It is 20 years since Nokia gave timewasters a new outlet by launching Snake, the first game on a mobile phone to be a worldwide hit.
Today’s favourite titles are a lot more sophisticated. One of the leading contenders is Honour of Kings. Developed by China’s internet giant Tencent, the role playing fantasy has amassed over 200 million users.
The game has been raking in monthly revenues in excess of $441 million but half of its fans are children or adolescents, many of whom are playing it for hours at a time. This has prompted warnings about its addictive properties, led by the People’s Daily, which has described the game as “poison” and lambasted its “negative energy”.
Other newspapers have headlined with Honour of Kings horror stories like the 17 year-old boy from Guangzhou who suffered a stroke after a 40-hour session, or the teenager from Hangzhou who broke his legs jumping out of his apartment after his parents had banned him from playing.
The press coverage has been punishing enough for Tencent to announce curbs on playing time for younger players at the start of July (for instance those between 12 and 18 will have to log out after two hours per day). This led investors to take fright, wiping out more than $15 billion of its market value, although by Thursday Tencent’s shares had largely recovered the lost ground.
The game is a success because it has been designed specifically for phone screens, with shorter session times and simple controls that give it a casual feel, says sector specialist Niko Partners, which reckons that most users play Honour of Kings for about six hours a week.
It helps that the basic version is free, but players do purchase different items if they want to get ahead quickly. Its location-based rankings bring together similarly skilled gamers in workplaces or schools, injecting local rivalry. “Since your ranking is visible to your friends, it has created a sense of competition,” a fan from Xi’an told the South China Morning Post.
In another key feature, Honour of Kings is played in teams of five, which delivers a stronger social dimension. Each participant picks a character and they must work together, making each round a different experience. Tencent has also supercharged the game’s social reach by integrating it with its messaging apps WeChat and QQ, allowing players to chat and flirt. This also makes it a stickier proposition and a lot harder to give up if friends and family are still hooked.
In the past Tencent wanted to convert casual players into “hardcore” gamers but with the latest news the company is taking on the role of responsible citizen, pointing out that the restrictions on playing times are groundbreaking because there aren’t any guidelines on preventing mobile-gaming addiction.
But facing headwinds in China, Tencent’s other strategy is to promote the game overseas. Trial versions of Honour of Kings are doing well in Turkey and Thailand and Tencent is developing an English-language version for release in Europe and the United States, where newspapers like the People’s Daily won’t be quite as bothered about the players going goggle-eyed.
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