Science & Technology

Steam outage in China raises more questions about a potential ban

Reports of a Chinese ban on Steam’s international client appear to have been a false alarm, but it’s raised more questions about the country potentially blocking the widely-used video game storefront.

Late on Christmas Eve, word spread via social media and Reddit that Steam, a digital storefront for PC games owned and operated by the Bellevue, Wash.-based Valve Software, had been added to China’s national ban list.

That would prevent anyone using a Chinese internet service provider from accessing Steam, which would have sunk China’s independent games development scene overnight.

Hours later, on a second look, it turned out that the ban wasn’t a ban. Instead, an unknown party seems to have launched a Domain Name System (DNS) attack against Steam’s servers.

Vladyslav Tsypljak, CCO and co-founder of the Taiwan-based video game publisher Neon Doctrine, said his team in China was completely blocked out for a few hours but later regained access to Steam. He said it was likely a DNS cache incident, similar to what happened during a Steam Winter Sale a few years ago.

No one has taken credit for the apparent Chinese DNS attack on Steam at time of writing, but right now, it’s probably safe to assume that some troll thought it’d be funny to bring the service down during the Winter Sale.

We’ve reached out to Valve and will update this story when we hear back.

Steam isn’t actually banned in China, but for a few hours on Christmas Eve, it looked like it was, which alarmed a lot of people. The confusion was understandable, as many developers and analysts in the space have been waiting for this particular hammer to fall for most of 2021.

China, for whatever reason, hasn’t banned Steam yet, unlike other international websites such as Facebook or YouTube. Chinese users can’t directly access Steam’s community forums, but otherwise have full access to the storefront.

As a result, China has come to host a small but growing community of independent video game developers, who bring their games to the international market through Steam and, in so doing, bypass Chinese media regulation.

China has shown that it’s willing to take action against certain content on Steam — the Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games almost got hounded out of existence in 2019 over a mistakenly-included image in its horror game Devotion that called Xi Jinping a moron — but it’s otherwise allowed Chinese citizens to continue to use the service.

Valve’s Dota 2 is an esports favorite in China. (Valve Software image)

It’s not clear exactly why that is. There are several Western games with big followings in China, such as Valve’s own Dota 2, but it’s not really clear to anyone why Steam has been allowed to slip through the cracks.

Tsypljak said he thinks Steam’s international client will be slowly phased out of China.

“In the last few years, the rhetoric has changed,” Tsypljak said. “The government is pushing the ‘video games are like heroin addiction‘ stories.”

There’s a general feeling in the Chinese and Taiwanese indie gaming community that the writing’s on the wall. Valve launched a specifically Chinese version of Steam in February, in partnership with the Chinese publisher Perfect World Entertainment, which features a curated list of 57 games that have been approved for launch by the Chinese government.

Its existence has been taken as an implicit warning by Chinese indies that sooner or later, their tenuous links to the international market via Steam will be severed.

This is also a significant concern for developers outside of China, as the Chinese market makes up a significant number of overall video game sales worldwide. Some indies, in response to the news on Twitter, have noted that as much as 30% of their audience comes from China.



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