Multiplayer online games were a thriving industry in Asia before the idea of virtual worlds had ever taken widespread root here in the U.S, and they have years of experience on us in the microtransactions arena.
With the aim of examining what we can learn from the Asian market, a panel at the 2007 Virtual Worlds Conference brought together Metabirds CEO Naoyoshi Shimaya, Agency of Change international coordinator Yuki Saeki, virtual worlds writer Wagner James Au, and Jeffrey Pope, who is the senior manager for the Far East region for Sun's Project Darkstar. The Centric Agency of Change's International Strategies director Ken Brady moderated the discussion.
"The sheer size of the Asian market has everyone standing up and paying attention... Arguably they will drive the most innovation," Brady began. He asked the panel what's worked in Asian virtual worlds -- and what has failed?
"It's hard to track failures," Pope replied, citing the newness of virtual worlds in Japan. For eample, MySpace in Japan has nowhere near the userbase it enjoys in the West. "But I just don’t see virtual worlds failing this early," he added. "There has to be a market, and people need to test the waters, so to speak."
Shimaya noted that, since his company works mostly with other Japanese companies, he doesn't have the opportunity to see the cultural differences in such a clear way. Sometimes, when doing work in Second Life, he’s worried about the different tendencies specific to the Japanese audience, and has to consider the difference in communities, and even the differences in individuals. The accumulation of those personal differences is what makes a culture, he says.
"Second Life hasn’t been so prevalent in Asia yet," Saeki said. "Like Jeff said, it’s still in the early stage, so you can’t say it’s failed.” A virtual world can itself be considered a different nation, so there can be difficulty communicating with a community in a virtual world even if you speak the same language, Saeki added. “You have to know what kind of needs they have in virtual worlds.”
Lost In Translation
"You get to see how cultures are different based on how they play," adds Au. He recalled the addition of Richard Garriott as Lord British in the Americanized version of the Asian MMORPG Lineage
. "And they released it, and nothing happened. It had, like, 10,000 subscribers.” The conclusion was that this was due to simply different gameplay. In Lineage
, the game was based around a blood pledge. It was a more collective gameplay, and it just seemed to rub Americans the same way, Au explained.
was another of Au's examples; some 90 percent of users under 30 have an account in South Korea -- and yet it didn't take off in the U.S. or Japan. Au also said the Japanese enjoy Second Life, but the South Koreans don’t really seem to. "The retention rate of Second Life [in the West] is about 1 in 10," Au says. in Japan, though, it’s about 1/3rd..
Brady noted that the fact that Second Life hasn't received much coverage in the Korean press, as opposed to the coverage it's gotten in Japan, might be a factor. "We’re playing in the same spaces, but not the same page," he said. Is there really one Asia?
"Being in business development for a while, one of the most common mistakes businesses do is they come up with a model and it works in Canada, it works in the U.K, so they just use it in Japan, and it never works." Pope said, saying these businesses don’t examine the Japanese mentality.
According to Shimaya, "Asia" is only one way of categorizing the region. The Japanese, Thai and Korean markets, for example, are also separate. Stressing that it's important to understand the needs of the individual market chosen, he suggests partnering with companies already based in those regions.
"I think you can categorize that region as Asian... Since I’m half Taiwanese and half Japanese, I sometimes am Japanese and sometimes Taiwanese,” countered Saeki, adding that in the future, differences will be more individual, though there will still be cultural differences. Saeki pointed out that the widespread "Mac versus PC" ads failed in Japan, because the Japanese don't respond well to a company attacking another company in advertising.
Innovation And Refinement
"Innovation is the key to avoiding stagnation," Brady pointed out, and asked the panel what they identify as the key innovations coming from Asia right now.
"For every virtual world being produced that we hear about, there’s probably three or four we haven’t heard about,” Pope said, noting that he just learned of a virtual world being developed in India. "Some of the technology coming out of Asia... there’s a lot of creativity coming out of the smaller companies, in what they create for second life. [It’s] more artistic, creative things."
Shimaya said that people need to understand that there are ongoing innovations going on that aren't being done in just one country. To make the best use of tech, people need to pay attention to research going on worldwide, he advised.
"What Asian people are really good at is copying from something else and making it more sophisticated and refined," Saeki pointed out. "It may not be innovative, but the quality is of such high quality that people call it innovative."
Au added that the Japanese industry is jumping into metaverses more enthusiastically that the West, recalling Japanese game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi was recently hired to create a virtual Tokyo and highlighting Japanese game companies as the ones to watch, and that tech work being outsourced to Asia is inevitable.