Danwei and billsdue have already blogged this stuff, but it's just so brilliant that I have to repost! China's most popular indigenous MMO, ZT Online (征途), which is run by a guy who got rich selling a vitamin tonic, is described in a Southern Weekly article that was taken down after its publication online, but translated into English by Joel Martinsen at Danwei. When you take the time to read the details of the game and the design of the system, it's a bit frightening. It reminds me of the mentality behind some of the Chinese chuanxiao pyramid schemes that I studied in the 1990s. Crazy, crazy situations, where entire business organizations spring up to use the crudest psychological manipulation to extract money from their "members," who often are there because they crave or need social or financial status. In the case of ZT Online, it looks like there is a network of salespeople who pull people into the game, ramp up competition in face to face encounters in web cafes; and then the system itself uses all the tricks at its disposal to get players to spend more money. Tens of thousands of RMB, to become a really powerful player. It's also similar to chuanxiao in that the collectives organized by the system turn and revolt against the system, in this case holding mass sit-ins inside the game. As playnoevil says, "Take everything you "think" is good MMO design and turn it on its head."
The whole article is well worth a read if you haven't already, but here are some of the really good bits:
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.
...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.
..."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.
...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.
..."The [game] 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!"
...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.
Also in the original Danwei post is this wonderful bit from a Southern Weekly sidebar article that characterizes Chinese gamers:
"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."