For tens of millions of gamers in India, Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) video game was a welcome distraction from the coronavirus pandemic. Then the government said it was pulling the plug.
“When everything was under lockdown, PUBG’s interactive features gave me a semblance of real-world social interaction. It was a stress-buster for me,” said Mustafa Scentwala, 26, who lives in India’s financial hub, Mumbai, and played PUBG with nine friends for hours each day.
PUBG, part of the “battle royale” genre in which a group of players fight one another until only a single combatant is left alive, became a casualty of geopolitics on Wednesday when the government said it was banning it, along with over a hundred other Chinese apps, as tensions with Beijing escalated.
Technology ministry said the apps were a threat to the country’s sovereignty and security.
In a statement on Thursday, Tencent said its apps complied with India’s data protection laws and that it would engage with local authorities to clarify its policies.
The ban is the latest move against Chinese companies in India amid a months-long standoff over a disputed border but the timing and the target were particularly tough for young people. They have been using the game to stay in touch with friends while schools and colleges are shut to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
PUBG’s interactive features allow gamers to communicate with one another using text and voice, and users say these make it a unique mobile game in a country where millions of gamers cannot afford expensive gaming consoles and broadband connections.
“The only thing that couldn’t be locked down by corona was PUBG,” said Veera Raghavan, a gamer hailing from the southern city of Chennai.
Tencent had launched a lighter version of the game, which consumes less mobile data and runs smoothly on cheaper phones, in a bid to woo even more Indian players who would potentially spend on the app in the future.
Some PUBG players in India have spent thousands of rupees to buy so-called Royal Passes, a way to earn quick rewards and have access to special missions in the game. Some took to Twitter to appeal the ban making #PUBG a top trend across India this week.
The ban is a blow for Tencent in India whose PUBG is a smash-hit in the country. India is PUBG’s biggest market by users, and according to analytics firm Sensor Tower, accounts for 29 percent of the apps total downloads. Still, Sensor Tower says PUBG’s revenue hit will be marginal as India only contributed about 2.5 percent of its lifetime revenue.
That move, which technology minister referred to as a “digital strike”, followed a skirmish with Chinese troops at a disputed Himalayan border site in June when 20 Indian soldiers were killed.
Tensions have simmered between New Delhi and Beijing ever since and sources told Reuters last month of another ban of 47 mostly clone apps.
Should the government explain why Chinese apps were banned? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.