The Austin Games Conference’s Games in Asia track on Friday opened with the roundtable discussion “East vs. West: Differences in MMOs”, to help establish an understanding of the unique Eastern game environment in terms of the players, the development, and the politics. After introductions from the speakers, the panel, all of whom were experts in both MMOs and the Asian market, immediately opened up to questions from the audience.
First, the panel summarized the differences in key expectations and standards for Asian customers. Sony Online Entertainment’s CFO John Needham jumped in with a story about EverQuest 2. When development was underway and Needham planned to integrate ugly ogres, the design team came back insisting that the ogres needed to be handsome. Yes, in Asian markets, even dwarves and ogres need to look attractive. Next, Chief Professor of the Shanghai Theatre Academy and former Zona/Shanda senior exec Montgomery Singman elaborated on the design styles preferred in Asia. Anime and realist art are the most popular, but realistic art has difficulty in the United States, because the technology is not up to par. Not to be outdone in humor, Singman told a story about a debate he had over the size of character heads, because in the process of head inflation, characters lost elbows and gameplay mobility. The terminology used in China is related to ratios, as in a 1 to 2 body to head ratio. The most popular design is the 1 to 3 ratio, known as “cute style.”
However, for Taewon Yun, former Blizzard Korea online director and co-founder of Red 5 Studios, Inc., art style is more about how people can relate to the environment. He feels that metaphors used in the East and West need to use a common denominator. Joshua Hong, CEO of K2 Network, Inc., moved on to discuss the homogenous nature of people. “In Asia,” he stated, “the goal for people in gameplay is to do a little better than everyone else, but in the United States, the goal is to be individual.” With localization studies as a framework to his perspectives, Yun tied in community and interaction with other characters as key elements in gameplay. Factors such as trading, text information, graphical embraces, and other community-related interactions in gameplay are more important in the Asian market than individualism. Hong identified a trend in individualism from Generation Y, but at the same time discovered globalization in guilds and clans that communicate across countries. He also believes that Player vs. Player (PvP) combat in MMOs is community interaction instead of individual action, because in PvP, community intertwines with competitiveness.
Panelists took the opportunity to address gameplay design for the differing needs of the Asian market. SOE's Needham suggested that the Internet café-dominant MMO play setting in Asia must be solo friendly. Simple “point & click” design is also essential in the café environment, because players often hold a drink or cigarette in one hand. Keyboards are also rarely used. Singman observed that Chinese players are often detached and performing other tasks during gameplay. He recommended that developers simplify resource collection to a one-click design, or players will make cheats. In fact, cheat programs in China are often so complex that they can charge the player in-game revenue to run the program. Players will sit in awe watching the program do its work. In addition, and regarding MMOs in Asia as much as in the West, it is obviously important to know the demographics of players. According to panelists, one Asian company apparently found that 60% of their customers were unemployed, which implies that most of their money comes from government unemployment checks. Singman brightened when he described letters from housewives thanking his company at the time for providing their husbands with enjoyable entertainment that is cheaper than gambling.
In terms of designing game story content for Asia, Needham recommended adding Asian themed expansion packs to MMOs in both Western and Eastern markets, in a similar way to what EverQuest 2 did through a local studio in Asia. However, the most emphatic comment came from Singman, who warned developers away from using futuristic storylines, due to a cultural disconnect with the concept of a “future” world. Following this, panelists briefly touched on whether licensed games were appropriate for Asia. Needham suggested that the Star Wars franchise was not as successful in China as the United States, because China did not have theater when the first movie was first released, but that the advent of DVDs is encouraging for filling gaps in IP development. Singman advised finding Chinese-friendly IP to turn into MMOs, such as Transformers or Hello Kitty. The panel agreed that making games based on notable licensed IP is a good direction to go in, because the Asian market is usually saturated with 200 to 300 games at a time.
With so many games available and actively advertising, marketing is essential in Asia, EverQuest 2 used an Asian pop star as an EverQuest character model and made a music video. In-game visuals and character models were at the forefront of their advertisements. Moderator Jessica Mulligan told a story about her trips up the river in Shanghai during Chinese game trade show ChinaJoy. She remembered a World of Warcraft Coke commercial that ran almost every 15 minutes on trip and had to wonder how much money was spent on Asian marketing campaigns. Hong suggested that sponsors often put in their capital for advertisements, because cases have shown that product sales went up by 60% when games were used in ads. Singman had a different perspective. On the plus side, three million dollars was spent to make the Coke commercial featuring WoW, but those involved spent an entire year working on it. Coke successfully integrated free WoW play time into cans in China. In fact, some customers bought Coke purely for the additional gameplay boost to extend the government-enforced three hour limit. However, Pepsi tried the same strategy with another game and failed. In fact, Singman was concerned about the unstable market in China. According to him, companies are required to pay fees to put up posters to advertise their games in Internet cafes. In a twist that could seem very unethical, other companies can pay to have a competitor’s posters removed! He has seen one million dollar marketing budgets thrown away in a single week, and although sales go up during the campaign, they are temporary. Singman recommended working on catch phrase URLs for LCD ads in elevators, because game ads are not allowed on TV, and Internet ads are expensive.
Overall, in order to make a successful step into the East from the West, companies will have to carefully consider all of the issues and select the promising avenues discussed during this intriguing panel, it's clear. And, as Mulligan quipped to end the session: “You’ll need a bodyguard for your posters.”
[Beth Aileen Dillon is a graduate of the innovative Writing program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, and a regular writer for this website. Gamasutra will reprint this news story with additional photos in the near future as part of an Austin Games Conference feature wrap-up.]