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In September China finally lifted a 13-year ban on video game consoles and in doing so opened up a new chapter in the country’s gaming history. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft will now be clamouring to tap into a huge potential market that has been manufacturing the big three’s consoles but not using them. Consoles were originally banned in 2000 because authorities were concerned about their effect on mental health of young Chinese, but online gaming on PCs and mobile gaming have filled the gap in years since. So what makes up the current and past gaming trends in China?
The landscape of China’s online gaming has gradually shifted in recent years. According to a report by Niko Partners on the Asian games market, MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) and free, casual, browser-based games used to make up the overwhelming majority of the online action. But now “we have MMOGs, and within ‘browser-based games’ we have 1) casual games played on casual portals sometimes for free, 2) webgames that are not very casual in nature, generate fees in the virtual economy, and compete against MMOGs, and 3) social games distributed via social networking sites. In addition we have games from each of those segments played on mobile devices as well as on PCs.” Developers of new games will have to make sure to incorporate this move towards more social gaming and navigate the treacherous terrain of monetizing their products in a market where free-to-play games are so popular.
In 2013, 288 million people played mobile games in mainland China. It was the fastest-growing segment of the Chinese market in 2012 and netted the economy around $750 million in revenue. It is estimated to grow to $1.2 million this year according to Bloomberg. The market has seen a dramatic shift from the stereotype of male-dominated internet cafes full of MMOG to a more balanced market where people of all ages and backgrounds are embracing a variety of games. The country seems to be turning away from cafes to office and mobile gaming, a trend that is likely to continue as the middle class continues to grow.
Gambling is one trend that can only grow from strength to strength in the future. Currently mainland China outlaws gambling and the former Portuguese colony of Macau, the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”, is the only Chinese territory where gambling is legal. Needless to say, it can’t keep up demand, meaning more and more of the surrounding countries are becoming gambling havens. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers report on global gambling, the Asia-Pacific casino gaming market will be worth $80 billion ($34 billion in 2010) and Asia-Pacific will bypass the U.S. as the world’s largest regional casino gaming market in 2013. In Macau, the tourists outnumber residents by 54 to 1. If China doesn’t want to risk losing a great chunk of revenue to neighbouring nations, they’ll have to consider lifting the mainland ban. At the moment, online casino gambling is also illegal.
Given that the Chinese market has been without consoles for the last 13 years, it could be that consumers pounce on new hardware as soon as it’s released; or, conversely, they’re suspicious of it and sales flop. The most successful business model in the Chinese video game market is somewhat paradoxically free games – EA and Sony Online have generated millions of dollars in revenue from free-to-play titles. As Edward Williams of BMO Capital Markets has commented: “The Chinese consumer is not geared to the habit of ‘I go to the store, spend X dollars to acquire this game, then go home and play it all night long.’ That creates some challenges for [publishers].” Given the size of the economy and the relative skillsets of the population, the question remains whether China will begin to dominate the global console market and resist U.S. imports if the Chinese appetite for consoles takes off.
It is time now to return to the bizarre, frequently hilarious and occasionally disturbing fictional universe of China, Illinois, where Brad Neely‘s “The Professor Brothers” hold sway as the arbiters of knowledge and coolness. Steve and Frank Smith are brothers who both teach at a local community college whose mascot is a panda bear. Steve is the more laid back and presumably younger of the two, and his bald, sunglass-adorned appearance is vaguely reminiscent of Elton John. Frank, also mostly bald but bearded, is a connoisseur of drunken blackout experiences, as documented in the very funny two-part episode, “FliffNight.”
Together, the Professor Brothers reign supreme in their shared office at the college, surrounded by books with titles like “Owl Sex” and “Man Cave.” They sometimes join forces for songs like the wonderfully catchy “Prisoner Christmas,” or to essentially prank some poor, unsuspecting student, as in “The T.A. Interview,” but more often than not, it is Prof. Steve who pranks Prof. Frank. In “The Substitute,” for example, Prof. Frank hands his history class over to Prof. Steve (it is never made clear what Prof. Steve actually teaches), who proceeds to make up an extremely strange and offensive lecture that he then blames on Prof. Steve’s notes, which he ignores in favor of a comic book. In “The Late Date,” Prof. Steve actually joins forces with the college’s dean for the ultimate prank on Prof. Frank, whose day has already been going very poorly.
Unlike Prof. Steve, Prof. Frank does sometimes get around to teaching some history, though it is primarily of the irreverent biblical kind, like his lecture on Sodom (“named after sodomy”) and Gomorrah (“which was named after an even weirder move”) in “Bible History #1.” He also recounts the life of “Jesus F**king Christ,” of whom he says, “I know that Jesus is pretty played, but just like feces, he was very real, and some point you have to talk about it.” According to Prof. Frank, Jesus was betrayed by a conspiracy of his disciples in order to sell more copies of his teachings; they then blamed it all on Judas, “who was planning on killing himself anyway.”
The foul-mouthed, slang-inventing Professor Brothers are perhaps not as fascinating as his earlier creation, “Baby Cakes,” but their songs and misadventures make a very funny addition to the China, Illinois, universe. Baby Cakes can be seen in the audience of some of Prof. Frank’s lectures, and he even gets some insightful dialogue in “Future Thoughts”: “When the aliens come, they will be so great in so many different ways, that everything we ever thought was cool will then make us ashamed.” Get ready for a “so much cooler” future, everybody, because according to the Professor Brothers, the government has been lying to us all along.
Brad Neely, perhaps best known for his hilarious “George Washington” and “JFK” music videos, has built an empire of off animatics (still images edited together with dialogue and sound effects). The creator of “Creased Comics” also invented a fictional town called China, Illinois, in which several strange characters reside, including a huge, baby-faced man named Mark “Baby” Cakes. In the series “Baby Cakes,” Neely explores the unique life and philosophy of this probably autistic, mostly gentle giant, and the results are very funny, always absurd, and even sort of profound and sad a surprising amount of the time.
The first six episodes of “Baby Cakes” find Baby Cakes transcribing his thoughts on a variety of subjects into his diary. The very first episode sets up a few recurring themes of the series, such as Baby Cakes’ belief that his father and his father’s professor friends are wizards, and his love of fantasy role-playing games. When one of his friends asks him if he’s a virgin, Baby Cakes’ reply is a perfect example of his strangely limited understanding of the world: “I said no, because I can’t give birth to a Jesus.” The episode also sets up Baby Cakes’ recurring songwriting, and some of the later episodes are entirely made of these songs.
The second episode introduces Baby Cakes’ grandfather and explores the relationship between the three generations, and demands a few repeat viewings in order to decipher the ridiculous bathroom graffiti Baby Cakes encounters in a gas station bathroom on the way to his grandfather’s house. The third episode is among the series’ very best, as it is the first one that really captures the sweet, oddly sad philosophy and worldview of Baby Cakes, a self-described “peaceful, sleepy giant making zero a year.” As Baby Cakes walks through the park, reflecting on the world around him, as he sees it, in a unique parlance all his own: “I have a big coat, with big pockets. Sometimes, kittens get in there. It’s cool with me as long as they keep their hook-socks curled.” The episode ends with a wonderful encapsulation of Baby Cakes’ views about life: “Even if my days don’t mean anything, I just hope that I die while hugging, and not while in a wine-drinking contest.”
The sixth episode expands on this strange but surprisingly insightful worldview, and just might be the very best episode of the entire series. It finds Baby Cakes digging up a time capsule he buried as a child, in which he placed his favorite thing and a note to his future self, in which he explains sex: “Sex is a people-spaghetti. Hairy pee-pees clash. They yell, ‘Yes! Yes!’ but their grody faces say, ‘Ouch!’” The rest of the episodes (the non-diary ones) are something of a mixed bag, but there are definitelyhighlights, and the whole series is only about 32 minutes long, with more brilliance scattered throughout than most full-length television series.