Virtual Worlds in Modern China
Since the launch of Second Life (SL) by Linden Lab in 2003 it has attracted the attention of many Chinese users. Despite the popularity of SL in China and partly because SL has never been officially launched in China, their have been several efforts by Chinese companies to launch a similar (or another Web 2.0 copy?) concept for a primarily Chinese audience. In this brief analysis I will try to create an overview of the current situation of Chinese virtual worlds and initiatives. I will do this by describing two of the most relevant virtual worlds that currently exist in Beta: Hipihi (hi-pee-hi) and Novoking. Both parties are in Beta stage and have announced their virtual world’s big bang (commercial release) to take place next year.
The analysis of the two virtual worlds will contain the following aspects:
1. History and background information
2. Descriptions of first impressions and experiences of the virtual world
Finally I will try to make a judgement based on originality, usability and accessibility; what virtual world will become the ‘Tudou‘ of all virtual worlds in China?
I will start of with the current market leader and ‘oldest’ Chinese virtual world: Hipihi
History and background
As mentioned above, Hipihi is the current market leader in China. The company was founded in Beijing October 2005 by Hui Xu. The first Beta version of the virtual world was launched March 2007. Even though Hipihi is still in Beta, it has grown from 10.000 in-world residents in June 2007 to an in-world population of nearly 30.000 in October 2007. Hipihi is expected to go live (public Beta testing) at the end of November 2007. Hui Xu, the founder and CEO of Hipihi is no newbie in the new media business; he is an experienced ‘Chinese Internet Hero’ and has been the chairman of several successful e-commerce and online recruitment websites.
Xu’s e-commerce background has proven to result in some interesting strategic choices. On the 11th of October this year, Hipihi has announced a partnership with Millions of Us, inc., an American company that builds virtual worlds from the ground up and assists in brand-building for real world clients in virtual spaces. The partnership is designed to help global brands reach Chinese customers through the virtual world of Hipihi.
Based on my own and and other peoples experiences a brief description of the actual feel and possibilities of the Hipihi world will be made. Since Linden Labs was the first company to have launched a successful virtual world which received plenty of attention, it seems that it has set the standard for the next virtual worlds. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all virtual worlds following SL are an exact copy, but as I have noticed during my research it turns out that most of the options and usability features Hipihi has to offer, feel suspiciously common.
The beginning of Hipihi is pretty straightforward; you download and install the software package (48.6 MB) you pick an avatar, dress it up, change the looks to your likings and off you go; exploring a completely new world! The first impression of Hipihi is that it feels like more of the same; Hipihi offers most of the orientation functionality’s that are available in SL: walking, running, flying, driving all sorts of vehicles etc. Also the graphics are quite similar to those in SL. Furthermore users are able to chat, perform a whole range of funny actions and, naturally, are able to create all their own objects. Something that Novoking nor SL offers: every new inhabitant receives a piece of land covering 100x100m for free! This might attract new users but there is also a group of people that share the opinion that people often don’t value free stuff.
An element in which Hipihi is truly differentiating from SL is its effort for an increased accessibility: by offering plenty of pre-fabricated objects it will be easier for in-experienced users to live in the virtual world. The more sophisticated users can use advanced setting and tools to build more complicated and customized objects.
The biggest problem I (and other Beta users) have encountered during my stroll through the new world is that there are not enough people ‘living’ in the virtual world yet; it feels empty and deserted, especially compared with hectic cities like Shanghai and Beijing! Combined with a search system that still contains bugs and is not thoroughly worked out yet, this resulted in a rather disappointing experience.
Also when first entering Hipihi I expected to bump into a virtual world that was heavily influenced by Chinese or at least Asian culture, but this did not seem the case. Most of the public buildings, houses, vehicles and even avatars look surprisingly western and familiar. I think there are 2 reasons for this.
First of all when looking at the strategic positioning of Hipihi as a platform it is not particularly aimed at a Chinese or Asian audience; it is supposed to be a global platform. As stated on their website the target group is: ‘residents with different colours and of different races from different parts of the real world.’
The second possible reason for the western Look and feel has to do with the whole change China is going through. As I have experienced myself travelling through and living in China for almost 8 months, residents want to look like, act like and live like western (wealthy) people. All that youngsters want to wear, use, eat and so on are western products. The new generation of Chinese is dreaming of a wealthy, western lifestyle which is very well illustrated by the way Hipihi advertises the possibilities of its virtual world where everything is possible: ‘imagine when Coca-Cola is placed in the hands of each resident’. Paradoxically this makes the virtual world very Chinese indeed. So at first glance the new virtual world does not seem Chinese at all, but what is concidered typical Chinese? When taking a closer look at Hipihi the following aspects that are very relevant and Chinese in the modern Chinese society caught my attention:
1. Transportation of all kinds are very prominent. Transportation stands for freedom but also, more important for the Chinese society, it stands for economic development.
2. In an advertisement for Hipihi I came across the following line: ‘when schools are handling all kinds of procedures’. The makers of Hipihi are subtlely pointing at the future possibilities of a virtual educational system. This is closely related to the current educational situation and class struggle in China where it is still a privilige to get a proper education. In developing countries education is often people their only chance of escaping poverty.
3. Hipihi mentions information about virtual economies and even touches political matters: ‘even a business model which can not be achieved in the real world will be born right here.’ To me this clearly points to the shortcomings of the current Chinese society and goverment. Also the words glamour and profit are used extensively to point out the endless possibilities of the new world. Glamour and profit are words that are not very common in a communistic society and if they are used it has a negative connotation. The choice for these specific words are an indication for the transformation and struggle China is going through; socialsm vs kapitalism.
4. A final element that does make the Hipihi world Chinese is the fact that the Beijing 2008 olympic games are very visible and present in the virtual world.
So Hipihi has turned out to be very Chinese after all, even though this was not intended when you look at at the strategy! For the near future it will be interesting to see how the Chinese governemt will react on the virtual world especialy concerning the profit making and political matters. When taking in account the past restrictions and censureship I think political interference will be inevitable.
The second virtual world that I will review is Novoking, which has launched its private beta test in the beginning of October this year. Even though there is no English version available yet, Novoking has translated parts of its website in (poor) English.
History and background
Novoking was founded in October 2005 bij Patrick Zha. Through the years Patrick (CEO of Novoking Technology Ltd. Co) has gained extensive experience in business and sales, particularly in the software branch. The mission Patrick has, is to build the largest 3D Chinese virtual world that allows users to create, build, communicate and live their dream through the bytes.
In the beginning of October 2007 Novoking started testing it’s Beta version of the virtual world by admitting 500 people into the new world. The Novoking team of 50 developers that have been working on the ‘game’ since 2005 have announced they will soon roll out 1.000 more Beta accounts, but as mentioned above, unfortunately there is no English version available yet.
By far the biggest problem that I and most of the other foreign users have encountered is, logically, the language barrier, but random clicking has proven to be effective for most of the pop-up screens and forms. Even though there have been plenty of non-Mandarin speakers before me that did get the program running through extensive teamwork and browsing in plenty related forums, unfortunately I was not able to get it started. Because I really wanted to have a look in Novoking I contacted a certain ‘Jolly’ that works for ideashape.cn. Ideashape.cn is a self preclaimed third party of Novoking and acts as a support site for English speaking users. Jolly lives in China, he has been active in Novoking for a while now and he was kind enough to answer all my questions about novoking through MSN!
After chatting with Jolly for a while it became clear to me that unlike Hipihi, where users are expected to create their own world from scratch, the people at Novoking have prepared a world before users were able to show up. Before the first beta tester was able to set foot in the brand new virtual world, a trading centre, a park, plenty of clothing shops, a shopping mall, entertainment facilities, several restaurants and so on were waiting to be ‘used’ for the first time.
It seems to me that compared to SL and Hipihi, Novoking’s emphasise is not primarely on a user generated world and strategy but more on, among others, the slightly higher quality of the graphics, usability and overall accessibility. The screenshots that I have seen indicate that Novoking has put a little more emphasise on the graphics compared to Hipihi and that it has tried to create a pre-fabricated atmosphere and feel in its world.
So where Hipihi is trying to make its virtual world more accessible by offering pre-fabricated objects, Novoking takes it one step further. It is hoping to attract an even less experienced crowd compared to Hipihi by providing users not only with all sorts of pre-fabricated objects but also with a completely pre-designed world. The Novoking developers have expressed that they aim for training and educating users along the way of exploration. The downside of this approach is the size of the initial download that is required: 334 MB (almost 10 times bigger than SL and over 6 times that of Hipihi’s required download).
A new feature that truly differentiates Novoking from SL and Hipihi is that it allows users to upload their own content created in Photoshop, 3DMax and Maya. So besides aiming for just the ‘newbies’ the developers at Novoking have left plenty of room for the more experienced content creators too.
Another aspect in which Novoking differs with Hipihi is that it is not trying to position itself as a platform for an international audience; there is no real global intention (yet). Novoking clearly focusses more on Chinese users instead of a worldwide audience. But since Novoking is a bit younger than Hipihi they might soon roll out their global strategy anyway.
To sum it all up Novoking is trying to wheel in a less experienced and mainly Chinese audience by offering higher accessibility but also by making use of better looking graphics and a pre-manufactured world.
After these reviews it becomes clear that even though in first sight Hipihi and Novoking look quite similar (ordinary copies of SL?), they differ in a lot of ways. They differ not only from SL but they also differ from each other.
In general when discussing the accessibility of the two worlds Novoking can be considered the most simple and accessible for in-experienced newbie avatars. Not only does Novoking offer a pre-fabricated world, it has also less features and offers pre-fabricated objects. In close second though, comes Hipihi which has also learned from SL its faults (buggy engine, steep learning curve, high technical barrier etc.) and has tried to attract users by offering plenty of pre-fabricated objects and less features. So what world will eventually attract the biggest audience?
Both worlds have a different strategy and have different ideas on the creation of a tipping point for user generated content. Hipihi believes in total freedom and is hoping that users will choose for their world because of the endless features combined with a simplified usability compared to SL. Novoking’s strategy is different; they think people will appreciate even less features than Hipihi, combined with a pre-fabricated world. But they also serve the more experienced audience by giving them a chance to integrate popular 3D graphics software like Maya and 3DMax. So Hipihi bets his money on the almost 100% user generated content environment while Novoking uses a ‘gentle push’ tactic to get the people running as quick as possible and hopes to inspire users with a more plug and play world.
Personally I think there is a market for both worlds in China so the question of who will become the SL of China is not so relevant in this case. After this review I think they both serve a different audience and don’t neccisarily have to compete with eachother, at least not in the near future.
I would like to finish with discussing the real world’s political environment that the virtual worlds were born in. Both worlds will face a complicated job considering the current governmental situation. As Xu from Hipihi has already stated: “we can make sure that pornography, gambling, violence or politically sensitive material will be strictly forbidden.” The people at Novoking have expressed something similar: “in accordance with Chinese regulations, our world’s economy will necessarily be a closed one.” Nobody knows exactly how virtual worlds will develop in China, but as a Web 2.0 enthousiast I think it is worth to keep an eye on!
More sources on Hipihi:
More sources on Novoking: