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Special: What Chinese Gamers Look For In MMOs

Special: What Chinese Gamers Look For In MMOs

July 25, 2006 | By Simon Carless

July 25, 2006 | By Simon Carless
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[NOTE: This is the second in an exclusive series of Gamasutra articles discussing the Chinese game market - the first, an overview of China's game business, was filed last night.]

Gamasutra was present to witness Radiance Digital CEO Monte Singman passing on an overview of the Chinese MMO online game market, as part of our weeklong visit to Shanghai. Singman was a former executive at Western companies such as Capcom and Infogrames, before his U.S. firm was acquired by major Chinese firm Shanda, and was talking as part of the IQPC Online Gaming conference in Shanghai during the week of ChinaJoy,

The History Of The Chinese MMO

In it, Singman, who now runs his own Shanghai-based company focusing on making MMOs, covered some basic information, but also gave some great insight into what Chinese gamers actually care about in terms of MMO features. He started with a useful overview of the history of major MMOs that have been popular, pointing out that Legend of Mir, a Korean MMO, started the leveling-up, grind heavy era for China's online games - Singman commented: "You'll see 100 titles that look like it."

He went on to point to Sephiroth, a mid-period Chinese-launched MMO that "inherited the refined art design of Korean games", especially since there were not a lot of 3D titles at the time, and was a success. However, Gate Of Heavens, a similar-looking title, failed to survive, arguably, Singman suggested, because it was too similar to Sephiroth.

The presentation went on to discuss the Westward Journey series from NetEase, one of the biggest hits in the Chinese market, pre-World Of Warcraft. Singman noted that the series made him think of Stone Age and Crossgate, previous Chinese-launched MMOs, because of their similar art styles.

From Westward, To WoW

But Westward Journey broke through due to two factors - the refreshing cartoony style, which meant female players were excited by the title as well as the traditional game demographic, and the Chinese legendary story background (which Chinese people are familiar with) to help the players to navigate the game.

From there, of course, there was World Of Warcraft, and Singman commented: "That title wasn't an evolution, it was a revolution in the Chinese game market" - a game that took market share from all titles, more than any other Western title has ever done in China.

But looking forward, there are other styles of game which also may hit big in China, albeit not quite as big as World Of Warcraft. Singman particularly singled out basketball title Freestyle as a title that opens a new era of sports casual games, but, he asked: "What is the next innovation?

He suggested of the Chinese game market: "Most of the time [developers] do direct clones" of existing MMOs, suggesting that evolution through careful iterative innovation is the way forward for the market - also commenting "I have never heard or seen any Chinese companies do focus groups", another crucial aspect for making better games.

How Chinese Gamers Differ

In explaining some of the essential characteristics of the Chinese online gamer, Singman cited Deutsche Bank/iResearch findings on exactly why Chinese gamers want to play online games. According to the research, 16.44% of respondents want to do it to meet new friends, 15.60% to get special game items, 11.54% to accomplish missions, 9.90% to explore new game zones, 8.94% want PK (player versus player) ability, and 8.81% to 'become a master'.

Providing a little flavor to these stats, Singman pointed out that, when he worked at Shanda on Chinese MMOs, every one to two months they created a new upgrade (maps and items). In contrast, for the North American market, SOE creates upgrades every 6 months or more - albeit much larger upgrades. But nonetheless, the speed of game upgrade is a lot swifter in China.

As for the graphical sophistication of Chinese MMOs, especially in a post-World Of Warcraft market, the stereotype that the Chinese are happy to play purely 2D titles is going away - Singman noted: "Pretty soon in China 2D games are going to be history, just like in the U.S."

In addition, it was noted: "PK is almost a must for Chinese MMORPGs" - definitely not the case for the North American or even the Japanese market, where player killing is not a major factor in an MMO game's success. Singman suggested that Final Fantasy XI, which is not a top Chinese title, "could not be popular in China" simply because it does not have an overriding PK element.

Finally, Singman commented that, in the Chinese MMO field, guilds are very important - "games in China without strong guild functions don't do very well", something else that the market has in common with the South Korean market (as with the PK enjoyment similarity), but also shares with the North American and Japanese market to some extent.

Overall, Singman's speech really helped illuminate the state of the Chinese MMO market - clear data on an important market. We'll have more on the state of China as the week progresses.

[Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine editorial director Simon Carless will be reporting from Shanghai all this week on the Chinese video game market, talking to the key players about both the homegrown casual/MMO markets, and discussing the increasing amounts of game development outsourcing in the region.]

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