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Chinese go to great lengths to get 'Pokemon Go' — and make a knockoff

Chinese go to great lengths to get 'Pokemon Go' — and make a knockoff
While gamers play "Pokemon Go" in countries where it's been released -- here a man plays near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate -- Chinese have been finding innovative ways to get their hands on the game. (Alexander Heinl/EPA)

"Pokémon Go" seems to have taken the world by storm — or at least the countries where it's been released. Right now, that's only the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. But the rest of the globe is impatient for its turn —  and perhaps no nation is as impatient as China.

Curious Chinese have done everything they can to get the game. Since it is not available on Chinese app stores, Chinese players have been downloading it from third-party websites or buying it via overseas app stores.

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Entrepreneurs on Taobao, the eBay-like site run by Alibaba, sensed a business opportunity and have started to sell IDs for Apple's Australia-based app store, the price ranging from 13 cents to $3. One Taobao store called "Apple Pokemon Go" sold around 10,000 Australian IDs at 30 cents each within a week.

But even if they managed to install the game on their phones, Chinese players face another problem —  most cannot log in. Logging into "Pokemon Go" requires a Google account, but Google services are blocked by China's Great Fire Wall. Chinese players need to be using a VPN, or virtual private network, in order to register and log into the game via Google.

After all that effort, some Chinese players could finally open the app and have a look at the interface. Then, the ultimate disappointment sets in — there are no Pokemon to catch in China. That's because the game is GPS-based, and the game is only available when the GPS of the mobile phone is in the unrestricted countries.

Still, some Chinese didn't give up — they installed another app to provide virtual GPS, essentially pretending they are located in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Finally, they succeed in playing the game.

Users play by walking around with the app open and watching a customized avatar traverse a virtual representation of their actual neighborhood. When a Pokemon is nearby, the player switches to the catching interface which shows the Pokemon superimposed on the real world through their smartphone camera. Red Pokeballs flung from the bottom of the screen are used to catch the characters.

Pokeballs as well as other materials used to "train up" captured Pokemon can be obtained at Pokestops, which are tied to actual locations, usually local landmarks like statues or parks.

Zheng Yinyue, a 25-year-old Tarot card reader living in the southern city of Foshan, downloaded the game from a third-party website and said she had caught more than 100 Pokemon over two days by virtually locating her iPhone in Los Angeles.

"You still need to walk to catch the monsters," Zhang said. When she plays, "it looks like I'm walking in L.A., but in fact I'm just walking at home."

Zhang said she has been playing four to five hours a day but her passion will probably die down if the game isn't made available in China. "It's really interesting for Australians and Americans to go to the park and play the game together. It's boring to play it by myself in my house," she said.

Still, it's possible that her account will be terminated if the developer finds out she's using GPS mimicry to play the game.

"Please only install software through the Play Store or App Store. Unofficial versions of "Pokémon GO" downloaded from third-party websites may contain malware or viruses," the game's official Facebook account warned players this week.

Niantic Labs, the game's developer, hasn't specified if or when the game will be available in China. "It will be available in other countries around the world in the days ahead," a notice on Niantic Labs website said this week.

Zhang is one of a few Chinese players who has the patience to finish the complicated process of playing the real thing.

More Chinese have turned to a Chinese copycat version of the game —  "City Spirit Go." That is now the top iOS download in China's app store. The Chinese gaming website 86 Games reported that operators of "City Spirit Go" had to increase their number of servers tenfold within the past three days to keep up with demand.

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Although the Chinese knockoff is not an augmented-reality game, it duplicates many features of "Pokemon Go." It has a similar concept and it is location-based. The Chinese knockoff launched four months ago, a few weeks after Nintendo started a Japanese-only beta test of "Pokemon Go." In Mandarin, "City Spirit Go" and "Pokemon Go" have similar sounding names.

The producer, Shenzhen Tanyu Interactive Technology Co., did not respond to a request for comment.

Not everyone likes the idea of a knockoff — especially those who grew up watching the original Japanese Pokemon cartoons and playing the original Nintendo Pokemon games in the 1990s.

"I just love the original brand; I don't care about the game that much," said Wang Yan, 25, a research developer for the web giant Baidu in Beijing. "I won't play the Chinese knockoff, ever."

Pokemon fans like Wang have a message for the Japanese game company: "Give me an opportunity to give money to you, Nintendo," Wang said.

It was unclear whether the absence of the game from Chinese app stores had anything to do with a new rule issued in June by China's media regulator, which forbids the use of English in mobile games, and requires every mobile game to gain approval from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio Film and Television before publishing.

Nintendo didn't respond to The Times' request for comment. Pokémon Go is playable in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish so far. The official "Pokemon Go" U.S. website has been unavailable in China since the launch day.

China's appetite for "Pokemon Go" appears to be huge. Even without an official launch in China, the game has already accumulated more than 200,000 fans on Baidu Tieba, an online group discussion platform.

China is the most valuable market for mobile games in the world, passing $7 billion in revenue in 2015, followed by the U.S. and Japan, according to video game market research companies Newzoo and TalkingData.

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