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Gamble your life away in ZT Online

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ZT Online (征途) is a popular Chinese-made massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) run by Giant Interactive. Despite offering games that are free to play, its third-quarter earnings beat out competitors Netease and Shanda.

The game is the brainchild of Shi Yuzhu (史玉柱), an entrepreneur who struck it rich marketing a vitamin tonic called Naobaijin (you may recall the TV ads featuring Dashan that were inescapable a few years back). Shi's surveys of gamer habits led him to create a game that was tailored to gamers who had more money than time.

Here's how Southern Weekly explained things in a sidebar article last week:

"Chinese gamers are an unwelcome species on European and American servers," said a game manager who once worked on World of Warcraft. Chinese players always have ways of quickly ascending levels that leave European and American gamers in the dust, and on group missions they do not like to respect the tacit rules of profit division. For those "pedantic" European and American gamers, Chinese players are like fearsome pagans. "European and American games do not encourage unlimited superiority of power; they put more of an emphasis on balance and cooperative support." The former WOW manager said, "Perhaps this is because of the influence of traditional culture and the current environment; truth be told, Chinese gamers are better suited to jungle-style gaming."

An online game manager recalled that he once received at the company a gamer who had money but no patience. This gamer came with an inquiry: could he simply pay to purchase high-level equipment? Everyone at the company had a good chuckle at that. Now, the manager sighs regretfully: they did not realize that the gamer represented an immense business opportunity. ZT Online, on the other hand, saw it and achieved success.

The main Southern Weekly article on ZT Online follows a gamer as she first becomes interested in the game, through her rise to power, and her eventual disillusionment with the money-sink it had become.

Woven into the narrative are descriptions of the often shockingly brazen tactics ZT Online uses to soak the "RMB gamers" who would rather spend money than grind out levels. The picture resolves into that of an online casino dressed in the trappings of an adventure game, and Shi Yuzhu ends up looking a lot like a shady used-car salesman.

It doesn't look like he much enjoys that impression. The article has vanished from the Southern Weekly website and many of the other portals that reposted it (Hexun's copy was taken down during the course of this translation). Bloggers noticed this early on and have been reposting the article on blogs and forums; the general feeling is that Shi Yuzhu has been using his influence to pressure news portals to remove the article (more reactions here).

That's not to say that the article is without blemish—its slant is readily apparent from the invocation of Pinochet in the introduction and the italicization of "system" throughout the text, and readers already familiar with game mechanics have expressed disappointment that it doesn't contain more hard statistics. There's also the nagging difficulty that Southern Weekly went after Shi Yuzhu six years ago with an investigation that pulled back the curtain on the Naobaijin business.

But as an example of popular gaming journalism, this article at least goes beyond the typical "think of the children" angle that permeates most reporting on MMORPGs. It's a decent introduction to how gamers play these online games, as well as to some of the key issues that they are currently working out.

The System

by Cao Yunwu (Chengdu), photos by Wang Yishu / SW

Editor's note: In a game that has more than a million users online at any time, and whose userbase could form a major city if taken together, is the spirit of gaming entertainment, or money and power? Are its social rules the openness and freedom of a new world, or "all within the land are the king's servants"? This is not just an investigation of a particular game, nor is it simply an investigation of the values of Korean-style gaming; rather, it is an investigation of the player-to-game and player-to-player relationship. The virtual world is part of the real world, and has rules that must be defended.

 
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