Why I left China after five years, Part 1
I know what you’re thinking, “were you kicked out of China for making an app?” Well, let me tell you the story of how the government killed my interactive social impact app.
It all started with Super Typhoon Yolanda which hit the Philippines in November 2013 killing over 6,000 people and causing over $2.8 billion in damage. I was the lead creative content designer and community manager of a game called Pantheon the Legends. It wasn’t the first game I had worked on, so I was quite familiar with the way executives approached game design. It was all about the bottom line, which isn’t consistent with my personal values and beginning to frustrate me.
While reading about the typhoon’s destruction I began to think about what it would take to help the victims and I quickly realized I had access to tens of thousands of people. A large portion of those people, our players, were Filipino. All I had to do was find a way to get them to act.
I unofficially partnered with Oxfam America.
We did a fundraising campaign for aid and reconstruction — for every dollar donated to the charity the player would get a similar amount in game currency. Players donated just over $5,000 in a two week period. We had players from the Philippines and elsewhere email us and express their thanks. Talk about feeling good!
Afterwards I wanted to share our success with the local tech community with the hope that we’d inspire others to do similar campaigns. At that point, Candy Crush was making $633,000 in profit a day. Surely some of that could be used for good. So, I signed up to do a Ted Talks-style presentation at the local Barcamp.
Afterward I was approached by a woman named Wang who founded a nonprofit to fight HIV/AIDS under the umbrella of the Red Ribbon Foundation. She wanted to know if it were possible to make an app that was a game first but informed the player about HIV/AIDS and gave them some resources. Of course, I believed it was!
Unfortunately, she found it difficult to maintain for nonprofit because funding from her parent organization was to difficult to obtain due to China’s backward NGO laws. This was the first encounter with difficulties thanks to the government. She eventually dropped the game idea and left China; however, after coffee discussions and research I understood the true stigma Chinese with HIV experienced. So, with the urge to continue ‘Living+’ was born.
‘Living+’ would be an interactive story with mini-games and extra documentary-style videos to engage the player while leaving them with an education about HIV.
Uniting with UNICEF.
Fortunately, Wang gave me her contact, let’s just call her Zhang, a senior member within UNICEF. We quickly had a lunch meeting where I explained my ideas. She loved the idea and we were off to a new start, but at our second meeting we had our next encounter with difficulties due to the government. NGOs had to register all activities with the government and were not permitted to do activities related to politics. HIV was in a grey area and Zhang wasn’t sure if UNICEF could provide funding. Plus, it was a huge organization and funding new projects had to go through a lot of bureaucracy, months’ worth, before being approved.
She believed it would be best to contact a woman we’ll call Jie at UNAIDS. She was just as interested in making the app as Zhang but the law restricting the way NGOs use their money was still a problem. Instead, Jie wanted to contact a local company called Danlan.org, a for-profit LGBT-centered organization.
I created the master design document and project outline to clearly express the vision for the app and we set up a meeting. I remember their office being a bit sterile while having the walls decorated with posters of half naked men. They did a lot of social work for the LGBT community, including free STD testing all over the country. After explaining the project and the progress we had so far Danlan was on board, but they didn’t want to put up the money for development. Instead, they offered their marketing channels for free.
That was free access to their 15 million users. That was a big deal! It was now early 2015, I had left my job as lead game designer, we had two reputable NGOs as advisers, and one large LGBT community behind us, but still no funds.
Jie, Zhang, and I approached several nonprofits and NGOs who all said, “great idea, but no thanks.” We were beginning to think that this project wouldn’t happen when in April a professional connection, Pavlo, told me that Durex was hosting a startup challenge in the city. He thought it would be a good tool to get the project off the ground.
The only problem was ‘Living+’ was a non-profit project and startups were traditionally for-profit ideas. Still, Pavlo got the contact of Durex’s director of marketing. After a brief message exchange, we set up a meeting.
This was serious. Durex had a huge market share in condoms in China and they were not subject to the shitty NGO laws. My friend, Terry, studied business in university and was in the middle of successful career, so I asked him to help me streamline the pitch. In about five days we created a 30-page business plan and market analysis that explained the “what, when, where, why, who, and how,” of the project in detail.
Here’s the first paragraph of our executive summary:
“Living+ is developed and operated by successful digital media professionals and provides China with high quality entertainment, information, and resources regarding HIV. Living+ has the support for several key-influencer organizations within the market in China. We believe that this factor coupled with our innovative design and focus on quality, will allow us to increase our market presence quickly.“
Basically, we nailed the pitch. We blew it out of the water. We ran circles around that room. We rendered them speechless. We were so prepared we could recite all 30 pages in our sleep and we had the added benefit of the master design document, including visual representations.
“Can you make a sequel,” was the first thing they asked. And to add icing on the cake, Durex didn’t want to go heavy on the branding. A small credit was all they wanted. We were in business.
In Part 2, I’ll share more ‘Living+’ details, a government shakedown in Durex management, and the final nail in the coffin for almost all independent projects. Please stay tuned!
Originally posted on Medium.