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Perfect World’s utopian worldbuilding in free-to-play MMOs

By on October 25, 2013

Player-killing is a tricky subject for international MMOs. In some cultures it’s a taboo practice confined to certain closed-off areas. In others it’s a free-for-all. Sometimes it’s okay to kill someone as long as you ask for permission first. Video game localisation is tricky, and lessons like these have been learned the hard way by established companies in the free-to-play space.

Chinese developer and publisher Perfect World has been working in the space for seven years, and is investing in developers in America and Europe to bring titles like Dota II and Neverwinter to Asian markets. Deputy Editor Zoya Street caught up with CEO Dr. Robert Xiao and SVP Investment Alex Xu later on to hear more about Perfect World’s goals.

Zoya: You’re doing a lot of work investing in developers in America and publishing their games in the Chinese market. How far do American games need to be adapted for the Chinese audience?

Dr. Xiao: It’s a case-by-case analysis. Many of the technologies are different, and the bandwidth costs are higher. If you design for Europe, where the bandwidth is cheap, and you don’t optimise that, then you’re not going to make money in China. Localisation is not just about content. You start with the design. Different markets have different commercial environments, as well as different content and cultural behaviour.

If someone wants to make a global game, where we add value is that we know how to be a global company, starting from the beginning. Any game can have a global audience, it’s just a question of big or small. A game in China could be a mainstream game, but it could still attract a group of people in the US with small changes. The key is to make sure that there is a portfolio of games in the US so that the user is offered not just that single game. There are mainstream US games, and these games from China. Then people are comfortable staying on your platform, you have a higher retention rate and your marketing spend is lower.

We are working to build portfolios in each market, and we are working on our expertise in free to play; how to do it in different markets. Then we can share our knowledge across the portfolio. So we don’t just offer investment, we offer three other things: go free to play, go global and then go to China.

Zoya: You said that free to play is only recently starting to grow in the US. We’ve been covering free to play at Gamesbrief for three years and we’re keen to find out what Anglophone developers can learn from companies that have been working with this model for a long time. What have American and European developers still to learn about free to play?

Dr. Xiao: I would rather say how to learn. It’s not just about listening to advice, it’s working with a partner. Like how we bought Cryptic and then sat down with them.

Nowadays, US and EU companies are more humble than before. They used to be prejudiced against Asian games and free to play, saying it’s not balanced and not a game. Now they are getting better and are learning how to position their game well and work with an Asian model.

The good way to do it is to find a partner to collaborate with on 2-3 projects. Now that [Cryptic] are putting Neverwinter and Star Trek Online in the global markets with us they are learning.

Zoya: Does the free to play model operate differently in different global territories? Do Chinese players respond differently to friction curves, for example?

Dr. Xiao: I would say it’s two things. First, the users’ psychological needs are different. In Asia people want to buy to show off. So you need to design more items for them to put big money in and show off. Stars on hats, wedding items, exclusive wedding items especially. In the West it’s about items that are meaningful to gameplay

Secondly, in Asia you can create more imbalancing situations in the gameplay. In the US people hate imbalanced games, they hate pay to win, they require much more fair gameplay. But of course you can always design around it. How do you define fair? We studied card games. If people spend $10 to have 100 different cards, $100 for 1000 cards, they have a better chance of getting the cards they want, but people are okay with that.

Alex Xu: people here [in the US] like to pay for time. They think that’s fair. Eventually, when you design a game leveraging these you can earn a lot of money from the big spenders. And here people are more cooperative. In China people are more competitive, they kill each other more, but here people like to cooperatively compete with other, use teamwork, and they tend to be a little bit more polite. In Japan it’s weird: if you want to kill somebody you have to ask for permission. In China we just have safer zones where there are no PKs.

Big whales in China are much bigger than US whales. They’ll spend several million USD on one game just to get the best cards. We have a very, very close relationship with every one of our big spenders because we have to serve them very well. A very big percentage of our revenue comes from that very small number of people so we have to serve them very well. They can pick up the phone any time and call our customer service directly. That’s very important, you know.

Non-spenders are very important too for the economic system of the game and we make sure that they are also having lots of fun in the game, everybody finds a way to make a living in this world and have fun. Big spenders are paying in the virtual world for the non-spenders to live a happy life. They earn money in the virtual world. Big spenders buy stadiums, for example, and they train soccer teams, and if you’re a soccer player you get paid for that. You fight team vs. team and entertain that audience; the big spenders love to see those games going on. So they pay for everybody, and everybody is having fun. That’s the spirit of a free-to-play game.

Zoya: What makes a game really appealing to you as a publisher?

Dr. Xiao: Good graphics, good storylines, new technology, technically advanced, and the most important thing is a collaborative team. MMOs, especially F2P MMOs on any platform, need continuous development, continuous expansion packs. The collaborativeness of a team is very important to extend the lifecycle of a game. We would like to have partners who believe in us and have a strategic view and certain level of commitment. We have had people in the past who just wanted to finish the project and move on to another one and that was not good collaboration. It’s not only about the game.

Alex Xu: The best thing is a game that builds their IP. They can keep working with that IP and the fans are looking forward to the next thing with that IP. A good team spends most of their time with one IP to make it better and better all the time, not shifting from genre to genre. Just like the Torchlight series is in our investment porfolio in Seattle. They are not a big studio but they made the Torchlight series and last year Torchlight 2 beat Diablo 2 to be the best PC RPG.

Zoya: You brought up storylines. Some people say that stories don’t belong in free to play games, because every story has an end and free to play games need to continue on indefinitely. What do you think about that?

Dr. Xiao: Stories don’t end, because life goes on. When I die my children will carry on. It’s a new chapter. Games are stories that go deeply. It’s worldbuilding. Deeper, broader, more vivid virtual worlds with stories in them are very important, especially for MMORPGs. For a simple, Temple Run type of game you don’t need a storyline, but eventually for an MMORPG to last there have to be emotions built along the line. It’s human emotion. How can you last without a storyline? There has to be a story. The deeper and more meaningful a story is the more possibility of success of the game there is.

Zoya: Where do you think the industry is going in the future? What are we going to be talking about in 2015?

Dr. Xiao: I hope I will be talking about the realisation of a multidimensional cross platform project. I will talk about a storyline in literature, comics, movies, tv series, games, mobiles games, TV games… different formats and different representations of entertainment for people to choose and be exposed to. Similar game products being played on TV, console, PC, mobile, tablets, different devices. How do we change it, what’s the difference between the users, laterally crossing platforms, vertically crossing different genres of representation of entertainment in a digital way.

I will also be talking about our success in global development, publishing and partnership. And I hope I will be able to present to you a few millionnaires who made their fortune because they got investment from Perfect World.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.