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Google's latest bet on China is a doodle game

Krystal Hu

Google’s search engine and Gmail aren’t available in China, but its doodle game is.

When Google (GOOGL) released Cai Hua Xiao Ge (Pictionary with little Google), a drawing game on China’s ubiquitous messaging app WeChat Wednesday, it became an immediate hit. Similar to the Quick, Draw! game it launched in 2016, the online game uses artificial intelligence to guess what objects you are doodling within 20 seconds — from a toothpaste to Mona Lisa.

The game challenges the user to draw Mona Lisa within 20 seconds. In the end, it shows how other people draw the same subject. (Screenshot/Weibo)

The Chinese version also shows the ranking of how many pictures people draw within each hour. On Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, the hashtag #caihuaxiaoge has drawn 10 million views and more than 7,000 tweets. Even McDonald’s (MCD) used the doodles of its menus as a promotion opportunity.

(Credit: McDonald’s Weibo)

“I wondered why Google would release such a product,” said Jing Cai, a 23-year-old student in the Southern city of Guangzhou who recently shared her drawing of a star with friends in a WeChat post. “It’s known as an innovative company, but I just can’t use most of its products.”

It’s unclear how this free game could make money for Google. The company sees it as a way to engage users, in China, where most of its products have been blocked by the government.

“We believe in bringing the benefits of AI to everyone, and through this fun and engaging social WeChat Mini Program we can help Chinese users understand and experience those benefits directly,” a Google spokesperson told Yahoo Finance, refusing to share any metrics about the game or future plans for it.

Cai doesn’t believe the game’s popularity will last as long as other social media hits. “I think it’s just a fad. It’s more for promoting Google’s AI technology and image of an innovation powerhouse,” she said.

Google’s AI ambitions in China

The release of the AI-powered game follows the opening of the Google AI China Center in December 2017. Google uses it to access more Chinese engineers and researchers, trying to position itself between China and the U.S., the frontrunners in the global AI race.

One key reason that this doodle game works in China is that it is embedded into China’s messaging app, Tencent-owned WeChat. Unlike the English version, the game does not run on a Google-owned website. Earlier this year, Google announced a patent cross-licensing agreement with Tencent, vowing to build long-term ties on future innovation and technology.

“I think Google is trying to build back it’s brand in China, while keeping engaged with China in an area it is very strong in— AI,” said Paul Triolo, head of the geo-technology practice at New York-based consultancy  Eurasia Group. “With AI development now a national priority for China, Google can engage with partners in China in less controversial sectors than search such as AI.”

It’s not the first time Google teamed up with local tech giants in China to access the country’s billion-plus mobile internet users. Last month, it invested $550 million in China’s e-commerce giant Google has even explored selling its devices such as smart speakers on JD’s e-commerce site, according to The Information.

While the strategy of working with local tech giants seems feasible for Google to seek a piece of the booming market, a full comeback remains a long shot. Last June, a senior Chinese official told the Financial Times that a potential Google comeback “depends on the bigger premise of Sino-American relations.” And the current trade tensions between Washington and Beijing don’t seem to be in Google’s favor. 

Krystal Hu covers technology and economy for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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