'King of Glory' ─ the latest craze to engulf mobile gaming

How an original Chinese game made a big splash at home and abroad, lifting the profile of a domestic industry once derided as a copycat.

"King of Glory," the world's most profitable mobile game to date this year, has taken China by storm and changed public perceptions about the quality of domestically produced gaming.

Launched last November by Tencent, the game raked in about 6 billion yuan (US$883 million) in the first quarter, according to CNG Games, a Chinese game data analytics platform.

With the release of the international version called "Strike of Kings" on App Store and Google Play, the game promises to become an even bigger gold mine for its creators.

“At the beginning it was just another mobile game,” says Ramon Pan, a player of the game since its release. “But suddenly, everybody is talking about it, and everyone around you is playing it.”

The multiple-player battle game is a bit like the hit “League of Legends,” which was developed by Riot Games. Players cultivate heroes to form a team and ally with other players to conquer the enemy’s team by destroying a core building on the battlefield.

People can buy heroes with in-game currency or with real cash. Each hero has a different “skin,” which gives it a better look and stronger build. Most "skins" cost real cash. That's one spinner for Tencent's money stream.

“Although the game is free to download, I have never met anyone who doesn’t spend money on it,” says Pan. “It’s not news that some people spend hundreds and thousands of bucks on it.”

“Strike of Kings” hasn't been as phenomenal as its original Chinese version, but it has had more than 1 million downloads worldwide and received four-star reviews at both App Store and Google Play.

In the international version, the heroes are mainly Chinese historical figures and the game provides a wider choice for players, including popular comic characters, such as Batman.

That's not to say the game is without glitches. While players generally like the game mode, they sometimes complain about problems with server maintenance, balance, constant lagging and downloads.

“The game crashes after every match," says Paul Giza in a comment on Google Play who gave the game a one-star rating. "It's a good game overall, but until you fix that problem, that's what you get.”

Chinese mobile games have undergone an image transformation in the past year. They used to be typically cast as copycats, with shoddy production and poor maintenance. That's why even many Chinese players preferred foreign games, such as “Clash Royale” by Supercell Oy, “Hearthstone” by Blizzard Entertainment and “Candy Crush Saga” by King Digital Entertainment.

Pan, a white-collar worker who has been playing mobile games for five years, admits that he was biased against domestically produced games until very recently.

“Many of the domestic games just ripped off content from others, including artworks, character designs and gaming features,” he says. “For a long time I sneered at most Chinese games and wouldn’t even try them.”

Tencent was on the copycat list. When it released the simulation game “National Farm” in 2014, players howled that it was a mediocre imitation of Supercell’s long-term hit game “Hay Day.”

But now, only three years on, Tencent not only has its own game on the international market but has also purchased Finland-based Supercell.

In an odd twist of industry success, Chinese companies have sometimes struck it big in overseas markets with games that didn't generate much interest at home.

Beijing-based FunPlus is one example. One of its first games, "Family Farm," was marketed internationally when webpage games were just starting to become popular on Facebook.

According to FunPlus, more than 50 million users have "planted and harvested crops," and Facebook said the game still has 500,000 active monthly users five years after it was launched.

That made FunPlus the largest multinational game company in China. Its more than 600 employees come from more than 20 countries and regions, and it has offices in both Beijing and San Francisco.

According to a report issued by Twitter this month, Japan and Saudi Arabia have become the fastest-growing international markets for Chinese mobile games.

In Japan, the card battle game “Onmyoji,” produced by NetEase, and dress role play game “Miracle Nikki” from Tencent were the two most talked-about Chinese mobile games.

Both were done in Japanese animation style and featured A-list Japanese performers voicing the characters.

Despite current trends, there are still gaps between Chinese games and top international ones, according to Twitter.

Compared with games like “Pokemon Go,” the "mention" rate of Chinese games on Twitter was less than 1 percent.

Alan Lan, general manager of Twitter for Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, said Chinese game producers need to focus on individual characteristics of overseas markets.

“For example, the Japanese  usually get paid on the 25th of every  month, so if you hold an in-game event on the 24th, you can’t expect many people to spend money on it,” he said. “Developers need to be more aware of how a foreign market operates.”

'King of Glory' ─ the latest craze to engulf mobile gaming

Three middle school students in Guangzhou play "King of Glory" on mobile phones.

'King of Glory,' the despair of parents

Not everyone is cheering about the rampant popularity of “King of Glory.”

Chinese parents and teachers who lament the way young people are constantly glued to screens nowadays view “King of Glory” as their latest nightmare.

According to Tencent, nearly 60 percent of the players are aged between 11 and 20.

In Guangzhou, a 17-year-old student who played the game nonstop for 40 hours, was sent to hospital suffering from low blood supply to the brain.

There are also fears that youngsters will spend too much of their parents' money on the game, with or without their knowledge.

Media have entered the fray, publishing articles criticizing "King of Glory."

“The game is very obsessive for children to an unhealthy extent and it distorts historical figures," said an opinion piece on the website of People’s Daily.

Addressing public pressure, Tencent installed a feature in the game requiring minors to register with identity certification. Their time spent on the game will be limited to two hours a day, or one hour a day for those 12 years and younger.

But it's pretty hard to fox savvy kids nowadays.

“My son used my name and ID number to register for the game,” says Yuan Chongxiao, mother of a 15-year-old. “He told me not to worry because it wouldn't cost us anything. I was furious.”

Tencent promises to strengthen the system and said it will review the historical basis of figures used in the game.

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