Why China’s ‘King of Games’ Is Popular But Not Good
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2017-08-03 04:38:09

“Honour of Kings,” a mobile game produced by Chinese tech giant Tencent, has been hailed as the “king of games” in China since its beta release in 2015.

By the end of May, the game had accumulated more than 200 million registered users and 54 million daily active users. On microblog platform Weibo, one of China’s most influential social networks, the game’s hashtag has attracted more than 398,000 followers, 161,000 posts, and 7 billion — with a “b” — views. In combination, these staggering numbers make “Honour of Kings” one of the most popular video games of all time.

The success is not entirely unexpected, as Chinese gamers have shown a particular predilection for the MOBA — “multiplayer online battle arena” — genre, of which “Honour of Kings” is a shining example. And with dedicated gaming consoles from companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft being banned in China until fairly recently, PCs and mobile devices have emerged as the preferred platforms for the country’s gamers.

“Honour of Kings” was released in November 2015, but rather than try to grow its own hardcore MOBA fans right off the bat, it focused on drawing in the millions of fans already out there. So where did this multitudinous MOBA fan base come from in the first place? For that, we must look to two other wildly popular pioneers of the genre: “Defense of the Ancients” (DotA), released in 2003, and “League of Legends” (LoL), released in 2009.

The latter game, especially, has an added advantage in China: It is also owned and distributed by parent company Tencent, who decided the PC title was achieving such success that they’d try their hand at a mobile-only spinoff — and thus “Honour of Kings” was born. Despite being played on different consoles, the two games share remarkably similar interfaces, gameplay, and audiovisual elements.

Tencent chose smartphones and tablets as the platforms of choice for their flagship product, predicting this would be the perfect solution to accommodate users’ fragmented free time.

In fact, many credit the platform shift from PC to mobile as a key factor in allowing “Honour of Kings” to surpass big brother LoL by such leaps and bounds. While previous MOBA games had been designed for PCs, Tencent chose smartphones and tablets as the platforms of choice for their flagship product, predicting this would be the perfect solution to accommodate users’ fragmented free time.

This way, the developers reasoned, players could go into battle at the bus stop, on the subway, over a bowl of noodles, or before bed. Sure, DotA and LoL had won over huge fan followings in their own right — but by going mobile, “Honour of Kings” has been able to reach a wider audience still. While previous MOBA demographics were dominated by men in their 20s and 30s, “Honour of Kings,” being accessible to anyone with a phone — everyone, in other words — has attracted more initiates from more diverse groups, including women and school-age students.

Another thing Tencent did to guarantee the game’s success was to introduce social media integration. Users can only register to play, for example, if they link their accounts on messaging apps QQ or WeChat, both of which are ubiquitous in China. Now, players are constantly hounded to invite their friends to join in the game and share their victories on their WeChat Moments feed.

While using social engagement to draw in non-gamers has been a point of emphasis for Tencent since day one, the company has also tested out other novel marketing methods, such as endorsements from celebrity players, memes devoted to terrible teammates, and a national esports tournament, the King Pro League.

However, regardless of the commercial accomplishments “Honour of Kings” continues to pile up, it will always be, in my view, a product for consumption rather than a good video game.

Making a good video game is about pursuing creativity, not about imitating formulas that have proved successful in the past. The award-winning narrative-based puzzle game “Framed,” for example, incorporates elements from film editing, requiring players to slide into the role of a film director to rearrange video clips into a full-blown action movie in which the protagonist outwits and evades his would-be captors and is spared from other unenviable fates.

“Honour of Kings,” however, is little more than a mobile version of LoL, recycling motifs from the PC game’s characters, interface, and even game maps.

By appropriating figures from history with little regard for context or historical fealty, the game creates a sense of intertextuality: a hollow shell of cultural heritage that, upon closer inspection, is devoid of any substance.

More importantly still, though, an outstanding game should be rooted in a rich and profound culture. “The Dream,” developed by internet technology company NetEase, may be considered a perfect example of this. Adapted from “The Peony Pavilion,” a 16th-century drama and one of China’s most important works of literature, the game requires players to navigate through an imagined world by extracting hints from Chinese poetry.

“Honour of Kings,” too, is a prima facie example of an entertaining game rich in Chinese culture and history. Players can choose their in-game character from a wide range of historical and literary heroes, though dynastic eras are muddled together and the universe is largely made-up. By appropriating figures from history with little regard for context or historical fealty, the game creates a sense of intertextuality: a hollow shell of cultural heritage that, upon closer inspection, is devoid of any substance.

Instead, “Honour of Kings” is a senseless, never-ending battle royal, pitting players against one another, time and again, in similar battles on the same playing field. It rather reminds me of the monotony one might face on an assembly line at an electronics factory. While the game does release new characters and unveil novel tournament themes now and then, it is essentially a closed system that has shut the door on creativity and exploration.

Rather than a piece of digital artwork, Tencent has given us a consumer product that doubles as a sinkhole for our precious time and money. Indeed, the very word “consume” means “to use up” or “to take up the interest or attention of.” While I can appreciate that all video games to some extent serve the purpose of entertaining those who play them, we should not allow ourselves to be entertained to death.

Alternatively, if a video game can embrace innovation and social responsibility to help us to make sense of ourselves, our culture, and our universe instead of merely satisfying our sensory needs, then I will concede that it is contributing something valuable to society. But for now, I fear that “Honour of Kings” is destined to be remembered as “popular” rather than “good.”

Editors: Wu Haiyun and David Paulk.

(Header image: Two teenagers play Tencent’s hit mobile game ‘Honour of Kings’ at a restaurant in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, July 6, 2017. Zhong Zhenbin/IC)