Of China's 60 million netizens, 40.5 percent are regular visitors to 5,292 online game websites.
Good and bad
Early in April 2002, The Legend of Mir II, imported from the Republic of Korea by Shanghai Shanda Ltd, attracted 250,000 simultaneous users and became the world's most popular online game.
In a report published earlier this year the State Press and Publication Administration confirmed that in 2003 online games earned the domestic market 1.32 billion yuan, an amount likely to increase to 6.7 billion yuan by 2007. This is good news for game operators as it confirms that China's online game industry is the year 2004's most attractive investment proposition.
Potential profits are always a happy prospect, but they come at a price. In China, as everywhere, compulsive obsessives are attracted to online games like moths to a flame. On March 6, 2004, a 31-year old Legend of Mir II addict literally dropped dead after playing the game non-stop for 20 hours in a Chengdu Internet café. Soon after this tragedy, a Shanghai online game player suffered serious burns on an attempted self-immolation after the Shanda Customer Service Department expropriated his virtual equipment for The Legend of Mir II that he had bought from other players for 10,000 yuan. Then on April 11 the first case of online virtual currency fraud, to the tune of 15,000 yuan, was exposed by Dalian police.
A phenomenon of online game dimensions is bound to have its downside. Whether or not it can be minimized remains to be seen, but a look at the history of cyber games in China gives some idea of its future as a mainstream leisure activity.
Online games came to China at the start of the 1990s when MUD (Multiple User Dimension) scored a hit with China's earliest netizens. They emerged from college and university computer laboratories and were mostly adapted from foreign MUDs.
The year 2000 was the beginning of a golden age of cyber games in China, with hugely popular games like King of Kings, SG (The Three Kingdoms) Online, and Xiao Ao Jiang Hu's Jing Zhong Bao Guo. In 2001, Ourgame.com, a company that started out with elementary games like Chinese Chess and Go, became the world's biggest online game website when it chalked up 20 million subscribers and a record 170,000 simultaneous users. Today, ourgame.com has 130 million subscribers and has scored in excess of 580,000 simultaneous players. An influx of Korean online games had huge impact on the Chinese market with the famous Legend of Mir II, regarded as second-rate in its motherland but the most popular online game ever in China.
Then, in 2002 RPG (Role Playing Games) became the mainstream, accounting for 75.7 percent of all online games played in China. Netease's Da Hua Xi You Online, Shanda's Legend of Mir II and Ninth City's MU were all smash hits. Korean games topped the market, followed by those made in China, Taiwan and Japan. That year the online game market showed a 213.8 percent increase.
The trend continued in 2003, but there were ructions in the online gaming sector. The Korean owners of The Legend of Mir II terminated their cooperation with Shanda and lawsuits were raised in protest at the money making machinations of online game companies, making the legal rights of cyber players a hot topic. This was also the year that the government began to pay more attention to the online game industry and to support domestically produced games. All in all, there were more games giving raise to fiercer competition, more money, and ever more losers.
Two hard nuts to crack
* Cheat programs
"You can't possibly play without a cheat program", says Ms Yu, a relative newcomer to online games, "Everyone knows that."
It's true that practically every online game player in China cheats. There are all kinds of these euphemistically termed auxiliary routines. Most simulate a working computer keyboard and mouse and help players ascend into the virtual world faster and more easily.
Cheat programs are the main source of conflict between online consumers and companies. They save the former money and deprive the latter of optimum profit, and are the subject of discussion on almost every game website. Although disdained by players looking for a fair game, anyone not using them is bound to lose (games) because everyone else does. They are the bugbear of game companies, because in shortening the time it takes to learn and play a game, these so-called auxiliary routines bleed online company profits.
* Private servers
Private servers were also born out of player discontent with the boring, repetitive exercises incorporated into online games purely as a money spinning tactics. They emerged through players that had abandoned official websites build a virtual world of their own. But the growing number of users has tainted the originality of private servers. They set up shop-soiled servers using pirated games and solicit customers through adlets. Most are now paid websites that share the market with official game servers and make even more money, taking into account the rate of returns. There are calls to combat and destroy private servers, while certain online companies demand that they be commercialized. Private servers are generally acknowledged as a serious problem in today's online game market.
Cheat programs and private servers bring some benefits to players, and to some extent express customer dissatisfaction with game companies. But they also make clear the chaotic state of the market and absence of regulatory laws. More serious, the illegal trade engendered by this chaos appears to have the tacit approval of the masses.
Enjoyable all the same
As far as online gamers are concerned, cheat programs and private servers are the responsibility of the government, legislature and market. They meanwhile continue to play away in their beloved virtual world.
"What people ultimately seek and find in games is a sense of achievement unattainable in real life," says A-Du, a 23-year-old Beijing game lover, adding "They also experience joy in the exquisite imagery, symphonic music and thrill of creating fantasy." He is a video and computer game aficionado of 10 years' standing.
"People find true love in the virtual world of online games," writes one Dragon Raja player in an article in which he goes on to describe how the game brought him four romances, the last of which he will remember for the rest of his life. To people like him, online games are played for far more than just fun.
Anyway, Online games are the means to enter a world that seems entirely real, but is actually a complete escape from reality.
(China Today, May 30, 2004)