A Stepan Zotov | 4 July 2012
Stepan Zotov

Caught in the Middle: Russian Online Games Between the Eastern and the Western Concepts

According to Cartagena Capital report global online games market is expected to reach $13.7 billion in terms of revenue by 2013 and the largest part of this multilayer cake would go to the USA with its share of 40%. Meanwhile the yStats.com analysts claim that along with the US the most fast growing regions in 2011 were the BRIC and the Eastern Europe states. Thus, for instance, Polish online games market increased by 20% and for Russia this indicator stood at nearly 80%. 

Behind these bare figures lies a whole-scale sociocultural and economical diffusion between the East and the West. Because just a few years ago online games were firmly associated with some kind of life-style entertainment for South Korean, Chinese and Japanese weirdoes. Now it’s bright clear that being a product of high cultural significance MMO games are not only about technologies. You can easily distinct those represented by Asian developers from western MMO titles due to their rather differing visual design, gameplay etc. 
But under conditions of soaring worldwide user interest to online games companies have an urging need of becoming global and therein inevitably run across cultural specific hindrances in both business and game development subjects. Perhaps this article should have started with the quote from Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” but online games market is no place for the writer’s pessimism because here we can sometimes see interethnic issues resolved. 

Everybody’ Art 

It takes hardly a blink of an eye to recognize what kind of an MMO game you are dealing with — mostly due to an in-game art and visual design. In spite of mutual tendency of western games to easternize and eastern games to westernize it’s still possible to pry through the veil of visual stylization and see the title’s origin. 

And there is nothing wrong about that: the global standards of fuzzy visual art are not meant to entirely deprive the game of its national identity. The goal actually is to shift the “threshold of cultural rejection” as far as it is possible.
For example, Blizzard had to reconsider the design of the Undead fraction in the Chinese version of World of Warcraft. Although this game was originally intended for global distribution — you can see that warrior characters are more western-looking while all the mages and sorcerers bear a noticeable eastern touch. At the same time most up-to-date Korean and Chinese MMOs (Karos Online, TERA, Guild Wars 2) have nothing strictly eastern about them — there you can see Asian artists’ vision of western folklore. The pure blended games remain niche products both in East (9Dragons) and West (Warhammer Online). 

Business Behind the Game 

Talking of business behind the game, it is necessary to consider at least two aspects — in-game economy and actually running the project in multiple countries. Initially eastern and western games utilized absolutely different business models.
Today subscription more common for western developers significantly cedes to free-to-play monetization strategies. Even the games originally set up on the basis of subscription scheme often adapt to F2P and it turns out to be worth the risk.

Few months ago Sony Online Entertainment reported that after making EverQuest 2 free-to-play in-game items sells raised by more than 200% and it was a breath of fresh air to the game. Being global is being flexible even if it means developing exotic business models like Blizzard did in China, where internet cafes are still the most popular place to play online games.
But sometimes flexibility alone is not enough. Yes we all got used to some standard legal frameworks, but the thing difficult to hush up is that in many countries there are off-stage laws more familiar to natives.

Some western game developers know what their Chinese counterparts mean by the word “guanxi”, literally “relationships”. It’s rather difficult to grasp what exactly this thing is — euphemized “corruption” or some kind of traditional authority-based “issues resolving”. Blizzard didn’t even try looking for the answer and decided to find competent local partner instead. On the whole this decision was a success.
Of course, Chinese government performing sometimes crude protectionism and “guanxi” are those filters meant for prominent foreigners. But almost every country has national specific features to its business environment more familiar to natives. In fact strong local partnership is probably the most reasonable alternative.

Considering our own experience Russian online games market fairly deserves its position between the East and the West. Russian gamers are highly open-minded concerning game design and visual art. It’s more important for them how many opportunities the game has to offer in making their characters’ look individual. Perhaps this is due to Russian cultural status of the place where the East meets the West. That also reflects in local business environment — personal relations are often no less important than formal agreements. Mixing up eastern and western game design elements is the recipe for Russian gamers — no strictly eastern or western games are as successful as global titles here.