The latest edition of Gamasutra's regular 'The China Angle' column looks at Chinese game companies testing the uncharted waters of television game ads after a 2004 government crackdown, and an MMO crackdown on gender-swapping gamers.
China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) banned game related content in television broadcasts in April 2004. Coca Cola created an uproar in 2005 when it introduced World of Warcraft themed TV commercials, but until now no game company has tried playing rules lawyer with SARFT. Two Chinese game companies are trying their luck in December, as they take advantage of the 15th Asian Games in Doha for marketing campaigns on the airwaves.
Shanghai based online game company Zhengtu Network launched a brand advertising campaign for the company on China Central Television (CCTV), China's top media group. The ads appear both on the main channel CCTV-1 and the sports channel CCTV-5. According to Zhengtu vice manager Tang Min, the advertising only deals with the company, not the game, and thus does not violate SARFT's regulations.
Online game company Foreseen, which operates the MMORPG Uncharted Waters Online in China, started providing the game's soundtrack for TV programs at the start of the Asian Games. The soundtrack is the background music for the Asian Games themed morning program on Beijing TV6. SARFT regulations are not the only thing Foreseen is stretching. According to the company, Uncharted Waters' background music is well suited to the Asian Games in Doha because Doha is located by the ocean.
The efforts by Zhengtu Network and Foreseen follow online game company 9you's more subtle sponsorship of Shanghai Media Group's (SMG) TV program Wu Lin Da Hui. The show was already a hit for SMG when 9you paid 20 million Yuan (8 Yuan = US$1) for the naming rights to the show in its second season. In addition to appending the company's name before the show, 9you also received the rights to develop an online game based on the dance program.
China's regulatory environment, especially for new growth sectors, is highly undefined. Government ministries have overlapping areas of oversight, and often release conflicting regulations. With only vague rules on what should and should not be done, companies have developed thick skins and learned to bend the rules to outrageous limits until the government cracks down. So far, the government has not responded.
The original SARFT ruling was precursor to a series of government regulations on the game industry in China, and was partly in response to growing public and media attention to the game industry. Game related advertising was not widespread in 2004. The ruling resulted in the termination of several e-sports TV shows dealing with popular LAN games, the most famous of which aired on CCTV-5.
Since early 2006, the regulatory efforts have lost media hype as well as government focus, while marketing for online games have become increasingly important in a crowded environment. If the TV marketing campaigns succeed, the campaigns will set precedents (or at least a boundary) for future game related ad campaigns, especially with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing on the horizon.
Chengdu based Aurora Technology is forcing some reality back into fantasy role playing games as it places a visual verification restriction to players that want to play female characters in the company's new game Feng Yun Online. Only female gamers can play female characters. If successful, the policy should reduce confusion and broken hearts in the game.
Playing female characters is always popular in MMORPGs; the characters have no shortage of gold and always wear armor several levels beyond their status - all gifts from their male admirers. The gift giving phenomenon is not unique to China, only more pronounced due to the mass acceptance of online games by both sexes of China’s younger generations. Most online games offer special virtual wedding events, which are lucrative sources for value added services.
[Shang Koo is an editor at Shanghai-based Pacific Epoch, and oversees research and daily news content on China's new media industries, with a concentration in online games. Pacific Epoch itself provides investment and trade news and publishes a number of subscription products regarding the Chinese technology market. Readers wanting to contact him can e-mail email@example.com.]