Electronic games

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.

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.

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"Queen" Lu Yang sits in a web cafe VIP room taking her final journey.

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 War

Everyone 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 Dead

The 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 Queen

Animosity 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."

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Paying to open a treasure chest is ZT Online's lottery, "like a casino slot machine."

"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 Weary

The "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 Deep

Hoping 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.

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ZT Online is one of the most popular online games in web cafes.

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 Prison

A 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 Return

The 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.


  • Note 1: 秒杀, "SecKill", is one of the 171 new Chinese words chosen by the Ministry of Education in August, 2007 (Baidupedia link).
  • Note 2: "System," 系统, is set in a different typeface most of the times it appears in the text. For the translation, italics have been used. In dialogue and in certain other contexts, it is not distinguished from the surrounding text.
  • Note 3: Gamers can draw 100 yuan for being online more than 120 hours in one month. They are paid in virtual currency, but gamers can trade them for cash.
  • Note 4: Changes to reduce gold-farming brought about a shareholders' lawsuit against Giant Interactive on 26 November (link).
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There are currently 63 Comments for Gamble your life away in ZT Online.

Comments on Gamble your life away in ZT Online

Thanks so much for translating this, I'm trying to think who on my MSN list hasn't told me to go read this already.

Wow, any plans for an international edition?

@Inst
As soon as China runs out of gold farmers, because one can never have enough black iron swords.

Thanks for translation and traceback my blog entry:) So this is a link which includes this English version of the article.

The translation really rocks!
To let the others know how terrible the online games are.

BTW, may I paste it to my team blog in English ( Chinese authors writing in English ) with a backlink and announcement to this ?

Thanks.

Feel free. Glad you enjoyed it.

i really appreciate the efforts by u to translate the entire stuff. MMORPG has been dominating the gaming industry for a long time now but recently websites like Zapak have been offering free online arcade games.Many of them do have some interesting concepts. In near future do u feel that arcade games would overtake or equal to the might of MMORPG?

Ashi

Well, I think these two types of games differ in their targeted markets. The on-line arcade games are mostly for the casual, and quick fix gaming crowds. By quick fix gaming I mean people who wants to play, perhaps during work, for some quick gaming action. A quick fix gamer can also be a casual gamer, or a hardcore gamer (quick fix at work, but does hardcore gaming at home). Also note by on-line arcade I exclude those arcade games on networks such as X-Box live.

Then you have the hardcore gamers. My definition of hardcore gamers are those who play some sort of console or P.C game minus web based flash games and puzzle games (but you can get pretty hardcore about those). You can have a casual hardcore gamer :).

So these two markets are at least separate, in some ways.

But I'm just guessing here, not basing this off anything but some pondering on my part.

I don't see on-line MMORPGS dying tho. Video gaming as a medium is still at a stage of infancy. On a technology level just look at how many years it took for films to advance to the current state. But I believe that games can be much more than mere technology show-cases, I believe they are capable of invoking deep emotions, in ways similar to books and films, but interactive.

Sure, you may say, but I don't have time to do hardcore gaming, I just don't care for it. I think mostly it is due to the presentation, imagine a Wii like phenomenon for on-line games! You will always have gaming nerds and geeks, but as time goes on, gaming will only gain more wider acceptance. Heck, it is already pretty main-stream. Think crap like 2nd life. Now think a game like 2nd life, but with Wii like innovation.



Hello, does anyone know any Chinese education based MMO games, for kids 6-14?

check out red mushroom for educational based mmo for kids

thanks

A recent Danwei podcast featured Robert Ness talking to Red Mushroom's Bill Bishop about 宝宝蹦蹦 (Baobaobengbeng), a kids' mmo.

I thought this article was an O.K. read for a little more detailed look into what these gamers are thinking when they play this type of game.

No, I'm not talking about an MMO, these games are nothing like an MMO. It doesn't take any skill to insert-coin-here for essentially "beating" the game.

These chinese and korean-style MMO's will never become popular in NA, or much of anywhere else for that matter, simply because real gamers see them as they are: hollow games with no challenge s that are nothing but easy scams.

An MMO such as ZT Online is no different than countless other MMO's like World of Warcraft or EVE Online. They all seek to exploit superficial aspects of Human Nature.

The number one question people should be asking themselves is: "Does this game present a story that is worth experiencing, or does this game have a unique game design mechanic that I enjoy playing in the moment?"

In ZT Online, Lu Yang began to ponder such things. Was opening 5,000 chests really an enjoyable game experience?

I tend to disregard most MMO's as video games, and instead classify them as "Remedial Task Simulators for Gratuitus Social Gratification". MMO's everywhere prey on an individual's need for social gratification. People want acceptance. They want to be noticed and feel important. This often has a direct correlation to a persons real life. Walking around in your new armor, and weapon expecting people are going to notice you is no different than walking around in brand new clothes and a fresh haircut in real life. 99% of the time nobody cares, and nobody is going to notice you. Ever been on a walk on an empty street, and some person in his Camero feels the need to rev his engine and roar out of the intersection just because you are there? Talk about a cry for attention.

Without discouragement, the many players will bypass all rules in order to raise to a position in the game that would give them the largest social response. A perfect example of this would be Phantasy Star Online. This is a great game to play, if you play by its rules, and play to enjoy the gameplay like-minded individuals. However when the Dreamcast servers were active in North America, this game was completly destroyed. Most of the players would duplicate/hack game items, attempt to corrupt other users game saves, crash the server, and make idling in public lobbies an extremely unpleasant experience.

This is not isolated to just MMO's. It is same reason why you have such a raging display of testosterone on Socom US Navy SEALs, or why people who play 2D Fighting games online yank their ethernet cord before a loss can effect their ranking.

Here is another example that is a bit more personal, but I am sure everyone can attest to:

Has anyone had friends over to play multiplayer games, only to have someone/everyone get extremely frustrated? So frustrated that if they are not winning, the game sessons start to deteriorate to the point where someone is going to toss their controller and quit? This is when a person brings their alterior motives to the game experience. They play the game merely to setup a social environment where they can place themselves higher on some hypothetical totem pole. Interestingly enough, it isn't just losing that can bring out such traits, but a winners gloating and insecure taunts can do just the same.

The ideal gaming scenario is one where say 2 people are playing a game of chess. Both players know there will be a loser and a winner, and respect the rules of the game. At the end of the match, these rules are appreciated so much, that a loser is just has happy to lose, as they would be if they were victorious. They shaking hands with their opponent, looking forward to the next match. If only every online game session could be as such.

Hopefully Lu Yang has discovered real time strategy games like the Civilization series where she can play against a friend, to get a positive experience win or lose.

i play 2 chinese MMORPG's run by TQ called conquer online and eudemons online and both of these have similar systems..the games are both free to play but encourage you to buy point cards which you can use in game to purchase equipments etc and even lvl up quicker..these games are both dominated by the people who spend the most rl money on them which in turn makes the games boring to play for the people who can't spend rl money :(

Ben,

I must not have as much experience as you playing on-line, because I have never experienced the things you mentioned in your posts.

Well, I played WOW up to lvl 40, due to time constraints I had to quit. Anyway, I found it every entertaining, mainly because it allows me to quest with friends. A game like WOW is about socializing and not about climbing some totem pole, IMHO.

The other on-line game I play regularly is COD2 with the War Realism Mod (check out the 82ndab server, google 82ndab). Everyone on these servers are very mature; everyone is looking for the hard-core realism (well for a video game) WWII experience. You should try it. No HALO2 run and gun there. God I hate those games.

Anything amusing? One man's meat is another's poison.

Thank you for your english translation of Giant Interactive. When I was in China recently it was very difficult to come home to Canada and explain the emotional hobby. Since GA has almost no analyst coverage it has been difficult understanding Shi Yuzhu creation. Thank you again for the only article written in english!

To be fair, people yank the cords in 3D fighting games too: I'd say, probably one in every twenty people I fight in Virtua Fighter 5 does it.

I would argue that the "real gamers here in NA see this for what it is" business is irrelevant. The endgame of WoW eventually boils down to players raiding the same dungeon over and over again for loot, and that's basically the crux of every MMO: keep repeating this one task forever. Whether you're paying monthly or you're paying every time you spin the wheel is besides the point: you're paying.

Anyway, MMOs hinge on either time or money. Skill is always an element to some extent, but time and money both trump it. ZT seems to take both from you, and then really pares it down to "you're a sucker, pay us to item grind". I must admit, the article illustrates a kind of devious brilliance on the part of the designers.

What brilliance? Any drug dealer knows this. It's not that the designer are smart, it's just most people are fu**in stupid. Okay, okay, a big sorry to you druggies out there, for comparing you with MMO players.

Amazing Story. If you want an example of this in NA mmo culture, look at Maple Story. Same idea. Easy to play for free up to the point where they get you hooked, then you spend money to continue up the level and social ladder.

Good article. Sad though.

Sometimes I look at the sidebars advertising those "play for free" games so popular in Asia. Now I'll just shake my head and wander off to play WoW.

A shocking article, and a dangerous reminder. Good work.

A well written article, I really enjoyed the story telling element of it.

This reminds me of the year or so I lost playing Lineage. Being a power gamer I really did feel that everytime I disconnected I was falling behind... letting the team down, losing respect.

Slowly but surly the glory fades, and the time sync's involved get elevated with increaslingly diminished returns. The 15 star elder sword made me laugh... then cry a little.

My experience with MMO's is that they are very similar to one big drug trip. A high when you find out this world is for you, a further elevation when you become a master at it, followed by a dissapointing low when you realize all your efforts into it will ultimatly amount to nothing but time wasted.

The worst part about these games is that they keep you attached far longer than they should either because youv'e already invested too much time (or in the case above, money)to stop. Or your loathe to lose the friends that you have made through the countless hours of playtime.

It was only a matter of time until a profiteer found the best way to take advantage of those willing to infuse money into the game...

I really appreciate you posting this article.

As someone who played FFXI for over four years and eventually quit because she couldn't stand forcing her friends to put themselves out for HOURS any time she needed to get ANYTHING achieved, I am the type of person who will play an MMO until I get to the "lather, rinse, repeat" point of a game and then I'll move on.

I just now started playing WoW, and I am fully aware that the endgame will push me into that mode. I have no desire to repeat the same tasks. My plan (for now) is to get to that point, then experience the lower levels again with new jobs and races. Right now, I enjoy exploring and questing alone, but the idea of becoming a workhorse (again) is absolutely repugnant to me, and doesn't constitute a "game" at all.

I just wish more gamers felt the same way, or were willing to stand up the way that Lu did in the end.

Thankfully, our MMO developers know that they can't get away with quite so much obvious scammery... I'm really frightened by how much the makers of ZT Online have gotten away with.

ZT Online sounds exactly like most Korean MMO. There is only grind and PvP, and the only way to be truly effective at PvP is to spend real-world money on better equipment.

This is different from World of Warcraft or EVE Online, in which all items are available in-game; there is no purchase-only equipment.

An interesting article, but I find it interesting that it didn't note that though the system is designed to abuse the customers and milk as much money as it can from them, the customers simply sit back and take it. Rather than simply leave and move onto a new game, she tried to subvert the system by passive resistance and constantly complaining about it - something that rarely works even in real life, much less in an online game where the administrator might as well be a god, ruling the game world through divine right and with divine might. Yet Lu Yang stuck around for a significant amount of time, eventually dipping to the point of her ineffectual protest, in which she was literally paying Shi Yuzhu money for the ability to criticize his game; though, as she soon found out, having the ability to do so does not equal being allowed to do so. It interests me that most see her being sent to prison as the punishment, when it seems to me that it was merely done to silence her and make an example of her; the real punishment was not getting a refund for the money she spent on those messages. The art of making an online game is that of simply maintaining a careful balance between keeping the users happy and taking their money. ZT Online may be outrageously money-grubbing, but in the world of capitalism that's not a bad thing till the customers refuse to put up with it anymore. And since Shi Yuzhu still has a large and extremely profitable userbase, that means that you can complain all you want, in the end he's the winner.

This tendency to sit around and complain rather than dealing with a problem or ditching an unsolvable one is not something that's unique to China, MMOs, or even the internet, either. I wonder if psychologists and social scientists have started doing studies based on MMOs yet? They're a convenient way to model the natural behavior of humans in a group and the effects of a greater force (such as a government) shaping the system, without the inconveniences of people ACTUALLY murdering each other.

Brilliant article, fascinating story.

While it would be nice to think that these types of games would never take off in north america, games like Maple Story or Rappelz are doing quite well for themselves.

Next time you're at a major chain grocery store, look at the gift cards. There's a very good chance you'll see maple story 'gift cards' right up there with i-tunes.

The effects on players and in-game politics remind me of the game Tibia. It's strange how seriously people can take these games, and how much they really can be changed by them.

I played WoW for around 2 years. It was enjoyable leveling up and then raiding with my guild. Then they released the Burning Crusade expansion and most of my epic gear got replaced within 5 levels. So I stopped playing. If I had continued I would have had to do the same thing again when the next expansion releases.

Before that I played EVE online for about 6 months. By that time I had a nice cruiser and some decent stuff. Then I accidentally went into a 0.0 security zone. I died in about 15 seconds without any chance. In that game when your ship gets blown up it is gone forever, no respawns, you have to buy another. Sure you can have insurance, but it doesn't cover it entirely and doesn't cover anything in your cargo hold. So I quit.

You despair when you realize your effort has been for nothing.

So I realized some things about how to make a MMO that would stay fun forever.

1: PVP needs to be completely voluntary.
Players with no skill or bad latency shouldn't be terrorized by crazed pvp-ers
2: No penaltys for dying.
Nothing makes you despair like losing hours/day/months of work from a accidental death
3: Smooth, constant and infinite leveling.
Players love that noise when they gain a level. Getting that little reward every few days will keep them coming back
4: Reflexes bad, Strategy good.
In most games, having either bad reflexes or bad latency can cripple you. A game that requires careful thought and planning to excel could also have the bonus side effect of weeding out the iritating imature little kids that everyone hates
5: A standard monthly rate.
Scamming people out of their money is bad for society.
6: Customization.
Lost of customization. Lots and lots of it. Overwhelming amounts. Players love customization. Not just interface but in-game too. So much that you will never find two players the same.

Thats all I can think of at the moment.

Vorp, that sounds like City of Heroes. :) PvP only in specially-marked zones, death slows your progress for a while but doesn't actually *remove* anything, and the character creator has more options for your looks than any other game, ever. Best of all? Your costume is completely independent from how your powers work, so you don't end up wearing the same "best" gear as everyone else!

There's only 50 levels and there really isn't a lot to do at level 50, so I guess in a way progress *is* infinite - if you roll another alt. :)

Hm, i'm sure you're not an malicious person really, with your ending statement and everything, but I see your kind of reasoning all the time and it never ends to confuse me. What do you demand of people? That they somehow by brute force get what they want or, if not, just shut up? Or that irresponsible capitalism is ok because you can get away with it? Or that the blame should be put on the people that you know get suckered in as a rule, not the ones knowingly exposing them for the fraud and setting it all up. Saying Shi Yuzhu is the winner in the end is admitting him as legitimate, when he really shouldn't be and isn't on an ultimately true equation of consequence.

comment directed at 'Gelmax'.

Wow, this was an excellent article. It's real interesting to see how other companies handle microtransactions and what that means in terms of character as well as game growth.

It looks like they make the maximum amount of money by constantly moving the carrot. In a regular pay-to-play MMO you'd lose people in droves, but I guess if you do it right you can make a killing.

Excellent article and translation! The game described seems to possess several things that I feel are missing in WoW [my current favorite] - things like organized realm vs realm PvP, territory control and taxation thereof, social ladders with tangible benefits, system-provoked intrigues, etc., that make me interested in playing it, or at least reading more about it. But the negative aspects - grinding, cash gaming, global binding - I've seen and grown sick of. When is Tamriel Online coming out?

Actually, Guild Wars sounds like another nice online game. They classify themselves as CORPG "Competitive Online RPG" which lets you just buy the game "$10" and you can play for free. You cannot buy in-game items, people cannot kill you there unless you go in the PvP arenas, and there is a nice story w/ cinematics (like in single-player games) which you can play with friends. It really is a one-time fee and they have 2 other GW stand-alone campaigns that you can play also. I'm actually more of a gamer who plays for the story (like FF games or NWN) but my friends bought me GW so i can play w/ them :). Anyways, it is a fun game which you can easily pickup and drop

Yeah, all the items Vorp mentioned apply to City of Heroes / Villains, except that you need quick reflexes (but only for PvP, PvE not so much). And the customization is overwhelming.

You can see some pics on different heroes/vills here:

http://s51.photobucket.com/albums/f372/v0gu3b0y/coh/

But Meagean I think there's still quite a bit to do at level 50, it's just that most players don't like the Shadow Shards, but even then, lots of AV missions both in Gradville and PI. Of course nothing like the super endgame content I hear about in WoW.

@Ben
As someone that's played a few MMOs, as well as their spiritual predecessors MUDs, I have to say you missed an important part of the experience. For me, the most satisfying thing about the games isn't a need to impress others, but the satisfaction of working with others to accomplish a common goal. Being part of a team where each member can be counted on to do a good job and where you don't need to worry about the other members of your group, just your own tasks is a very fulfilling experience.

@Vorp
Interesting ideas. The strategy versus reflex thing is a bit tough to pull off though, particularly in an online game. The ultimate strategy system of course is the old turn based combat systems, which of course leads to a problem because it slows down combat immensely once you start to get beyond 2 or 3 players, not to mention the problems encountered with high latency, or people that go AFK in the middle of a battle forcing the others to wait for them.

Infinite progression is also difficult to pull off because you either end up with infinite grind for no real gain, or characters with massively disparate power levels and capabilities which ruins group dynamics. Perhaps a good compromise is a system similar to that implemented by City of Heroes and City of Villains in which low level characters can be temporarily "boosted" by high level characters, or high level characters can opt to "nerf" themselves down to lower power levels so that everyone can achieve a sort of temporary parity. Ultimately though you still need to solve the problem of how to continually provide new content and challenges to a ever more powerful player base without alienating new players with an insurmountable climb to achieve anything.

As a gamer, I find the basic premise of this game, real money for in-game power, abhorrent. This game is disgraceful and disgusting.

i have to quickly disagree with the generalization of american and european mmo'ers. The current world record holder for fastest level 70 in WoW is a German player with help from like two people. It's almost like he said there are no american or european WoW players who are into pvp which we all know is not true ;P

Thank you very much for the insightful article.

While it is a generalisation, many post-gamers, particularly the online variant, will explain how games just get the better of their lives.

Speaking from personal experience I spent around four years on one online game. Then circumstances beyond my own immediate control ensured that I could not play for a few months.

Initially, the first few days, I was very sore from not being able to log on. That was my lifestyle. Then after a week I realised (though still wanting to play) that nothing I hade done had carried over into the rest of my life.

Instead the opposite was true - I had stepped away from life, and consequently everything was diminished.

Friends moved on, lost contact with my family, pets grew older, stopped reading and exercising. Let's not consider what happened to my studies or self respect. It didnt matter at the time, my 'character' was everything.

All of my knowledge of game stats, different item combinations, background reading is all in the past. A lot of effort but it means nothing now, no one cares and the cost was my family, friends, the animals I grew up with and myself.

It is very disturbing to realise when you 'get away' not only how insubstantial these activities can be but how much they take away from your life as a person in relation to others.

Unlike appreciating social company, personal development and so on when you live your life in a game nothing is reciprocated, the nexus of aspects that represents our individual lives is not enriched.

Plenty of gamers will mention ensuring priorities, to those I vaguely agree, but my post is not addressed to those who make those claims and live up to them. Although many think working alone sufficies as priorities go.

Im adding these comments for those who like many of us really enjoy the whole online gaming experience too much and as a result diminish the rest of our lives.

The problem is I would not have really heeded my own advice so long ago, instead only through losing much and then being forced apart from my unreal dreams have I come to realise that none of what I did matters anymore. No one cares about it, but everyone and everything I care about is older, less closer or have passed on.

Games are not 'evil', it is just far too easy for many of us to get carried away and lose out on what matters most.

While I agree that leveling in American MMOs can be extremely tedious, the idea of a games where the winner is the guy with the most money is, in my opinion, a stupid design. Besides, what happened to communism? Isn't that, like, the most capitalist thing you can possibly think of?

I would prefer that my skill be the deciding factor in my victories, as opposed to my billfold.

Nice story. I quit WOW a while back because I figured I'd beaten it when I got my wholly gratuitously unnecessary epic dragon mount. And literally, I did just up and quit the game at that point.

EVE Online is a decent game, mainly because you level while you're not playing, so it doesn't really eat up that much time -- log in from time to time, update what skill you're training, and log off. I'm gaining just as much XP as people in the game, but I can go outside, exercise, hang out with my girlfriend, etc., while "playing" the game. Much more my cup of tea.

While I kind of sympathize with the girl in this story, she's also kind of a retard to get that deep into it and not realize that the system is just designed to suck all your money out of you.

Really greedy MMOs like ZT Online are wholly enabled by people keeping a separate virtual accounting of their self worth, based on in-game statistics. People want to strive to be above the crowd, to be special, revered and unique and break out of their mediocrity but they can't figure out how. They never get above their mediocrity and averageness though as, after all, 50% of people are below average. They then try and rise above it with luck schemes like the lottery or gambling. These MMOs just let you pay for it and you get this separate in-game accounting that tells you over and over again that you're a winner.

Great article.

This reminds me of similar "MMORPGs", Second Life and Entropia Universe, where there is no fee to play, but doing anything in-world requires infusion of money. While somewhat entertaining to play, I hope people will recognize that these "games" are essentially gambling systems that will never pay out more money than is put in.

Pay money to win at these games? .. What? Am I missing something? Just play free games! Something like TomatoGames.com or CrazyMonkeyGames.com is fun and FREEEEEE!

All MMOs are the same. They all have some "catch 22" that is there to keep you there. If these games had a logical finite end, this animosity the article speaks of would not exist, and the vast majority of players would stop playing.
Anyone with common sense can see the business principles at work here. It's simply not profitable to have your target market use someone else's competing product... so they come up with ways to keep you there, whether it be grind or real life money.

It's a sad story. One that I wish more people were aware of these days.

While ZT Online is certainly an extreme case of the evils of MMORPGs, I fail to see the genre itself as legitimate. In ZT Online, the man with the most money wins; in other MMORPGs, the kid with the most free time and the greatest boredom threshold (one must be really resistant to tedium to level up) wins... what's the point of either?

I couldn't make it past level 10 in WoW. Suddenly, after killing the tenth kobold/wolf/whatever which had never done anything to my character, for no particular reason, I yawned and thought "wait, is that all there is to this game? My friends kept babbling about how the "immense abundance of quests" always kept one going and stuff, and yet all the two dozen quests I have seen so far are exactly the same: "Kill X creatures of species Y" (Or retrieve X items of type Y, which are only carried by creatures of type Z, and which you can only obtain by slaying them, same crap. :) ). It completely eludes me how a game so mind-numbingly ill-conceived and boring can have such an immense paying following.

On principle, I refuse to play any multiplayer game with levels. Would anyone play Chess if some players started with extra queens/knights/bishops or could make extra moves per round? Would that be considered fair?
Of course it wouldn't. The pinnacle of gaming for me? Starcraft and similars. A town hall and four workers is all you always start with, and everything from that point on is up to the competitors' skill and nothing else. That's what gaming is all about. :)

I've read a lot of the posts here, and while I think that "paying for loot and status" is absolutely absurd, most of everyone posting here is forgetting why people play games like WOW, or any MMORPG in general.

For many these games represent a new kind of social construct for people that maybe wouldn't be that social otherwise. When I log on to WoW (yes I actively play) I have people that I quest with and run instances with, who share their profits with me,and help me advance in the game. We also use ventrilo and crack jokes tell stories and, essentially, hang out in the game like you would at lets say a bar or a friends house. Admittedly I sometimes get burned out, and stop playing for some time, but when I log back in my friends are all still there, and it's like I never left.

The other aspect of the MMORPG genre that you all seem to be forgetting is the fact that these games are "RPGs" and all of them stem from old RPG traditions like leveling up, questing, gaining new skills and powerful new weapons and armor through the completion of dungeons and other types of instances. These games are not for everyone, even if you like the social aspects of the game, many people will and do grow frustrated with endless leveling and the time that it takes to master their chosen class and get gear. However for someone like me thats what I subscribed to and thats what I wanted out of the game.

Sure no game is perfect and WoW definitely has its faults, but for me its an on going and exciting experience. I will say however that ZT Online's kind of micro transaction scheme is insulting to me as a MMO gamer and I find it to perverse the whole point of what and RPG is meant to be. Which ultimately is the advancement of your avatar through time spent, foes defeated, and challenges overcome, all retold over a pint of ale with your friends at the local tavern.

Wow, this was an amazing read. What an amazing article, thank you so much.

Hmm, it seems to me that the problem is that both systems suffer from a disparity of potential based on the sistuation of the player. Is it fair for, say, WOW players who are students or unemployed and have more time to devote to play than a working professional to be able to level much faster than someone who has obligations to work and family and cannot spend as much time playing? Is it fair to the gamer with a wealth of free time to have to devote hours to gain in-game ability when a working professional can easily afford to buy the same ability with real world money? Interesting questions with no clear resolutions in the current gaming climate. It's the ethics of the new millenia and whomever can solve both those inequities in the same MMO will come out on top...

I would first like to say that it's supprisingly refressing to see intelligent conversation on the interwebs...

I would also like to add that MMORPG's, in general, are a conventional game, mixed with a chatroom. You have a story, and goals (regardless of weather they're set by the game, or by yourself), even if it is protracted over a large space of time, but they also have social interation, and shared objectives, dissagreements, friendships, and enemies.

Traditionally, the game has always being about the act of playing, you don't play a game just to get to the end, you play a game to experience GETTING to the end - the journey is the destination and all that. Unfortunately, the MMORPG muddies the pure water of gaming philosophy, as all of a sudden conventional social interactions come into play - you want to keep up with your friends, be superior to your enemies (or depending on personality, superior to your friends as well), and you wish to be welcomed, loved and accepted by those you communicate with in your chosen medium of interaction. whilst many people may be content to play the game, and be valued in their circle of contact for other reasons (being funny, playing with honour etc), others will be drawn into "buying" their value within the game and the social circles they inhabit, and once several (or all) people are doing this, it becomes a slippery slope, where the ones who previously were happy to play without purchasing goods are now outsiders, because the bar has been raised too high to reach.

Personally i believe that while real-money stores in MMO's should be allowed,the ratio of real money cost vs in-game hours to acquire should be maintained, such that whilst you can pay money to obtain levels or goods, you could be equally as powerfull by simply playing the game for a comensurate number of hours.

Otherwise, you're going to send people broke as they attempt to fit in.

As long as people are are free to play or not as they choose and the terms of play are clear, I can't criticize how a game designer decides how to run their game. They want to be successful, just like those who play.

Casey, the problem with your ratio idea is, is that while they print more money every day, there is only a set amount of hours in the week. There are only two things I can think of that can help balance:

1. No payment-exclusive equipment.
If a guy can beat you because he's bought a Holy Sword of Lightning + 42 with his cash, and you can only use the free stuff, you're going to be irritated. It's human nature.
2. A level cap.
I know that one of Vorp's ideas was no level cap, but with a level cap powerful players can stand side by side as equals, regardless of cash or time.

I believe Guild Wars is a very interesting take on the issues mentioned above; the only game I've played that really challenges the MMO mold, while still being a traditional MMO.
It really was designed for both the casual player, as well as the hardcore kids with oodles of time.

Of course, anyone that gets caught in the social-ladder climbing of MMOs, can certainly still get caught in Guild Wars - it's just not necessary to fit in, or to compete on a level playing field in player-versus-player gameplay.
Also, due to the intelligently designed skill-based system, PVP games are generally won by the player that is smarter, or has greater skill - something I haven't seen in any other MMO (which are typically won by the person with better gear ie. more time to grind, or more money spent).

Overall, I find it to be a very cleverly designed game. It provides a nice balance; or perhaps as near a balance as can be achieved in such a genre.

I'll be very interested to see if Guild Wars 2 can maintain this kind of balance, or if it ends up like every other MMO.

Firstly great article, if depressing how people get suckered into these scams.

Whatever ZT Online and its kind are they are not traditional games, traditional games follow a set of principles and combine skill+luck+reflexes in a certain way, money and wealth is not part of them, this is more gambling/a scam.

As for other people's comments comparing games like WoW or EQ2 as being a similar scam I disagree though. They do take a long time to play, so people who are not prepared for this won't enjoy that, but at their heart these games model a world so should take a long time, but the levelling itself is not the end of the game.

Instead levelling is a mechanism there to tell the story and control how you explore the world, it stops you skipping chapters in that story and makes you eager to level to get to the next chapter at times.

That part of the MMO game then ends at the end cap, where you either decide to PVP, do group dungeons/quests (if there is a lot of content at the end level), Raid, or roll another character.

This last option works only if there is enough content (story) to make it a fulfilling experience, so in this case an MMORPG is more like a choose your own adventure book. Done as the above and a MMO isn't evil, when more money effects the world it corrupts the game, at some point then it just becomes a scam like ZT Online.

As for the MMO taking over your life, in some ways anything really good should make you that enthusiastic, a good book, hobby or film can influence me for months (maybe I have that sort of personality).

But there is a line though when people cannot separate a pleasurable activity that passes the time from things that need to be done in life, that's the point when it gets truly bad. For me I do though try and follow the rule where anything in real life comes ahead of an activity to pass the time (films, books, video games), it sort of works :)

I just finshed reading this article, great translation BTW, and all the comments and realised just how easy people can sucked up into cash scams like ZT Online. That's all i've got to say.

Personally, I think this tells the story of thousands of gamers. Disillusioned by lost time and money, they finally reach the ultimate level of gaming: re-found sanity and lives that are real and meaningful. I have nothing against gaming. I used to while away a rainy day playing X-Com or Outpost. But a virtual sun will never replace the real one, and a virtual ocean will never smell like a real ocean while you have fun under that real sun. So, let me be one of those salesmen in the story: "Hey, I have a new thing for you to try. The most exciting thing there is! It's called Real Life! Come, unplug from that computer, and let me show you how wonderful Real Life is! Believe me, you'll never go back to dark rooms and computers once you're hooked into this game!" Now I'm going to listen to my own sales pitch, and make way out to that beautiful, sunny day just outside my door. Anyone want to go hiking today? :-) Happy New Year to all!

Beautiful article. So many games out there go from fun to grind. In every single game there is an 'upgrade system' this always happens. That's why people should just game casually. It's not like they're professional gamers.

I agree with the comment about Guild Wars. It is completely viable to go through guildwars by oneself without ever trying PVP or parties, there are always friendly henchmen or NPC heroes who help on a mission if real players cannot be found. The system on equipment is fair too, as all equipment have equal power. All upgrades have an equal toll such as less having more power for less health or more damage for less energy.

Great article. If a really difficult balance for these types of game to make the experience fun enough for players who don't pay and make it worthwhile to pay for the ones that do want to pay. The thing that makes it harder is the direct competition between players. Less of a problem in facebook social games. One game that is trying to achieve that balance (not always with success) is www.erepublik.com worth checking out, especially if you want a game that is based on wits & strategy rather than reflexes.

Amazing read. Thank you. And I wish the best upon Lu Yang and her family, and the rest of you online gamers that know how she felt.

To all the people who do not believe that it is easy to get addicted to ZT Online and other games of its type, and who see it as the cash scam that it is, I disagree.
The fact is, regardless of whether or not the person playing has mild OCD or other obsessive disorder that makes them addicted to the game, these types of games pull your strings psychologically. They are designed to get you addicted, they are designed to make you want to play again and again, despite making you repeat task after task.
I've had a friend who got addicted to WOW for example, and he has no disorders and is perfectly normal. Luckily all he wasted was a year or 2 of his life, however it would be the same scenario for someone spending way too much money in an MMO.
I can totally understand why normal people would get sucked into a money trap like this one, and they need to be helped by others, not called a retard or a fool for doing so.

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