Asia gaming takes center stage

Ready to make the leap to Asia? "Know the ropes and partner wisely," says conference session panel.

E3 kicked off its three-day Conference Program yesterday with a distinct international bent, featuring, among other sessions, a panel entitled “Focus On Asia.”

Moderated by Enorbus CEO and cofounder Norbert Chang, four leading industry players offered their thoughts on a variety of issues facing online and mobile gaming in Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea. Panelists first addressed game content and later spoke about business and distribution strategies.

“We are very selective for the titles we operate,” began Tao Sun, Vice President of the9.com, an online gaming portal that will operate Blizzard’s upcoming World of Warcraft in China. Sun explained that the9.com only considers games that have the potential to become number one- or number two-ranking titles in their niche. In addition, Sun stressed the importance of impression and motivation in online games. “On a first look, you’re impressed,” Sun observed of successful titles, continuing, “When you click the mouse, you get motivated to explore [and] play the game.”

"I think in Asia, the gamer doesn’t like the hacking-and-slashing game. They prefer a shorter learning curve,” stated William Chen, Chief Operations Officer for Gamania, which publishes massively multiplayer online games Lineage and EverQuest in Taiwan and China. Chen argued that Asian players tend to prefer social aspects, such as item-trading. Chen also proposed that Asian players demand simple user interfaces, explaining, “If the game gets too complicated, [players] start to get frustrated.” However, Chen added that given the similarity of current titles, now is the time to experiment with different content models.

Chen also singled out “cute,” cel-shaded online games as an emerging trend in Asia. Citing his own company’s title, Seal Online, Chen suggested the untapped appeal of these “cute games” in the face of the fantasy adventure norm. In particular, Chen drew attention to the success of both cute and casual games in attracting female gamers. Sun echoed this sentiment, arguing that females are “very important for the game community formation.”

In terms of general business strategies, all four panelists seemed focused exclusively on Asian markets--at least in terms of online games. “Our focus right now is Asia,” Chen stated, although he admitted to the possibility of expansion in the future. Sun likewise admitted, “US and Europe are not our current focus.” As Sqaure Enix Vice President Keiji Honda shrewdly pointed out, “China’s market is getting bigger and bigger.”

The question of distribution method was repeatedly addressed, and no panelist had one simple answer. Robert Song, Chief Operating Officer of Mobile Games Korea, explained that in Korea there are two distribution methods for mobile games--through third-party downloads and through the carriers directly. Song estimated that 10 times more revenue is made from the carrier side.

Chen detailed both the online and offline distribution of online games and especially focused on Internet cafes. “Internet cafes… are actually a very important connecting point between you and the game,” Chen remarked. Sun agreed that Internet cafes are “very important,” observing that half of Asian online game players play from cafes. And although middlemen take a chunk of revenue, Sun also pointed out that cafes market the products in the process.

Speakers also addressed the problem of hacking in online games. Sun commented that hacking is a serious problem in China, since “cheating tools can affect the game balance.” Tellingly, Sun was only half-kidding when he shared the industry saying, “To operate online games in China is to play an online game.” Chen even went so far as to assert that “There is no way you can stop hacking.” and instead proposed that online gaming companies aim to resolve hacking events within 24 hours. Honda, however, seemed unphased by the problem of hacking in Japan, remarking of massively multiplayer online game Final Fantasy XI, “At this point, we have no problems.”

Another concern that speakers discussed was massively multiplayer online game life cycles. Sun reported that in Asia, massively multiplayer games have long life cycles of three to six years. Chen seemed more hesitant, stating that it’s still too soon to estimate the life span of popular titles. However, Chen did point out that “bad” online games last less than a year. Speaking for mobile games, Song noted that Korean mobile-game life cycles average about seven months.

At the end of the session, the four panelists were prompted by Chang to offer tips for American titles entering Asian markets. Chen warned, “Localization isn’t necessarily enough,” arguing that translators often lack a solid gaming background. Instead, Chen suggested that American companies need to work with local experts in assessing deeper issues, such as the appeal of the user interface. Sun expressed a similar sentiment, stating that American ports needs to be “developed for the Asian market” and not simply exported. Song, too, advised caution, remarking, “Don’t come to the Korean market by yourself… Find good partner companies and carriers to localize your games.”

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