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Why Chinese players are undercounted by Steam sales reports

How many Chinese players buy your game on Steam?

This is an important question to ask in evaluating your marketing efforts, effects of localization, and similar topics. Seems simple enough to check–go to Steamworks finance, hit “Regional Sales Report”, find where China is listed, and expand to see the number of wishlists and purchases.

Unfortunately, that is going to miss a portion of Chinese players, who will instead be counted as being in the US, Canada, the UK, Russia, or any number of other countries. This is because they have their Steam accounts registered to these regions (despite the difficulties in local payment and similar).

This stems from significant anxiety among Chinese players about whether access to their Steam library will, at some future date, be cut off. As of yet, despite the launch of Steam China, this hasn’t happened, and Chinese players retain access to their library of games on international Steam. But as all of us with 100+ games in our Steam library can understand, the prospect provokes considerable worry.

What other regions do Chinese gamers register in?

If you’d asked me to guess the answer here, I probably would have said Russia, or similar low cost regions. As a reminder, under usual regional pricing on Steam, players in China get a significant discount (something over 50% off compared to US gamers). It would seem logical for Chinese gamers picking a different region to pick one that benefits from regional pricing as well–Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Argentina, and so forth, are all regions that have even lower game prices than China.

Now, I do think that does happen–I’ve certainly seen marketing response to Chinese language advertising that indicates some are showing up in these low cost regions–but Wren from Witch Beam today mentioned in the Discord of GameDiscoverCo (an excellent publication recommended in the introductory post) that she had noticed a discrepancy where Steam was showing relatively more users assigned to the US rather than China compared to what was showing in their in-game analytics. This potentially indicates Chinese players opting into the US region on Steam, but if so, why would a Chinese player voluntarily choose to pay twice as much for their games by switching to the US region?

I spent a few minutes checking posts on Zhihu (a website sort of like a Chinese version of Quora), and came across a fascinating post:

现在steam的情况要不要转区? – 知乎

Apparently, as worried as Chinese gamers are that government action might cut off access to their Steam library, they are just as worried that Steam itself will ban their accounts for terms of service violations if they switch regions. As one Chinese gamer put it:

“我不能劝你转区,因为转区的风险不能忽视;

我也不能劝你留下,因为未来会如何,同样缺乏信源。”

(“I cannot advise you to change regions, because I cannot overlook the danger of [getting your account banned by Steam]; I cannot advise you to stay [in the Chinese region], because I likewise have no confidence in what the future will bring.”)

Apparently, from this an idea arose among some Chinese gamers:

“转高价区就没事”

(“switch to a high price area and you won’t have trouble”)

As some Chinese gamers reason, Steam has an incentive to ban people who switch to low price regions, but little incentive to ban those switching to higher price regions–after all, they pay even more for games. One other Zhihu post (steam转了美区如何安全地付款? – 知乎) has one commentator state: “据我的身边统计学来看,最近几年国区(低价区)转高价区(比如美区加区英区)还没有被ban的记录。” (“according to the statistics I have available, in the past several years, switching from the Chinese region (low price region) to a high price region (for example US, Canada, UK region) has not yet elicited any bans [from Steam].”

Now, to be clear I think the person is using “statistics” there in a half-joking manner, and plenty of Chinese gamers in the first link argue against the idea that switching to a high priced area is safe. But for our purposes, whether this idea is correct isn’t of primary importance–some Chinese gamers do believe it, and for them, the idea that they will have greater security in their games not being subject to removal based on some future government action is enough to justify paying more than twice as much today by switching their accounts to register under the US, Canada, UK, or other high priced countries.

So when you are measuring the return on investment of advertising in China, or assessing the effects of having Chinese localization available, it’s useful to bear in mind that the Steam sales report data is likely undercounting Chinese gamers.

More generally, I’d note how much security in ownership of games matters to players–enough to opt into paying over twice the price just to avoid the uncertain potential of losing games in the future. For those tempted to use various aggressive forms of DRM, require players to be online even when playing singleplayer games, or implement similar controls–it would be worth considering how much those methods may detract from that sense of secure ownership for players.

Tim