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Violent virtual fights to the death are the hottest video game trend in China and suppliers to the world’s largest gaming market are rushing to cash in despite the threat of censorship.

“Battle royale” games in which players are parachuted on to a virtual island for last-person-standing fights with realistic-looking weapons, have attracted millions of players this year in China, even though censors generally forbid violent games from being distributed. 

Gaming generates more than $24bn in annual sales, according to consultancy NewZoo. Tencent, the internet conglomerate which controls just over half the video game market in China, said more than 20m people had signed up for a soon-to-be-launched mobile-phone variation on the genre, which it refers to as survival games. The game is called Glorious Mission.

“Survival game is definitely a very important category . . . We will have a whole pipeline of games that will target this genre,” said Martin Lau, Tencent’s president, in a quarterly earnings call last week. Its near-$500bn market capitalisation makes Tencent China’s most valuable listed company.

The company said its gaming revenues for the latest quarter had risen 80 per cent year on year, mainly due to the success of multiplayer fantasy battle game Honour of Kings, the world’s most lucrative video game, which attracts up to 80m players a day.

But Honour of Kings was knocked off its perch as the most downloaded game on China’s Apple App Store this month by a mobile battle-royale game from Tencent’s main rival, Beijing-based Netease. Rules of Survival proved so popular that downloads initially crashed the company’s servers.

“It’s a threat to Honour of Kings with regards to share of gamers’ time,” said Benjamin Wu, an analyst at Pacific Epoch, a consultancy. “We think the battle-royale genre could be one of the most popular for the next year, and Netease has taken the advantage.”

Netease’s game heavily resembles PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a South Korean PC game that has accrued 5m Chinese fans this year, who downloaded it from a US-based platform — allowing them to dodge Chinese censors.

Netease’s game removes visible blood and — in a move that has amused Chinese gamers — co-opts several Communist party slogans that appear on banners in its virtual world. Players are asked to “safeguard national security and maintain world peace” before entering the melee. 

The long-term commercial viability of the games is still subject to regulatory risk, with China’s main media regulator saying this month it was looking into the genre. “If they introduce regulations the games could quickly flop. Censorship could be the key issue,” said Chenyu Cui, an analyst at IHS Markit. 

Netease said in a statement that it would ensure its battle-royale games were in accordance with “traditional Chinese virtues” and “core socialist values”.

Twitter: @hancocktom

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