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Day 143 – More Than Just A Passing Fancy (Video Games in Asia)

July 24, 2010

Dateline: Bangkok, Thailand – Saturday, July 24, 2010

Let’s talk video gaming in Asia. I touched on this briefly at the beginning of my trip but I’d like to delve into it more now that I’ve been here a few months.

As I previously noted, the death of the PC game is overblown. It just seems like it in the U.S., where A-list titles are typically geared towards the standalone consoles (Xbox, PS3, Wii) and PC games are more skewed towards casual games like “Farmville” or “Bejeweled.” That’s not the case in Asia. In Vietnam, Cambodia, and China I saw internet cafes stuffed with young men playing massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) made specifically for each country. From the number of avatars on each screen, it looked like half the population was playing the games online. I’ve seen girls pounding away at keyboards playing a PC version of Dance Dance Revolution. There are Asian PC versions of first person shooters (FPS) that rival Halo or MW2 for graphics and interface. Of course, there are Farmville, Tetris, and Mafia rip-offs.

Consoles rule the West, but that’s because the West has the money to spend on an expensive, standalone system. In Asia, an Xbox would cost many middle-class families one month’s salary, and that’s before even buying one (likely pirated) game. A console is more than a luxury, it’s the start of a financial death spiral. Of course, it’s even worse for the ridiculously priced PS3.

PCs, on the other hand, are relatively cheap. Slap together box and accessories with refurbished parts and you have a gaming machine for a fraction of the console’s price. You also have an internet browsing machine and a machine you could use for business (spreadsheets, docs, etc.). That makes it easier to justify the cost.

If you can’t afford a PC yourself, you can just pop down to the local internet café and rent four hours on someone else’s box for the price of a cheap meal. It’s no surprise, then, that in countries where money’s hard to come by, PC games dominate.

Gaming on the PC doesn’t just work best for Asian consumers, though. Game developers can make a lot more money, as well. Console systems like Xbox, PS3, the Wii, and even the DS are ripe for piracy. Here in Thailand, you can walk into a mall and buy bootleg games for nearly every system. You won’t be able to play online with your friends, but you can play the single player mode for black market prices. (This isn’t just true for Asia–I met a Swede who said his friends never played Xbox online because all their games were bootlegged.) Game developers lose a lot of money to piracy.

They don’t face that problem when they put their games online, though. You can’t pirate a community. That MMORPG can’t be bootlegged because the whole point of the game is to explore the virtual world with other people. The online version of DDR can’t be pirated because the fun in the game is showing off your new moves, clothing, and accessories to the other dancers (controlled by real people) in the game. Even online casual games like Bejeweled stand a better chance online than on a console. There’s no piracy there because you have to access the developer’s online game universe to play the game. There may be imitators who rip off your idea, but that was going to happen anyway on the console. PCs, the most inexpensive way to get online, are the perfect medium for game developers to insure that they capture as much revenue as possible.

So PC games are more accessible to Asian gamers and more profitable for Asian game makers. It’s a win win.

There’s one little tidbit also worth noting. Gaming seems to have penetrated Asian culture more than it has in the U.S. In Vietnam, I saw a TV show that recapped highlights of championship matches for Starcraft and a soccer game. Both were on the PC. The soccer game even pitted two-player teams against each other. The pics that accompany this article show a play-in tournament I came across today at Siam Paragon, one of Bangkok’s ritziest malls (note all the PCs).

Not sure what it is that makes gaming more mainstream here. Finding out would take research and at least a few interviews. Might be fun to do, but let’s face it—you don’t pay me enough for that kind of service. You’ll have to live with conjecture (for now).

GALLERY: Click through to see a slideshow of the pics that accompany today’s article.

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