A few reports about Steam malfunctions in China emerged over the weekend, followed by headlines like “Steam might be banned in China.” The store’s client, however, is still working, but there are some nuances that signal potential government interference.
The whole thing started on December 25 when some people reported on Twitter about Steam being banned in China. “It was added to the great firewall list and Chinese social media is not very happy,” analyst and blogger Brad Lynch wrote. “They will now be forced to use the limited ‘Steam China’ client.”
BREAKING NEWS: Global version of Steam has been banned in China
It was added to the great firewall list and Chinese social media is not very happy. They will now be forced to use the limited “Steam China” client pic.twitter.com/oI8JNBSFPV
— Brad Lynch (@SadlyItsBradley) December 25, 2021
While a lot of Chinese users really had trouble connecting to Steam’s global website, they were still able to use the store’s client as usual. They could buy and play games, with developers still being able to upload new builds.
A few hours after initial reports, Neon Doctrine COO Vladislav Tsypljak assumed that it happened due to “another DNS attack to flag it,” saying that Steam hasn’t been banned in the country yet. This little Christmas downtime even helped boost the publisher’s sales on the Chinese version of Steam as some users rushed to it fearing the potential ban.
If anything, the Steam Global downtime and Winter Sale combined did wonders for our sales on Steam China.
— Vlad【尉遲衛德】 (@Stutsies) December 27, 2021
However, SteamDB creator Pavel Djundik noted that it wasn’t the case. “Steam Store always resolves to Akamai [IPs] as it should,” he wrote on Twitter. “Steam community on the other hand resolves to random IPs (which is poisoned), but that has been the case for a while now.”
A few people are saying it’s DNS poisoning attack, but it doesn’t look like it. Steam Store always resolves to Akamai as it should.
Steam community on the other hand resolves to random IPs (which is poisoned), but that has been the case for a while now.
— Pavel Djundik (@thexpaw) December 25, 2021
As Simon Carless noted in the latest GameDiscoverCo newsletter, this still could have been a targeted disruption of Steam’s global version by the Chinese government. The thing is if a user tries to connect securely to the store’s official website from China, “connection between your computer and that port of target server will be blocked for about 180 seconds.” It is the same timing that usually applies to other global websites affected by the Great Firewall.
Djundik also noted that Steam might be “great firewalled. He cited a message from a Chinese user as confirmation of his words: “I send TLS handshake with steam’s domain to epicgames.com and I immediately get blocked from using epicgames.com.”
I think it’s safe to say it is being great firewalled.
— Pavel Djundik (@thexpaw) December 25, 2021
It is worth noting that the steampowered.com domain has been listed as blocked on China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s official website for a few years. However, both the website and the PC client still work, so it is safe to say that the store hasn’t been completely banned yet.
International developers still can rely on the sales coming from China, as of now. But it is always better to be ready for the long-term effects of this brief malfunction as the country’s government might eventually take more decisive action in the future.
Simon Carless also noted that the whole situation is probably not as simple as it may seem, describing the work of some Chinese ministries as a “complex factional world, where decisions on things like this are shrouded in mystery and opaque politics.”
If (or when) the global version of Steam is banned in the country, it will be a huge blow for the games industry. Earlier this year, Valve officially launched the store’s special Chinese version, but it still has a little over 50 approved games. So international developers use the global version to bypass the exhausting approval process and get access to local players as long as the government allows Steam to operate in the legal grey area.
China without a doubt has tightened its regulation on the domestic games industry over the last months, freezing the approval process and closing any loopholes left for game developers. It is hard to say what actions the government might take next.