Online gaming is so popular in China, the country has more than 100 online game operators. One of the most successful is Shanghai-based The9, which focuses primarily on MMORPGs. In 2003, they launched MU Online, which attracted over 15 million subscribers within two years.
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
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?
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.
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.
Is this negative public perception of gaming the reason why consoles,
especially the Xbox, haven't sold well in China?
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
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
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.
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
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
Joystiq interview: Hoyt Ma, The9
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