Thursday, August 4, 2011

Chinese Online Gaming: Change is in the Air

MMOs may be popular among Chinese youth, but they generally have a rough go of it in the press. Gaming addiction sometimes has horrifying (and high-profile) consequences — like, say, a couple selling their children for money to play games — and moreover, the sharp generation gap in China means that most parents have almost no understanding of what it is that makes their kids want to play video games in the first place. Naturally, when things go wrong, games are often blamed. And World of Warcraft, being both hugely popular and conveniently foreign, often bears the brunt of this criticism.

So gamers were shocked on Tuesday when CCTV News aired a report that was surprisingly complimentary about WOW, and criticized domestic games for not being as well-made. A video of the segment is available here, but the main part that caught people’s attention was this sentence:

“Although there are many players addicted to it, WOW is universally acclaimed, mostly because it is very creative and well developed. There is a sharp contrast [between WOW] and some domestically-developed games.”

This might not seem like much, but it was enough for Tencent, for example, to create a special section about the CCTV report that includes polls, quotes from microblog posts, and a history of the times CCTV has mentioned World of Warcraft in the past. In the poll, which asks gamers to respond to the CCTV report, over 54 percent said the report was “a miracle.”

Although the whole poll is somewhat tongue-in-cheek — the “miracle” option is a clever reference to the Railway Ministry spokesman’s disaster of a press conference last week — netizens may not be wrong to call the report a miracle, especially in the midst of a new nationwide campaign cracking down on gaming addiction by beginning work on a real-name gaming system to be implemented nationwide. From the Jiefang Daily via Marbridge Consulting:

Eight Chinese government ministries and agencies recently released a joint “Memorandum Regarding the Initiation of Work on a Real-Name Verification System to Prevent Online Gaming Addiction.” China’s General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), the Civilization Office of the Central Communist Party Committee, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League, the All China Women’s Federation, and the China National Committee for the Well-being of the Youth all participated in drafting the memorandum. At a press conference in Shanghai on July 29, GAPP announced that as of July 28, all online game operators nationwide had begun implementing anti-addiction real-name verification measures in their games. The testing period for the system will last until September 30, 2011, after which the system will be officially implemented starting October 1.

Unsurprisingly, WOW gamers are less excited about this measure than they are about the unprecedented praise from CCTV. But real-name systems are already in place at Chinese internet cafes, and most gamers probably aren’t too shocked to hear that the regulations will be taken a step further this October.

In fact, to some of them, it may even not make a difference. The Korea Herald reports that some Chinese gamers are using hacked Korean social security numbers to play their games on Korean servers rather than Chinese ones.

A quick search using the keywords, “Korean social security numbers,” on Baidu, a Chinese Internet search engine, showed about 1.39 million results.

And sites like these offer stolen identities for as little as 100 won ($.09), complete with social security numbers, addresses, cell phone numbers and even when and what kind of credit card the owner registered for.

Ultimately, though, China will do what it can to foster the domestic gaming industry. The same CCTV report that praised WOW also noted that China has 24 million online gamers, and the economic implications of that are not lost on anyone. The positive report on WOW may be best understood as an attempt to spur domestic developers into creating a product that could meet or exceed the quality standards evident in Blizzard’s international mega-hit, and thus capture the domestic market, and maybe some of the international market too.

Now may even be the right time for Chinese companies to move, as WoW’s active subscriber rate has now been declining for two quarters in a row. On the other hand, they’re also working on a new, as-yet-unannounced MMO project that’s sure to present a stiff challenge to all competitors, foreign and domestic, whenever it is released.

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