Live action role-playing games take Chinese market by storm, attracting young players, scriptwriters and entrepreneurs

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A live action role-playing game allows the audience to immerse themselves in an imaginary world. [Photo/CNS]

Imagine someone committed a heinous murder, and the murderer is among you! Who can you trust? Especially since everybody is keeping secrets... After seven hours, 21-year-old Li Xiang is still playing a private detective's role, trying to uncover this mystery. Despite his fatigue, nothing is more exciting than a murder mystery game session for this Agatha Christie fan. "I feel like I'm embarking on an extraordinary adventure. It gives me an escape from my busy university life. The feeling is similar to watching a horror movie, but the experience is more vivid."

Live action role-playing games (LARP), adapted from the Murder & Mystery Party popular in Western countries, is regarded as a form of interactive literature or theater because of the participation of the audience. Since its introduction in China in 2012, this immersive game has been gaining popularity in the country, especially among the younger generation.

The game's popularity further soared following the launch of the reality TV show Who's the Murderer in 2016 in China. With its first episode being watched by 300,000 viewers, the show raised the recognition of LARP among the general public.

In the same vein, puzzle-solving applications such as Wo Shi Mi were developed and have grown steadily in popularity. At the height of the COVID-19 epidemic, it became one of the most popular App Store applications. With the easing of health restrictions in China, LARP studios experienced dramatic growth in their business. By September 2020, they had grown to 20,000 across the country, with more than 50 million players in total.

An avenue for socialization

According to surveys, the average age of participants in LARP is around 20. In addition to being able to play characters like Sherlock Holmes, players also have the opportunity to discover his story in just a few hours, helping them escape the monotony of everyday life, as is the case with Li.

For a growing number of gamers, role-playing is as much a form of entertainment as a means of socialization. Thanks to the close interaction they have during the four to seven hours of a session, the players (usually five to eight per team) eventually bond with each other. Afterward, the post-game outing keeps this momentum going. Therefore, live action role-playing is an entertaining and fast way to make new friends and even bond as a team, as Yuan Zheng, a human resources manager, testifies.

In his view, organizing a live action role-playing game is the best way of integrating new employees into a workplace. "During the accusation stage, everyone has to speak up and make their case while listening to each other's analysis. In this way, people's personalities and methods of communication gradually reveal themselves as the game unfolds. One session is all that is needed to find common ground for the whole team."

Fan Zhou, dean of the Research Institute of Cultural Development of the Communication University of China, summarizes how this success was achieved. According to him, compared to traditional board games such as Loup-Garou or Carcassonne, live action role-playing games stand out for their immersive experience, supported by the scenario, the decor, the props, and the costumes and make-up. "This fulfills young people's desire to have new experiences and socialize."

Committed scriptwriters

These scenarios are not meant to be repeated for the participants. To maintain the customers' loyalty and curiosity, constant updating is necessary, and the rapid growth of the sector is encouraging scriptwriters to be actively engaged in the games' creation.

Zhou Haohui, a crime-fiction author, recently turned to writing role-playing scenarios. Role-playing differs from traditional literary production, where the scenes of characters are different according to the roles they play in the story. But when it comes to role-playing games, the screenwriter has to balance each character's weight so that players can all equally enjoy the session. Zhou has no problem with this requirement, which he views as a challenge that he tackles with determination.

Moreover, the possibility for writers to access the players' comments at any time allows them to regularly adjust their work, unlike film or literary narratives that cannot be changed once they are finished.

Some screenwriters go even further, like Li Wenhua. For this former relic restorer, the popularity of live action role-playing games allows him to bring historical works of art back to life. "Our work isn't just about restoring relics. I wanted to find a way to make the stories and mysteries behind them more widely known," he said, convinced that role-playing is the answer to his aspirations.

To this end, he created his own team, involved in all stages of production, from scriptwriting to the management of LARP studios. Through his story Restorers, in which the Forbidden City serves as a backdrop, players have the chance to experience the profession of restorer and gain knowledge about relics. Thanks to this accomplishment, he achieved his goal of "making works of art speak."

A profitable sector

According to data from the Meituan Research Institute, the LARP sector's value exceeded 10 billion yuan ($1.55 billion) in 2019, twice as much as in 2018. Some devotees don't hesitate to spend as much as 3,000 yuan ($464.7) per month. Encouraged by this trend, entrepreneurs are scrambling to enter the market. Chen Zizheng, general manager of the LARP studio Dieying in Guangzhou, Guangdong province in south China, is one of them. "When we started our operations in 2017, there were fewer than five studios in Guangzhou; today, the number has reached between 230 and 240," he said.

"But the sector is not as profitable as it seems," he explained. According to him, the commercial life of a role-playing scenario lasts only two or three months. Each month, they have to budget 10,000 to 15,000 yuan ($1,549 to $2,323.5) to acquire new ones. Besides, each session lasts between four and seven hours, so they can only run a maximum of three sessions a day. To increase their turnover, they would have to expand the studio or increase the number of venues, which would inevitably increase the company's overhead expenses such as rental, maintenance and inventory.

Only time will tell whether LARP is an industry with a promising future or just a fleeting craze in this age of endless entertainment. 

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