Steam has possibly been banned in China, although the circumstances remain a bit unclear. Reports were first posted to Reddit alleging that Steam and its services had been placed on the national ban list. This would mean that any Chinese internet users would be restricted from accessing the site and services, provided they weren’t using a VPN.
Though early reports suggested a ban, there may be another reason why this outage is happening. It has also been reported that the outage may not be a ban. It might actually be a quirk of server outages. It could be that local DNS or other services is down, and Chinese sources misreported the outage as a ban.
But let’s put some thought into what a ban might do to that gaming industry in China.
This comes as the Chinese authorities crackdown on various forms of gaming and tech. Fortnite was shut down in China on November 15 this year. Children were limited to three hours of gaming a week, amid a gaming addiction crackdown. Other industries such as cryptocurrency faced server restrictions as the government sought to gain a handle on the alternative economy. This also comes as state censors have been very heavy-handed and slow in approving new games. Imports of the popular Switch title, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, had been previously blocked. And the country has only approved a handful of games for domestic sale in the last few months.
Having Steam banned in China will put millions of PC gamers in the country in a state where they are stuck without their games, and the ability to purchase new ones. There are approved alternatives, but those often come with the usual censorship and restrictions on access that the Chinese government has been infamous for. The Chinese versions of many steam titles are also restricted, but there’s a desire to join the rest of the global gaming community.
Though large titles and MMOs that have a presence on Steam—but are run as ports by Chinese companies—will be unaffected, but some games may not be so lucky. Since February of 2021 Valve has been patterned with Perfect World to try and bring a formal port of Steam to China. Though the game selection is limited, the hope was that it could be expanded over time.
A prerequisite to publishing games on Steam China is receiving Chinese government approval for your game, which means a Chinese publisher will be the representative of your title in the legal system. That legal representation is both a form of favoritism by the Chinese government, and a bit of heavy oversight. Steam in China would have given Western companies a chance to jump over to a new audience, with minimal work creating ports for a China-specific distribution model. With Steam China, you could effectively use a translated version of a Steamworks build, easing the workload. Having Steam banned in China will mean that this is no longer an option.
Independent devs that don’t have ties to the global games industry similarly lose out. If you lack the backing and funding to push out an international version, you can’t effectively reach the global Steam audience, and are stuck with Steam China, if it returns.