Chinese copycat apps riding the wave of Pokemon fever, for now

Laura He

The global hit mobile game Pokemon Go may not come to China anytime soon due to mapping service and regulatory obstacles, according to analysts, who add that in the meantime, copycat apps could benefit greatly from the gaming fever created by the app's runaway success.

However, they only expect brief enthusiasm towards the copycats, and anticipate the Pokemon Go maker could choose to partner with a powerful Chinese game giant, to overcome existing obstacles and tap into the market.

Pokemon Go app on an iPhone, Tokyo, Japan, July 22, 2016.
Toru Hanai | Reuters

Pokemon Go is a monster-hunting game played against a backdrop of augmented reality (AR) and location-tracking technology.

It has exploded in popularity in the West since it was first launched on July 6 in Australia and New Zealand, and a day later in the United States.

The gaming fever has also spread onto the internet and social media in China, where the game's not even available yet, and already a number of similar or copycat games have seen a surge in downloads in China's Apple Stores.

Analysts say the copycats may ride the wave of the Pokemon fever short term, as the augmented reality is unlikely to be available in China soon.

"We already see strong interest in the game in China," said Macquarie analysts in a recent research note.

"But we do not expect the official launch of Pokemon Go in China anytime soon, given the mapping data access and new mobile game license requirements in China."

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Pokemon Go relies on Google's mapping system, but the US tech giant's services have been blocked in China since 2010.

China's top media regulator the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has also tightened its grip on mobile gaming since the start of July, requiring all mobile games to be submitted to the regulator for pre-approval at least 20 working days prior to launch.

In addition, foreign games developers have to license their software copyrights to Chinese online publishing license-holders.

"We expect Chinese game studios to start developing a similar type of game to take advantage of the buzz and hunger it has created among Chinese gamers recently," said Macquarie analysts.

City Pixies Go, a monster-hunt mobile game with a similar name as Pokemon Go in Chinese, has seen its download and grossing ranks soar from below 100 and below 300 at its launch in April, to currently No. 1 and top 50 in China. The app also uses location-based services and allows players to catch virtual monsters.

In the meantime, the Baidu Index of Pokemon Go, as a gauge of popularity by search queries in China, has surged to around 434,000, overtaking levels achieved by Tencent's popular mobile game Honor of Kings, Netease's mobile Fantasy Westward Journey, and other hit titles, according to data compiled by Macquarie. But despite the rises, Zhou Wei, a gaming sector columnist at Sina, said it's hard for copycat games to succeed in China in the longer term.

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"You can probably attract some curious players in the beginning, but you can't copy exactly the technology and the culture that are the driving forces of the game," he said.

Although coming to China might involve lots of difficulties for Pokemon Go, has already filed a trademark for the name of the game to China's State Administration For Industry and Commerce, triggering expectations the game developer may not give up on the market just yet.

Some analysts anticipate the Pokemon Go maker might choose to work with powerful local game companies, such as Tencent, to try to tackle the regulatory obstacles.

They said it may also be a tempting opportunity for local game distributors, who expect to profit big from advertising and related merchandising sales.

The Macquarie analysts suggest possible joint-venture partners could include Tencent, Baidu or Alibaba, based on their game distribution capability and mapping resources.

In particular, "Tencent should benefit, as it already has a map offering, higher chance of licensing popular AR games, and having made investments in AR technology recently, including an AR start-up called Meta," they said.

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