Sunday, June 27, 2010

An Infant Chinese Game Industry

With China exploding in growth in all sectors of industry, you would expect game development to be doing the same. This hasn’t quite been the case in the degree that many foreign analysts expected, especially in terms of foreign penetration. Although the Chinese game industry overall is huge with vast potential for years of growth (not to mention a lot of tax revenue for the country itself), game development has ironically been hindered by the government and the people’s inherent social culture.

Game development is not allowed to have government support (but plenty of regulation), partly due to the government’s somewhat reputed belief that games are not socially functional or beneficial. Most western cultures would abject to this stance, firmly believing that its own citizens can and have benefited from the mental activity of playing games, not to mention again the taxation opportunities the industry is capable of generating. Much like the American and Indian movie industries, the game industry is seen by most other cultures, even in many parts of Asia, as a positive influence.

What is most disturbing about the Chinese government’s intervention is the blatant disregard for actually understanding the industry and its products. Just a few days ago, China’s Ministry of Culture introduced new online gaming regulations which only vaguely define what they consider as “unwholesome” content. The regulations also severely restrict play session times with the goal of stopping recent deaths resulting from gameplay “marathons” that can last days straight. While moderation can be said to be a good thing, these regulations blanket the entire industry and often ignore many of the positive potentials that are snuffed out.

On the consumer end, games in Asia have just as much of a different perspective. Very few Chinese games, or even any other Asian ones for that matter, display graphical blood effects, visibility of human bones (but not bones of another creature), and persona fighting in the reference of a person directly referencing their characters as their own while fighting another person in the same capacity. World of Warcraft was a recent victim of this difference in culture, as the latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, was restricted from being published until the game’s skeletons were covered up with flesh or clothing.

The later reference is more easily dealt with in foreign markets, while the former once is proving cumbersome for western game developers. Another problem that invades the Chinese government and its citizens is copyright ethics. The Chinese don’t much care about, or more pointedly can do anything effective to stop it, the rampant stealing of software. One of the more unfortunate results is the undermining of their culture with very young kids getting hold of games meant for a much older audience. This has resulted in addiction and even death in the few cases linked to the marathon gameplay sessions mentioned a moment ago.

Regardless of these issues, nothing is going to stop the ultimate engine that is the Chinese game industry. It will undoubtedly overtake all other international game markets in the not-too-distant future in terms of revenue, game development efforts, and sheer player count. Like many industries in China and all over Asia, the question will be whether foreign games are as accepted in China as much as most Asian games have been in western markets. Instead of western games reaching Asian audiences, we may unexpectedly find ourselves and our locally based games in the minority on local turf.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

An Industry Of Change

Just like any other industry, the game industry is a fluid and moving target that changes from year to year, even month to month in many cases. Over the years we’ve seen several shifts happening. The demographics of gamers have grown younger, games have been blessed with 3D graphics and 30” LCD monitors, the Internet has allowed us to share our experiences together, and porn has largely been removed from the game industry's advertisement toolbox (seriously).

THE HISTORY OF THE INDUSTRY (CGW Magazine 1984 Issue 14)

Thirty-one percent of gamers who used to play other types of games now play computer games almost exclusively. This net loss (27.5%) confirms what non-computer game companies have suspected: computer games have “stolen” their customers-or at least a good number of them.

What game type do you prefer playing?
(Bit-tech survey 2007)

First/Third Person Shooter: 48.53%
Real Time Strategy: 13.68%
RPG: 13.03%
Platform: 1.30%

It's interesting to note in the demographics above that gamers in the 80's were migrating to the PC from arcade and console systems, and that the shift from RPG and RTS games to FPS began not long after. Anyone in the industry today knows where everything is headed now. That is just one of the many changes the industry has since experienced.

In the early days of Computer Game World magazine (CGW) you could find porn advertisements on the back few pages. That should give you a good idea on how things have changed from then and now. It was a different world in the game industry five years ago, not to mention twenty-five years ago. Not only was porn advertising banished from the industry, but along with it went a primarily adult game player demographic (which makes sense then if porn was part of the industry), genres such as Adventure and Simulation, and fun games that were cheap and quick to make. What also left the industry was a general sense of what a good game was really all about.

The industry has changed, but has it changed for better or for worse? Losses of genres I loved, particularly the Adventure genre, were certainly a turn for the worst. And yes, some may say it hasn’t technically “died”, but it might as well have with the less-than-stellar and few-and-far-in-between releases we’ve seen this past decade. What has changed for the better though is technology, which gives us pretty and fast graphics, but also allows Indie developers to publish unique games that might never have otherwise made it into popular view. STEAM and other services are growing, which will allow even more distribution without the heavy-weight publishers helping hands. All of this will come together in the form of Virtual Worlds, giving everyone a chance to share their opinions on how things should progress.

GOING CASUAL - It’s a casual game market now

We’ve seen hundreds of “clones” in all genres the past several years, particularly in the First Person Shooter genre. Games that essentially play and feel like other games. How unique can FPS games possibly get, right? Well, I suspect they can be more unique than we simple players have seen lately, and more unique than the publishers realize as well. The developers have the ideas, but are they able and willing to release them into their games?

Whatever the reason for the clone market and the serious lack of unique games today (save for the once-in-awhile “Spore” type of game), it is throwing the industry into a spin that looks eerily familiar to how we view the movie industry today. There are more clones there too, and if you look closely, do you see what these clones are gravitating towards within their own genre? Simplicity--action packed mindless simplicity. And of course let’s not forget the pure eye-candy of it all. Those beautiful single colored textures that look like they were pulled straight out of a comic-book, or a cartoon.

That simplicity, while maybe not mindless in games, has a form in the industry, and that is in “Casual Games”. Some are good, such as the many online virtual worlds being developed, some are not so good, but they are increasing in numbers that rival any other genre. Fortunately, this is good for the industry as a whole. While we will likely never see Adventure or Simulation games in the spotlight again, they are still there, and part of that reason is through casual games. They bring in the masses, and when you are able to bring in a large group of players it is inevitable that some of those players will find other genres, even those that hardly exist.

THE FUTURE – And the Asians are going to dominate it (as they always have…)

The Chinese game market of nearly USD 900 million is expected to be worth more than USD 6 billion by 2011. The growing China game industry has more than 27 million gamers and there will be 60 million by 2011 consuming $1.8 billion of online games. Internet cafes are gathering places for teens and casual gaming is prevalent, especially with females. It is projected the Asian market will dominant other markets internationally sometime in the next decade, especially online games.

The modern game industry really started in Asia with Japan, and now it’s coming full circle around the globe right back, but this time stopping short and landing in countries like Korea and China. America and the EU might be popular now internationally, but as the years go by we will begin to see more and more Asian specific games going international. Everything changes at one time or another, as we’ll surely see the game industry change in the next few years in ways we have yet to predict.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Asian vs. Western Online Game Industries


I had a recent discussion with an Asian game developer about the differences between game industries in various parts of the world, specifically related to Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). With such an important topic put on the table I thought I’d expand upon our initial discussion and lay out my views on what I’ve seen in the industry between the Asian and Western markets. While I have only been in Asia for a year (so far), I have managed to see some interesting differences as well as similarities.

At first glance, many of you might conclude that since World of Warcraft is a world-wide phenomenon game industries are more similar than different. In some cases this is true, especially when it comes to the technical components of a game. Where the industries differ most is in their communities, how group members form relationships with each other, as well as how they view the games they play. Gameplay itself often has many unique qualities between the two markets.

Both industries are strong and growing at ever astonishing paces, especially the Asian market through their vast array of MMOGs. With Western games like World of Warcraft, we begin to see these two communities merge together as one. To better understand these differences let’s explore where they began as one, the key differences that make them unique, and touch upon what makes them ultimately a community of “one”.


Game studios in most parts of Asia, even the Korean market, are relatively new compared to Western and Japanese markets. One of the interesting trends I’ve noticed in not only games but in other entertainment products is the world-wide imitation of what the west already has to offer, mainly due to its maturity and past successes. Even the Western industry itself continually recycles its own works between development studios. I think this is a good thing overall, as long as there is fresh innovation to back up what was originally used.

However, often enough you will find Asian games that are extremely unique in their gameplay, such as Lineage from NCSoft or Conquer Online from TQ Digital. Western games often involve a rich storyline, a variety of objectives, with often hours involved in completing objectives in order to obtain an item that will directly impact your character’s progress. In the Asian market the pace is a lot quicker. Most games will reward you soon or immediately after accomplishing a simple task. Items are often reused and upgraded in various ways throughout your character’s progression. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in a more static game between the various levels, with little differences from beginners to elite characters.

This is not to say that Asian games are without their worth in advancing your character's abilities. High level rewards are certainly available, and to help compensate for the weaker story-lines and more detailed objectives, you will find many interesting features in Asian MMOGs, such as more sociable elements as marriage and bounty systems. Be cautious though when picking up a copy of an Asian game, as you may find more "feminine" attributes than most Western MMOGs contain. This is partly due to the increase in Asian females playing MMOGs, as well as their basic cultural qualities.

Where both worlds meet is at the intersection of graphics, the visual component of gameplay. For any game market you will find dull and boring games that have amazing graphics that run perfectly well on two year old game systems, while at the same time you will find content rich games that keep you entertained for hours on end, but provide a limited graphic experience that still seems to slow down your system no matter what components you upgrade.

This seemingly chaotic and unpredictable environment is not the fault of the games or the components in your system, but instead of the programmers, artists, and other team members that build the games. Programmers must provide the tools and abilities the designers use to place objects the artists help to create. Sometimes the art will look more realistic but the lighting, shadow effects, and shaders that programmers add into the game engine are three years out-of-date. Often times the programmers are pure geniuses in adding all sorts of features into the game engine; unfortunately the artists and designers are inexperienced and ruin any potential to exploit those features. You have these strong and weak designers in both the Asian and Western studios.


Perhaps one of the more surprising assets the Asian game industry has is its community. Westerners reading this might object to my statement because they value their seemingly rich guild societies and intensive forum posting contributions. Asians on the outside are much more introverted than westerners are, but when it comes to communicating in a virtual environment you will find that they open themselves up to each other in ways I have never seen in any western community. They stick much closer to the friends and community members they know, ultimately building stronger bonds in the process than westerners can because westerners tend to migrate from one guild to another and from one game to another.

I mentioned the difference in game design earlier and how western MMOGs tend to offer a more detailed and diverse gameplay experience. This isn’t to say that all Asian games are simple grind fests, but many tend to focus on this repetitive aspect of gameplay more than I would personally care to see in an MMOG. However, one of the reasons I think that there is more of a sense of community around these Asian games is because of this simpler gameplay style. The game forces the user to establish bonds with other users in order to make it a more fulfilling experience. While this may seem counter-intuitive to Western MMOG design theories, Asian players enjoy this simple experience and the stronger bonds they develop with their fellow players.

What are the demographics of these Asian players anyway? In walking through some of the developer’s studios in Shanghai a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a significant portion of the team consisting of females, whereas in the western industry you will sometimes find it difficult to find even a single female amongst a team of twenty or more developers. This also holds true to the communities that play the games, where Asian females are in a much higher percentage, and even in some cases more than fifty percent of a game’s population, than those in western markets. There is also a larger percentage of younger players in the Asian market, partly due to the markets infancy.


Game companies in Asian will tend to market the contents of a game rather than the actual gameplay itself. For example, Lineage II is often displayed with features that highlight the weapons, armor, crafting, and housing components. These are material based systems, not ones that westerners tend to focus on, such as describing the combat system, how transportation works, level and skill potential, and how magic and other effects are exciting to use. These two differences are beginning to merge together with international games like World of Warcraft.

Susan Choe and Nick Foster of “Outspark” secured $11 million in USD funding to develop MMOGs currently based in Asian find a successful place in the Western market. One of their main focuses is looking for games that everyone can play, not just the hard-core groups. They also recognize that the developers themselves must also be open to the Asian/Western relationship and the market potential. MMOGs are not static like many games, so there must remain a continual relationship between all parties for the development and localization of the games, if they are to be successful.

The most difficult challenges in creating a world market of games and establishing a firm localization foundation is understanding not just the player attitudes in various regions, but also in understanding the technological, economical, and sociological limits that those regions are constrained by. For example, China is still a developing country and most of its citizens cannot afford a pay-per-month subscription fee, or the latest computers to run games like Age of Conan, a DirectX 10 capable game.

One of the unique ways that the Asian game industry has adjusted to the limitations of system requirements is not to develop graphic intensive 3D environments, but to keep them in a 2D based environment. This keeps system requirements in check, as well as providing unique and interesting styles of gameplay that would otherwise be impractical in a 3D world. You only need to play games like Conquer Online to understand the differences, and is just one component among many that need to be adjusted if localization efforts are to be successful.


Both of these game industries have a lot to learn from each other, as they both have numerous benefits and drawbacks. Western industries could learn to better integrate their community tools and services more directly into their games, as well as exploring ways to make grinding less of a burden on the single individual by incorporating more group style solutions. Asian companies will learn that storyline and more in-depth gameplay contents for all character levels can make an intriguing and long-term gameplay experience that will keep the player interested even after they reach the maximum level for their characters.

One thing is for certain, and that is the game market is going global at an ever faster pace. We will continue to see Asian games marketed in Western countries, and Western games marketed in Asian countries (and elsewhere). This means for the foreseeable future we will need more knowledgeable industry members to understand and work with the publishers, developers, and communities to make the games as successful as games like World of Warcraft have managed to become.