World of Warcraft as China Metaphor.

China video games

When I served on a China panel at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business  last month, I met Dan Maas, who asked me for my thoughts on what had been happening to World of Warcraft in China. It took me about ten seconds to figure out Dan knew far more about what was happening on that front than I did. I was fascinated by what he was telling me and I asked him to write a post on it. What so interested me was that what was happening to World of Warcraft in China was what so often happens to smaller foreign companies in China that operate in industries in which the Chinese government would prefer not to see foreign companies. It also nicely encapsulates how China’s government employs the law to favor foreign companies. Lastly, it illustrates something my law firm’s China lawyers always tell our clients  and that is that securing approval from one governmental entity in China does not mean you are free and clear.

China generally considers online gaming to constitute publishing and foreign companies are not allowed to go into China publishing other than as a China joint venture. This means foreign companies wanting to engage in publishing in China must partner with a Chinese entity, which as the following so nicely points out, can itself create issues.

First, a bit about Dan Maas: Dan founded an Emmy Award-winning special effects company, Maas Digital, whose projects have included creating photorealistic 3D animation for the Disney IMAX documentary Roving Mars, and developing production technology for the upcoming 3D adventure film Quantum Quest, starring Samuel Jackson and William Shatner. Dan is fluent in Mandarin and he spent two years consulting for an animation studio in Taipei, Taiwan. He is currently pursuing an MBA at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and he seeks “to continue pushing the envelope of film and interactive gaming technology, particularly in Asia, after graduation”

Here is Dan’s Post:

China has become a major battleground in the online gaming market. Chinese players make up over half the customer base of the world’s most successful subscription-based online game, World of Warcraft (WoW) by US developer Blizzard Entertainment, which alone pulls in over $1 billion in annual revenue. WoW faces fierce competition in China from locally-developed games such as Kingsoft’s JX Online series and other imported titles like Aion Online from Korean developer NCSoft.

China is a uniquely challenging market for foreign online game companies because government regulations require foreign games to be licensed through local Chinese operators, rather than offered directly by the developer. Friction between government regulators, overseas developers, and Chinese licensees can have a huge impact on the competitive landscape. For example, Blizzard suffered a harsh setback last year when WoW was knocked off-line for several months amidst a license dispute and unexpected regulatory shifts.

Blizzard had successfully brought WoW into the Chinese market in 2005 through a license agreement with local game developer The9. The relationship turned sour last summer when negotiations to renew the license bogged down in a dispute over division of profits. Blizzard ultimately decided to terminate The9’s license and shift WoW’s China operations to another local company, NetEase. (The9 responded acrimoniously, filing suit against Blizzard and announcing development of its own sword-and-sorcery game called “World of Fight”). WoW was knocked off-line for over three months during the transition, leaving a gigantic vacuum in the market which competitors rushed to fill.

Kingsoft, Shanda, and other gaming companies stepped up promotional efforts to lure former WoW players to their own games. Blizzard previously had the upper hand in China thanks to its comparatively ample resources and high production values — but for the moment, it was knocked out of contention.

The story got even more interesting in fall of 2009 as NetEase was just about to re-open WoW to Chinese gamers. The Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) unexpectedly announced new regulatory powers over on-line gaming in China, and put NetEase on notice that WoW had not received permission to operate there. This came as a surprise given that WoW had already been approved by China’s Ministry of Culture, and the GAPP had not previously asserted authority over on-line games.

Some observers speculated that GAPP was engaging in bureaucratic posturing against the Ministry of Culture to stake out regulatory turf over the increasingly lucrative on-line game market. But the timing of the GAPP’s announcement was particularly advantageous for Chinese game companies, since it disrupted the re-entry of foreign juggernaut WoW into China. NetEase and Blizzard were forced to stop accepting new game subscriptions for several additional months while they fought to resolve the GAPP’s complaint (an effort further delayed by The9’s ongoing legal action).

The crisis was finally resolved and WoW fully re-opened by early 2010, but the damage had already been done. NetEase and Blizzard had been unable to accept new subscribers for seven months, an eternity in the fast-moving game industry. Local competitors had made inroads against the foreign entrant’s market share.

The conflict rages on, as U.S. and Korean developers bring more game development experience and higher production budgets to China, but must contend with royalty sharing and an unclear regulatory atmosphere. At the same time, Chinese game companies can bank on their better understanding of the local market, and practical advantages like smoother payment systems and looser regulatory oversight. Will local competitors be able to match the success of games like WoW, and perhaps even export their titles successfully to Western markets?

Whatever the outcome, it will be a fascinating contest to watch.

For more on the World of Warcraft in China story, check Warcraft row: An industry game-changer in China.

11 responses to “World of Warcraft as China Metaphor.”

  1. Do you believe there will ever be a chance for the government to restructure itself to avoid this kind of mess?

  2. This is perhaps a bit of a reach but…
    I think we are just lately beginning to see a turn in China back towards isolationism. The Chinese are interested in foreign business only in such that they can acquire its innovations and remake them through a domestic Chinese company. It will not openly ban foreign businesses to operate in China but it can go through lots of cloak-and-dagger to block foreigners from operating within its country. Anti-competitive regulations and internet censorship are just the newest flavor the government uses to favor domestic businesses over foreigners, back in the day they used JV’s to promote the same ideals.
    I would never suggest that China completely closes itself off to the outside world, its economy too direly depends upon exports to stay afloat. However instead of using its export revenues to import overseas goods, it seems more interested in copying technology, blocking the foreign innovator from the Chinese market behind some nonsense regulation, and then creating a Chinese version of all of those overseas goods. As for what the Chinese would then do with all of its foreign currency revenue, I suspect they would use this to purchase more foreign commodities such as oil and farmland, or they could even use this money to purchase foreign businesses.
    I know that this post is pretty “out there” and sounds quite “tinfoil hat” but I would not be surprised in 10 years to find that China is a lot more closed off than it is today. I think that at the heart of hearts the Chinese government has little interest in fairly allowing foreigners to operate within their country, they have always purely just needed our technology to support their own domestic business.

  3. Spot on, lucane. What’s puzzling is that so many Americans don’t realize they (and we) are all getting fleeced. Like turkeys before Thanksgiving. Or sheep before slaughter. Err, I’m getting my animals mixed up.

  4. Interesting post, thanks.
    One slight correction. GAPP was actually the primary regulator for online games several years. The Ministry of Culture apparently gained more power in 2009, emerging as a victor in a bureaucratic struggle. But GAPP did not back down and in fact was able to reassert a key regulatory role, as evidenced by their role in the approval of WOW recently. The article linked to at the end should provide a decent history of the industry regulation.
    Re the WOW regulatory travails, if you have not done so I highly recommend checking out this video created by Chinese WOW players:

  5. Good article and must say I see the same situation here. I am a foreign investor in a JV online entertainment business and we are in the process of license renewal. It seems that the license process totally changed and the Government bodies and policies have also changed. This has resulted in the original scope of licenses no longer valid to operate and off bounds !!!!.
    This leads to fact that some indeed are more equal than others. I agree that the watch, learn and replicate approach is prevalent with the most ‘tasty’ and lucrative business and models being given to the home grown company variants. This can clearly be seen in the written article with license approval and durations – to quick step the process one needs intensive ‘Guanxi’ and backdoor access. Whatever ‘open’ means should be subject to the restrictions / privilege ( not !!) of being a foreigner.
    Just my two cents from what I am seeing. In the past business was more open based on competition with a guangxi flavor… The pendulum now swings in the favor of local business with the necessary connections !!!!
    Best of luck

  6. recently there’s an issue on banning WOW in china and every player is caught their attention if the Ministry will lift it or not and gladly to say the banned was lift. And now you have this opinion a very interesting one.. I rarely read some WOW news since I pay more attention on playing but thanks to you now I’m little bit informed on what happen in outside world.

  7. Nah, the best Chinese metaphor so far is the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing.
    As for WoW, it’s just proverbial.

  8. I suspect that the Chinese bureaucrats may have been thinking about this for quite a while now.
    Perhaps even just trying to copy World Of Warcraft and make a Chinese only version of the game (if that hasn’t happened already)
    Why hand over Blizzard millions each year, when they could just as easily develop their own versions? There hasn’t been much happening anyway for the past 12 months.
    I could easily imagine the Chinese bureaucrats just banning WOW completely, since it’s just one huge bottomless money pit.

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