TWO COMMUNITIES, ONE GAME
I had a recent discussion with an Asian game developer about the differences between game industries in various parts of the world, specifically related to Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). With such an important topic put on the table I thought I’d expand upon our initial discussion and lay out my views on what I’ve seen in the industry between the Asian and Western markets. While I have only been in Asia for a year (so far), I have managed to see some interesting differences as well as similarities.
At first glance many of you might conclude that since World of Warcraft is a world-wide phenomenon game industries are more similar than different. In some cases this is true, especially when it comes to the technical components of a game. Where the industries differ most is in their communities, how group members form relationships with each other, as well as how they view the games they play. Gameplay itself often has many unique qualities between the two markets.
Both industries are strong and growing at ever astonishing paces, especially the Asian market through their vast array of MMOGs. With Western games like World of Warcraft, we begin to see these two communities merge together as one. To better understand these differences let’s explore where they began as one, the key differences that make them unique, and touch upon what makes them ultimately a community of “one”.
Game studios in most parts of Asia, even the Korean market, are relatively new compared to Western and Japanese markets. One of the interesting trends I’ve noticed in not only games but in other entertainment products is the world-wide imitation of what the west already has to offer, mainly due to its maturity and past successes. Even the Western industry itself continually recycles its own works between development studios. I think this is a good thing overall, as long as there is fresh innovation to back up what was originally used.
However, often enough you will find Asian games that are extremely unique in their gameplay, such as Lineage from NCSoft or Conquer Online from TQ Digital. Western games often involve a rich storyline, a variety of objectives, with often hours involved in completing objectives in order to obtain an item that will directly impact your character’s progress. In the Asian market the pace is a lot quicker. Most games will reward you soon or immediately after accomplishing a simple task. Items are often reused and upgraded in various ways throughout your character’s progression. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in a more static game between the various levels, with little differences from beginners to elite characters.
This is not to say that Asian games are without their worth in advancing your character's abilities. High level rewards are certainly available, and to help compensate for the weaker story-lines and more detailed objectives, you will find many interesting features in Asian MMOGs, such as more sociable elements as marriage and bounty systems. Be cautious though when picking up a copy of an Asian game, as you may find more "feminine" attributes than most Western MMOGs contain. This is partly due to the increase in Asian females playing MMOGs, as well as their basic cultural qualities.
Where both worlds meet is at the intersection of graphics, the visual component of gameplay. For any game market you will find dull and boring games that have amazing graphics that run perfectly well on two year old game systems, while at the same time you will find content rich games that keep you entertained for hours on end, but provide a limited graphic experience that still seems to slow down your system no matter what components you upgrade.
This seemingly chaotic and unpredictable environment is not the fault of the games or the components in your system, but instead of the programmers, artists, and other team members that build the games. Programmers must provide the tools and abilities the designers use to place objects the artists help to create. Sometimes the art will look more realistic but the lighting, shadow effects, and shaders that programmers add into the game engine are three years out-of-date. Often times the programmers are pure geniuses in adding all sorts of features into the game engine; unfortunately the artists and designers are inexperienced and ruin any potential to exploit those features. You have these strong and weak designers in both the Asian and Western studios.
Perhaps one of the more surprising assets the Asian game industry has is its community. Westerners reading this might object to my statement because they value their seemingly rich guild societies and intensive forum posting contributions. Asians on the outside are much more introverted than westerners are, but when it comes to communicating in a virtual environment you will find that they open themselves up to each other in ways I have never seen in any western community. They stick much closer to the friends and community members they know, ultimately building stronger bonds in the process than westerners can because westerners tend to migrate from one guild to another and from one game to another.
I mentioned the difference in game design earlier and how western MMOGs tend to offer a more detailed and diverse gameplay experience. This isn’t to say that all Asian games are simple grind fests, but many tend to focus on this repetitive aspect of gameplay more than I would personally care to see in an MMOG. However, one of the reasons I think that there is more of a sense of community around these Asian games is because of this simpler gameplay style. The game forces the user to establish bonds with other users in order to make it a more fulfilling experience. While this may seem counter-intuitive to Western MMOG design theories, Asian players enjoy this simple experience and the stronger bonds they develop with their fellow players.
What are the demographics of these Asian players anyway? In walking through some of the developer’s studios in Shanghai a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a significant portion of the team consisting of females, whereas in the western industry you will sometimes find it difficult to find even a single female amongst a team of twenty or more developers. This also holds true to the communities that play the games, where Asian females are in a much higher percentage, and even in some cases more than fifty percent of a game’s population, than those in western markets. There is also a larger percentage of younger players in the Asian market, partly due to the markets infancy.
Game companies in Asian will tend to market the contents of a game rather than the actual gameplay itself. For example, Lineage II is often displayed with features that highlight the weapons, armor, crafting, and housing components. These are material based systems, not ones that westerners tend to focus on, such as describing the combat system, how transportation works, level and skill potential, and how magic and other effects are exciting to use. These two differences are beginning to merge together with international games like World of Warcraft.
Susan Choe and Nick Foster of “Outspark” secured $11 million in USD funding to develop MMOGs currently based in Asian find a successful place in the Western market. One of their main focuses is looking for games that everyone can play, not just the hard-core groups. They also recognize that the developers themselves must also be open to the Asian/Western relationship and the market potential. MMOGs are not static like many games, so there must remain a continual relationship between all parties for the development and localization of the games, if they are to be successful.
The most difficult challenges in creating a world market of games and establishing a firm localization foundation is understanding not just the player attitudes in various regions, but also in understanding the technological, economical, and sociological limits that those regions are constrained by. For example, China is still a developing country and most of its citizens cannot afford a pay-per-month subscription fee, or the latest computers to run games like Age of Conan, a DirectX 10 capable game.
One of the unique ways that the Asian game industry has adjusted to the limitations of system requirements is not to develop graphic intensive 3D environments, but to keep them in a 2D based environment. This keeps system requirements in check, as well as providing unique and interesting styles of gameplay that would otherwise be impractical in a 3D world. You only need to play games like Conquer Online to understand the differences, and is just one component among many that need to be adjusted if localization efforts are to be successful.
A FUTURE OUTLOOK
Both of these game industries have a lot to learn from each other, as they both have numerous benefits and drawbacks. Western industries could learn to better integrate their community tools and services more directly into their games, as well as exploring ways to make grinding less of a burden on the single individual by incorporating more group style solutions. Asian companies will learn that storyline and more in-depth gameplay contents for all character levels can make an intriguing and long-term gameplay experience that will keep the player interested even after they reach the maximum level for their characters.
One thing is for certain, and that is the game market is going global at an ever faster pace. We will continue to see Asian games marketed in Western countries, and Western games marketed in Asian countries (and elsewhere). This means for the foreseeable future we will need more knowledgeable industry members to understand and work with the publishers, developers, and communities to make the games as successful as games like World of Warcraft have managed to become.