In China, few Western games have been more embraced than World of Warcraft. But few games have endured more scrutiny from the government and more interruptions. As WoW Archivist covered two weeks ago, Chinese players have put up with censorship, endless waits for expansions, and intense bureaucratic meddling that shut the servers down for months. But their enthusiasm for the game remains.
Today, we will look at the more recent years of WoW in China, the raiding scene there, and the game's impact on popular culture, including a certain infamous theme park...
Too soon, Executus
After sorting out issues with the Ministry of Culture and GAPP (General Administration of Press and Publications), WoW operator NetEase was on a roll. Though Cataclysm also faced delays, it launched in China on July 12, 2011 -- just half a year after the Western release. By the standards of prior expansions in China, this release was practically instantaneous.
In a bitter irony, however, the expansion actually arrived too soon.
After all, NetEase had received approval to launch Wrath only ten months prior. What many consider the best expansion Blizzard has ever offered only existed as "relevant content" in China for less than a year. For players there, this was the unfortunate outcome of all the delays.
Cataclysm suffered far less censorship than other expansions. However, as you might have guessed if you read the previous article, "risen" versions of Onyxia and Nefarian didn't pass muster with the censors. China's Blackwing Descent featured their more lively original models instead.
With so much pushback on every prior expansion, you would think that Mists of Pandaria would face the toughest challenge so far. After all, given that the expansion is based on Chinese legends and culture, one would guess that the Ministry of said Culture would have a lot to say.
In years past, we in the West debated whether China would ever allow the pandarens to play a large part in WoW. If pandas are "sacred," some reasoned, how could a game depicting violence against panda-like creatures ever see the light of day? Many cited the backlash from China as the entire reason why pandaren had been largely excluded from the game world.
They were wrong. No law forbids this portrayal in China. MoP became the first expansion to get approval with no delays whatsoever. It launched a few days after the Western release. Finally, after more than 7 years, players in China could tackle content at the same time as those in the West.
NetEase promoted the expansion with all-girl flash mobs wearing panda hats. Though active accounts dipped during Cataclysm, they surged after the release of Mists. NetEase said that WoW reached 1 million concurrent players in China during the weeks after launch. Worldwide subscriptions rebounded to over 10 million players.
Raiding in China
Raiding in China has always been a different experience. Despite catching up to Western content releases, the differences have actually grown over time.
During classic and the first four expansions, players had no chance to compete with guilds in Europe and the U.S. for world first kills. They had no access to the content while the races were on. However, when Chinese guilds could take a whack at The Burning Crusade's raids, they rocked them.
A guild called The Seven killed Illidan just 52 days after launch for a China first. At the time, many of The Seven's raiders still sported gear from classic's Naxxramas. They burned through Tiers 4 and 5 with a vengeance.
Though it's still an impressive accomplishment, it's also true that China's version of the encounters didn't suffer the same initial bugs that raiders in the West had to put up with. The long delay provided an opportunity for both fixes and nerfs to go live with the expansion. I'm sure if they had a choice, The Seven would have preferred to test themselves against the original versions at the same time as their Western counterparts. They also recorded the China first Kil'jaeden kill.
With Wrath MIA and realms offline, Chinese raiding guilds had a hard time of it. They had to choose between waiting for the interagency slapfight to simmer down or starting over on one of Taiwan's realms, where Wrath was live and uncensored. Starting over meant just that: creating new characters and leveling them all over again. They had to leave behind their fortunes, their mounts, their professions, and probably some friends, too. Despite this hardship, many opted to make the switch.
One such guild, Stars, was among them. They promptly recorded the world second kill of Mimiron's hard mode. They followed that up with the legit world first Alone in the Darkness achievement (Yogg-Saron's ultimate hard mode), after a US guild exploited the encounter -- and got caught.
With MoP, China's guilds finally had an even footing to compete with Western raiders. But that didn't turn out to be the case, at least for 25-man guilds. In a December 2012 interview, lead encounter designer Ion Hazzikostas revealed that Asian realms had been reverted to a system similar to the Wrath era. Larger raids reward better loot, but the bosses have 8% more health and deal 8% more damage than Western versions. The loot from 10-mans can be upgraded four times, so raiders can still obtain the same items eventually, just at a much slower pace.
Another significant difference is that the two raid sizes are on separate lockouts in Asia -- just as they used to be for all realms in Wrath. Raiders there can run both versions for extra loot and extra practice on boss mechanics.
Despite the more difficult bosses, a Chinese guild initially took credit for the world first 25-man Ra-den kill, though the guild leader admitted that "something unusual" occurred. It turned out to be a bug that tricked the fearsome Titan Watcher into using far less ouchy 10-man abilities. A few days later, EU guild Method claimed the legit world first.
A controversial study
In 2008, the differences between Chinese and U.S. WoW players were the subject of a UC-Irvine study led by informatics professor Bonnie Nardi. Nardi cited a greater emphasis on color scheme and architecture among players in China. She also mentioned that Chinese players are more predominantly male and trend younger than in the U.S. Chinese players also use fewer addons and UI mods. She revealed some interesting services on offer, such as a cafe in Hanghzou where you could play the game while getting a foot massage.
A $100,000 National Science Foundation funded the study. Three years later, Nardi and other researchers received $3 million for further studies into virtual world behavior and communication. The study became controversial when Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn cited it in his "Wastebook 2010," a document outlining programs he considered a waste of government money. The study was number 6 on his top 100 list.
UCI researcher Walt Scacchi defended the study. He said that "computer games and virtual worlds will be fundamental to large-scale cultural transformation in [the] next decade and beyond, and industry, government and academia will all come to depend on the development and routine use of computer games and virtual worlds."
WoW inspired Chinese culture from its early years. In 2007, the well-crafted homage above was spotted on a Chinese wall. The same year, Chinese illustrator Weng Chen launched the Messy Cow webcomic about her tauren character's adventures in WoW. She later went on to work for Ubisoft on the Splinter Cell franchise and for Titan Studios on the popular PSN game Fat Princess.
We in the West have many WoW-themed arts and crafts for sale, and China is no different. WoW Insider spotted crafts in China as early as 2007.
Not all uses of Blizzard's designs are so harmless, however. In 2008, Variety's Asian film blog reported that maps of Azeroth had been repurposed by a Chinese military TV network to report on troop movements in the Middle East. Apparently, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are all located in Arathi Highlands. This is definitely a contested zone.
2008 also heralded the world's first World of Warcraft themed restaurant in Beijing. The front doors were painted to look like the Dark Portal. Inside, TVs displayed footage of the game, suits of armor stood eternal vigil over your appetizers, and the walls were covered with some impressive murals. CCTV covered the restaurant when it first opened. The owner was a fan of the game and wanted to create a meeting place for like-minded players.
Sadly, Odditycentral.com reported that the restaurant closed in 2011. The owner cited the bad economy, but visitors had apparently complained about bad service. The closure didn't deter someone from opening a League of Legends restaurant in Chongqing last year.
One restaurant is nothing, however, compared to what investors built in Jiangsu province. What do millions of dollars and a complete disregard for intellectual property buy you? World Joyland Play Valley is the world's first video game inspired amusement park. The park was built by the organizers of China Joy, the largest gaming expo in China. It opened in 2011. Snazzy ads beckoned visitors to the new facility. You can watch a fly-over video of the park here.
Joyland's "Terrain of Magic" area draws undeniable inspiration from WoW. The park creators make no effort to disguise it, either. Statues and architecture are straight out of Azeroth. A ride called "Silver Moon's Pride" makes reference to Kael'thas, "prince of the elves." Another ride called "Splash of Monster Blood" ushers you through a tunnel full of orcs before sending you down a pants-drenching log floom.
According to Shanghaiist, the rides are rated under three categories: Splendor Index, Happiness Index, and Thrill Index. We've had no official word of how splendorous Splash of Monster Blood actually is, but please post if you can find out.
The park also features a "Universe of Starship" area drawn from StarCraft. That area contains the largest roller coaster, the Sky Scrapper (not a typo).
Shanghaiist reported that Joyland already offered signs of wear and tear just weeks after opening. They wrote,
As it turns out, they had good reason to be concerned. Last June, 11 tourists became trapped when the Joyland coaster Skyloop broke down on a vertical track. Riders were stuck facing the sky for two hours (presumably while contemplating the accuracy of the ride's Happiness Index) before firefighters arrived to rescue them. Luckily no one was injured. The park owners claim the ride had passed inspections, but officials promised to investigate the incident.
One of the most disturbing parts of the park was the general decay we witnessed, unnerving in a park open only a hair shy of two months. Cracks in paint and rust on handrails made the attendants' habit of screaming "Goodbye!" as the roller coaster surged out of the gates even more terrifying.
Most visitors seem satisfied, however. The park enjoys a rating of 3.5 stars on review site Dianping.com according to CNN, and it is reportedly doing well. Joyland has become something of a mecca for Chinese cosplayers. It currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people dressed as comic book characters, and many visitors wear costumes.
An enduring world
WoW in China has had a turbulent history. Yet the grand scale and the unbridled enthusiasm of Joyland's version of WoW show the indelible impact the game has had on China's pop culture. WoW is less popular than it once was in China, but it remains the most popular Western MMO in China's history.
East or West, we are all fans of Blizzard. We've all been thrilled by that moment of taking off on our first flying mount. We've all shouted for joy when that boss finally keeled over, defeated and sparkly with loot. We've all fought Onyxia, Ragnaros, and the Lich King. We've all been heroes.
For those in China who love the game, we at WoW Insider hope that you can continue to enjoy it expansion after expansion without further interruptions or delays!
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