China, Gambling, And Virtual Conflict

By Jim Rossignol on January 1st, 2008 at 4:22 pm.

GameSetWatch points the way to a documentary examination of ZT Online, one of China’s biggest MMOs. The article is introduced on the Chinese culture blog Danwei and then translated in full from the original Southern Weekly article by Cao Yunwu. The article contains numerous illustrations of how Chinese gamers experience MMOs and how their attitudes and behaviours in online environments differ to those of European and American gamers.

“Chinese gamers are an unwelcome species on European and American servers,” said a game manager who once worked on World of Warcraft. Chinese players always have ways of quickly ascending levels that leave European and American gamers in the dust, and on group missions they do not like to respect the tacit rules of profit division. For those “pedantic” European and American gamers, Chinese players are like fearsome pagans. “European and American games do not encourage unlimited superiority of power; they put more of an emphasis on balance and cooperative support.” The former WOW manager said, “Perhaps this is because of the influence of traditional culture and the current environment; truth be told, Chinese gamers are better suited to jungle-style gaming.”

I think he means “law of the jungle”. Anyway, the core of the article details the life of 27-year old Lu Yang and her relationship with the hugely popular Chinese MMO. It’s a piece of classical journalism of the kind that gaming needs to see more of. If you have an interest at all in the cultural context of MMOs then this is an essential read.

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35 Comments »

  1. Butler says:

    “Chinese players always have ways of quickly ascending levels that leave European and American gamers ”

    Im sure. Kinda like an MMO super race, huh? Bending the very code of the game to their will.

    Am I completely missing the point, or is this guy making some very strange points?

  2. Meat Circus says:

    I’m sure his points have a certain twisted validity, but it’s very telling that a MMO developer wants to blame the players rather than the game’s own broken mechanics.

    The level treadmill is drudgery that has to be *endured* in most MMOs, and especially WoW, that has little to offer the non-PvPer or non-raider.

    Of course people will resent those with a higher stamina for doing the drudge work.

    The correct response is not to insult Chinese gamers, but fix the drudge. Get rid of levels. They are vestigial remnant that the MMORPG needs to let wither.

  3. Janek says:

    Fascinating, and somewhat unsettling. The obsessive attitude to be the best, which forms the backbone of the stereotypical view of Asian MMO players, has always mystified me.

    I mean, I can understand, say, buying a little ingame money if you have limited gametime and want to maximise what time you have by doing fun stuff rather than grinding for money or whatever. But to actually sink so much money into it boggles the mind. Particularly when in this case it doesn’t even seem like it’s eliminating the grind. I mean, it’s like paying so you can do work. Mad.

    Does show how potentially dangerous games can be when targetted at a specific mindset, though. The slot machine comparison in the article is very apt. Certainly an interesting case study for any future discussion of the “ethics” of games development.

  4. Meat Circus says:

    You know, when the CPC decided to impose a three-hour gaming limit in Cybercafes in China, there was a lot of guffawing from many Western gaming commentators of the “oh those wacky commies” variety.

    But this article makes it sounds like China has, culturally, a very real problem with MMO addiction, whilst it remains largely illusory and speculative in the Occidental Internet.

  5. Tom Edwards says:

    This all being, of course, exactly what Johnathon Blow was talking about. I wonder what he would make of it.

  6. Meat Circus says:

    @Tom Edwards: I think that was part of it.

    Of course, an amusing corollary is that if MMO developers can be shown to *know* that their games are designed to be addictive, and yet they wilfully continue to provide them, they become guilty of contributory infringement for any damage that addiction causes and open themselves up to all manner of criminal negligence and other class action law suits.

    I suspect it’s only a matter of time till we see the first serious attempt at such a prosecution.

    But, I maintain that the MMO is not broken, just the level-based ding=crack hit MMO.

    I suppose this is all just another way of saying “why can’t we all just get along and play EVE instead?”

  7. Theory says:

    EVE is hardly comparable with what today’s MMO genre.

  8. Butler says:

    Taking a step back, Meat Circus, and talking in terms of MMOs, levels=crack and thus addiction:

    WoW has a low level cap, and one that is easily obtained by almost any player. Arguably, most people that are addicted to it have long since hit the cap on any number of characters, why are they addicted?

  9. Chris says:

    The correct response is not to insult Chinese gamers, but fix the drudge. Get rid of levels. They are vestigial remnant that the MMORPG needs to let wither.

    That’s what ZT online did, only they replaced the grind with pay-for-levels and gamble-for-loot. That better for you?

  10. malkav11 says:

    *blinks*

    Okay….WoW, for me, was one of a very, very few MMOs that actually had something to offer to the non-PvP/raider (I never touched either aspect of the game) thanks to having an extensive and enjoyable quest system that was the focus of the pre-cap game and plenty of neat areas to explore. I’m sure I would have quit once I’d experienced that content completely a couple of times, but I never got the chance. And that would have taken a lot longer than it took to get bored with the much grindier play of most other MMOs.

    I’m also mildly astounded by someone arguing that, and then turning around and singing EVE’s praises. Not that EVE’s not an excellent game for what it does, but I’m not sure that it can be described as having much of anything, especially of a non-grinding nature, for the non-PvP player.

  11. Meat Circus says:

    Arguably, most people that are addicted to it have long since hit the cap on any number of characters, why are they addicted?

    Well, it just gets replaced with WoW’s loathsome raid loot grind, and it’s crime-against-humanity rep grinds. Grind, grind, grind. Each time for a diminishing returns hit. Just like a poor quality street drug.

    And no, WoW’s level cap is not ‘easily’ reached. It took me almost a year of real life non-casual play to reach Outland through the repetitive level grind treadmill, including through the insufferable lows of Stranglethorn Vale (shudder).

    When I got BC and level 64, and it was yet another ten even longer levels of the same miserable XP grinding with the same three or four fetch and kill quests. So I lost the will to live, realised the only real fun I had in WoW was instances and what a small portion of the miserable levelling experience they made up of this most massively single-player of games.

    A ‘quick’ level cap is a couple of weeks of real time, like Guild Wars or Age of Conan is promising.

    That’s what ZT online did, only they replaced the grind with pay-for-levels and gamble-for-loot. That better for you?

    That’s not eliminating the grind, that’s just allowing you to pay to ameliorate it. It should be obvious to all that that’s an even more idiotic idea than having the grind in the first place.

    I wish that Darkfall weren’t vaporware. At least I now have EVE. She understands me in a way WoW never did. Not that I’m addicted. No. I can giver her up any time I want.

  12. Piratepete says:

    rep grinding has got to be one of the most poorly thought out methods for rewarding players and their time investment in a game.

    I must say the only rep rewards I ever got were from achieving rep organically and not through collecting bloody 1 in 5 drop Twilight Texts for example.

  13. Butler says:

    Yeah, so it’s more the notion of continual improvement (of gear, stats, professions) that gets people hooked – as oppose to leveling specifically…

    If you were playing so little it took you a year to hit 60 in WoW, you weren’t playing nearly enough to warrant paying the subscription fee. Not to mention the fact that if you weren’t enjoying leveling up on any level, you should probably avoid MMORPGs. :p

    Age of Conan has 80 levels by the way, and a similar leveling curve to WoW’s 1-60 (aka easy; casual or otherwise).

  14. No Picnic says:

    Submitted for your approval:
    WoW graffiti at a university in Shenyang, China

    I’m an American English-language teacher at a Chinese University, so I actually have something meaningful to contribute here. :D

    Let me enlighten you on what I know about the Internet culture here among the students. Few students can afford their own laptops, and there’s hardly room for them since there are as many as 8 roommates in one dorm. They could get Internet in their dorm if they had a laptop, but most will go to an “Internet bar,” what Americans like me would call an Internet café.

    To get into the net bar, the students give a clerk at the front desk a pre-paid ID card and commence their computing. I think it’s usually 2 yuan per hour (1 yuan = $3.4 USD). Some students will spend the night in a net bar because the rate is cheaper still and their standard of living is very low. They couldn’t go back to their dorms at, say, 1 in the morning because the curfew is 10:30pm.

    The computers at these bars are loaded up with games. How many of said-games are legitimate and not-pirated is a mystery to me. Counter-Strike (which they call CS) is still very popular here. World of Warcraft is insanely popular, and WarCraft 3 still holds some popularity. There’s a Korean clone of Mario Kart clone that was popular, at least last year. I saw the latest installment of Age of Empires loaded up in the café during my visit. Games such as Half-Life 2 and TF2 are very uncommon as they cannot be easily pirated.

    Casual games are also very popular. Many of these are enabled by QQ, the Chinese instant messaging service. Other are flash-based games on the Web. One that’s popular with Chinese teacher friends of mine is a rather boring game where the player matches tiles with pictures of cartoon animals on them, something like the computer game people in the West think is Majong. (It’s like saying checkers is the same as chess.)

    I’ve heard from students about roommates who have lost themselves in net bars, grinding away at WoW for a full day without a meal. Those are extreme cases, and not the norm.

  15. Mickiscoole says:

    No Picnic, It seems you have made an error in the exchange rate:
    Actual Exchange rate between USD and RMB

  16. DigitalSignalX says:

    As a two and a half year veteran of Lineage II (some would argue the king of Asian grinder titles) the difference in US, European, and Asian play styles was fairly obvious. That said, a relatively unhealthy addiction in terms of time and money was not specific to any one group. In my experience just as many Yanks were online 18 hours a day, every day, as any other group, regardless of play style. Players online who’s sole purpose was to log into shared accounts to harvest items for resale were mostly Asian though, I think due to the rate of exchange with the US dollar.
    Spending outrageous amounts of real cash to purchase items or currency in-game (someone offered me 2k for my account after I left, for example) was also well known among all nationalities. If anything, it would seem western players were LESS inclined to take a monetary short cuts because of a negative stigma associated with “cheating the system.”
    Does NCSoft (the developer) know all about this? Of course. But it’s a matter of one hand weighing responsibility while the other hand balances the checkbook. Every farmer is a subscription. Every guy who spends 20, 200, or 2000 bucks for items in-game is all that much more invested in maintaining their character and thus the monthly subscription.
    It’s in their best interest to maintain a public image of caring for players health and well being while also developing a game that can potentially be exploited. Not to sound off too much from the Paul is Dead camp, but Sony and Blizzard know this too.

  17. Andrew Mayer says:

    I’ve worked on a number of MMO designs of one type or another over the years, (especially in the 90s), and one thing is very clear:

    There’s always been a conceptual spice called “casino gambling” that the designer can add to the mix they want to make the game more alluring and more sticky. And you can add more or less of it depending on what you and what your client want.

    And all these games have some of that spice in them. Because Casino’s have been figuring out how to make this stuff work for years and years. They’ve put tons of money into research and development, and you’d be a fool not to pay attention to what they’ve done.

    Clearly this is an example of what happens when you pour in the whole jar.

  18. Craig says:

    I know that when I played UO there was no botting or farming because that led to the certain death of you from a PK. PK’s pretty much evened out the botters.

    Anyway I found a great free UO shard that emulates the game back in 1998, email me if you want to play sometime craigc30@comcast.net

  19. Theory says:

    I’m also mildly astounded by someone arguing that, and then turning around and singing EVE’s praises. Not that EVE’s not an excellent game for what it does, but I’m not sure that it can be described as having much of anything, especially of a non-grinding nature, for the non-PvP player.

    Perhaps if you stay in empire space that’s true. Even there though, trading in a real economy with real people is a lot of fun.

  20. Muzman says:

    The ops on that Chinese game reminded me of the Enron traders; ever turning the screws on Californian electricity. But then I thought at least Enron were screwing with a real resource people actually need and it’s difficult for them to opt out of the system, as it were.

  21. Kieron Gillen says:

    Jim – this is far more your area than mine, but care to compare and contrast what you were telling me about the China Eve servers and this? There seems to be a mild contradiction in the generalisations about China’s gaming population. Or maybe there isn’t…

    KG

  22. Meat Circus says:

    Age of Conan has 80 levels by the way, and a similar leveling curve to WoW’s 1-60 (aka easy; casual or otherwise).

    I think the number of levels is an irrelevance, it’s how quickly you get there. I hit the level cap in Guild Wars in about two weeks of play, and I understand that Age of Conan promises something similar.

    Since WoW-heads always claim that “the game begins at 60″, it makes sense to get the levelling, if you really must have it, out of the way as quickly as possible. Unfortunately WoW doesn’t. Even after the recent XP boost, it still draws out the 35-50 doldrums for far too long. Mind you, now they’ve added a big wodge of new quests and a quest hub to Dustwallow Marsh, perhaps it won’t be as necessary to spend so much sodding time in Stranglethorn Vale.

    Which is nice.

    I mean, the Burning Crusade did try to vary the nature of WoW quests somewhat, but there’s only so much that Blizz can do within the limited mechanics of MMORPG 1.0.

    Still, I can’t wait to find out what Bioware and Blizztivision have planned for their next-gen KOTOR and Starcraft MMOs. Maybe something that’s 50% EVE, 50% Planetside would be interesting.

  23. Piratepete says:

    Unfortunately after reading the experience of Lu-Yuang in the article I think that this may already be the golden age of MMO’s. If people want to pay to be powerful in a game, I don’t think it will be long before all MMo’s adopt the model of ZT online. I mean to say just look at the money that game has brought in, its phenomenal. I think MMO’s in the future will be nothing more than cash generating schemes offering little to the player unless they open their wallet.

    Damn it I used to think MMO’s were ace but the longer I am away the more down about them I am getting. Which is a shame because after 6 months of single player gaming I realise I miss the commeradery of raiding.

  24. Jon says:

    From what I’ve heard of the China Eve server [admittedly hearsay from the hideous source of knowledge which is "they"], “they” say that most of the 0.0 areas of EVE [the most profitable areas] are under the control of an isk selling conglomerate.

    I believe this to be more CCP’s fault than anything else, the Chine Eve Server went from nothing to essentially a mirror of the normal one. This means that there was a very very large power vacum and it was filled by the people who were most prepared and most determined, which in this case were the isk farmers. But any other faction could probably have done the same job with enough people and support.

  25. Meat Circus says:

    From what I’ve heard of the China Eve server [admittedly hearsay from the hideous source of knowledge which is “they”], “they” say that most of the 0.0 areas of EVE [the most profitable areas] are under the control of an isk selling conglomerate.

    That’s interesting, if true, because it means that the correct solutions is probably something approaching the real-world one- anti-trust ‘legislation’.

    EVE needs something like a Competition Commissioner that has the power to split up corporations or alliances that control far too much of 0.0 space, or force them to divest assets or similar, just like happens in the real world.

    CCP have created a completely unregulated market, with all of the problems that entails: monopolies, duopolies, price fixing, price gouging and sundry anti-competitive behaviour. They need to move to a regulated market because real life shows that a completely unregulated market tends to destabilize itself.

    As far as I know, CCP are the first MMO dev to actually employ a full-time economist to consider these kinds of issues though. This is exactly the sort of thing he should be thinking about.

  26. AbyssUK says:

    EVE needs an unregulated market, to force wars and infighting.

  27. Meat Circus says:

    Problem is, once one conglomerate controls the majority of 0.0 space, they’ll also control enough of the supply of materials that it will become effectively impossible to mount an effective resistance against them. Once that happens, people will simply stop playing unless they’re forcibly split up or forced to divest assets.

    CCP’s challenge is to ensure it never gets to that point. They have to keep the wars flowing.

  28. Jon says:

    CCP have created a completely unregulated market

    Except they haven’t, if the market were completely unregulated then there would be no price limits and everything would be dictated by the market. However things like refining NPC bought goods and insurance on ships being tied to “base cost” means that there are prices for certain items which wont ever be reached no matter how little supply or demand there is for the item in question.

    And on the matter of the economist, I’ve never had much faith in him. He makes some damn good graphs and slideshows but hasn’t really done anything for the Eve economy, I’m not sure if he even could do anything about it, I’m not sure he holds that much power.

  29. Meat Circus says:

    He makes some damn good graphs and slideshows

    I would point out that, to an economist, that’s the very pinnacle of achievement.

  30. malkav11 says:

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but isn’t it pretty much essential to stay in empire space if you don’t want to participate in PvP in Eve (and even then, it’s not a hard guarantee)?

  31. No Picnic says:

    I’ve contemplated playing a MMO, but I’m not going to touch them. There’s too many more useful things to do with my time. Even without a MMO monkey on my back I have trouble doing said useful things.

    Heh, time for me to get offline.

  32. Meat Circus says:

    @No Picnic:

    Steer well clear of Hello Kitty: Island Adventure. It will ruin your life.

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