Beijing, China - It's Saturday at 7pm, and Liu Cao has locked himself up in this murky internet cafe near Beijing's central business district. The eager 24-year-old left his remote village in Henan province to work in the capital. But he doesn't seem very excited about discovering the nightly entertainment this vibrant city has to offer.
Instead, he spends an average of five hours per day in a room packed with young men playing what are known as massive-multiplayer online role-playing games, in which gamers interact with each other through voice commands or integrated chats.
"All the interesting games are developed by foreign companies. Why can't Chinese companies develop good games?"
- Chinese gamer Qwedcxzas222
The three most popular computer games in China, according to gaming site 17173.com, are all foreign-made: Blade and Soul, from South Korea; League of Legends, from the United States; and Lineage Eternal, also from South Korea.
Chinese-made games aren't popular with young men here. Game forums are packed with negative comments about domestic games, like this one posted by Qwedcxzas222: “All the interesting games are developed by foreign companies. Why [can't] Chinese companies develop good games[?]”
China's Ministry of Culture estimates there are more than 300 million gamers in the country. With such a sizable number, they are an attractive target for government propaganda.
Last July, at the largest gaming convention in Asia, China's General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) announced new measures to introduce topics of national interest into the gaming scene.
“The GAPP will give priority to publishing more quality China-made online games ... providing greater support for outstanding domestic online games companies,” said Sun Shoushan, GAPP's head.
Xue Yongfeng, an analyst at the internet consultancy Analysis International, explains that Chinese-made “red games”, which emphasise patriotic themes, have been on the market for more than five years, and that they have a contingent of loyal players.
But statistics show red games aren't very popular with the average Chinese gamer. For instance, Shining Sword and Resistance War 2, both set during the Japanese occupation, give players the opportunity to join resistance troops and defeat the foreign invaders. According to 17173.com, they rank a lacklustre 376th and 718th in popularity, respectively.
Game forums are filled with reviews saying the quality of red games is low and lack a “sense of reality”. With nationalistic pride at its core, in these games Chinese forces always win. Without the chance of failure, the games do not leave much room for challenge - or entertainment.
'Chinese were always the bad guys'
The war simulation game “Glorious Mission”, a first-person shooter which ranks 57th in popularity in China, is a different story. Its developer, Wuxi Glorious Mission Company, was founded in 2009 specifically to produce this game after the Chinese army asked several domestic developers to design a game to train soldiers on modern warfare.
For the past decade, explains Gu Kai, the company's vice president, the domestic gaming industry has unhealthily focused on producing martial arts games steeped in traditional settings. With Glorious Mission, the developer wanted to take risks and change how Chinese games are perceived.
The game was originally made for internal army use, and the development team worked closely with the military. Gu described it as a dream come true: “In the past Chinese were always the bad guys in games. My dream was to create a game where the Chinese can be the heroes.”
Gu Kai said he was surprised when he learned the army wanted to make the game available to the general public, following in the steps of America's Army, the acclaimed military training game developed by the US army.
Although Gu says Glorious Mission is often perceived as a red game, he rejects the label. Red games are designed solely to stuff in as much propaganda as possible, he argues, whereas Glorious Mission was made to replicate a real Chinese army experience.
'I've never heard of this game'
"Domestic game developers may take into account games' social values ... [but] their main focus is how to make games more interesting, and more profitable."
- Xue Yongfeng, analyst
Meanwhile, inside the internet café, Liu hasn't even bothered to take off his winter jacket and gloves, even though the temperature is quite warm. He is staring at the screen and fast-clicking the mouse, not wondering why a foreign reporter has been standing beside him for 15 minutes.
Between games, Liu is asked about Glorious Mission. “I've never heard about this game,” he says, adding that he doesn't know anything about red games either. Instead, he's playing Cross Fire, a popular first-person shooter developed by a South Korean company. Next to him, Wang Ge, a 19-year-old boy from the south of China, is waiting for some friends to play the popular American game Counter Strike. He hasn't heard of red games either.
Overall, the gaming sector is a booming business: China's Gaming Industry Report 2012 predicted an annual growth rate of the games market of 12.3 percent, from 2013 to 2017, when sales will reach about $22bn.
The figures seem promising, but unless red games become more innovative and creative, it will likely be hard for them to gain traction.
“Domestic game developers may take into account games' social values,” points out Xue from Analysis International. But, he says, “their main focus is how to make games more interesting, and more profitable”.