We've all heard about the now-infamous request for Blizzard and NetEase to remove all forms of skeletons and other material from the Chinese release of Wrath of the Lich King, which finally was released in China on Aug. 31, 2010. What on earth is going on with Blizzard, NetEase, China and all that jazz? This week, The Lawbringer looks at the general video game climate in China, talks a little bit about how things are different for WoW players in China, and helps clarify some of the craziness going on about that whole skeleton debacle.
A global market
Video games exist in a global market. In fact, being part of that global market costs developers a good chunk of change. The globalization of the video gaming industry has presented lots of new hurdles for developers, including crafting a game that passes dozens of countries' standards and censorship rules, as well as localization of language, code and support. Massively multiplayers require even more to maintain servers, support teams, data centers over seas -- not to mention the rules governing interstate and country to country laws. It's a giant mess.
Globalization is a blessing and a curse to MMOs. On the one hand, a global market means a bigger market. On the other hand, varying degrees of censorship and rules means changing your game, sometimes drastically, for approval in other countries. This is where we catch up to our good friends over at Blizzard. Blizzard makes a little game called World of Warcraft, which, in the past and present, has had some difficulties over in mainland China, most notably the partnership with a company called NetEase, as well as that whole skeleton thing. Let's talk about both.
Gaming in China
For Americans, Europeans and a multitude of other "western" nations, personal computer use is regarded as just that -- personal computer use. You go to the computer room, your own room, the living room, or wherever your computer lives, sit down and log in to WoW. In China, the dynamic is very different. The Chinese, and to an extent the South Koreans, enjoy their internet culture and personal computer access mainly through PC clubs, internet cafés or what we used call LAN centers. Banks of computers line tables and chairs, with people sitting dutifully at their station playing their favorite games. Personal computer ownership, while on the rise in these nations, runs at a lower percentage than here in the United States.
The internet cafe model of PC use provides an important challenge to companies like Blizzard and NetEase, who are trying to run a pay-for-play MMO. How do you bill people? First, there is a different type of pay structure set up in these foreign countries. Instead of paying a monthly fee and buying a boxed copy of the game, most people pay for time on the game from internet cafés, who buy copies of WoW from NetEase, Blizzard's distributor of WoW in China.
The Ministry of Culture
In 2004, the Chinese government formed a committee within its Ministry of Culture to oversee and screen imported content like video games for material unsuitable for distribution in China. This body is sort of like a ratings board, but not really, since it is government-run and the rules aren't necessarily all public and out there. Plus, their rulings are their rulings -- they answer to themselves when it comes to decision-making.
One of the rules in China dealing with massively multiplayer games states that no foreign country can be part of a joint venture or partnership with a Chinese company to solely operate an online game in China. You can start to see where things get a little bit fishy.
Blizzard partnered with a company called The9 in June 2005 for the launch of World of Warcraft in China. WoW was a monumental hit in China, almost doubling The9's profits. Blizzard licensed the game to The9, which took care of operating the game so as to alleviate any issues with Chinese law. Things were going pretty well.
In April 2009, Blizzard announced that it was ending their relationship with The9 and licensing WoW and its expansions to another operator called NetEase. The9's profits dropped like a rock. Many suspect that NetEase was giving Blizzard a heck of a lot higher percentage of royalties for licensing WoW. Others thought that Blizzard might have had a bigger stake in NetEase than a lot of people thought. The Chinese government thought so and began investigating the Blizzard/NetEase "partnership."
Was Blizzard just licensing the game to NetEase, or, as a foreign company, doing more to constitute operating the game? We don't know. Things went quiet for a good, long while. The game was on and off for a time in China, and players were starting to get frustrated once everyone had their Twin Blades of Azzinoth. Really, how many more Illidan runs can you do without wanting to go insane?
Many Chinese players fled to the Taiwanese servers during the WoW blackouts in China, while this whole mess was getting sorted out. The Taiwanese player base was up in arms over the influx of new Chinese players, as they flooded the servers and changed the landscape they called their online home.
Finally, in August 2010, Blizzard announced that Wrath of the Lich King would be released in China on Aug. 31, 2010. However, there were to be some changes to the game at the behest of the Chinese censors. This isn't a new phenomenon -- The9 changed WoW in similar ways back in 2007 to appease censors.
Whats with the "no bones?" Well, every country has their stigmas and their cultural taboos. Fallout was in danger of losing its chance to be released in Australia because of drug use in game, prompting the developers over at Bethesda to rename illegal substances made-up names to skirt censors. In Germany, many World War II shooters cannot be released if they depict Nazi symbolism -- hence, you see lots of Iron Crosses representing German armies in many games. Some countries do not allow blood to be red in games, prompting developers to change bodily fluids to greenish colors. The United States is very strict on sexuality and nudity, and the ESRB routinely has games tone it down for American consumers. Stores like Walmart will not sell games that contain a certain amount of profane material.
China's thing is "no bones," along with the blood colors. What did Blizzard have to say? How about NetEase? The line given by everyone involved was that the game was changed because of the "particular situation and relevant regulations" in China. That's it. Not a great answer, if you ask me. We probably will never really know the reason, at least officially. Many people believe that, since one of the most popular religions in China is Buddhism, the act of showing bones violates a trust with one's ancestors, in a way shaming them by showing bare bone. It very well could be a religious sensibilities issue.
Globalization, again, is a blessing and a curse. Censorship varies from place to place, and that compliance is the price of admission to play in the global market.
This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at firstname.lastname@example.org.