Zhu Jun may work in the virtual world, but the profits are real. 'The first internet boom was based not on income but on the hope of it,' said Mr Zhu, the 37-year-old founder of The9, the mainland's second-largest online-game operator. 'In this boom, we have cash income and a good business model.' That business model is getting legions of mostly adolescent video-game fanatics to spend countless hours - at 30 fen per hour - playing the company's flagship title, MU, a three-dimensional multi-player game. According to ePlay Online magazine, MU was the second-most popular game on the mainland in January, after RO Online operated by rival Gameflier. Players for MU reached a peak of 300,000 concurrent users last year. The title, developed by South Korea's Webzen, can be found in 120,000 internet cafes across the mainland. Mr Zhu expects the company's growth to continue this year, with revenue doubling to one billion yuan. All this is pretty remarkable for a man who claims to never have played a video game in his life. 'Our customers are between ages 15 and 30 and are 70 per cent men,' said Mr Zhu, who is China's 66th richest man, according to Fortune magazine. 'Each day they spend between a few minutes and 24 hours playing the games. They are not just in the big cities but all over China. Most pay by buying pre-paid cards and 10 per cent by credit card. It is cash income. We have no debt.' This should give the company a good story to tell potential investors. Like rival Shanda Networking, The9 is planning an initial public offering, which mainland media reports say is being led by Credit Suisse First Boston and could come in the third quarter. The company is expanding its offerings this year to challenge dominant player Shanda. In January, Mr Zhu signed a contract to become the sole mainland agent for World of Warcraft, a game developed by a subsidiary of Vivendi Universal. Mr Zhu expects the title will generate half of his company's revenue this year. But like other operators on the mainland, The9 is not content paying huge licence fees and sharing revenue with outside developers. The company is working on a self-developed game with a Chinese theme, a project which has yet to be titled. 'Things change very fast in the internet world,' Mr Zhu said. 'Within a year, Chinese games will account for half of the market. In the future, I see the market split three ways: Chinese games, South Korean and Japanese games and European and American ones. 'We plan to produce our own game, based on what our customers want, within eight months.' According to Webzen, in the nine months to September last year the South Korean developer collected 4.63 trillion won (HK$30.55 billion) in royalty payments from its MU title in China. The9 has entered into a five-year licence arrangement for the game, for which it paid an initial fee of US$500,000 and a 20 per cent royalty.