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Made in China: How the Developers of ‘KOI’ Reached Westward to Make History

Made in China: How the Developers of ‘KOI’ Reached Westward to Make History: Dotoyou

Dotoyou

For Chinese game developers DAQ, Julien Li, and the rest of the team at Dotoyou Studios, it took only 30 minutes to begin reversing the effects of 14 years of government obstruction. When the Chinese government banned the production and sale of video game consoles in mainland China in 2000, DAQ and much of the rest of Dotoyou weren’t even teenagers. The government claimed that the ban, which carried far-reaching implications for the future of China’s game developers and culture, was meant to protect the nation’s youth from wasting their lives. How appropriate then that over a decade later, when the Dotoyou team had long since entered adulthood, they’d reclaim some of that youth in their own work.

The tech leaders among China’s over 1 billion citizens adapted to the video game ban in their own ways. The astronomic rise of PC gaming was reinforced in both homes and internet cafes, piracy ran rampant on all fronts, and “plug-’n’-play” consoles like Nintendo’s iQue found their smaller, cheaper niches. Thus console development took a back seat to things like mobile gaming, which has proved lucrative anyway. The country’s share of the mobile gaming market raked in $5.5 billion domestically in 2015, with an estimated $26 billion across PC, mobile, and consoles for 2016.

For the team behind KOI, the titular fish is both a symbol for good fortune and ambition, while also the star of the project they’ve devoted themselves to. As a koi fish, joined by friends both large and small, players are challenged with bringing peace to a lotus pond poisoned by the machinations of man. The koi fish seems to be a fitting symbol for the game that would put Dotoyou on the map and finally bridge an important gap rarely, if ever, crossed.

Put simply, the team at Dotoyou are the first strictly Chinese developers to create a distinctly Chinese game in China and release it on a console in the west. A small number of large multi-studio developers, like Ubisoft, do in fact operate studios in cities like Shanghai (which operates as a free-trade zone), but these projects are often shared between multiple teams from across the globe. Other Chinese developers help create Western games, like Shanghai-based Spicy Horse, which worked on 2011’s Alice: Madness Returns.

For the team at Dotoyou, living and working in the city of Tianjin certainly seemed like being a small fish in a big pond. With a population of over 12 million people, 15 times the square footage of New York City, the northern coastal city served as a front row seat for DAQ and Li while they witnessed the rise of China’s unique gaming culture.

“Ten years ago or so, the gaming industry in China didn’t amount to much,” DAQ, KOI’s lead designer, said through a translator. “Our parents weren’t too keen on us trying to make it in the gaming industry. Career-wise, they couldn’t imagine it possibly leading to somewhere. These days, the view on gaming in China has changed a lot. Of course, there are still misunderstandings. The adults generally assumed that making games is like doing work in high-end tech with a high-end salary.”

Despite gaming’s prominence in China on PC and mobile, Chinese developers have still had numerous challenges to face, including their own growth. For both DAQ and Li, this meant maturing beyond the limitations of a relatively isolated gaming culture, as well as finding the unique values that only their perspectives could provide players.

“I could never shake the feeling that the emotions, the culture inside of these games came from outside, be it western fairy tales, medieval European history, [or] Japanese culture,” Li, Dotoyou’s founder, said. “I thought these were all awesome, but at the same time there were very few games that really moved me, because we Chinese have our own distinct experiences and way of expressing feelings.”

There were very few games that really moved me.

Julien Li
Dotoyou founder

Chinese musician Zeta, who composed the entirety of KOI’s acoustic, meditative soundtrack, ties the same sentiment to mannerisms commonly associated with eastern cultures.

“Although the Chinese games industry’s development is going very fast, I feel we still need to take it step by step,” Zeta told me. “Especially since our culture can be described as being quite introspective and deep, some things take years before they find their form. [Chinese developers] do have a weight on their shoulders in a sense, one of wanting to keep up with global standards while at the same time coping with a lack of experience that only time can take away.”

Though black markets certainly exist, prohibitive costs keep many Chinese gamers from investing heavily in personal gaming devices beyond smartphones. When the team began designing the game in 2014, consoles were still illegal to sell in China, so KOI began its life as just another smartphone game. Shockingly enough, especially for mobile, the team set out with zero intention of making a profit on KOI, much less catering to any specific market.

“Our game is partially the result of fate, and also a labor of love,” DAQ said. “It gave us the chance to combine all the experience we had gained in making games and use it to create a new kind of possibility. It’s really too early to say that KOI is a piece of art, but it is a kind of beginning.”

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The gaming world has certainly seen its share of “art games” like The Beginner’s Guide, Firewatch and countless others. These games burst with vibrancy, personal inspiration, and narratives that push players and other developers to grow beyond their own borders of understanding.

KOI, in that respect, will have been the cornerstone of this transformation. We’ll often think back of KOI and remember it in this way, too,” DAQ said.

This push for a personal approach isn’t unique to western indie games, but it is somewhat uncommon in the more structured and hierarchical studios of the eastern world. In a traditional eastern studio, countering a boss’s opinion can be a massive social faux pas. An old eastern proverb proclaims that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” But the comparatively smaller team at Dotoyou work together in more personal ways than the traditional structue of other eastern companies. Not only do team members regularly eat or hang out with each other, but a special trip to composer Zeta’s home on her birthday turned into a group adventure outside the city to record the sounds of a river for in-game audio.

This group emphasis applies to more straightforward decisions in the studio, too. Each member is allowed total freedom to pitch new ideas and in turn receive upfront feedback.

“The importance of originality in games is something our entire team agrees on,” Li said. “It’s something we do with our hearts.”

That originality would serve the team well enough during their days of developing for smartphones, but in the early days of development on KOI they had no idea how big their pond would become.

PLAYSTATION BIG

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Half an hour. That’s all it took to begin to reverse the effects of China’s console ban and to begin the process of extending their culture to western players. Shortly after the Chinese government lifted its ban at the end of 2014, the team at Dotoyou entered the “PlayStation Developers Contest,” organized to give winners the resources to make a PlayStation 4 game.

When Dotoyou found themselves the lucky recipients, it sparked a snowball effect that would launch them to their current prominence. When Alen Wu, business director at Chinese publisher Oasis Games, met team leaders at the 2015 ChinaJoy entertainment expo, he fell in love with the game’s art and music. A simple 30 minute chat was all it took to convince each party to work together.

Then came the phone call from Terry Liu, senior officer at Sony Computer Entertainment Shanghai Limited.

Perhaps most people will think of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army when mentioning China, but we have a history that is thousands of years old.

Julien Li
Dotoyou founder

“I told him I was getting anxious, saying ‘a mobile game development team like us publishing on a console? We don’t have any experience at all in that area!’” Li said. “Terry put my mind to ease, saying ‘in the whole of China there isn’t a single console developer as of yet. What do you have to worry about? I’ll help you out.’”

Thus began the lengthy process of revising the entirety of KOI for the PlayStation 4, including visuals, controls, and extensive remixing of Zeta’s soundtrack.

The game will already have been quietly released on PlayStation’s online store for at least several days now. Just like that, a little bit of history has been made—the first fully Chinese game officially put on a western console in 14 years.

But just like any shifting ecosystem, the story never ends with those who came first. DAQ, Li and their team believe the future of China’s contributions to console gaming will give players a distinctly eastern experience, informed by hundreds of years of philosophy and culture.

“The feelings of Chinese people are quite subtle, and we can use our games to convey our feelings towards these games,” Li said. “Perhaps most people will think of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army when mentioning China, but we have a history that is thousands of years old. That may have very different implications for us.”

Li has his baser concerns regarding wider accessibility, like a desperate need for Chinese subtitles in western-made games. On a more philosophical side he sees the diminutive koi fish for its representation of good fortune, and its ties to nature that are continually threatened by massive pollution. In a country where 1.6 million people reportedly die every year from breathing toxic air, one can’t fault Li for incorporating such a theme.

“[Pollution] was actually the main reason for us developing this game,” Li said. “We want to wake people up to care about their environment, and not let humans with their lifestyles destroy the pureness of nature.”

Li and Zeta in the field

Li and Zeta in the field

It all comes back to bridging that gap across the great chasm that the 14 year ban built. The game development community is a dramatically vast one, built on the friendships and imparted lessons of uncountable interactions. DAQ, Li, and Zeta all share an animated, almost giddy enthusiasm for the chance to grow.

“Chinese culture is so complex that, when you put 10 Chinese people together, they may all have very different ideas about it,” Zeta said. “The Chinese language can be a very vague, yet imaginative way of expressing oneself, so our games might be a surprisingly good medium for communication.”

KOI made its debut in the west at the 2016 Game Developers Conference in March, sans any members of Dotoyou. While the team may have missed out on the chance to shake hands and learn from their western peers for a week, the inevitable friendships and the chance to compete on a global scale and show off what Chinese developers are capable of is a thrilling prospect for Li and company.

“Now that’s something!” Li said.

Just as the koi fish must bring balance to its world, so must Dotoyou and their Chinese peers. And just like the schools of fish restoring that tranquil video game pond, swimming together, they’ll never be alone again.


Joseph Knoop is a freelance games journalist and part-time comic book geek. His favorite games include cute animals, so Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater probably counts. Talk progressive metal and jazzhop with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.


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