07 Nov 2009

Chinese Ministries Battle Over WOW

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The most epic World of Warcraft duel is not going to be fought inside the game, reports the New York Times. Nor will broadswords, enchanted armor, and magic spells be producing the decision. DPS will be inflicted by interagency memoranda, and the Communist Party rather than the program algorithm will select the winner.

My guess is the Ministry of Culture is going to pwn those N00bs from the Administration of Press and Publication.

It could almost be a World of Warcraft game session — two competing titans, plotting against each other, swapping blows, embarked on a quest for a single prize that only the stronger of them will claim.

The virtual World of Warfare game is the subject of a regulatory dispute in China, where such games are big business.

But this is not virtual reality. The titans are two agencies of the Chinese government. And their quest, during which they have traded a few blows in the past week, is for a potentially rich prize: the power to regulate the real World of Warcraft, among the most popular online games in China.

The background: On Monday, the Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication ordered the Shanghai-based operator of World of Warcraft, NetEase, to shut down its servers for World of Warcraft. The agency said that it had rejected the company’s application to become the new host of the game’s four million Chinese players.

But by Wednesday, the Ministry of Culture had struck back.

“In regards to the World of Warcraft incident, the General Administration of Press and Publication has clearly overstepped its authority,” a ministry official, Li Xiong, was quoted as saying in the Economic Information Daily, a newspaper in Beijing. “They do not have the authority to penalize online gaming.”

The ministry said it had that authority. And it said NetEase was perfectly free to offer the game on computers in China. The matter now appears destined for settlement by the State Council, the Chinese government’s cabinet.

Such bureaucratic hair-pulling might seem petty, were so much not at stake. Why the authority to regulate video games should trigger such a fracas is not altogether clear. But on its face, the defining aspect of the dispute involves money.

The online gaming industry in China is already huge, and growing fast. About 50 million people crowd the Internet cafes of China on a regular basis to play. Revenues in 2008 rose about 50 percent to at least $2.9 billion, according to Alicia Yap, a Hong Kong analyst for Citi Investment Research and Analysis. That is 10 times the revenue of just five years ago. IDC, a research company, has predicted that annual revenue will reach $6 billion by 2013.

In that context, the question of who decides what games go online — and how they decide — looms large.

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