Hooked on Fantasy

Everquest, the popular (and addictive) multiplayer videogame for adults, is hitting China in a big way





As designated commander in chief, Tang Shixiong is responsible for waging a search-and-destroy mission against the God of Fear. From the look on his face, things don't seem to be going well. An operation like this requires a great deal of coordination among many different people, but the moment isn't conducive to such concentrated effort. This Internet cafe in Shanghai one day last month was the site for the China launch of EverQuest, Sony's fantasy role-playing computer game. Would-be gamers huddled around computers trying to glean subtleties from "game masters" sporting EverQuest baseball caps. Newcomers from Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou and other cities shuffled past Firiona Vie, the sword-bearing heroine whose life-size cutout guarded the door.

This isn't China's first encounter with massively multiplayer online games--so called because thousands of people can interact in the same game at the same time. Firms from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China have been marketing them for several years to China's youth. The arrival of EverQuest, though, promises to kick the phenomenon into high gear. Since its introduction abroad four years ago, EverQuest has become one of the hottest-selling online games, with 430,000 fee-paying players. The potential in China, analysts say, is huge. Sony and its partner Ubi Soft are trying to exploit it by appealing not to China's kids, but to its adults.

Most of the people flocking to the EverQuest launches last month were from the coveted 18- to 34-year-old crowd. The complicated game is geared to adult sensibilities. Players form guilds and coordinate strategy with others. Each gamer can assume several different identities at the same time. Even engineering student Yan Ming had trouble at first. "The more you play," she said, "the more interested you get in the game. It's very powerful and complicated."

Online games seem to suit China. Because gamers must log on to a central computer to play, the games are immune from software piracy, which is rampant in China. Sony and Ubi Soft are promoting EverQuest for all it's worth, advertising on Web sites and holding launches in 2,000 Internet cafes in 15 cities. In December, 20,000 people volunteered to test the game, and since then more than 300,000 have signed up to play. After the current free trial ends later this month, players will need to purchase access cards.

Sony is betting that once Chinese players get a taste of EverQuest, they'll get hooked. In the United States, where 10 percent of players, by some estimates, are clinically addicted, it's been dubbed EverCrack. "Any time you create a new venue for people to exit reality, there's going to be a downside," says Jay Parker, a U.S. addiction expert who's treated EverQuest players with techniques borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous. The game's design, he says, encourages long sessions by making it risky for your character to exit the game. "What if we put a lock on the door of the bar, and wouldn't let you out?" he says. "Don't you think that might be problematic?"

Apparently it's not a problem for Tang, the 38-year-old commander in chief. Despite his day job as owner of a Shanghai restaurant, he claims to devote eight to 10 hours a day to EverQuest. "I'm the boss, so I have the time," he says. China's authoritarian leaders fret over children's getting hooked on videogames. What will they do if a lot of adults start behaving like Tang?


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney