[In Gamasutra's latest China Angle column, dealing with all matters related to the vital Chinese game market, Frank Yu looks at the government's continued 'Operation for Tomorrow' crackdown, now targeting MMO game clients in internet cafes - and whether browser plugins like Flash and Shockwave, traditionally spurned by cafe users, may now point the way to the next 'console' of choice.]
The Chinese New Year did not provide an auspicious start for the Chinese gaming companies. Usually games usage dips during the week long holiday as young people from around the country spend days trying to travel back home and spend time with their family. This year saw a record snow storm crippling Southern China’s transportation system and electrical grid stranding thousands and blacking out millions during the holiday.
A Citibank report cited these events
as potential revenue hits for the gaming companies and causing a further minor sell off of game stocks in the markets. If that wasn’t bad enough another wrinkle has been developing during the holidays.
In the continuing government crackdown on the Chinese unregistered web and game platforms named “Operation For Tomorrow," the government has also now begun
to look upon game client downloads in internet cafes as being part of their domain to monitor.
Although many of these same new internet laws were drafted and released last year, this year serves as the kickoff for enforcement and prosecution. The focus on the software client of games in internet café presents a new wrinkle for Chinese game and internet companies.
Game client downloads of MMORPGs and casual games in China served as the primary connection point to most Chinese games, due to the reluctance in the past by many users to download browser plugins for games.
Internet cafes would download and update these heavy game clients overnight for their customers, freeing up the gamers to just play the game without worrying about updating to the latest patch.
For customers who did want to use the browser and download the right plugins, the internet cafes would conveniently erase the latest plugin each night and force users to re-download it again and again each day.
Where Have All The Plugins Gone?
I asked my colleagues why Chinese users have such a negative impression of browser based web apps and plugins. They replied that in the past, some local plugins were loaded with all sorts of malware and virii, and users learned to mistrust the browser based applications.
When internet cafés became responsible for updating client downloads on their machines, they provided a level of assurance that the “experts” knew what was good and bad to bring down from the net vs. the regular user.
Today attitudes are changing as security and awareness increases but the legacy of those bad old days remain. The government crackdown on the client downloads will drive some users and companies to reconsider browser based gaming again.
The Case Of Habbo
When Habbo Hotel shut down operations in China on August 2007, one of the main reasons cited was the reluctance of Chinese users to download Shockwave onto their machine -- the core plugin that enabled the browser-based virtual space to work.
At GDC 2008’s Worlds in Motion Summit, I asked the keynote speaker, Habbo lead concept designer Sulka Haro, why the Hotel was shut down in China when it has worked so well in other global locations. “There is no China. China doesn’t exist,“ was his jetlagged reply, adding “You should ask the business guys in China that question, I’m just the designer.”
Conveniently, Journi Keranen, the former business head of Habbo China and now president of iLemon in Shanghai was sitting next to me. “Yes, Shockwave was the problem at first. The servers were slow from the US and users didn’t want to download the plugin each time since the cafes would wipe it clean every day from their machines," he said.
"However," he continued, "we did manage to solve the server issue at some point with an agreement with Macromedia (developers of Shockwave, now part of Adobe) to have a customized plugin to be served locally. By then however, it was already too late and the decision to suspend operations was already in motion. However, we also had issues with headquarters on changes for localization.”
Flash The Future?
Maybe the plugin issue was really just a technological excuse for what at heart was a business issue. Chinese blogger Dimworm gave his own opinions
on the reasons as well with the plugin issue being a minor one versus the localization issues.
As the Chinese government cracks down on internet cafes and their downloads, Chinese users may again look to using plugins. The browsers Firefox and Maxthon are supposedly popular among advanced users in China due to their ability to use plugins that allow users to better find proxies around the Great Firewall of China or unblock Flickr.
Flash movies in China have become quite popular as media and presentation formats, which signals that Flash games and web apps won’t be far behind. As in the US, Flash based gaming is getting popular in China as well, especially given the size and casual nature of the demographics.
For a country where game consoles like PS2 and Xboxes are still banned, perhaps plugins will make the Internet browsers on PCs, mobile phones and music players the real game consoles of choice for gamers in China. (I’m buying an iPod Touch with the Wifi web browser while I’m in San Francisco!)
[Frank Yu is a director of strategy at eCitySky Beijing. Prior to his current position, Frank started and led the first China game team for Microsoft Casual Games. He has also served as the first Regional Business Manager in Asia for the Xbox and Home Entertainment Division. He can be reached by email at [email protected]]