The Chinese Gaming Frontier: Assassin’s Creed Mobile

I learned today about a plan by Ubisoft to make, with their Chinese development partners Ourpalm (zhangqu or 掌趣 in Chinese, which literally means “interesting palm” but to a Chinese reader would convey a message of “grabbing attention”), a mobile massively multiplayer online Assassin’s Creed game specifically for the Chinese market. It’s an exciting idea, and a rather alien one to Western ears I would think. In the United States and Europe we are used to the idea of “massively multiplayer” games on smartphones, though they usually come wreathed in bundles of in-app purchases (IAPs) and more or less follow the same idea: endure an interminable introduction that teaches you to play a game designed entirely with the idea that at some point you will get fed up of waiting for your shack/house/viking domain to build and will just throw them a dollar or two of real money. Not, perhaps, the most appealing idea in the world.

For the last couple of years I had filed such games away mentally as the video game equivalent of emails from a beleaguered Nigerian prince, or perhaps a noticeably clever way for start-ups to siphon cash away from those unfortunate enough to suffer from addictions to gambling and similar activities. It turns out that this isn’t so; I have met a number of students who have funneled quite a bit of cash into such games. They even smile about it as they tell me. Still, I can’t help but feel that we’ve been had, somehow.

So when I see the combination of words together to form constructions like “mobile massively multiplayer online” that “mobile” really jumps out. That’s in the Western market that I know, love and avoid. What about China, though?

It strikes me as a good move. For one thing, games are for the most part consumed and enjoyed in an entirely different way in China to the manner in which Westerners are used to thinking about. Internet cafes are an important part of the gaming experience for many. Games that can be enjoyed after a simple login to a computer with the software installed do very well in China and other parts of the world with similar gaming cultures (think Korea and Starcraft). For many Chinese video game players, the portability of games, at least from their own personal standpoint, is a given. This sentiment translates neatly into the mobile market.

Internet life in China is very different from that practiced by most who live in the United States and Europe. The media in the West tends to describe Weibo, Wechat and similar services as “Chinese social media” or even an app “similar to Twitter.” Naturally, many westerners hear such terms and imagine analogues to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. That’s fair enough, and it’s not completely off base. Such assumptions, however, overlook the manner in which many Chinese enjoy using such online forms of communication. Long before Whatsapp became a popular app in Europe used to replace texting, people across East and Southeast Asia used Microsoft Messenger religiously. Wechat and Weibo have in many ways adopted that basic idea. The Great Firewall of China isn’t a blunt object placed across the Internet on a metaphorical border between Mainland China and Hong Kong, it’s an intricate and extremely complex system that needs to constantly adapt to ingenious Chinese “netizens,” some of whom want to discuss their frustrations with the government and alternate possible political systems, and some of whom just want access to unfiltered news and information.

So this new Ubisoft game would, I should think, take on a form that might not seem natural to Western eyes, at least at first. Apart from satisfying the Chinese gaming market’s aesthetic and mechanical sensibilities, the game should be able to assume a certain level of hype. The potential here is enormous: Assassin’s Creed is a well known series of games that brings a certain amount of foreign glamour but can be easily molded and shaped into something that will appeal to a Chinese audience. It can, like so many things in Chinese culture going back over the centuries, be foreign and native simultaneously. Assassin’s Creed as a brand (how I cringe to write out the word) brings attention with it that no Chinese intellectual property can perhaps yet match.

That is of course where Ubisoft’s local partners come in. I know nothing about Ourpalm other than they make a lot of mobile games (including a pretty tidy looking mobile adaption of King of Fighters ‘98), but I do know that partnerships between Western companies and Chinese companies can be complex. It’s particularly important for Western companies to understand that the conditions for success in China can be wildly different from what Westerners might expect. Too many foreigners in China in their attempts to anticipate this engage in a type of postmodern neo-Orientalism that doesn’t do much to change the final outcome. The Chinese market is in many ways analogous to a free market, but it is not one. Neither can foreigners expect local regulations to be consistent in the manner they expect or to bend in the same places they are accustomed to getting their way.

That being said, Ubisoft is not shy of experience in dealing with development across international borders. I am quite hopeful for this project, though it’s clearly still at a very early stage. Ourpalm’s own focus seems to be on promoting its successful licensing of Hungry Shark World for now. It will be interesting to see if the finished product finds its way to smartphones and tablets back in the United States; East Asian MMOs are showing up with English translations more and more often recently, something I must say I long hoped would happen but couldn’t say that I expected. It’s difficult to know if this game, or at least if games like it, will prove to be pivotal in the evolution of mobile games overall, but just over one in four human beings who own a smartphone live in China. It makes sense that Chinese developers will lead the charge.

Baseball is nerdy

Joe Posnanski interviewed the always wonderful Bob Costas on his podcast a few days ago, and listening to Costas got me thinking, of all things, about the discipline of history. There’s more to come in a future (and considerably longer) post, but for now I’ll just make the point that I’m increasingly concerned historians have essentially abrogated our responsibility to inform the public. This is sometimes out of frustration with the kind of narratives that appear to gain traction, it is sometimes a symptom of a wider problem with the way we approach our disciplines, but regardless of the reason I’m convinced that many historians want to reach out to the public but do not know how to do it. See, for example, my last post on public history.

More of that to come. For now, I recommend listening to the podcast because Posnanski and Costas are both great. They really remind me how I got into baseball in the first place, and why so many academics in the US love the sport so much: baseball is nerdy.

I mean, nerdy. Deep and intensely nerdy. I’m not talking about Sabrmetrics, either: the numbers bring in an additional kind of nerd, but further insulate the nerds already there. In truth, it merely expanded the frontiers of the sport’s nerdy flock, while perhaps antagonizing others just enough. Sabrmetrics brings in the numbers and stats people; the lack of a clock and the duels between pitchers and batters bring in the kind of people who like to read (and write) books about that kind of thing; baseball’s deep commitment to its history brings in people like me. Considering the first love of my sporting life is dominated by people who want to pretend the world began in 1992, this is a big deal. Sure, your average young football fan can cite Maradona, Cruyff, Pele, perhaps (and hopefully) Puskas and Matthews. Baseball fans on the other hand talk about Cap Anson as if he was still manning first base.

It’s great. Ken Burns built his documentary Baseball around interviews with intellectuals, writers and other elitist purveyors of reading for fun and similar perfidious acts. It cannot be a coincidence that I developed a true interest in the sport while I was studying for my PhD. Then again, the sport wouldn’t exist as any kind of financial endeavor of course without all kinds of trappings of modern games from aggressive, cocksure giants to performance enhancing drugs, and it’s not like your typical fan at a baseball game brings his or her copy of a Herman Melville poetry anthology to peruse between innings. We should likely be grateful for that.

Baseball has that nerdy core, though. That’s important, I think. It’s a sign that we haven’t completely fallen into depravity as a culture more broadly. It is perhaps a sign too that America will always embrace the gaudy and the great. Burns’ interviewees sit in study rooms and intone the names of greats in suitable reverence, but they don’t hesitate to grab themselves a hot dog and cheer at the home run fireworks. It all has a home. I am curious to see where baseball goes next, amid all the entirely valid fears of aging fans and the difficulty of the sport to match the ad-friendly violence and slow, brutal killing of men on fields provided by the NFL to so much popular acclaim. Let’s hope instead: let’s hope that baseball is not the final dying of an older America and instead the early indicator of America’s future: the victory of the nerds.