A sheep game is going viral in China despite tight gaming regulation

The game by a young Beijing company called “Sheep a Sheep” went viral in China in September 2022.

Evelyn Cheng | CNBC

BEIJING — A new game that has gone viral in China has hit people’s screens with surprising speed, at a time when gaming giants like NetEase have been waiting months for approval to launch games.

That’s because the new game, called Sheep a Sheep, is integrated as a mini-program into ByteDance’s Douyin and Tencent’s messaging app WeChat. Users can play the game within the apps.

“WeChat and ByteDance currently do not require a game license to publish their HTML5 games on their platforms,” ​​said Rich Bishop, CEO of AppInChina, which publishes international software in China.

“But this is likely to change over the next few months as enforcement of existing regulations ramps up,” he said.

HTML5 games are built with coding tools similar to those used for websites and can be easily distributed across platforms.

WeChat and ByteDance did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Sheep a Sheep has gone viral in the past few days. Very fresh for everyone, especially the regulators.

Brian Tycangco

Analyst, Stansberry Research

Gaming Software Permissions

The developer of Sheep a Sheep, Beijing Jianyou Technology, was founded in January 2021.

According to the company’s database, Tianyancha, the company registered the game’s software in late July this year. Weeks later, in early September, Jianyou had started the sheep game, according to posts on his official Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform in China.

In contrast, NetEase’s first gaming approval in more than a year came 10 months after the company registered the software, according to data from Tianyancha.

Beijing’s increased scrutiny of the games industry led the National Administration of Press and Publication to stop approving new games from publishers between July 2021 and April 2022. A search for “sheep” on the permissions list only returned results for other games from 2018 or earlier.

The administration and Jianyou did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some small businesses in China seek expansion despite slowdown: Charles Li

money from ads

But it’s less clear what the rules are for games like Sheep a Sheep, which are free to play and supported by ads.

A surge in social media attention around a long weekend in mid-September helped attract players – reportedly in the tens of millions – who wanted to win the game as soon as possible, even if they had to see what came of the total hours of advertising .

The implications aren’t clear yet… People might lose interest as quickly as they were attracted.

Brian Tycangco

Analyst, Stansberry Research

The game is “completely free,” said Xiaofeng Wang, senior analyst at Forrester. “The only trick is that it takes 30 seconds to watch a commercial.”

“It’s very cost-effective for a developer and I think they’re already generating revenue,” she said. “Even [if] The popularity may not last long, it’s still a good thing not to lose for her. You’ve won a lot of it already.”

WeChat mini-program games are not new.

Aroused curiosity

Part of the allure of Sheep a Sheep is a sense of challenge – a puzzle that the developer says has a 0.1% success rate – and competition.

The game requires players to eliminate tiles of the same category in groups of three. Players who are successful win a cartoon sheep, which then joins a virtual herd based on the player’s region, improving the player’s province ranking.

Many people have never [had] such game experience before,” Wang said. “From very, very easy to very, very difficult, they heard different people talk about it on social media, which caused a lot of curiosity, ‘Why is this so difficult?’ That’s why it’s so unique.”

Anecdotally, this reporter’s WeChat contacts who tried the mini-program game roughly tripled to almost 300 over a weekend in September. The following weekend, two out of six people were spotted on a bench in a Beijing subway car, like they played the game.

“Sheep a Sheep has just gone viral in the last few days. Very fresh for everyone, particularly regulators,” Stansberry Research analyst Brian Tycangco said in an email last week.

“So the implications are not that clear yet,” he said. “People could lose interest in it just as quickly as they were attracted.”