Matching Mini-game “Sheep A Sheep” Hits It off in China, Arouses Controversy

A new pass-through mini game named “Yang Le Ge Yang,” translated as “Sheep A Sheep,” with a clearance rate of less than 0.1%, has become a national online sensation on China’s social media in recent days. However, it has aroused controversy over its profitability and game rules, which while away some users’ interest and desire to share personal information.

The game, available as a mini program on Tencent‘s social app WeChat, was created by gaming startup Beijing Jianyou Technology, which mainly focuses on casual and social games. The company has previously developed a game called “Pirates” on WeChat, which generated more than 100 million yuan in income in the first month and attracted 25 million daily active users.

It took only half a day for the game to reach the top of the iOS free game chart on September 15, with more than 45,000 downloads in a single day, according to Qimai Data.

In a pile of randomly stacked blocks with different patterns, the player has to click to move a particular block into a strip at the bottom. Players are required to place three matching blocks together to eliminate them from the game. Those who eliminate all of the tiles win, but if the strip is filled with seven blocks, the player loses.

In the first level, the difficulty is very low. Once the player is familiar with the basic operations and game principles, the difficulty increases sharply in the second level where all the tiles are staggered and stacked together, so that the upper ones obscure the lower ones. The player has no way of knowing what patterns will appear in the next layer. The hit game has only three levels and data shows that only 0.1 percent of its millions of players have scraped through.

A screenshot from the game (Source: Sheep A Sheep)

One of the most intuitive aspects of the game’s success is the simplicity of its mechanics and social communication nature. It has zero barriers to entry and the difficulty of the second level stimulates users’ desire to share, ridicule, and discuss their efforts with their friends on WeChat, Tencent‘s social app with a large number of active users.

But this is common to all casual games. According to a report released by CNG Data in 2021, the age and gender distribution of the casual game players are relatively balanced, and the proportion of casual game users over 30 years old is more than that of users of games that required greater interaction and a higher amount of skills. But more than 70% of users drop out within a month, and 35.7% of users play a casual game for less than a week. About 40% of users are still looking for the next casual game and only drop in to see what’s new.

Despite its early success, discussions around the “Sheep A Sheep” have also mirrored some controversies linked to China’s flourishing mini-game industry, such as the collection of user data, originality and fraud.

There is very little innovation in the gameplay. Eight years ago, a Vietnamese game called Flappy Bird became a hit. It also featured just two levels: “easy to use” and “hard”. By rhythmically tapping on the phone screen, the player controls a bird as it moves through a succession of vertical pipes. Many players have pointed out that the mechanics of “Sheep A Sheep” go back even further. Mah-Jongg, which was released in 1981, was a game in which different tiles with Chinese characters written on them were put together.

As recently as September 15, a screenshot circulated online. According to the picture, the game earned 4.68 million yuan in just half a day and 25.64 million yuan a month. In response, Zhang Jiaxu, legal representative of Jianyou Technology, said that the picture is fake.

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The advertisements, which players are required to watch if they need more rounds to play, include tattoos, education, food, shareware, and others. The ads last between 15 seconds and 30 seconds. As a result, some believe that the game developer earns a profit when these advertisements are viewed. Others believe that the game on WeChat, a frequently used app by Chinese netizens, easily causes psychological addiction problems, and the opaque game mechanism may infringe on the rights of players.

Some netizens have reported that the game, which has not yet obtained an official approval number, was suspected to have shown faked data on WeChat. The popularity of the game has also led to fraud, such as selling plug-in services and game props, posing as customer service personnel, and more.