Boycotts, fistfights, and GAPP intervention -- the latest China Angle column looks at the rocky path The9 has traveled since China's launch of World of Warcraft, leading up to the long-delayed release of the Burning Crusade expansion pack.
After months of delays and silence, Chinese online game operator The9 finally announced that it will release the expansion pack The Burning Crusade for Blizzard's MMORPG World of Warcraft (WoW) on September 10.
The announcement came on Tuesday, half a day before The9 announced its second quarter 2007 earnings. Although the expansion was promised for the third quarter of 2007, many analysts have already given up on a timely launch.
Although World of Warcraft was launched in China six month after the game's launch in Western markets, previous content update releases usually lag North American market releases by a month. Chinese WoW players have not experienced any new content since last October, and their patience has been taxed to the limit. The number of average concurrent users (ACU) for WoW has dropped two quarters straight, from 340,000 ACU in the forth quarter of 2006 to 300,000 in the second quarter of 2007.
Finally at the end of June, The9 teased its gamers by updating WoW to 2.0. And then silence. The rumor mill went on overtime. Most of the rumors centered on The9's Soul of Ultimate Nation (SUN), licensed from Korea's Webzen. The9 launched SUN in April, leading to speculation that technical and marketing resources were diverted from WoW to the launch of SUN.
Disgruntled WoW players even tried to organize a boycott to force The9 to refocus their attention on WoW. The boycott had little effect as it asked gamers to spend 10 minutes less each day in WoW, rather than quitting the game altogether. However, one unlucky The9 marketing staff member was beaten up by an angry WoW player while promoting SUN at an Internet cafe. Other gamers in the cafe stood by and watched, applauding the assault.
The9's public relations department had a fight on their hands as well. In August, The9 and Blizzard was sued by Chinese PC maker Founder for using Founder's copyrighted fonts in WoW. The lawsuit was followed by a report that a former The9 employee is being investigated for making irregular purchases of server equipment from HP while working for The9. The report alleged that purchases were made through an independent company that skimmed profit from the sale.
By the end of August, rumors abounded that The9 may face early termination for half of its licensed games, including WoW, as well as games from Webzen and Korean distributor HanbitSoft. Rumors pointed to poor operation of the games (in particular delays in The Burning Crusade) as the reason for termination. All rumors were denied by The9 and the games' license owners.
The most credible rumor for the delay in launching The Burning Crusade was regulatory problems. China's General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) launched a fatigue system in July to monitor and limit time spent on games by minors. WoW's expansion pack was likely a victim of further muscle flexing by GAPP, especially considering the recent large volume of Chinese news reports complaining about violent and scary promotional posters for WoW.
In the past months, World of Warcraft has already gone through several modifications to make the game healthier. Most noticeably, the Scourge race got a facelift, replacing flesh and bones with just flesh. The9 also banned nearly 10,000 Chinese words from chats in WoW, replacing various slang and profanities with blanks. Interestingly, the Chinese characters for The9's competitor Shanda were banned as well.
[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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]