Vir­tual love pro­duces real money

China Daily European Weekly - - BUSINESS - By HE WEI hewei@chi­nadaily.com.cn in Shang­hai

Chi­nese women are lit­er­ally changing the “game”, giv­ing birth to a po­ten­tially multi­bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness in fe­male-ori­ented gam­ing.

For long, the 30 bil­lion yuan ($4.73 bil­lion; 3.8 bil­lion eu­ros; £3.4 bil­lion) gam­ing mar­ket in China has tar­geted male con­sumers with con­tent full of hard­core ac­tion, weapons, vi­o­lence, ma­cho mus­cu­lar su­per­heroes and shapely girls. Sorry, no cute an­i­mals. Even the color scheme of most games was grey and brown. The tide is turn­ing, though. An in­ter­ac­tive dat­ing game ti­tled

Love and the Pro­ducer, de­vel­oped by Suzhou, Jiangsu prov­ince-based Pa­per Stu­dio, al­lows fe­male play­ers, or gamers, to date four life­like dig­i­tal char­ac­ters or e-boyfriends — po­ten­tial heart­throbs with en­vi­able qual­i­ties and de­sir­able qual­i­fi­ca­tions (a tough CEO, a pow­er­ful po­lice­man, a ge­nius sci­en­tist and a charm­ing en­ter­tain­ment su­per­star).

The game, whose pre­dom­i­nant color scheme is pur­ple and pink, has emerged as an un­likely hit and a run­away com­mer­cial suc­cess: Monthly sales rev­enue since the launch on Dec 20 last year is over 200 mil­lion yuan, ac­cord­ing to data track­ing com­pany Jiguang, and the game is likely to rake in up to 300 mil­lion yuan by the end of the year. In the process, Love and the Pro­ducer is not only rewrit­ing the rules of the gam­ing mar­ket, but shap­ing a new so­cioe­co­nomic dy­namic. In ad­di­tion to the four heart­throbs,

Love and the Pro­ducer boasts an im­mer­sive set­ting and well-crafted graph­ics, which have im­pressed mil­lions of fe­male Chi­nese gamers.

In a sense, Love and the Pro­ducer is akin to Western dystopian sto­ries, ex­cept that the pro­tag­o­nist (that is, the per­son play­ing the game) is fe­male, an am­bi­tious ex­ec­u­tive who has to re­vive a trou­bled TV pro­duc­tion com­pany by launch­ing a riv­et­ing re­al­ity show.

Ac­cord­ing to data tracker Jiguang, more than 7 mil­lion down­loads of the game have been recorded so far. There are 2 mil­lion daily ac­tive users, 94 per­cent of whom are women.

While down­loads are free, the play­ers have so far parted with around 600 mil­lion yuan to keep pro­gress­ing to higher lev­els of the game, just so they can ex­pe­ri­ence the thrills of win­ning the best of the four vir­tual boyfriends.

Un­like in real life, how­ever, the gamer is in no hurry or un­der any pres­sure to choose one of the four e-guys. This as­pect has im­pressed Shen Xuanx­uan, 33, a mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive at a global in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy com­pany in Bei­jing.

For Shen, check­ing “mes­sages” sent by her beloved e-dates has be­come a morn­ing rit­ual. “Cur­rently, I don’t have a boyfriend. The vir­tual char­ac­ters ef­fec­tively fill that void, and they are so good at their job.”

Shen is not alone in her praise for the game. Fe­male play­ers wel­come the free­dom of de­vel­op­ing the sto­ry­line, said Neil Wang, pres­i­dent of Frost & Sul­li­van Greater China.

Love and the Pro­ducer un­folds sev­eral in­ter­twined sto­ry­lines but does not quite delve deeply into any tale. This al­lows play­ers to in­ter­act with the four male char­ac­ters via phone calls and so­cial me­dia apps.

So­cial in­ter­ac­tion, even though dig­i­tized, is a key el­e­ment in at­tract­ing women to gam­ing. A sur­vey on gamer habits con­ducted by con­sul­tancy New­zoo found that women have shown a strik­ingly higher ten­dency than men to go to friends, fam­ily or so­cial net­work­ing sites to dis­cover new games.

“The in­ter­ac­tive game genre, where play­ers tap the screen to move the nar­ra­tive for­ward, is pop­u­lar among women,” says Li Songlin, an an­a­lyst at con­sul­tancy iiMe­dia.

In mov­ing the story for­ward, gamers need to make choices that would lead the story in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, which adds to the fun, he says.

Wang Wenyan, a player in Shang­hai, ad­mits to be­ing drawn to the “ten­der voices” of the male char­ac­ters, as well as the game’s del­i­cate draw­ings.

“They are easy to op­er­ate, re­lax­ing to play and po­ten­tially have a love sto­ry­line as the plot un­folds. Th­ese con­trib­ute to their mas­sive pop­u­lar­ity, and ap­peal to women,” she says.

Gamers need to per­form var­i­ous tasks and col­lect points in or­der to trade for more dates with their vir­tual boyfriends.

A player can gain re­wards upon com­plet­ing a mis­sion, but pay­ing real cash nor­mally gets her there much faster.

Wang spent three days win­ning vir­tual cards to reach the next phase as the plot thick­ened. Shen ended up pay­ing roughly 1,000 yuan in the first two weeks for a fast-for­ward.

Fe­male-ori­ented in­ter­ac­tive games prove pop­u­lar and lu­cra­tive

“Based on rough cal­cu­la­tions, I will need to fork out 10,000 yuan ($159; 128 eu­ros; £112) to ad­vance through the lev­els and get to the end. It’s tempt­ing but too costly,” Shen says.

The var­i­ous add-ons helped game de­vel­oper Pa­per Stu­dio rake in more than 200 mil­lion yuan in Jan­uary, as fe­male gamers splurged to re­ceive a dig­i­tal hug here or an in­ti­mate kiss there from their vir­tual boyfriends, ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese gam­ing spe­cial­ist Gamelook.

Com­pared with their male coun­ter­parts, fe­male gamers are more prone to in-game pur­chases for ded­i­cated set­tings, com­pelling plots and heart­warm­ing roles, says an­a­lyst Li.

Wang of Frost & Sul­li­van agrees. “Our re­search showed that women are on av­er­age 30 per­cent more likely than men to do vir­tual-as­set pur­chas­ing be­cause they have this emo­tional at­tach­ment and the need for self-ex­pres­sion through the in-game avatar.

“Why don’t women play more games? Per­haps it’s be­cause the games are not be­ing sold to this de­mo­graphic,” Wang says. The pop­u­lar­ity of Love and the Pro­ducer shows fe­male gamers are likely to drive an in­dus­try tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nated by men. Their num­ber is now more than male gamers, who were ob­sessed with bat­tle arena game King of Glory not very long ago, ac­cord­ing to de­vel­oper Ten­cent Hold­ings Ltd.

Women also ac­count for half of the 310 mil­lion users among WeChat’s mini-games, a pop­u­lar in-app mo­bile gam­ing fea­ture, the com­pany said in Jan­uary.

“Un­like con­sole-based games that boast big de­vel­op­ment bud­gets and re­quire long hours of player par­tic­i­pa­tion, mo­bile games are no­tably ap­peal­ing to women be­cause they are light, fun, and, most im­por­tant, ad­dress their emo­tional needs,” says Zhang Guowei, se­nior cus­tomer man­ager at mo­bile an­a­lyt­ics com­pany App An­nie in China.

Like Love and the Pro­ducer, an­other in­ter­ac­tive game that has caught the fancy of Chi­nese women is Tabikaeru, or Travel Frog, a mo­bile-based an­i­ma­tion drama fea­tur­ing a wan­der­ing frog char­ac­ter.

It has been down­loaded 3.9 mil­lion times from Ap­ple’s App Store in China since De­cem­ber, with play­ers spend­ing $2 mil­lion on in-app pur­chases to ex­pe­ri­ence par­ent­ing in a dig­i­tal medium.

“The game is highly re­lax­ing and very sim­ple to play, but as you progress through the lev­els, there’s al­ways some­thing new to dis­cover,” says Zhang.

Wang’s girl­friends are now busy tak­ing care of their “frog ba­bies” and dat­ing vir­tual boyfriends at the same time. “It couldn’t feel bet­ter,” she says.

How­ever, the stereo­type that games are a pas­time for ado­les­cent boys en­dures, as ev­i­denced by the ag­gres­sive mar­ket­ing for many big­bud­get, male-ori­ented games.

“The old stereo­type will prob­a­bly be cast aside sooner or later. Women are seen as more loyal users and have a higher propen­sity to­ward im­pulse

spend­ing,” says Wang.

Some fe­male gamers cer­tainly are loyal and im­pul­sive. A group of avid fans spent big money to set up an LED-lit ban­ner on a sky­scraper in Shen­zhen to con­vey birth­day wishes to their com­mon vir­tual boyfriend, Li Zeyan, the CEO char­ac­ter in Love and the Pro­ducer.

The fe­male gamers’ postscript on the ban­ner read: “Don’t be sur­prised. We bought it with your black card.” (Black card refers to Li’s bank card in the game, which he of­ten gives to the pro­tag­o­nist to show his gen­eros­ity to­ward his lover.)

All this sur­real in­dul­gence makes Wang of Frost & Sul­li­van think that the gam­ing sec­tor’s po­ten­tial may be worth way more than its cur­rent val­u­a­tion of 30 bil­lion yuan.

MA XUEJING AND SU JINGBO / CHINA DAILY

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