Red Blindness

For most of the last 3,000 years, the Chinese were the planet’s most technologically advanced culture. They fell disastrously with the Industrial Revolution, but in this new century China is poised to regain its traditional lead – at least on the web. As of 2005, the CIA rated China the world’s second-largest economy. China has also overtaken Japan as the second-largest internet market, with 111 million users online. At its current growth rate, China should pass the U.S. in internet usage in five or six years. By that time, the Chinese gaming biz – which started five years ago, is expected to gross $900 million this year, and is growing at 24% a year – will hit $2.1 billion.

According to a report called “Red Innovation” by research house Pacific Epoch, 80 Chinese companies are already operating 150-plus online games, some of them with millions of players. Yet, except for a few Western and Korean imports, no one in America talks about those 150-plus games. Has anyone here played them, or even seen them? Apparently not – though that never stops people from commenting. Slashdot, Digg, Kotaku, all the rest – put “game” and “China” in the same sentence, and watch endless, repetitive chatter about the same hot-button side issues:

All worthy subjects, but what about the games? It turns out there’s a reason no one discusses Chinese games, a reason beyond the barriers of language and currency and trans-Pacific bandwidth. The explanation tells much about the state of Chinese online gaming, and how it will change in the next decade or two.

Middle Kingdom Games
The Sign, World of Legend, The Age, Magical Land, Westward Journey Online II (56 million registered accounts, 580,000 peak concurrent users), Fantasy Westward Journey (1.3 million concurrent), Sanguo Heroes Online, Travia, Yulgang (nine million accounts) – ever hear of these, or any of the rest?

Sure, you’ve heard of Lineage, and possibly Kart Rider, Silk Road Online and many other Asian games. But those are Korean, not Chinese. The South Korean industry, the world market leader in MMOGs, inspired the Chinese imitators. But now, homebrew games are winning out. According to the Korean IT Industry Promotion Agency (via Gamasutra), in 2003, Korean online games made up 68% of the total Chinese market in online games, but only 38% in 2004 and 20% in 2005.

Yet for all their millions of players, English-language descriptions of these Chinese games are rare and generic. Here’s World of Legend, first in Shanda Interactive Entertainment’s “Genesis of the Century” trilogy of games:

“Mankind is divided into three races spiritually, namely ‘Dream Tiger,’ ‘Valley’ and ‘Flood.’ Wars and weak royalty left the world to mighty warlords and the law of the jungle. The three races either fought or faked alliances. The day finally came when the devil, long imprisoned by ancient powers, regained its strength from the underground. Tamed demons began to revolt and even to erode human spirit. […] Inside the World of Legend, user’s characters exist in a virtual community where they experience unique lives as masters or apprentices, husbands or wives and members of a guild. Users can also enjoy virtual communities as ‘siege battle,’ ‘guild battle,’ ‘civilization’ and ‘community life.'”

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Vague, you say? That’s among the most detailed English descriptions out there. For comparison, here’s how, Inc. describes its Westward Journey II Online and Fantasy Westward Journey, the most popular Chinese games in 2004 and much of 2005:

Westward Journey Online II is based on the famous and romantic Chinese classical fiction Journey to the West, and the well-known film by Stephen Chow. It possesses of Chinese traditional painting style, with a touching story and well balanced game systems, it has become the most popular online game among all the China made online games.

“The background of the Fantasy Westward Journey is based on the mythology of Westward Journey, adopting a cartoon style to achieve into a romantic online game with full of energy. We have developed a brand new artistic style, humorous dialogues, gang competition, missions, refined technical advancement, all are well presented in the game.”

Uh, yeah. Whatever. The only Chinese games with English-language versions (so far) come from NetDragon WebSoft, a division of TQ Digital Entertainment, a mid-range player in the crowded Chinese market. In America, NetDragon has launched a Pokémon-style game, Monster & Me, and a couple of fantasy RPGs: Conquer Online (“Experience the ancient Chinese Kungfu and magic, enjoy the endless beautiful scenery and mythical environment in which you can develop your own character and interact with other real-life and imaginary beings”) and Eudemons Online (“In this mythic world, you can choose to become a Warrior, Mage and Paladin. Command your heroes to adventure on the vast land of Atlantis and challenge the power of sword and magic”). Even these games draw little attention outside their own sites.

The English speakers who write most about Chinese games are business folks like Bill Bishop and investment firms like Goldman Sachs. They chronicle the current misfortunes of MMOG giants Shanda and, analyze the new play-for-free business models now gaining traction, and study the fast rise of The9.

The9’s name describes online gaming as the new “ninth art,” joining painting, sculpture, architecture and the rest. The9 built upon their previous licensing success (they worked with Korean company Webzen to distribute MU in China) by acquiring the Chinese World of Warcraft license. Launched in June 2005, the Chinese version of WoW immediately drew hundreds of thousands of concurrent players, and is now China’s largest online game. But The9 has done a poor job coping with the crowds, and there are frequent disconnects and terrible lag (an unintentional metaphor for Chinese bureaucracy, perhaps?). Because Chinese players pay by the hour, including the hours it takes to log in and join a server, infuriated customers have called for a boycott, so far in vain. WoW continues to grow in China as everywhere else, outstripping the native Chinese MMOGs for the same reason that nobody writes about, or cares about, the native Chinese MMOGs.

It’s because, basically, they suck.

You’re No Good, You’re No Good, You’re No Good
“The biggest knock against Chinese game developers (from the Western game developer perspective) is that Chinese game developers don’t know how to make the game fun,” writes Pacific Epoch analyst Sheng Koo. “Part of the reason may be Chinese game developers didn’t grow up playing Dungeons & Dragons and other various paper-and-pencil roleplaying games, board games, card games, tabletop miniature games, etc.”

Erick Wujcik, an American game designer who now runs the design division at Ubisoft China in Shanghai, agrees. “The Chinese have no tradition of hobby gaming – or rather, they do, but the games they play were perfected 3,000 years ago.” In the 1970s, while Western gamers struggled to understand, clean up, and vary the obtuse rules of first-edition D&D and SPI wargames, the Chinese were still playing mahjong, weiqi (go), shogi, Chinese dominoes, and (yes) Chinese checkers. How could you possibly improve the design of go? Chinese gamers found little chance to develop their design instincts, until they got to play Korean and American games in China’s 265,000 internet cafes.

Now, they’re catching up. Fast.

“Korea created the Chinese [MMOG] industry,” says Wujcik. “In 2004, 70% of Chinese [MMOG] income went to South Korea. The Chinese government woke up. They’re very aggressively promoting the [MMOG] game industry.”

OK, but when “the Chinese government” promotes something, who exactly does the promoting? It’s hard to say. A report by the interactive entertainment industry research firm DFC Intelligence lists a hair-raising alphabet of niggling bureaucracies: “the State Press and Publications Administration (GAPP), the Ministry of Information Industry (MII), the Ministry of Culture (MoC), the State Copyright Bureau, the Ministry of Public Security, the Bureau of State Secrecy, the Commission of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration (SASAC), and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). These agencies all have a hand in controlling the game industry through regulations that not only are constantly changing, but often conflict.”

Still, somehow or other, the Chinese game industry is being promoted. Check the PDF report called “Analysis of the Development of Chinese Online Game Industry,” written by Qun Ren and Xiaosong Yang, students in business and computer animation at Bournemouth University (U.K.). The report lists several recent government initiatives:

  • A school of game software created in October 2003 at Sichuan University in Chengdu, capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, plus online gaming departments in 10 other universities.
  • A technical college and 15 training centers for internet games, set up in August 2004.
  • National online game development bases in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong province and Sichuan province.
  • A 1-2 billion renminbi (U.S. $120-240 million) program announced by GAPP in October 2004 to sponsor development of 100 online games in the next five years. The MII has also appropriated funds to support some domestic online game companies.

In addition, EA, Ubisoft and most of the other big Western game companies have set up Chinese divisions, mostly in Shanghai. Each of these companies employs hundreds of workers.

All of this demonstrates the classic Chinese “human wave” method of problem-solving. In software production, this approach usually doesn’t work. But in MMOGs, where content is king, this may be a key to eventual Chinese dominance. It depends on whether Chinese developers actually learn how to make fun games, either through all these state-sponsored programs or, more likely, just by playing the games to death.

It’ll probably happen. Out of 200 million or more players, you have to think some of them will develop real talent. Sure, it may take decades. But China has decades. It’s been around for 3,000 years already, and for most of that time it was Earth’s most advanced culture.

Chinese designers will get better. Then, we’ll see interesting stuff, and Westerners will finally talk about, and play, these games. Take off your blinders; the future is red.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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