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:
- Chinese gold farmers
- Losers who play for 50 hours straight and then kill their wife or jump out a window
- Government efforts to restrain said losers by restricting how long they can play
- Knucklehead propaganda efforts like the proposed "Anti-Japan War Online" and "Chinese Hero Registry"
- Tech companies censoring searches and finking on protesters
- Tibet, Taiwan, Tienanmen Square ...
- The communist regime is corrupt, repressive, faltering, a ticking time bomb, everyone wants out, the rural masses will rise and overthrow their leaders, institute democracy, wah dah doo dah
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.'"