The9 is also in charge of running Blizzard's international hit World of Warcraft (WoW) for Chinese gamers--who account for more than half of the game's 5.5 million worldwide customers. On a recent visit to Shanghai, Alan Rose from Joystiq had a chance to meet with Hoyt Ma, The9's Senior Marketing Manager for WoW. We talked about his job and the growing popularity of gaming in China.
Joystiq (JOY): Thank you for joining us, Hoyt. What are your roles and responsibilities at The9?
Hoyt Ma (HM): I joined The9 at the end of 2003 to work on World of Warcraft as a project manager. I'm now the Senior Marketing Manager for WoW and I coordinate project plans, marketing plans, engineering resources, and the tech teams. I also communicate frequently with [publisher] Vivendi Universal. I have a graduate degree in international commerce and loved playing Warcraft 3, which helped me get the job.
JOY: Companies like The9 and Shanda Entertainment (Legend of Mir, Dungeons & Dragons Online) produce many role-playing games. Is this the most popular genre among Chinese gamers?
HM: I categorize games as PC or console. Chinese consumers like PC games such as CounterStrike, Diablo, Warcraft 3, and Starcraft. Online multiplayer games are becoming the most popular. The9 develops only online games because of the illegal copies for the single player games. There are over 26 million online gamers in China and 16 million of them play Warcraft 3. Modding is also very popular and fan modding has contributed to Warcraft 3's longevity.
JOY: How did the partnership with Blizzard and their successful MMORPG World of Warcraft develop?
HM: The deal had just been signed when I joined the company. We have a strong management team and were able to focus most of our strength on WoW, which gave us an advantage over other local companies. There is good chemistry between The9 and Blizzard.
JOY: What kind of challenges have you faced porting WoW to the Chinese gaming audience?
HM: Korean-style games were dominating in China before WoW -- games with 2D graphics that require a lot of clicking like Diablo. WoW is one of the first western-style MMORPG games with 3D graphics, so there was that 2D mindset to overcome. But there were other barriers. WoW requires middle to high-end PC configurations, as well as a broadband Internet connection, and cost is a major barrier to Chinese gamers. Another issue was the perceived complexity with the interface input - Chinese gamers were used to the Korean games where you just click the mouse. However, during game testing, we discovered that newbies could pick up WoW within 5-10 minutes, so user friendliness was a very important consideration.
Note: According to Blizzard's and The9's web sites, the subscription model for WoW in China is different from other parts of the world. Instead of a monthly subscription fee, Chinese gamers purchase WoW Points cards for 30 Yuan ($3.64) that are worth 600 points. Points expire at a rate of 9 per hour of play, so this amounts to 66 hours and 40 minutes of play for each card at an average of .45 Yuan ($.06) per hour.
JOY: There have been many reported cases of accidental deaths resulting from excessive gaming in China and other countries. Has The9 been able to successfully address the new government restrictions on excessive gaming?
HM: Well, compared to car accidents, this is not so much of a problem, and as you mentioned, this has happened in other countries. The imposed time limits might act as a deterrent, but this is not the best way to solve the problem because players can open up multiple accounts and keep on playing.
JOY: What additional steps is The9 taking to prevent these kinds of health-related accidents from occurring?
HM: There is no easy solution, but we are taking steps to educate players so they don't interrupt their normal lives. We want them to spend more time with their wives, boyfriends or girlfriends, and family. Go out for a hike and get some exercise! We publish frequent messages on our web site, login interface, and inside the game reminding customers to go have dinner or just take a break. Starbucks wants to sell as many cups of coffee as they can, but they don't want people drinking coffee 12-18 hours a day. In China, gaming is not accepted publicly as much as studies and hard work. Gaming is a hotly disputed topic here, as well as in other countries.
JOY: Is this negative public perception of gaming the reason why consoles, especially the Xbox, haven't sold well in China?
HM: In China, PCs are more acceptable than consoles because they can be used to educate with other software applications. There is greater overall family value with a PC. This is why most families won't consider buying an Xbox or PS2 for their kids. China will need more time to mature in the console and handheld markets.
JOY: The China Games Summit was recently held here in Shanghai. Did you attend and what are your thoughts on the conference?
HM: Yes, we had some people there. This conference was held to promote local game companies and discuss government policies. They also presented some awards. It's a good networking event to build relationships with foreign partners.
JOY: What trends do you currently see in China's gaming industry?
HM: The gaming market is still growing and locally developed games will continue to grow, not just imported games from Europe and other Western companies. Local companies have a slight advantage because we can modify games according to consumer need based on our understanding of Chinese culture. We can offer more culture specific in-game events.
JOY: What are some of the biggest production and creative issues that your company faces now and what new issues do you anticipate in the future?
HM: It is difficult for a lot of companies to break into the online gaming market because of the high production and development costs. There are also royalties and other costs to be considered, such as marketing and distribution. The configuration of PC servers is very important as a game's customer base grows. You also have to maintain a stable price for consumers. Regarding creativity, the "culturalization" of a game - the process of adapting games to local markets - is probably the most important on the customer's end. For WoW, we have offered customized wallpapers and updated our web site for the lunar new year, and have also added in-game quests that allow customers to collect traditional Chinese outfits for their online characters. This makes Chinese gamers feel more comfortable.
JOY: Foreign game companies such as Ubisoft and Electronic Arts have recently opened offices here in Shanghai and around China. What are your thoughts about this and the growing involvement of China in the global gaming market?
HM: They see a potentially huge gaming market in China, which has developed very quickly. Casual games might be the next hot area so they will try to adapt these to the Chinese market. Of course, gaming isn't just a hot import here. There are other Chinese gaming companies exporting their titles to other countries. Object Soft is exporting Fate of the Dragon to Germany, and Kingsoft will soon be releasing JX Online 2 in Taiwan. Chinese companies want to establish strong local foothold and then export. Countries with big gaming markets are often attracted to the gaming styles of other countries and cultures.
JOY: Will The9 be partnering with other foreign game companies in the future?
HM: We recently signed an agreement with Korean game company Webzen to distribute Soul of the Ultimate Nation (SUN) in China.
JOY: What game(s) do you and your colleagues at The9 like to play?
HM: Naturally, we enjoy playing WoW, but Warcraft 3 was also a big favorite. We also keep an eye on some local competitors. Many other popular MMOs, such as EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and Guild Wars, are not yet available in China. Until they are, we'll keep playing WoW!
JOY: Thanks again for your time, Hoyt. Xin nian hao!