Caixin
Jul 26, 2017 04:44 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Caught in Battle Over Internet Addiction, Tencent’s ‘Honour of Kings’ Makes Pre-emptive Strike

Tencent Holdings Ltd. has placed its own set of restrictions on the addictive mobile game
Tencent Holdings Ltd. has placed its own set of restrictions on the addictive mobile game "Honor of Kings" in a bid to keep regulators at bay. Above, customers play "Honour of Kings" in a crawfish restaurant in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, on June 21. Photo: Visual China

After a few fruitless attempts to regulate China’s lucrative and dynamic gaming industry, the government’s mission to ward off the addictive effects of one of the world’s most gripping games has fallen into the hands of its creators — the very people thriving on its popularity.

Tencent’s “Honour of Kings” has recently been a highlight of both headlines and bottom lines since its launch just short of two years ago.

The mobile game, in which each player chooses a character with unique abilities and teams up with four others to engage in a battle aimed at destroying the opposing team’s base, has basked in the glory of monumental success.

It has raked in nearly 2 billion yuan ($296 million) in revenue in a single quarter, turning it into a cash cow for its owner, Asia’s largest tech company. Every day, “Honour of Kings” hauls in 150 million yuan in revenue from virtual in-game gear.

Despite these record-breaking figures, “Honour of Kings” has not been immune from the issue of internet addiction. But rather than leave itself at the mercy of often-unpredictable regulation, Tencent Holdings Ltd. has pre-emptively placed its own set of restrictions on the game in a bid to keep regulators at bay.

Hooked on digital ‘pesticide’

A textbook example of the “multiplayer online battle arena” (MOBA) game genre, “Honour of Kings” has taken the phenomenal popularity of other MOBA titles designed for the desktop, such as “Defense of the Ancients” and “League of Legends,” to the new realm of mobile.

More than 200 million people were playing “Honour of Kings” in April, when Tencent last disclosed figures for the game.

That means more than one-third of China’s 560 million gamers has waged war on the game’s virtual battlefield. Brought to life by an internal incubator of about 100 people at Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen, “Honour of Kings” has elegantly combined the round-the-clock flexibility of mobile gaming with social networking, an area where the Tencent penguin is indisputably king.

In “Honour of Kings,” one can take on opponents alongside pals from college, groups of office buddies, or any team of acquaintances connected via Tencent’s social networking platforms WeChat or QQ. The social connectivity is one of the game’s major draws — one so strong that “Honour of Kings” has been given the epithet “pesticide” due to its toxic qualities. (The Mandarin words for “pesticide” and “honour” rhyme.)

“We should not underestimate how much player interaction has contributed to the game’s success,” said Shou Peng, vice president of game developer China Film Group Entertainment. “Popularity snowballs when there’s a lot of player synergy. You’ll quickly get drawn in when all of your friends are on it and constantly discussing it.”

“The game itself is actually not that spectacular,” said Tian Feng, who researches youth social problems at the China Academy of Social Sciences. “The reason players are drawn back time and again is that the game is a place to socialize.”

WeChat has chat groups devoted to dissecting gameplay and sharing tactics, and the conversation frequently swings to topics unrelated to gaming. These close-knit circles of acquaintances can spawn social gatherings. Groups of five players sometimes get together in person to better devise strategies and coordinate tactics while they play.

However, it is the game’s ability to hook players that has put it in the state media spotlight. For a week straight in July, the official People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency — in editorial after denouncing editorial — blasted “Honour of Kings,” blaming the game for exacerbating the country’s compulsive gaming problem.

With headlines like “Honour of Kings: Fun and Games, or Destructive to Society?” and “Don’t Let Online Games Rule Your Lives,” the editorials sent Tencent shares down by more than 4% from July 3 to July 4, temporarily denting the company’s valuation by 

HK$110 billion ($14.1 billion).

The bashing in state media, however, had taken a cue from Tencent’s own initiatives a couple of days earlier to get ahead of accusations of game addiction — possibly before harsher rules came crashing down.

Protecting the youth

On July 2, Tencent put a ceiling on nonstop gaming by underage players. Although gamers under the age of 18 make up a small proportion of players, the media has seized on the demographic with stories about how underage players have leaped from buildings or decimated their family’s finances due to the addictive allure of “Honour of Kings.”

As part of its own measures, Tencent created a real-name registration system that identified players under the age of 18. It also set a 9 p.m. curfew and a one-hour time limit for players under 12. For players 12 to 17 years old, Tencent limited the playing time to two hours. The company also built a monitoring system that allows parents to keep an eye on how much their children are playing and even switch off the game remotely if necessary.

“Safeguarding people’s children from addiction is in essence defending the game itself,” said Li Min, the game’s core developer, in an open letter on Sunday, implying that the game would still be under fire by parents and annoyed relatives even if regulators hadn’t done anything.

Regulating the 102-billion-yuan-plus mobile gaming industry chiefly falls on two government bodies — the Ministry of Culture, and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

However, the fuzzy division of responsibilities between the two bodies has in the past led to turf wars that have hurt game developers. In 2009, the ministry and the administration could not agree on whether the hit computer game “World of Warcraft,” which was also embroiled in the gaming-addiction debate, should be admitted into the country. When the Culture Ministry gave its approval but the administration refused, the game had to be briefly shelved.

In June 2016, the administration tightened oversight over the kinds of games allowed in the country when it issued its “guidelines on regulation over mobile game publication.” The guidelines stipulated that all titles on the market at the beginning of July 2016 must obtain an official license number that indicates they had passed a series of reviews on characteristics of game, including language, graphics and sound effects.

Winning government approval for game publishing has the potential to get even more complicated because several other government bodies, such as the national Women’s Federation and the Cyberspace Administration of China, want to have a say as well.

“When too many bodies try to get a word in, nothing gets accomplished,” said Zhu Wei, a professor of media studies at the Communication University of China.

The stringent and extensive approval process has created a large regulatory backlog. Even though regulators review 500 games on average each month, there are still 9,000 to 10,000 existing games awaiting approval.

As the government becomes overwhelmed with the backlog of games seeking approval, Zhu fears that the most popular and controversial titles, such as “Honour of Kings,” will feel the brunt of regulatory scrutiny.

“Sure, there are many things about this game that could be improved, but in terms of quality, it’s still up there at the top,” Zhu said. “But if regulators target this game, it will soon be done for, and that would be very sad for the industry.”

Contact reporter April Ma (fangjingma@caixin.com)

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