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February 6, 2017

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Ahead of the game: legends, heroes dominate online play

WIZARD Abe no Seimei, fox swordsmen, heavenly dog (Tengu) and ancient Japanese legends, eye-catching graphics and professional voiceovers. Welcome to the world of Onmyoji, or Yin Yang Master.

It’s the latest craze in the field of collectible card, role-playing mobile games. Its register user base hit 200 million with 10 million daily active users globally, mainly from the Chinese mainland.

Why else would about 200 young people have gathered recently on the coldest night of the winter in front of the Shanghai Fashion Center to attend an off-line event of Onmyoji, a game developed by China’s NetEase?

The shivering enthusiasts were among the lucky “few” chosen from about the 10 million daily active Onmyoji players nationwide.

The game pits players in combat against one another or against monsters, using powerful character cards, especially SSR (meaning “super super rare”) cards.

“I really enjoy collecting the super super rare cards to establish my own team,” said Sabrina Jin, a financial firm worker who drove an hour to drive to attend the off-line event.

Jin said she has spent almost 12,000 yuan (US$1,764) to collect three of the cards.

She is not alone.

Chinese consumers are spending more time and money on mobile games nowadays, thanks to improved plot lines and image quality, smartphone support for high-resolution displays, the addition of augmented reality elements, easy mobile payment and social network communities of players.

Mobile games have become a hot trend in Chinese consumer spending, with players willing to fork over yuan for unique experiences in the virtual world.

High-quality mobile games, like Onmyoji and the Young Three Kingdom Heroes developed by Shanghai-based Youzu, entice users to spend an aggregate of more than 10 million yuan or more a month, according to research firm International Data Corp.

The in-app purchase of various items and game currencies can be paid for by just tapping iPhone’s Home button, thanks to Apple’s simplified payment process in China and improved fingerprint-recognition technology.

Downloads on Apple’s China iOS mobile operating system surpassed those of the United States and Japan in 2016, ranking them top of the world for the first time. The increased volumes pushed iOS in-app purchase revenue in China to a record US$2 billion in the fourth quarter, according to the researcher App Annie.

Cash cow

Even without an English translation yet, Onmyoji is seeking inroads overseas. The game now offers localized versions in the application stores in Southeast Asia besides Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s scheduled to debut new versions in Japan this Spring, as the further foreign expansion.

In the fourth quarter of 2016, Onmyoji attracted more than 8 million downloads, earning NetEase over US$140 million in revenue in the Chinese iOS market of iPhone and iPad users, App Annie said in a reply statement to Shanghai Daily.

Those figures don’t include Android smartphone players, who form an even bigger base than iPhone users in China.

Still, in terms of the overall Chinese iOS market, Onmyoji ranked only third in the second half of last year, trailing Fantasy Westward Journey and Hero Moba, according to App Annie.

With an emphasis on social game play and card collection, Onmyoji offers a story with a colorful background steeped in ancient Japanese legends.

“It’s like establishing my own team, just as I do in the office,” said Jin, whose work colleagues also play the game.

You don’t need deep pockets to enjoy all the fun.

University student Tiffany Wu said she spends just 30 yuan a month on the game, opting for the cheapest paid package on offer.

“It’s just like raising kids or pets,” said Wu, who shares her cards on WeChat. “I think of my game characters as sons and daughters.”

Indeed, sharing “super super rare” cards on social networking platforms like WeChat and Weibo is very popular among players.

Game publishers are certainly catering to the new generation of game players, said Chen Libiao, co-founder of the Shanghai-based game developer Youzu.

Shenzhen-listed Youzu has generated revenue of more than 200 million yuan in the peak month through the game Young Three Kingdom Heroes, based on the Chinese history of the Three Kingdoms (220-265).

Chinese game publishers are also establishing connections between virtual game worlds and the real world to boost brands, coverage and revenue finally.

NetEase is interested in creating “virtual stars” in both games but in real life. The company organized the Shanghai off-line party with film stars in cosplay or wearing costumes representing specific characters. The event also included voting for the most popular characters, and music and dance performances related to the game.

During the holiday period of New Year and Spring Festival, NetEase also gave game players the chance to win travel and restaurant vouchers.

“We plan to connect the online and off-line gap of players’ feelings and experiences and let game characters appear in their daily lives,” said NetEase in a reply email.

The top game character, Ubume Bird (Guhuoniao), received 35 million votes within days, including in-game votes and on-site votes at the Shanghai Fashion Center event.

Youzu, which is planning a new chapter of the Young Three Kingdom Heroes, said it will integrate the game with other media, including film.

The Three Kingdom stories are well known and beloved by most Chinese people. Players want to experience something different and have their own heroes, said Youzu, which cooperated with the Shanghai Film Group for a namesake film.

The latest feature of Onmyoji relates to augmented reality, which allows users to “summon” character cards by scanning printed graphic patterns in the real world. A similar technology is used in the popular Pokemon Go, which created such a buzz in 2016.


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