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A Peek Behind the Bamboo Curtain

Richard Aihoshi Posted:
Columns The Free Zone 0

Those who read this column even semi-regularly are undoubtedly aware that China comes up fairly often. I don't see how to avoid it even if I wanted to, which I don't. After all, it's not only the world's largest MMOG market in both total player count and monetary value, but also very likely the fastest growing in absolute terms. What's more, the development industry there is huge. So for me at least, it's an absolutely vital region in the global MMOG landscape.

That said, my knowledge of it is limited since, for example, I've never had the chance to visit. Thankfully, I know people there, which helps a lot. Recently, I had occasion to touch base with one such individual, Monte Singman, who has nearly three decades of industry experience spanning both hemispheres. His resume includes stints with outfits like EA and Infogrames before he founded CA-based network middleware provider Zona in 2000. Its sale to Shanda in 2003 took him to Shanghai, where he is currently CEO of Radiance Software. Since 2005, he has also been Chief Professor of Digital Arts at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. In this position, he has not only taught but also been responsible for three books on game development and project management.

Like me, Monte is of the opinion many western gamers pay little or no attention to China's market or development industry. “The number one reason is that Chinese gamers are mostly attracted by games based on Chinese culture, for instance, hundreds have been made based on the Westward Journey mythology and the three kingdoms historic novel,” he explained. “There are also many based on Chinese ancient martial arts. Both categories are difficult for the western audience to relate to, especially the former.” Accordingly, it's no surprise when he says the main benefit of knowing more about China's market, industry and games would be a degree of understanding about the country's rich culture, obviously not as accurate as what we'd gain from studying it, but also without the effort that would require.

We also share the belief that many in this hemisphere aren't aware of how advanced China is in areas such as  monetization, innovative In App Purchase features and distribution methods. Furthermore, he points out that this has come to be in quite a short time, since 2005. That was when Giant Interactive switched from a time-based revenue model to free to play with item sales. Shanda soon followed, and when both were rapidly very successful, so did the overall direction of the industry.

Singman does appear to think some Chinese companies go too far by focusing more on monetization than gameplay, producing games that are more like time killers than fun to play. “They can get players addicted very quickly and are habit forming,” he states. “The players first invest their time, then their personal social networks, then their money.”

When I asked about the large number of MMOGs with Chinese historical themes, he cited their universal familiarity. “I believe it is about what the players can relate to. Every person on the street can tell you the stories of the three kingdoms and recite the heroes, their strategies and achievements.” He also noted that science fiction isn't a popular genre, perhaps because the educational system doesn't tend to produce as many graduates who are curious about science.

As a rather intriguing aside, Monte went on by posing a question. “I wonder why in the US, they don't make more games based on the Civil War?  Is it because American players in general aren't interested in history?”

I also sought out his thoughts on Chinese publishers buying or investing in western game companies. He said that for the big ones that are flush with cash, acquiring western talent serves three main purposes. He refers to one as a form of insurance. “The Chinese game market can shift very quickly. What works for publishers today won't always work tomorrow. So, buying western talents can allow them access to high production value games, and also helps them tap into western markets.  This is a hedge to their current product pipeline and market.”

The second is to speed up their learning curve. “By buying western game developers, they can gain insight into the western way of game making,” he explains. “This is a big area where Chinese game developers are lacking. The industry has over 30 years of history in the US, but only about a dozen in China.” He continues by telling me that the third reason is about filling another gap by gaining access to different IPs and stories outside of Chinese history and mythology.

The last major topic that came up in our brief exchange was whether games are regarded differently in China. How much have they shed the stigmatic image that they're for nerds and moved past to be seen as a mainstream form of entertainment? In this respect, Singman apparently feels the west has been leapfrogged. “I think we are already there,” he says. “Kids at very young age are playing games on iPad and PC. I hear it all the time that five year-olds are playing them here, as well as young girls and elders. Games are hip in China... not knowing and not playing them is considered old-fashioned and not cool.”

It would be pretty optimistic to think that the western gamer audience as a whole will experience a sharp uptick of interest in the Chinese market and industry any time soon. However, since I have a strong desire to understand them better, I'm very grateful to Monte Singman for taking the time to share some of his knowledge and insights with me and with you. 


Richard Aihoshi

Richard Aihoshi / Richard Aihoshi has been writing about the MMOG industry since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. He has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.