Updated Mobile Game ISBN Regulations: Game Evaluation Scoring Details

On April 14th, Chinese Regulators updated its mobile game compliance rules — better known as ISBN — announcing the ‘Game Evaluation Scoring Details,’ which came into effect April 1st, 2021.

It took years for the Chinese mobile game industry to adapt to the 2016 ISBN environment. While the regulation hasn’t slowed the game industry’s growth per se, the industry has shifted dramatically. Here are some of the industry changes:

  1. Re-skinned games, once a staple and a major issue, are no longer compliant.
  2. Studios are incentivized to create higher quality games.
  3. Chinese companies are forced to focus on the global market.

However, smaller chinese studios and foreign games overall have a much limited access to the industry as applying for ISBN has a high fixed cost. Chinese indie studios have a higher hurdle to go to market, and for foreign games, chinese publishers now have a much higher requirement when deciding on which game to publish. On average foreign games ISBN will take 18-24 months and on average 150-200 foreign games will receive ISBN every year. Hence each publisher will take this into account during game evaluation.

As for the new ‘Game Evaluation Scoring Details,’ here are some of the details:

  1. There will be 2 or more ‘experts’ scoring each ISBN application.
  2. Scoring in 5 categories includes: “value system,” “originality,” quality,” “cultural,” and “development progress”. There are even more sub-categories under the umbrella category.
  3. The Score is given on a basis of 0-5. Overall scores of 3+ will proceed while score of 4+ will be expedited. Scores of 2 and below will be rejected.
  4. The application is rejected if any category receives a score of 0.
  5. Here is the current list of the latest ISBNs for foreign mobile games.

Some industry observers say that the new scoring system demonstrates regulators’ sophistication and nuance, with a focus on quality and content. However, some analysts have expressed concerns with regard to who the so-called “experts” are, whether they favor big publishers, and if the scoring will adversely limit creativity in indie games. We’ve also previously discussed how upstarts such as Lilith Games and ByteDance are challenging larger publishers. I’m not sure what implications these regulations will have on emerging competition either, but I’m keen to track it.

Such discussions are still ongoing among China netizens. The gaming industry is now waiting for more ‘empirical evidence,’ namely the next batch of successful ISBNs as well as rejections to provide guidance. For myself, I tend to look at the silver lining — “4 points and above means expedited application.” Perhaps this means that high quality foreign games now have a path to quicker ISBNs. Perhaps not.