only game, it’s dependent on Google Services functioning to do literally anything.
Chinese gamers aren’t ignorant of the game’s existence, of course.
An online survey conducted by Niko Partners, an analytics firm that specialises in the Chinese gaming market, found that people were taking to dubious workarounds for getting “Pokémon Go” working in China. Here’s what the survey found (emphasis ours):
“Within two days of the global launch of the iOS version we surveyed consumers to see whether they know the game ‘Pokémon Go.’ This was a self-selecting survey, meaning we did not have any screening criteria for participants. If they wanted to answer, they could answer.
Within a couple of days we had 350 respondents. Of those, more than 60% said they know of the game. In addition, 48% said they have tried to play the official game via convoluted efforts. Only 11% of the 350 said they were able to play, and 37% said they were not able to despite their efforts.”
The “convoluted efforts” noted here primarily consist of using a service called a “VPN” (“virtual private network”) that acts as a virtual mask, hiding the true location of your device.
You log in to it, and then you log into the internet through it, thus subverting any gates you’d normally encounter on your local internet connection. People use services like this to, say, watch Netflix in a country where it isn’t offered. But a VPN can also be used to play online games. Alas, even with a VPN, there are other issues that Chinese gamers will face — with no Google Maps data available for parts of China, it’s possible that no PokéStops or Gyms will be anywhere nearby.
South Korea faces a similar issue with “Pokémon Go,” albeit for different reasons.
Google and the South Korean government are in a protracted battle over access to the country’s map data. The South Korean government cites security reasons, specifically regarding North Korea, for not granting access. Google calls it preferential treatment for the South Korean mapping companies that lead the market there.
As the the Wall Street Journal explains, “Google’s domestic Korean rivals, Naver and Kakao Corp., only use government-supplied maps that already have had sensitive installations blurred or camouflaged. Google representatives contend that the national-security laws in South Korea unfairly benefit local competitors in the country of about 50 million people. The government maintains that national security is the laws’ sole purpose.”
In the case of South Korea, the fourth largest gaming market in the world (by revenue according to Newzoo), Niantic could create a workaround: use another mapping service. Partnering with Naver or Kakao could solve the issue, though it may also require a tremendous amount of work.
Regardless, with evidence of the “Pokémon Go” phenomenon wearing off, Niantic (and its investors at Google, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company) assuredly want to push into two of the world’s four biggest game markets. Now, the only question is how.