Chinese Video Games in America

In terms of video games, there has long been a divide between East and West. Even in the current climate, dominated by American and Japanese developers and publishers, there isn’t as much integration as one might expect. And Chinese games have, historically, failed to find much of a market outside the PRC’s borders. Still, the success of FarmVille in the United States (a clone of the extremely popular Chinese social networking game “Happy Farm”) has shown that there’s potential there. Many Chinese developers have already expressed interest in expanding their market into the US. But they still have a long way to go.

Stan Abrams of China Hearsay tackled this very issue in a recent post. I should say up front that while I have nothing against Stan personally, and I like his blog, I think he’s made a few mistakes here. First of all, he continues to make references to American “kids”, but the average age for video game players is already 30, and it is rising. And while I completely agree that, since many Chinese games draw from Chinese history, Chinese developers will need to re-calibrate their narrative style (and the narratives themselves) for an audience that largely isn’t familiar with China, I think saying that “Chinese history is about as well known to most gamers as is regular exercise and a healthy diet” is a little unfair. (Full disclosure: I routinely play video games and subscribe to the notion that they are just as capable of attaining artistic merit and telling a complex, moving story as any other art form).

That said, I think Stan’s analysis is quite apt, but I wanted to expand on one point:

China’s biggest online game companies are increasingly looking to offer games in the U.S., bringing with them a game model where users play for free but must pay to get certain power-ups for their characters.

Sounds like a good idea? Gaming companies here are doing very well, and their business model is very different from that of most U.S. games, which are based on monthly fees. Maybe there is an untapped U.S. market for folks who would be attracted to the “no fee” system.

It seems rather unlikely to me that the Chinese model (at least, the one described here) would be embraced by American gamers, who have historically been very opposed to any model that allows players who pay for something an advantage in PvP (player vs. player) combat. For example, Penny Arcade, an incredibly popular webcomic that has spawned massive gaming conventions on both coasts of the US as well as a multimillion dollar charity, has routinely railed against the idea of having weapons, say, that players could buy to get a leg up on the competition.

Granted, when the idea is mentioned in American gaming circles, it’s often in the context of retail titles that gamers have already paid for. And even so, there are plenty of games that (successfully) sell in-game items and content on top of a preset retail price or monthly subscription fee.

The bigger problem, I think, will be quality and polish. Chinese game consumers, generally speaking, are willing to play games that, graphically, are below the standards of most American gamers, who are already used to games that look great on big-screen HD setups. Most Chinese games simply don’t look good enough to draw American consumers away from American and Japanese triple-A titles.

Another issue Chinese developers will need to consider is context. Aside from cultural context and the relationship it can have with a game’s narrative (see Stan’s point about American gamers’ interest, or lack thereof, in Chinese history), an obvious but important difference exists in where and how Americans and Chinese play their games. In China, PC games rule, and most Chinese play them in marathon gaming sessions at internet bars. MMORPGs and the like are popular in part because there is little alternative — single player games require player progress to be saved to the hard drive of the computer, and since many Chinese gamers don’t own computers of their own, they’re more likely to play massively multiplayer games where progress is saved on game servers via the internet. In the US, however, console games outsell PC games, and fast-paced multiplayer titles with strong single player components like the recent Modern Warfare 2 — which sold 4.7 million copies in 24 hours in the US and UK alone — outsell RPGs.

The glaring exception to all of this, of course, is Activision Blizzard’s behemoth, World of Warcraft, which has millions upon millions of players in both the US and China, despite its five-year-old-and-still-aging graphics and money-draining pay scheme. Bridging the cultural gap, it seems, is possible. But Blizzard is famous for relentlessly vigorous quality control that results in solid, addictive (sometimes quite literally) gameplay. If Chinese game companies want to enter the US market, they’re going to need to beef up their quality standards on pretty much every front. And, as Stan says, they’re going to need to think carefully about the stories they’re telling and the way those stories are presented, because American consumers aren’t going to buy a game just because they can play as Zhuge Liang. (Full disclosure: I would totally buy that game.)

Also of interest but completely unrelated: This post at Inside-Out China is very much worth your time. Especially worth considering is Mrs. Euberlein’s final point:

Meanwhile, another curious question comes to mind: don’t those leftist people have the same human rights as the democratic dissidents do? If so, why haven’t I seen any protests against their arrests from human rights groups?

0 thoughts on “Chinese Video Games in America”

  1. I think saying that “Chinese history is about as well known to most gamers as is regular exercise and a healthy diet” is a little unfair.

    I think Stan was joking that American kids’ lack of knowledge of Chinese history is similar to their lack of regular exercise and a healthy diet.

    It seems rather unlikely to me that the Chinese model (at least, the one described here) would be embraced by American gamers, who have historically been very opposed to any model that allows players who pay for something an advantage in PvP (player vs. player) combat.

    Not sure about how unlikely. There are many online games that offer game benefits for real cash, especially on Facebook. The recent Spymaster Twitter Game could also go that direction. Asian imports (especially from Korea) also run on similar models. Maple Story (insipidly cutesy) by Nexon runs on a similar model, though that game isn’t really PvP focused. People already pay real, even big, money for virtual items in popular games. This system would only fail if the benefits are so big that leechers can’t remain in the game, but otherwise it’s just a freemium model, and freemium models can and do work.


  2. @ Kai, it also depends in part on who we’re talking about here, “casual” gamers vs. “hardcore” gamers. Casual gamers are more likely to accept this sort of thing than hardcore gamers (who would generally scorn anything on Facebook…) but on the other hand, casual gamers don’t represent an extremely profitable market necessarily. Just look at sales of third party Wii games (generally more “casual”) vs. sales of third party xbox 360 or ps3 or PC games…if you make an addicting enough game (farmville, peggle, etc.) they will come, but even then, those successes have been built on base retail sales, not DLC sales or micro-transactions.

    Personally, for example, I’ll pay $60 for a new console game if it’s good, but I would never play a free game that sells in game items because (1) I would expect the quality to suck and (2) I would expect the deck to be stacked against me since other players might have bought the extra items. Given the choice, I’ll stick with Modern Warfare 2, and I think many in my demographic — the most coveted demographic of all — would do the same.


  3. We should keep in mind that Korean companies like NCsoft (脑残软件?lol)are doing extremely well with the micropayment model of revenue generation, and even major North American game companies are copying it – directly, such as certain pets in Wow, and indirectly, in the form of frequent expansions and DLCs, as done by Bioware with Dragon Age and Mass Effect 1 and 2 – quite successfully.

    So if Chinese video game companies can manage to produce video games with plots so interesting their users can ignore their graphical shortcomings (I’ll be frank: most Chinese games I’ve played have plots far more engaging and with far greater depth than a lot of major Western and some Japanese titles that look pretty, but have crap plots, eg. Crysis, about half of the Final Fantasy games), I think they would be able to make enough cash to invest in better graphics and appeal to all the graphics whores out there in North America. After all, it’s far more expensive to have better graphics than to have better plot.


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