Chinese games companies have seen great success with free-to-play online games. But their success in the U.S. has been limited, due in no small part to differences in the tastes of gamers.
The Asian art styles of fantasy role-playing games have great appeal in Asia, but not so much here. Still, the Chinese have plenty of money in the bank, and the latest company to try to crack the U.S. market is ChangYou.com, which is launching the closed beta test today for its flagship game, Zentia.
Zentia, which was developed by Pixel Soft for ChangYou, looks pretty Anime-like with its comic-book style 3D art. ChangYou has already launched a couple of online role-playing games in the U.S., and they’re doing moderately well, with users in the tens of thousands. But this game is different because it has a sense of humor, says Susan Revelt, a former Electronic Arts game veteran who is senior producer of the game in the U.S.
There are funny characters and silly jokes about what happens in the back seats of cars. And Zentia doesn’t have as much of the tedious “grinding,” or repetitive game play whose sole purpose is to “level up” a character in order to access better features in the game. While Chinese gamers love grinding, Americans don’t like it, Revelt says. And this game is much more social, requiring the entire community to work together to unlock higher levels. The game has collectible pets and flying creatures that can carry as many as 10 players into battle.
It will be interesting to see how Zentia does, given the considerable amount of competition from games such as Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, which has 11 million paying subscribers, Nexon’s free-to-play Maplestory, which has more than 112 million registered players, and Sony Online Entertainment’s Free Realms, with 12 million registered users. In China, ChangYou’s big hit is Tian Long Ba Bu, or Dragon Oath, which has been in the top ten massively multiplayer online games since its launch in 2007, according to Niko Partners analyst Lisa Cosmas Hanson. All of ChangYou’s games so far delve into the mythical history of China.
Revelt is part of a 50-person publishing team that ChangYou has established in Santa Clara, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. That team takes titles from its Asian parent company or commissions titles from developers and launches them in the U.S. Another Chinese online game company, Perfect World, has also established a publishing division in California (Redwood City) that is taking online games from China and adapting them for the U.S. Other big Chinese game makers include Giant Interactive, Shanda Games, The9, Tencent and NetEase.com. All of those players are reaping profits in China, where online game revenues are expected to hit $4.5 billion in 2010, according to Niko Partners.
Those companies have all shown that they understand how to launch free-to-play games and to make money from them by getting users to pay real money for virtual goods such as better weapons. As such, they will likely be the big rivals on a global stage for U.S. game companies such as Zynga, Playdom, and Electronic Arts’ Playfish. In attempts to go global, the Chinese are coming to the U.S. Shanda, for instance, paid $80 million to buy Flash game ad platform company Mochi Media.
In that way, the expansion of the Chinese is not so different from the outposts of Japanese, French, German and Korean video game companies that have set up in the U.S., with limited degrees of success. But ChangYou.com shouldn’t be underestimated. ChangYou started as a division of China’s internet portal Sohu.com in 2003. It spun out as a public company in China in 2007 and went public in the spring of 2009 on Nasdaq. That has given ChangYou a huge amount of capital to finance its domestic Chinese games and its international expansion. Check out the trailer for Zentia below.