Why China’s Honour of Kings is so popular: it’s all about communication

It’s the game that has as many active players as there are people on Germany, and it’s sweeping through China. Players say they like it because it connects them with friends, but the authorities are fretting over addiction

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2017, 9:58am

Shanghai mother Wu Lin wasn’t worried about widespread criticism of the hit video game Honour of Kings – branded ‘poison’ and a ‘drug’ by China’s official People’s Daily newspaper. She downloaded it onto her iPad, opened an account for her nine-year-old son Haohao, and said, “son, play it.”

For her, it was more a case of making sure the boy, a grade-three pupil at primary school, was not left out of a craze that is sweeping the country.

“Now that the summer holiday is here, I think my son can play it for a while, otherwise he won’t be able to join in the conversation with his peers,” she said.

“He can play together with his friends and see each other’s ranking in the game. It’s a kind of group communication and that’s quite absent in the kids’ life nowadays,” Wu said.

A fantasy role-playing game based on Chinese historical characters and developed by gaming and social media giant Tencent, Honour of Kings has become the most popular mobile game in the world. It has more than 200 million registered players – about one for every seven people in China and about 80 million daily active users, equivalent to the population of Germany.

Here’s why Tencent’s Honour of Kings has 200 million players

But the craze has drawn the ire of the authorities, adding to a debate over game addiction that has been raging globally for at least a decade.

The People’s Daily commentary went on to question whether the game is entertainment or something that is ruining people’s lives.

It linked a string of tragedies and problems to the game, including the case of a 13-year-old boy who jumped off a building after being scolded by his father for being addicted to the game, and an 11-year-old girl who spent 100,000 yuan (US$14,700) of her parent’s money on equipment for her game roles, and another in which a 17-year-old boy had a stroke and nearly died after playing the game for 40 hours straight.

An expert in game addiction said that it was easy for primary and middle school pupils to become obsessed with games because of their young age, and the problem was compounded by busy parents who did not have enough time to talk to their children and teach them correct values.

“Schools and parents values students’ academic scores,” said Wan Lizhu, chief psychologist at the Shanghai Ruiling Psychology Consulting Centre, which treats young game addicts.

“When students perform badly in their studies, they will feel they are not recognised at home and at school,” said Wan. “But when playing the game, they will have a sense of achievement.”

Tencent loses US$17.5 billion in market value after People’s Daily describes its game as ‘poison’

Facing a storm of complaints from teachers and parents, Tencent announced an “anti-addiction” system that went into effect from July 4. Players have to register under their real names and any under the age of 12 are limited to one hour of play each day and not after 9pm, while those aged between 12 to 18 years as limited to two hours a day.

This has come as a relief to Selina Xu, mother of Kaka, a boy one grade senior to Haohao, for whom the game is already a serious headache. She hopes the restrictions will dent her son’s obsession.

“Before the end of semester exams, my son, instead of using every minute of his time to prepare for the test, was still playing the game for over an hour a day,” Xu said.

“On the morning of the examination, he woke up at 5am and played the game in bed. When my husband and I found out, we were furious.”

Some seasoned players attribute the game’s success to the social aspect, the factor that led Wu Lin to allow her son to play. Analysts also note that the game’s creator, Tencent, also runs the WeChat online social media platform, which has some 900 million users who might become gamers.

Bruno Zhao, a Shanghai lawyer in his 30s who is a veteran gamer, said the game is more a copy of League of Legends, Tencent’s other big grossing product, and is not a breakthrough in terms of content or technology, but he likes it because it connects him to those around.

“Half of my former high school’s male classmates play it. We call each other to form a team on WeChat to play the game side by side,” he said.

Zhao said whenever he is idle, he would take out his mobile to play a set game that lasts for about 20 minutes as a manner of relaxation.

A Shanghai-based full-time gamer who goes by the alias Xiao Yi, runs a WeChat public account about the game, recently took part in a competition that was broadcast live on the internet, and watched by 600,000 people.

He said Honour of Kings is not attractive in terms of user experience, characters and their stories, but because he can play with his friends.

“Thanks to this game, some people with whom I had lost contact for a long time are connected with me again,” he said.

Chen Xiaohuan, an analyst at internet consulting firm iResearch, said the game is also popular because it has details that are instantly recognisable to Chinese players.

“For example, its characters are named after famous ancient Chinese figures, rather than translations of foreign names,” she said. “People will feel more familiar with the game and it is easy for them to talk about it together.”

The popularity of Honour of Kings has boosted sales of derivative products. The daily revenue from sales of skins allowing users to change the appearance of Zhao Yun, a popular character in the game, reached as high as 150 million yuan during the first quarter of this year.

The business of proxy players who play the game on behalf of others is also booming on e-commerce platform, prompted by the strong demand from those wanting to raise their ranking in the game in a short time.

A marketing executive at a foreign enterprise told The Economic Observer newspaper that he paid hundreds of yuan for a proxy player to help him reach a higher ranking. He played the game at the recommendation of his subordinates, but as he is much older than his colleagues, he found he could not play very well.

“My ranking is low, making me lose face in my company. Thus I hired a proxy player,” he was quoted as saying.

But proxy playing has another side to it, where young people can get around restrictions on game time by logging on to an adult’s account. Young people can also search identity numbers online and simply create accounts using them. And just a day after Tencent brought in its “anti-addiction” system, some proxies started a new business – selling adult accounts for 50 yuan each, reported.

However, the game itself cannot be held solely responsible for addiction, said Xue Yongfeng, a senior analyst at consulting firm Analysys,

“The core point is family education,” he said.

“Parents should take up their responsibilities [in educating kids] and not leave their kids as they are.”