“Consoles are allowed to be officially sold in mainland China only recently, in the past they were only sold in Hong Kong and Taiwan, so no publishers means no exposure and no money. One of my friends used to say that only the rich could make indie games, I think it’s true in China. I’m not rich at all”.
Miaoyi Wang, CEO of indie studio LiberalGate, is clearly an innovator. When she speaks about games, she’s articulate and excited; optimistic even in the face of adversity. LiberalGate, a team of 4 programmers based in Beijing, according to Miaoyi, “…believe that we can make something really fun and different” but, as she also points out, in a Chinese indie scene still very much in its infancy, are currently “making games full-time without pay”. In such difficult circumstances, creativity can flounder or flourish, and if A Wonderful World is anything to by, Miaoyi and her team could soon find themselves on the frontlines of China’s changing indie landscape.
“In consideration of the cost, I decided to make a Visual Novel Puzzle game, less work in art and programming, but more in scripting and design.”
A Wonderful World, presented as a Visual Novel, puts players in the role of God, God in this case being cute anime girl because, hey why not, and tasks you with reading letters from humanity and helping them with their problems by re-arranging the events of their life, both small and not-so-small. “Nowadays there are more and more games in which the player can kill people or creatures or destroy anything they like. But I feel that helping people is a wonderful thing. So I decided to make a game in which the player could help people.”
The way this idea is implemented is what makes A Wonderful World one of the most unique Visual Novels in recent memory. In the scenario I played, which was also the games’ tutorial, a young girl had caused a situation at school that lead to her feeling ostracized. My job, in this instance, was to simply re-arrange her story so she didn’t make a certain left turn at a certain moment in time and tah-dah the entire situation is avoided and I am an adorable, benevolent god. As the game continues, however, these scenarios can get increasingly connected and complicated, but not nearly as complicated as the process of putting them together.
“The largest difficulty is to assign endings for every possible combination, in order to maximize freedom. The number of possible combinations increases exponentially as the number of possible movements (moving events around the timeline) increases. Most of the levels have no less than 5 possible movements, which brings more than 120 different combinations to assign reasonable endings to. One possible solution is to use a scoring mechanism, but in a semantic system [that’s] a disaster because there’s no logical connection between cause and effect. I designed a scheme to classify the combinations into several groups, this way we can guarantee every possible combination is assigned a reasonable ending.”
Such an ambitious idea, especially within such a stagnant genre, is undoubtedly a
tough sell and although LiberalGate haven’t contacted any publishers yet, and many of the press in attendance at TGS2015 (including Famitsu) chose to highlight A Wonderful World, Miaoyi is alarmingly candid about how difficult it is to push innovation in an indie scene that publishers refuse to acknowledge. “In China it’s extremely difficult for indie game developers because of the high cost of living and being ignored by local mainstream publishers and investors. The mobile market has increased very fast, leading to more and more low-cost, high profit , usually strong IP (One Piece, for example), mobile games to be made. Publishers and investors love these games so there are less opportunities for indie games, or any game that isn’t a strong IP. Google Play is unavailable in China, we don’t have a mature indie game community because the amount of indie developers is too small. More and more, game developers decide not to create original games in order to not starve.”
Despite this, Miaoyi is, like all true innovators, optimistic, and her team in Beijing have big plans for their project. “I think currently the only way for indie developers to survive [in China] is to sell their games abroad. If they can get success abroad, they will have a chance in China. Currently, we have Chinese, English and Japanese versions and we hope this game can be globally launched. It sounds sad, but there are still many people [in China] who like fun games. Some new media have begun to help indie developers, like Modian.com, but it still has far to go. I love games, and I hope the environment will get better and better.”
If you’re a fan of visual novels, or even just games that use narrative in interesting ways, you should be watching A Wonderful World like a hawk. I’ll be keeping a very close eye on it, and LiberalGate, as they might just be one of the most important indie studios in China at the moment, and China’s indie revolution might just be one day closer for their efforts.