Posted by Joel Martinsen on Wednesday, December 26, 2007 at 2:31 PM
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:
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 Systemby Cao Yunwu (Chengdu), photos by Wang Yishu / SW
In China's hottest online game right now, players encounter a "system" that executes a seductive control. Though unseen, this "system" is omnipresent. It a virtual yet real monopolist. "Not a leaf moves in this kingdom if I don't know about it." The voice of Pinochet, former dictator of Chile, echoes softly though this virtual world.
By day, 27-year-old Lu Yang is a sonogram technician at a hospital in Chengdu.
At night, she was a monarch, the ruler of the "kingdom of Chu"—game players like to respectfully put "queen" before the name of her character. In this virtual kingdom, the "queen" commanded several thousand subjects, her fervent warriors.
In the less than a year since the breakout of ZT Online, Lu Yang was confident of one truth: even though the game's own model is the traditional background of ancient knights-errant, money is actually the most critical element for wandering the wilds of this virtual world.
Lu Yang received an excellent professional education, her husband is a businessman, and she has substantial financial assets. To her, money has never been a problem, but she still calls some well-regarded players in the game "RMB gamers" in frustration. Though she has invested tens of thousands of yuan in the game, she has suffered defeat after defeat due to the fact that others are more willing to spend, and to spend much more money than she is.
Like ZT Online creator Shi Yuzhu says, this is a game well-suited to the rich. In this world, the authority to bully others and the legal right to harm them are both for sale.
Although everything is virtual, Lu Yang once believed that she could find a golden road to glory and dreams. But like so many others, Lu Yang discovered that what was crafted from the endless inflow of RMB was actually a road to bondage.
The Imminent Outbreak of WarEveryone must become "RMB gamers"—peace is disdained, war is glorified—all the dead gain is disgrace
Sitting in the VIP room of a web cafe she frequents, Lu Yang looked both excited and anxiety-ridden. Before her was a 19-inch wide-screen LCD on which flashed in bold yellow characters the words, "War begins at 8:15 pm." In the two hours she had remaining, she would conduct the final mobilization and deployment of the troops under her control.
About to attack the kingdom of Chu was the strongest country in the game, the kingdom of Wei. Wei has over one thousand gamers, but more critically, its backbone, its "royal family," is entirely made up of awesome heroes whose levels are far beyond those of normal people and whose equipment is the most expensive and rarest holy armor and weapons. In the "rankings of world heroes," they have long occupied the very top of the top fifty positions.
Their damage rate is fearsome: each individual can take on one hundred. Were Lu Yang's "Queen" to go head to head, if she erred in her tactics, she would be in danger of "secKill."* A SecKill means receiving a mortal blow in the space of a few seconds, before you can even strike back. Lu Yang's non-gamer husband joked about this: "It's like in those martial arts novels: if the blade is quick enough, you can hear the sound of blood gushing out of your own neck." "Queen" Lu Yang feared them the most, but was also somewhat scornful of them. "They're just RMB gamers," she said.
In actuality, anyone who enters this virtual microcosm must become an "RMB gamer"; the distinction lies only in how much you are willing to spend.
In contrast to other online games of the past, ZT Online does not have time-metered fees. Simply filling out an online form registers you for an ID. You need only choose a name, sex, and kingdom, and your virtual identity is born: the glorious yet painful road to conquest lies before you. As the main thread of the game's background story proceeds, you delightedly discover that you are in fact the scion of a royal family who was abandoned in the wild due to the chaos of war. Now that you have grown up and have learned of your high bloodline, you must train in the art of war, making your name in the wilderness and eventually reaching the imperial court. Establishing your own kingdom, or even winning the throne of the almighty emperor and restoring the glory of your ancestors is your ultimate goal.
The story is well-suited to Chinese tastes. The sole perplexing thing is this: after you get all excited about it, you discover that the gap between the ideal and reality is quite wide. A newly-born ID is at level 1, while the most courageous heroes among the kings can reach "reincarnate level 170": after bringing a normal character to level 168, they gain a new incorruptible body and can reach level 170. Simply put, this is the difference between a mortal and a god. Heroes wield "Perfect Sacred Weapons", and they are enveloped in the purple aura of nobility, while you stand empty-handed, clad in only a pair of shorts to hide your nakedness.
Now you can purchase a point card to pour RMB into your game account, allowing you to ascend levels more quickly and purchase precious materials with which to craft equipment. You do not have to spend money; if you don't, if you only sit there within the game, then the system* will take not even a single penny from you. But you will quickly discover that you are unable to kill even a mosquito in that wasteland, and your movements are restricted to the place where you were born, a small village called Qingyuan; the wide world outside is for heroes. Of course, even more discouraging is the fact that you, a descendant of royalty, will live forever under the threat of another player's secKill.
So obviously, Lu Yang traveled a hero's road paved with real gold and silver. She was a "reincarnate level 145," having undergone dangers and hardships to win her crown and sit astride a dragon covered in sparkling, flaming scales. But heroes have their own problems: her kingdom faced a serious challenge.
Lu Yang considers herself a "pacifist": she brought a woman's gentleness to the rule of her kingdom. The "Queen" seldom attacked other kingdoms. Rather, she liked to lead the people out to exterminate monsters or to head caravans. But she could not avoid coming under attack.
"Wars are planned by the system," explained Lu Yang. "If a king submits an application, the system will automatically choose an appropriate time for the outbreak of war."
The system loves war. In this virtual world, "peace" is disdained and war is revered. Victorious kingdoms will automatically acquire the money and property held in the storehouses of the kingdoms they defeat; kingdom rankings are determined according to the number of victories they have achieved in war. The names of subjects of powerful kingdoms glitter like stars to show their every glorious victory. Of course, this is not the most important thing: for those engaged in battle, invading another kingdom's territory and willfully hacking to pieces everyone who dares to resist is the best way to release those deep, primal urges.
The system accurately seizes on the weaknesses of human nature as it calls on gamers to give free reign to depravity in a virtual world that violates the norms of the real world. It gives to those that wage war the power of indiscriminate killing, and it bestows on killers the rewards of increased experience. And the system makes note of your decapitation record. That series of numbers is the height of glory, like an Indian warrior's string of scalps, while all that the dead gain is disgrace.
Lu Yang knew that there was a great disparity in strength, so on the phone, or on QQ, or in the game itself, she told the warriors under her to gather their forces to defend one corner of the royal city. Her voice shook with anxiety; even though she will not suffer one whit in real life whether she wins or loses, she knew that it meant survival or annihilation in the game.
There were still two hours until the outbreak of war.
The King is DeadThe salesman cometh—an adventurer's paradise—under the dominion of the "system"—an extra assassinates the king
Before starting to play ZT Online, Lu Yang's preferred game was Legend of Mir (传奇). She was not very good—she used it mainly for weekend recreation. Legend is a time-metered game. Gamers use the time they purchase to advance levels and gain equipment: everything involves spending time and effort. "For example," said Lu, "if you want to fight a top-level monster, you have to travel a long way off and wind your way through a maze killing tons of smaller monsters and spending maybe an entire evening before you can confront the big guy." Most disheartening is the fact that after spending all of that effort to stand before the big monster, if you aren't careful you could be secKilled! Then it's back to the beginning for you.
Lu Yang may not be aware that as she was running herself dizzy, a gamer called "Send only Naobaijin" was making his way through the same game. He was impatient with the tedium of upgrading, so he purchased a high-level account instead, and he spent thousands to craft the highest class of equipment. Paving his way with money, he achieved incredible power within a short time. In this typical Korean-style "kimchi" game, he struck out on his own with new experimental gameplay. This gamer was the future boss of ZT Online, Shi Yuzhu.
One day in 2007, at the web cafe that Lu Yang frequented, a salesman appeared in front of her while she was running around. He was smartly dressed, wore a smile on his face, and spoke in alluring terms of ZT Online, a new kind of game. "There's absolutely no need to thread mazes. We just want you to be comfortable," Lu Yang remembered that he guaranteed.
So Lu Yang and her friends went on to ZT Online. These friends were her colleagues at the hospital and her husband's business partners. They were not short of money, but they had little free time. They quickly discovered that ZT Online was indeed a wonderfully satisfying game, as if it were designed expressly for people like them.
You do not need to waste your effort to find a NPC to give you a mission; press the F key and a drop-down menu displays character names set out like hyperlinks. Double-click a name and you will automatically be taken to them. If you want to go to a particular location, there is no need to thread a maze. Open up the map, find a place name, click on it, and you will arrive in a moment's time.
Lu Yang quickly abandoned "Qingyuan Village" for the bustling "Phoenix City" and the resplendent "Royal City." This rising star was absorbed into the most prestigious family of the "Kingdom of Chu," the "Peach Blossom Spring." It is unrealistic to fight on one's own; entering a clan is the way to success, just like in the world of a martial arts novel. And clans can ally to form factions, each having their own spheres of influence. And after coming to an agreement, they are able to work together to support a kingdom.
Most of the NPCs in the game, like shopkeeprs and blacksmiths, can be commanded by factions, and thereafter they contribute "protection money." The system encourages groups to fight for control; whoever kills off a competitor will win the protection money. Because of this, faction leaders are eager to loot streets and shops. To Lu Yang, it seemed like she was on the Shanghai waterfront in the 1920s.
Indeed, this is an "adventurers' playground." Even low-level gamers can make money! By completing a set mission, such as serving as an armed escort, you can earn a certain amount of "silver." By reaching a certain level and guaranteeing that you'll stay online, the system will even "pay wages" to gamers.* And there are all kinds of "bonuses" and "cash-backs" as well.
"But that's really just pocket change," Lu Yang said. "It doesn't compare to the kind of money you spend." But it brings an incomparable feeling of success and satisfaction: can you imagine earning "silver" at the same time you're hacking your enemy to pieces? "You want to achieve even higher bonuses?" asked Lu. "Then you've got to spend more money."
"Foreigners" would frequently venture into the Kingdom of Chu. Perhaps they were from Wei, or from ong, or from one of the nine other kingdoms, but regardless of who they were, their names would show up in red once they stepped across the Chu border. The color red means "enemy"—someone who must be killed. For every kill, the system adds a point to your honor on the "List of Heroes in Defense of the Kingdom."
These are not idle wanderers; they come at the command of the system, on missions to "gather intelligence" or "loot the wealth of the ancestral temple" that require entering enemy territory to complete. Likewise, in line with the duties given by the system, clans and factions have the mission to kill them.
Back then, Lu Yang was still a minor character. She had just killed a rhinoceros when an order appeared on the screen: the faction leader had issued a command for the members to advance and kill the enemy. After she clicked "Yes," she was transported to a spot on the outskirts of the Royal City, where a crowd had surrounded the enemy and was doing its best to kill them.
The leader, "Langyan," was naturally in the main force. He was a "warrior," and hand-to-hand combat was his specialty. His "Peerless Sword" inflicted terrible damage. In between the flashes of his glittering blade, Lu Yang suddenly discovered that the enemy was riding a qilin, which meant that he was a king, for only kings could ride such a mystical beast!
Lu Yang was a "mage" and ice magic was her specialty: she could use ice and snow as weapons from a distance. This was the first pitched battle that she had been in, so she stood in a relatively safe place from which she sent frost bolts raining down on the enemy. The qilin suddenly collapsed with a cry—the king was dead! As luck would have it, Lu Yang had dealt the final blow.
Bold yellow characters leaped onto the screen: "Heavens! The king of Wu has been slain by an undistinguished young queen!" Lu Yang danced for joy in front of the computer—she had killed a king—a minor character had killed a king! She stamped her feet, and the screen went black—she had kicked the power cord out of its socket in her excitement.
For the next few days, Lu Yang wasn't herself. In the game, "the entire world" knew that she had killed the king; her friends congratulated her a bit enviously. Even on the job at the hospital, Lu downloaded the game onto an office computer, where she liked to open up the game and reread that old bit of news: "Heavens! The king of Wu has been slain by an undistinguished young queen!"
Once, the stern director of the hospital passed by the office on a dignified inspection tour of the doctors' work. Lu had to minimize the game window. She quietly boasted to her colleagues, "What's his big deal? If he played the game, I'd kill him in one stroke!" The director wasn't really that bad, but Lu Yang felt that he "did not show the respect for women that they deserved." "In the game, women can rule over men," she declared.
Long Live the QueenAnimosity spreading like a fission reaction—good equipment means money—countless people always competing in a frenzy—"Long Live the Queen!"
But the "queen" wasn't as awesome as imagined. A few days later, outside the Royal Ciy, an enemy approached riding a fierce horse with a flowing mane and bearing a countenance like a god. He asked a single question: "Are you that queen?" Then a massive fireball plummeted from the sky and before the isolated "queen" had a chance to respond, she had been secKilled.
Lu Yang froze, but after a momentary shock her brain was filled with a single thought: she must ascend levels, obtain the best equipment, become a real monarch, and take her revenge!
Animosity is the greatest motivation in this world. The system immediately entered the gamer that secKilled Lu Yang onto her revenge list and frequently reminded the "queen" of her grudge. "Personal enemy" is the social relationship most often found here; animosity also exists between clans, factions, and kingdoms. Spreading like a fission reaction, bitter animosity is something eternally encouraged and glorified.
She found a "training messenger," a virtual character that stands in to do business between the system and the gamer. He stands on the side of the avenue into the Royal City, responding humbly and enthusiastically, glad to serve those with money. Lu Yang paid this "messenger" RMB to purchase experience, and the "messenger" let her ascend levels quickly, turning from a human into a god. Lu Yang felt that it was worth it; she had "only spent around a thousand yuan" that time.
However, damage and protection are decided by equipment; character level is merely a necessary condition for the corresponding class of equipment. As in a Louis Cha novel, while training internal strength is a must, only a black iron sword allows Yang Guo to be unconquerable. The game sets out twenty types of equipment according to various levels; to use the mage as an example, weapons range from a willow wand to the rarest Elder Wand. In addition to these are armor, helmets, belts, gauntlets, torques, and rings.
Good equipment means money. Unlike other games, in this game there are no items dropped when killing monsters or completing missions. "We all want the best," said Lu Yang. "You have to go to the system's shops to buy materials, and then use the system smith to make them. Or, you could go gambling."
"Gambling" means "opening the treasure chest." Gamers can buy keys and chests from the system for cheap: one yuan per set. When the key is applied to the chest, the screen will display a glittering chest opening. All kinds of materials and equipment spin inside the chest like the drums on a slot machine as the wheel of light spins. Where it stops indicates what you've won. Chests will frequently contain the high-class equipment that gamers desire, but the spinning light wheel always passes over them.
Lu Yang recalls that during her craziest period she was like a gambler in a casino. She would shout at the screen the name of the item she wanted, like "ebony, ebony," or some high-class material, but ultimately she would obtain nothing but a pittance of experience. Ebony, or that powerful "ring of the nether world," remained in the chest, gleaming seductively.
There is a "treasure chest" ranking in this world. Each day, the person who opens the most chests can obtain a power-multiplying "Sacred Stone for Mending Heaven."
This clever set-up is infinitely alluring, and there are always countless people engaged in frenzied competition over chest numbers. Lu Yang once opened over one thousand chests one evening, but she fell short; there was always someone more stubborn than she, and she never obtained that miraculous stone.
Rankings of all types randomly blink into appearance: a World Heroes ranking, ordered according to power brought by level and equipment; a Defender of the Realm ranking, ordered by the number of enemies killed; a Kingdom Power ranking, ordered by countries' assets and battle record....like the Naobaijin commercials that pop up on TV all the time, the real-time changes in these standings are like high-frequency blasts to the ambitious heroes, reminding them that they cannot rest for an instant in this cruel world.
As gamers unflaggingly open chests they sometimes chance upon something good, but the vast majority of the time they gain nothing. Each time they receive nothing, however, makes them all the more impatient to open the next chest. Their every click represents one yuan, one more yuan....like an endless sandglass, their money trickles away, becoming a stream as the clicks accumulate, a current heading toward the unseen system.
Lu Yang believes that her luck is fairly good: "On average, I open 1,000 chests, and if I have good luck I'll find something good a dozen or more times."
In this way, Lu Yang became one of the "RMB gamers" she disdains. More than 10,000 RMB was quickly and nearly imperceptibly spent. In the game, the "queen" possessed fearsome power. She carried out vengeance for herself and her friends, she accepted entreaties, and she protected the caravans of the kingdom. At the same time, she went out with the heroes to invade other kingdoms. Her reputation spread far and wide. She was surrounded with heroes, and in the game, she even wedded the powerful faction leader, Langyan. Of course, it was also due to the fact that she was a lovely girl in real life that she was elevated to Queen of the Kingdom of Chu. "Long live the Queen!" People bowed to her in submission. That was the high point for Lu Yang on ZT Online, and for that one fleeting moment, she felt that the time and money she had spent was worth it.
The Queen is WearyThe "system" is the most diligent—the Queen feels like a mule—spend to make you angry—happiness for just an instant
Lu Yang was quite aware that her royal position was purchased with real money. Top of the line equipment at a reincarnate level 150 requires opening an average of 5,000 chests. According to the system's complicated setup for crafting equipment, adding fourteen stars to a set of equipment, opening a "spirit chain," and inlaying a Sacred Stone for Mending Heaven requires another 5,000 yuan or so. As levels increase, equipment requires a corresponding exchange or upgrade. On average, there is a complete change of equipment every five levels.
The "Queen" had become adept at opening chests. Day after day she opened chests, upgraded equipment, discarded it, and upgraded again...."By the end that was basically all I did," Lu Yang recalled. "If I didn't renew things, the queen would quickly become basically a newbie."
The pressure came not just from the game. At Lu Yang's web cafe, ZT Online's promotional four-panel comic was posted even in the bathroom. When you washed your hands, you could see a cartoon character mocking those "lazy people" whose next level ascension was far off. The awe-inspiring hero in the posters tacked up at the entrance to every web cafe stared at you, and diligent salesmen frequently appeared beside gamers.
Compared with various promotional offensives in the media, these salesmen are called Shi Yuzhu's "ground troops." Many of them are from Naobaijin's old sales force and are active in China's major second and third tier cities. They possess a well-trained sensitivity and skill-set in digging for profit.
This system was the most diligent gaming system Lu Yang had encountered: it kept people's hands full with its frequent updates. "You spend money for a sense of security, or you save money and get bullied," said Lu Yang. "Take one day offline, and you feel like you've been left behind. It's really tiring." She felt that she was a donkey being led onward by a carrot; there was always some strong "power" before her beckoning her onward, but there was no end to the long journey. And she gradually came to abhor the animosity that permeated the game. RMB gamers who held a grudge wanted to fight to the finish over every little thing. They constantly fought over control of NPCs, assaulted each other's faction heads, and ceaselessly attacked their opponents' caravans. In the PK arena they delighted in slaying their enemies. They even saw the top position in the chest rankings as a goal to be taken.
If a gamer can open 5,000 chests, another can definitely open 5,001. They called this crazy style of play, "Spending to buy your anger."
The system continued to update and new ruling techniques emerged without end. Even on the traditional monster-slaying missions, the system moved to allow clans to seize the power to kill a boss from each other. As the ruler of a kingdom, Lu Yang had to lead her troops; if she faltered, some infuriated subordinate was sure to complain.
This was becoming less and less like the game Lu Yang wanted to play. She felt that the world had become even uglier: honor was established atop animosity and greed. Unlike her earlier excitement, the happiness she felt now was only in that brief instant after the frenzy had stopped. Then she became bored.
Even before the Kingdom of Chu faced the challenge of Wei, the "Queen" had started to weary of it.
Fountains of Flame From the DeepHoping to hold up for half an hour—prolonging a climate of peace—"Tell your boss not to simply play people off against each other"
"War" was set to break out at 8:15pm. Lu Yang and her friends, her most capable "warriors," sat in the VIP room of the web cafe plotting a response. Before every battle, they sat in that room as if planning a real war, shoulder to shoulder to facilitate communication, but more to facilitate mutual encouragement.
The enemy poured through the east gate of the Royal City, their king leading his soldiers. After charging the east gate, they used a "Leader's Assembly Order," to call their crack troops instantly to their side. The Wei warriors descended in a whirlwind and were immediately surrounded by Chu troops. The "Queen" knew that the enemy was an elite force; though the better part of the enemy was still outside the walls, these units with the king were the most terrible threat.
The warriors brandished their blades and beams of light split the air. They all possessed the most powerful hand-to-hand damage and protection, letting them remain at the forefront. The mages read their spells, the earth opened up, and flames spewed from the deep while the clouds overhead became fierce lightning and hail. Summoned creatures came swarming from the heavens and the netherworld, howling as they joined the melee. The battlefield was drowned in mighty supernatural forces.
Half an hour—Lu Yang's only desire was to hold up for half an hour. She never held any wild hope of winning, but the people of Wei had declared before the battle that it would all be over in ten minutes, a haughty provocation that inspired revulsion. Before the battle, the "Queen" pledged to her subjects that she would hold out for half an hour.
The east gate fell to the invasion, so the "Queen" took the battle to the royal palace. Inside the palace stood a statue of the "Warlord King"; its destruction meant that Chu would lose the battle. The warriors of Chu circled their chariots to protect the statue: under the raging attack, only the solid chariots could provide protection.
Lu Yang used the "Order of Protection" to call all of her subjects to her side. All of Chu's forces were mobilized, the steps of the palace became a sea of blood. At every kill, the heroes of Wei found themselves surrounded by ten or more defenders. The battlefield had descended into chaos. There was no communication, no direction; everyone had eyes only for the enemy, and killed on instinct, killed ceaselessly.....
But Lu Yang's judgment was correct: "RMB" was decisive. This was a war of strength, and the goddess of the system bestowed her favor on the side that had offered her more money. When the king of Wei at last toppled the Warlord King, Lu Yang glanced at the time: she had lasted nearly forty minutes.
This was the final battle that Lu Yang lost. Though she had won wars in the past, the naturally gentle girl felt that even a win would not bring back the feeling of glory. After the battle, she declared in disgust that she would no longer carry out the responsibility of protecting the kingdom. "If another kingdom attacks, my clan will not take part in the battle," she announced to her subjects.
"What's the point?" she asked her doubters. "The system provokes wars and we pour in our money. Whoever allocates more money is the winner." She felt that there were no winners: "Everyone's been played by the system!"
Faction leader "Langyan" and other members of the clan supported her decision. "We too felt that we weren't really fighting," explained Langyan. "We were merely helping count the money after being sold out."
Lu Yang became famous as an "anti-war" monarch in this "world." She pursued alliances with other kingdoms—of course, allied kingdoms could easily dissolve their treaties, but she did not care. Interacting with the monarchs of other countries, she always stressed that if they came to attack her, she would not accept the challenge. "They themselves knew there was no point," she said archly.
The climate of peace spread. Having carried out far too many wars, the monarchs of various kingdoms struck up a rapport: following countless acts of vengeance, the majority of them shared a friendship forged in battle. "After a while, no one had the nerve to start a fight," said Lu Yang.
When she was online, Lu Yang liked to chat with her friends and organize clan or faction activities. Killing was limited to protecting the caravans of her subjects. She detested those "highwaymen" who lay in wait on the borders to slaughter the common people and seize their caravans.
In the web cafe, she had another encounter with a game salesman. He wasn't the same one as before, but he also wore a smile and used alluring language to invite her to "voice her opinions." This salesman also confidently declared, "The wars of kingdoms will become even grander and more frequent!"
It was during this time that the ZT Online company announced "kingdom reorganization." The system took existing areas and redistributed them, breaking up friendly relations and throwing strangers onto new battlefields. Animosity was to be sparked once again.
"Tell your boss not to simply play people off against each other," said Lu Yang.
The intrepid, ambitious "Queen" of old now began to ignore the path to progress. She took her time in advancing levels and no longer thirsted for better equipment. Her in-game partner, "Langyan," became anxious and urged her to catch up before she was overtaken by the masses.
But Lu Yang's real-life husband cared for his wife and felt that she had merely become tired. One morning when Lu woke up, she discovered that her non-gamer husband was seated in front of the computer opening treasure chests for her, hoping to craft better equipment. Lu Yang felt a sudden sadness, and the next time she went online, she quietly "divorced" Langyan.
An Invisible PrisonA ban on the market economy—Catch 22: there's a probability—if they object, what will the "system" do?—"My God!"
Although there were not many people who supported the "peaceful rule" strategy, Lu Yang discovered that, like her, an increasing number of people were becoming dissatisfied with the style of game they had once enjoyed. Even Lu never anticipated that gamers would organize a "sit-in" against the system.
The incident started with a new rule announced by the system: binding. According to this rule, the equipment and "silver" obtained from the system by the gamers was "bound"; that is, it was for personal use only and could not be sold, traded, melted down, or even discarded!
In the game, every character class required corresponding equipment; every type of equipment was crafted using a corresponding resource type. Opening treasure chests had long since become the main method for gamers to obtain equipment and materials. When you spent one RMB in the hopes of gaining ebony but ultimately came up with a hunk of crystal, one common solution would be for gamers to trade for what they each needed or exchange it for silver at a shop. ZT Online's explanation for this rule was that they had discovered professional gamers turning a profit by selling in-game items offline; "binding" was a strike at that practice.*
The gamers eventually discovered that in this world, the free market was banned to a certain extent. Legal private property was permitted to be held but not traded. Only one giant seller was permitted to exist: the system itself.
In gaming forums, one could find gamers complaining through dark humor. One post read, "I am a mage who spent over a hundred yuan on a saber, but I cannot wield a saber. This rare blade is of no use to me whatsoever, but I cannot discard it. I even had to purchase a pack from the system, because I had no room to carry a saber!"
"Everywhere you look in this game are money traps!" one gamer declared. He brought up the example of "Confucius": in the game, this timeless saint is responsible for "intelligence assessment." Through tests, gamers can win immense experience upgrades. But education is expensive; to ask "Confucius" a question requires "twenty pieces of silver per time." Even RMB gamers flush with cash cannot keep up with the frequent updates as they would like. The system recently declared that equipment can be decorated with fifteen stars. According to the rules, purchasing four gemstones can make one star. It does not seem to be much of a problem, but there's a Catch-22: continually inlaying stars will cause all of them to explode.
If you have spent the money to buy forty gemstones to make ten stars, and the eleventh explodes, then the previous ten will disappear as well, leaving you back where you started. Starting with the tenth star, the success rate for inlays is 50%, and it declines from there. The more stars you have, the higher the probability that they will explode.
Here, the designers used the principles of probability to play a joke on the gamers. "When I was putting on the fourteenth star, it blew up eleven times in a row. And that's not including all the times it blew up before then," one gamer complained. He spend more than 3,000 yuan just to inlay fifteen stars on his Elder Blade.
Gamers were furious. They stopped fighting monsters, refused quests, and the kingdom's rulers sat down in a rare peace and refused to request wars. The Royal Plaza at the center of the game map was thickly dotted with seated warriors, mages, archers, and summoners. These characters, usually bent on slaughter, used absolute peace to protest the insatiable greed of the system.
Naturally, Lu Yang was not absent. She led her clansmen into the ranks of the sit-in, and even paid to address the "entire world (at "ten silver per use"), shouting, "The game is becoming worse, and the system is getting greedier!"
To her dismay, the word "system" did not appear; it had been replaced with "**." She tried "GM"; again, "**." She tried "Shi Yuzhu"; this time, it was "***."
Though furious, Lu Yang also thought it ridiculous. Yes, the secretive ** or *** is omnipresent. It humbly and enthusiastically leads you to spend money, hiding animosity and war in its shadow. It excites you, or inflames your anger. It creates and controls everything. It is the god of this world.
Although the ** cannot be seen, it is always watching you. It was only a few minutes before the incensed "Queen" was taken to prison. On the system's orders, she was held for eight hours. This "prison" is not located anywhere on the map; it exists only in the system. Like Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, you cannot see it—you can only be taken there.
Everything that happened afterward could only take place in a prison in the worst of worlds. The "Queen" was too eye-catching: her qilin betrayed her identity. When the people in the prison saw a monarch, they fell upon her like Lu Yang first did when she was a minor character. They surrounded her in a frenzy of killing. The "Queen" was killed, then respawned in the same spot to be killed again....
On the screen, flashing again and again in bold characters, were the words: "Heavens! The Queen of Chu has been slain by an undistinguished young _____!"
Lu Yang suddenly felt that she had been truly stupid before. She cared nothing for her other self, that "Queen." She exited the game, turned off the computer, and went to bed.
Never to ReturnThe old monarch abdicates, a new ruler ascends the throne—why is there enmity?—yet another myth of wealth—never to return
The next day, Lu Yang went online and announced her abdication as "monarch." She discovered that the world here was even more real than the real world—cruelly real. She had tried to challenge the kill or be killed law of the world, to confront the system, but it was all for naught. Now she was completely sick of it.
A new crack warrior with a lust for battle took the throne as "monarch" and immediately announced a new war. The "Queen" and her clan did not take part. The Kingdom of Chu returned in defeat. A low-level character who had previous run with the "Queen" was held captive by the enemy like a fish under the knife. He would respawn in a safe zone, but whenever he tried to leave the zone he was killed. This was a new gamer whose account did not have much money; he could not even afford a "bamboo dragonfly" that would allow him to leave safely.
Lu Yang felt sorry for these gamers who had originally sought some pleasure in playing the game but who were sacrificed by "RMB gamers" venting their fury or satisfying their desire for conquest. She went online and looked at the swarm of virtual characters: behind a stately mage might be a prim businessman, behind a mighty warrior might be a doctor like herself, or anyone who in real life was a kind, modest person.
"Why should a doctor want to kill a teacher? Why does someone who is a cop in real life want to harm others in a game?" Lu Yang pondered these strange questions. "Why is there such enmity between strangers?"
She began to notice those specialist reference texts on the bookshelf that she once had looked through fairly often. They sat there all lined up as if they had been gone for ages and had suddenly reappeared. The air grew chilly long before Lu Yang turned her head to notice that the leaves outside the window had begun to change color, their pale yellow filling one's mind with peace.
The last time she went online was not long ago. At that time, ZT Online had declared that some regions had changed their "binding" rules. The company had successfully listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and its third-quarter operating income was 405.2 million yuan, with a profit of 290.2 million. This represented an astonishing 164% and 152% climb over the same period the previous year. The company had a book value of 6.8 billion RMB.
Yet another fairytale of wealth. According to media estimates, Shi Yuzhu would place among the richest Chinese with a personal fortune of 50 billion.
The system generously began to "circulate stock" in the game, announcing that as the share price rose, gamers could swap for "silver" at the same rate. But Lu Yang no longer cared for these seductive new toys; she went online at the insistence of a friend who wanted to have a "wedding ceremony" online.
Lu Yang remained quiet, hiding herself among the well-wishers, but someone recognized her. It was a warrior who held a flashing blade in his hand that showed off his power and might. "I know you," he said. "You led us when I had just started playing. We're still a threat now." He told her that he was planning a new war.
Who was he? Someone who had come to her for protection? Or someone she had rescued from an enemy kingdom? Lu Yang could not remember. She felt nothing so much as that the awe-inspiring rising stars resembled her earlier self, full of the same ambition, the same sense that they had discovered a wonderful new world.
She said nothing in reply. Then she logged off, never to return.
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Books on China
The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.