Chinese anime streamer Bilibili removes hit Pretty Derby game from app stores in China, triggering ‘horse girl’ debate

Chinese video-sharing and gaming platform Bilibili abruptly removed from online stores its mobile game Uma Musume Pretty Derby, which features “horse girls” and is popular among anime fans, in a fresh reminder of the risks that remain in China’s heavily regulated and censored video game market.
Bilibili, which only opened the game to mainland players on August 30, said in a Weibo post that the title was removed from Apple’s App Store and Android stores in mainland China on Thursday because of the “need for technical upgrades”, without further elaboration. Service will resume “as soon as possible”, it said. The game will continue to function for players who already have it installed on their devices.

Bilibili did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

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The sudden closure of the game, which topped the free apps chart in the mainland iOS App Store on its first day, was followed by a slide in Bilibili’s share price in New York on Thursday, as it fell 6.8 per cent to US$14.30. Other Chinese gaming stocks were also down. NetEase dropped 1.8 per cent to US$97.90 per share, while shares of 37 Games and Perfect World fell 4.3 per cent and 1.6 per cent, respectively, in Shenzhen on Friday.

The closure of the game immediately triggered speculation and controversy concerning the game’s content. The female characters with horse ears and tails were said to be evocative of horse racing, which has implications of encouraging gambling activities. Chinese gaming regulations bar the encouragement of illegal activities, making the horse racing element sensitive in China.

The National Press and Publication Administration, the regulatory authority in charge of approving games for sale in the country, did not issue any information about the title, which was among a group of 27 games approved for import in March. China has a rigid screening system for imported games, as foreign titles must be localised by a Chinese partner, which must then apply for a licence to monetise it in the mainland.

Pretty Derby is based on the life stories of so-called horse girls – human girls who possess equine features. Players can train and raise their own horse girls.

The game, which was originally launched overseas in February 2021 and had raked in US$2 billion as of March, was one of the most anticipated mobile games in China this year amid growing interest in the genre of anime-style games.

Bilibili, which had yet to turn a profit since it went public in the US in 2018, has been betting big on mobile games since CEO Chen Rui took over direct management of the company’s video gaming unit last November.

However, turning this business plan into reality has proven challenging. The company’s second-quarter revenue fell 8 per cent year on year to 5.3 billion yuan (US$723.2 million). Revenue for mobile games, which makes up 17 per cent of total revenue, tumbled 15 per cent.