Vague, you say? That's among the most detailed English descriptions out there. For comparison, here's how NetEase.com, 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 NetEase.com, 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.