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The 530 Days of A Chinese Indie Game Waiting for Its Publishing License

By Isabella Jiangcheng
Apr. 11, 2023 updated 02:35

In October 2021, the producer of A Guidebook of Babel, Yutian, found an envelope. He stuffed the freshly signed and stamped ‘required material’ inside, and sent it to his partner publisher.

A Guidebook of Babel is the debut work of StarryStarry, a domestic Chinese independent game studio. The production team behind this retro-illustrated adventure game is very small, with only five people at the largest scale. After three years of head-to-head production, they finally developed the game to near completion. After discussing with the publisher, Yutian decided to apply for a publishing license for the title first, and then release it simultaneously at home and abroad.

What Yutian did not know at that moment was when he sent the material, he would have to wait another 530 days until A Guidebook of Babel got that license.

Heaven and Hell

A Guidebook of Babel waited much longer than the 500 or so days for its final release.

In early 2018, Yutian’s previous team disbanded, and he lost his job. He had been working as a character animator in the game industry for five years. He diverted his career into gaming when the anime industry was in recession in China. He loves to play games, and he thought he wanted to do something he is passionate about.

But from popular webpage games to mainstream mobile games, Yutian never encountered a game during work that he wanted to invest in as part of his career, and he never encountered a game that gave him a sense of belonging in this industry. It was at this confusing time, he realised that an indie game might be the answer.

A few years later, when Yutian talked about his original motivation for doing indie games in his video development log, one bullet comment said, "The main reason is to make more money if your game becomes viral", to which Yutian could only laugh bitterly. Even he had a limited understanding of indie games back then, he knew well that they were not profitable, at least not as profitable as any mobile games.

He still went for it, though. After gaining some insight into this industry, Yutian hit it off with one like-minded friend and decided to do something together.

That was when StarryStarry was formed.

StarryStarry hadn't actually thought about what kind of game they wanted to make at this point. They had individually participated in many game developments in previous years, but building a game from scratch was a first for them. It was like building a car from just the wheels - they could only figure out things as they went along.

After a month or two of brainstorming, StarryStarry finally settled on the theme of The Butterfly Effect. They envisioned an adventure game where the protagonist could tap into different storylines by changing his/her behaviour. The idea was inspired by the hit film The Butterfly Effect and the beloved anime series Re:Zero - Starting Life in Another World.

Unlike other works that feature time travel, these two works have one thing in common: even though the protagonists have the ability to break the rules of time, they still cannot become omnipotent and can only struggle to alter the course of events within the range of normal human activities. As they accumulate experience, problems continue to pile up, and they still need to learn how to make good choices. This is also the theme of A Guidebook of Babel.

What Yutian did not know at that point was that the path from a good idea to a good game cannot be finished overnight.

After a year of development, StarryStarry came up with their first playable demo in 2019. They asked an experienced developer, who had a lot of experience in top gaming companies and was developing his indie game at the time, to try it out.

After playing the demo, the guy politely asked Yutian: ‘The person who wrote the script is not a professional, right?’. Back then, Yutian did not tell his friend that the plot of the game was solely written by himself.

The comment was a big blow to Yutian, and it took a while for him to go back to the development.

At that time, StarryStarry had no idea about the complete development process of a game. Initially, they thought once they had the first demo, all subsequent areas could be filled out quickly, and the game could be completed in under a year.

Looking back, Yutian thought they were "like a joke", completely revealing their lack of experience. And looking back at the advice of the developer who played the demo, he was correct: the stages in the demo were later completely redone, and the game's development was postponed again.

The game’s earlier demo screenshotThe game’s earlier demo screenshot

Fortunately, both Yutian and his colleague were not under much pressure financially. His partner, Jia Yu, had just graduated and only cared that he was able to afford tickets to local conventions; Yutian was already a family man with a child, but his partner understood his entrepreneurial impulse very well, despite not knowing anything about indie game development.

Yutian explained to his wife that what he wanted to do wasn’t the commercial games he used to work on. His partner, who also graduated with an animation degree, quickly understood that this was the project that could fulfill Yutian’s desire for expression.

Spending time with the family also brought inspiration for A Guidebook of Babel. One time, Yutian took his wife and daughter to the aquarium. His daughter frolicked, running and jumping through the crowd with a toy seal. A foreign couple saw and greeted Yutian, but his English was not very good, he vaguely understood that the couple thought his daughter was very adorable and reminded them of their own daughter from far away. So they wanted to buy her a doll. But he politely turned them down out of courtesy.

Yutian’s daughter and his studioYutian’s daughter and his studio

After the couple left, Yutian’s wife, who spoke better English, told him that the couple actually meant that their daughter had passed away, and they saw their own daughter when Yutian’s daughter was running around, and that was why they wanted to buy a gift to send their thoughts. That revelation caused a surge of guilt in Yutian’s heart.

Later at work, he thought of this incident again. He wondered if that couple’s deceased daughter's soul possessed his own daughter, wanting the couple to see them happy once again. Thus, the Babel, a passenger ship to communicate between yin and yang, was born in the game.

The story of the game takes place between the worlds of life and deathThe story of the game takes place between the worlds of life and death

In the meantime, Yutian and his team began to reorganize the structure of their game. They learned along the way: the game’s structure was reworked, and their script improved in order to tell the story in a much more exciting way. They also refined the game in terms of its art, rendering and programming.

Finally, after more than half a year, they came up with a demo containing two new levels, and once again got the same developer to try it out. At that time, the demo did not have a ’save’ option yet. The developer got stuck in the middle and had to restart. ‘It's over,’ Yutian thought to himself.  But the developer just said it was fine, and wanted to go through the level again.  

"Compared with last time, the differences were like heaven and hell", the comment immediately lifted a weight from Yutian’s shoulders.

The ‘Heaven’ versionThe ‘Heaven’ version

The new demo pushed the development of the game onto the right track. Following the positive reaction, StarryStarry quickly put the plot and art on the ‘built wheels’, and finished the first chapter of the game using six levels. It looked like the game was gaining the charm StarryStarry wanted to have in the first place.

With this chapter in hand, StarryStarry started to go to various game conventions in 2020, trying to reach out to the circle of investors, developers and publishers more frequently. In early 2021, they signed a deal with publisher Pixmain, and made an important decision: they would apply for a publishing license before releasing the game.

Send Off for the Approval

In China, it is well known that one needs a publishing license to be able to release a game on various platforms. Yutian and his team were aware of this, but had never really thought about it.

After discussing with the publisher, StarryStarry learned that the ‘children's book-like’ art direction of A Guidebook of Babel was well suited for a wider market. If StarryStarry could release the game on Steam, NS, Wegame and TapTap platforms together, the game could also be promoted at the same time to achieve the effect 1+1>2. A game can share one publishing license when applying for different platforms as long as there is no major discrepancy in the content. So StarryStarry decided to apply for PC, NS and mobile versions at the same time, which can prevent the subsequent trouble of porting the game afterwards.

After the decision was made, they officially entered into the process of applying for the license. The first step to be taken was to contact a professional publishing house.

In the words of Yutian afterwards, "finding a reliable publisher can save a lot of time for developers”. One can probably say this is the most important part. The application materials have to be submitted to the publishing house, then to the government bureau. So, finding a publishing house with extensive experience and the right strategy is crucial.

Team member reviewing their art assetsTeam member reviewing their art assets

Some publishing houses focus on providing the correct channel, but don't really care about the success rate. Others focus on the success rate and will take care of a lot of details for developers: Whether it's "communication room" or "correspondence room", which quotation marks to use, these little things may seem a bit tedious to go through, but these small things must meet the modern Chinese standard in China. All these things StarryStarry thought the reviewers would not touch, are deemed essential for the experienced publishing house.

The publishing house that StarryStarry worked with also searched for the game online. The early promotional materials that were officially put up on the internet needed to be updated to match the existing version. Some dubious websites claimed to have the game in free, green or cracked versions. StarryStarry had to inform these websites to take those links down, or send out legal letters if necessary. For the really stubborn dead ends, Yutian would have to write a statement saying that they have no association with those websites.

Per the publishing house’s suggestion, Yutian carefully adjusted the game content inside and out, and then submitted the application in October 2021. At this point, Yutian did not know how long the wait would be. At first, he was optimistic, or rather, had no idea what would happen.

Yutian assumed the game itself was quite harmless, and it would not take long to receive comments from the bureau so that he could quickly make changes and submit the application again. He assumed he would be able to get the license in 2022 so that the game would be released smoothly. But, there was only silence for a long while.

Over the past two years, various issues, such as the quality of the demo, the delay and cancellation of various exhibitions due to the pandemic, the inability to find investment, and the inability to hire team members, have all slowed down their progress to varying degrees. In early 2021, after working with the publishing house, Yutian received partial prepayments and expanded the team to five people. However, the development pace was slowed down again.

In March 2022, this Shanghai-based team also encountered pandemic lockdowns. They had to start working from home, which once again halved their work efficiency. They could only use online office software temporarily and try to make up for the efficiency of remote collaboration.

During that period, the team's living conditions also caused headaches for Yutian. Unlike large companies that can help their own employees to buy food in bulk, Yutian had to spend time every day setting alarms to grab groceries, and he couldn't do much to help his team members. At most, they could share some tips for grocery shopping and share positive thoughts to comfort and care for each other. Apart from that, there was little they could do to console each other.

During the quarantine, the plant in the studio died of neglectDuring the quarantine, the plant in the studio died of neglect

Fortunately, this homebound life finally ended. And before Shanghai resumed work fully, two more pieces of good news arrived.

In the Pipeline

On May 11th of last year, A Guidebook of Babel was selected for the Nintendo Indie World showcase and received three minutes of screen time in both the Japanese and American versions of the program.

Nintendo has always been a Hall of Fame in the heart of Yutian. Being showcased would mean that the quality of the game was recognised, rather than anything else. ‘For an immature work like ours to appear in the showcase is an affirmation, a very pleasant surprise, perhaps even bigger than getting approval from the authorities.’

Around the same time, after waiting for six months, Yutian received the first round of comments from the bureau. Unlike the common impression of back-and-forth modifications, the reviewers only had one suggestion.

In the game, there is a type of ice-cream-like creature that will roar and show its fangs when it encounters other characters. The reviewers suggested they should get rid of the fangs. StarryStarry quickly replaced those fangs with a row of neat human-like teeth, like the ones in a toothpaste advertisement.

StarryStarry submitted the application for the second time. It was then that A Guidebook of Babel had to wait 300 days to receive its license.

Before and after the modificationBefore and after the modification

If the first six months of waiting were within Yutian’s expectations, his optimism was completely shattered after the second application.

Originally, he thought that since there was only one modification, the second round of review might only take five minutes to complete and they would receive the good news soon. However, for several months after the second submission, there was no news.

Yutian started to worry.

During this time, all they could do was continue to optimize the game. Fix some bugs, and improve any shortcomings in all aspects - in preparation for the technical issues before the release.

Not knowing when they would receive any update, Yutian would stare at his QQ (a Chinese IM app).  Every time the publishing house’s profile blinked, Yutian would wonder if it was going to be positive news, if the license had finally been granted. He stared at that screen until October 2022, when the publishing house finally brought new progress, but it wasn't the news of approval - it was that the game was finally ‘in the pipeline’.

Until he saw the term ‘in the pipeline,’ Yutian didn't understand what it meant. The publishing house explained to him that the term meant that the game had passed the review process and the reviewers would hold a final meeting to confirm the decision, indicating that the game had been added to the waiting list for approval. This was undoubtedly a significant achievement.

StarryStarry’s new studioStarryStarry’s new studio

However, Yutian, unlike the publishing house, did not fully understand the entire process and thought that the game had already been queued, without the concept of whether it would go ‘in the pipeline’ or not. Despite the good news, he still felt a little disappointed.

There was nothing he could do but adjust his expectations and continue to wait. At that time, there were still 170 days left until that approval.

‘Are We Friends Now?’

Back at the Nintendo Indie World showcase in May, A Guidebook of Babel announced a vague release date: fall of 2022. However, it was clear that the game was already behind schedule.

Although StarryStarry did little promotion just to be cautious, all of the promotion pointed to 2022 as the expected release year. On the game’s crowdfunding campaign, they set the release date for December 2022. However, the release had to be postponed again and again due to the lack of a publishing license.

As the end of the year approached, in order to satisfy the crowdfunding agreement, StarryStarry had to send out the game's install codes. However, even if the crowdfunders activated the game, they could not open it at that time. They could only look at the game in their library, which left some players dissatisfied.

Physical memorabilia for the crowdfundersPhysical memorabilia for the crowdfunders

Yutian saw all of this and was helpless. In the players’ chat group, there were endless messages urging the game to be released, and they always came up with creative ways to ask ‘the question'. One player even sent Yutian a friend request and left a message telling Yutian to let her know when the release date was set through that friend request.

Every day after that, this player would ask in the group, ‘Are we friends now?’

After a while, this player became familiar with the group and one day exclaimed, "I've become a patron in the group and yet we're still not friends."

Yutian felt a bit embarrassed and didn't know how to respond, so he could only send a facepalm emoji.

By this time, StarryStarry had basically completed all the debugs and the game was ready to be released at any time. Since there was nothing else to do for A Guidebook of Babel, Yutian and his team started working on a new project.

Physical memorabilia for the crowdfundersPhysical memorabilia for the crowdfunders

The new game will be a simulation game set in the same universe as A Guidebook of Babel.

After the start of 2023, the approval process for licenses became more regular, and the number of games that got approved increased significantly. At the end of February, we asked Yutian again how long he thought it would take to get the license, and his estimate was noticeably more conservative, saying it would take another six months.

However, at the time of that conversation, there were actually only 24 days left until the license would be issued.

The 530th Day

On March 23rd, a batch of 86 domestic games were granted licenses and appeared on the official website of the National Press and Publication Administration. Among them, the 24th game was A Guidebook of Babel.

When the list was announced that evening, Yutian didn't see it immediately.

He thought that if the publishing house had received the approval, they would have informed him a few days earlier. So he went to play soccer after dinner, as usual, that night. When he finished the workout and put on his coat, he saw hundreds of messages popping up on his phone.

Messages from colleagues, friends, and players were all telling him that the game had finally been approved for release - he might have been the last to find out.

Standing on the edge of the soccer field, Yutian patiently replied to everyone's congratulations and answered the enthusiastic players' questions that were already flooding the group chat. By the time he had finished with everything and was ready to go home, an hour had passed.

During the period of waiting, Yutian described his feelings as waiting to win the lottery. Every time the license list was announced, it was like a lottery, full of anticipation but also the terror of disappointment. He wanted to see the list, but did not dare to look. Now that the license has finally been granted, his emotions are still complex: ‘Of course, there is joy and excitement; after all, we waited so long.’

At the same time, he was a bit troubled. In the past, when players asked about the release date in the group, he would simply reply that they were still waiting for the approval and avoid answering too many questions. Now that this excuse is gone, he can only use some official rhetoric, ‘such as saying that the studio has already prepared a plan with the publishing housing. We are asking for everyone's patience, like an e-commerce customer service representative.’

Another indie developer was also in the group chatAnother indie developer was also in the group chat

Looking back at his estimate of ‘waiting for another six months’ a month ago, Yutian admits that he was a bit conservative. He thought it would take three to six months, so he just said the longest time possible. If they didn't get the license by then, they wouldn't be too disappointed, and if they got it earlier, it would be a pleasant surprise.

But like fireworks, surprises are dazzling but fleeting.

A few days after the license was granted, StarryStarry quickly returned to their normal state after the initial excitement. The celebration he had prepared for the team was just a simple dinner together. One of their team members was still on a business trip, and they were waiting for him to come back. Yutian said that although the license approval was rare, it didn't mean anything in itself; their ‘revolution is not yet successful.’ It was more important for them to launch the game as soon as possible and talk to players with confidence.

Getting the license doesn't mean the game can be launched the next day. No matter which platform it is on, there is a platform process to go through, which includes adding anti-piracy, anti-cheat, or anti-addiction systems, depending on the requirements. Moreover, what they are pursuing is to launch on several platforms simultaneously, so the publishing team also needs to leave a period of time for publicity and promotion.

In the coming period, there will be many new tasks ahead for Yutian and his team.

The team discussing their future tasksThe team discussing their future tasks

But unlike before getting the license, this time, every step will be within their planned schedule, so it won't make Yutian anxious again. When StarryStarry were waiting for the license, they did plan to give up if they couldn't get it because the studio didn't have the financial ability to wait indefinitely. Fortunately, they waited just a little longer.

Now A Guidebook of Babel is being prepared for release, and a new game is also being developed in an orderly manner. Regarding applying for licenses again, Yutian said that they are now familiar with the process of coordinating with the publishing house and submitting for review. However, he is not sure whether they will apply for a license again for the new game, as it will depend on the style of the finished product, and there are still many ‘black boxes’ that he doesn't understand.

In the first few rounds of trial testing, players gave good feedback on the game. But Yutian is still uncertain about the final market reputation and sales figures.

If the game's quality is poor, no one will remember whether they got the license, and their story will be coloured by self-pity. Yutian is still exploring and moving forward, and his ‘Babel’ Long March is not yet completed.

What has passed is 530 days of waiting for a Chinese indie game to get its publishing license.