Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Copycat Culture, part 2...

The Chinese consumer wanted to be part of the international dialogue. They want to be recognized for their contributions to science, fashion, art, education, politics and culture as well. Of course the rest of the western world has a problem with that because of how often and how blatant the nation stole the IP from other countries. Business Insider compiled a sampling of things China copied from the rest of the world last year. China was known for being the source of most counterfeit goods the world over. From clothing to electronics and even drugs. If it had a street value then chances are somebody in China was mass producing a knock-off. Even things that had value with other cultures, such as the satirical Colbert Report show, had been poached unapologetically. This reflected badly on the Chinese consumers. They knew the difference between the original product and the copy but did not always see the value in spending an outrageous markup for the genuine article. At the end of the 20th century the Chinese had found that they could outspend just about every other nation on goods and services. In a few short generations the middle class had exploded in purchasing power. The working class were holding most of the manufacturing contracts from around the world. Suddenly the counterfeit items they had supported no longer seemed justifiable. Purchasing name brand items suddenly became a symbol of status for the middle and upper class as well. Name brands had a seductive influence on consumer culture and the Chinese could not escape its pull. If they wanted to imitate the trends of the west then they had to "buy" into it. Sadly many designers, artists, directors, composers and content creators from China would be overlooked because they lacked the approval from the West.

The same cycles of copying the content from the West would follow the Chinese gaming industry as well. Chinese gamers were familiar with all of the biggest arcade and console hits from around the world. They did not appreciate that the local developers were simply copying the trends from the West. Unfortunately for them there was little else for them to choose from. They could either import games at a great cost, download pirated games for free or support domestic developers. The Chinese gamer longed to see an original idea that catered to them rather than followed the status quo. Of course entertainment consumers from around the world longed for the same thing. Creativity and risk taking were counter to the business climate from the West. Most studios, from Disney to Warner Bros, were willing to invest on a proven format or character rather than try to invent a new franchise. Marvel was making a killing releasing movies based on characters that were more than half a century old, why would they risk a sure thing by trying out something new? Disney was content marketing cartoon characters almost a century old. They had no problem working on sequels from the Pixar library, which incidentally was also growing old. Toy Story would turn 20 in 2015 and Disney had no plans on retiring the characters. I'm not even going to mention the plans that the company had for the aging Star Wars franchise. Game studios in the west were run similarly. Sequels made more business sense than new ideas. Gamers had little say in what developers worked on. Unless they stopped buying into a particular franchise there seemed no other way of getting the publishers to listen. The Chinese gamers were pretty much in the same boat. It was obvious by how far Tencent was willing to go to poach the IP that worked for other companies. The biggest publisher in the country and the fourth largest internet company in the world (behind eBay, Google and Amazon) knew no shame. Andrei, featured in the previous blog, was an interesting boxer from Xuan Dou Zhi Wang / King of Combat. The previous character introduced however was a shameless rip-off of a more famous fighter.

Although the character "King" was dressed differently than Ken from the Street Fighter series there was no mistaking his inspiration. Huateng Ma aka Pony Ma, the founder and chairman of Tencent was quoted as saying "to copy is not evil." His business rivals once remarked that "Pony Ma is a notorious king of copying" and "the problem in Tencent is no innovation; all things are copies." This understanding obviously worked very well for business.



Move for move Ken and King were almost identical. The Hadoken "fireball", Shoryuken "Dragon Punch" and Tatsumaki Senpukyaku "Hurricane Kick" could also be performed by King. Of course his attacks were relabeled the Vacuum Wave Punch, Shen Long Fist and Cyclone Leg respectively. Tencent had the audacity to use the same joystick and button combinations from the Street Fighter games to activate the special attacks for King.



Tencent had stolen the trademark special attacks from the Capcom character. The copyright infringement lawsuit that Capcom slapped Data East with when they released Fighters History was based on vague similarities with characters, moves and gameplay. The similarities between King of Combat and Street Fighter were even more profound and worthy of legal action. Since the Chinese copyright system was hopelessly impossible to petition there would be no stopping Tencent from getting away with it.

 

The Chinese studio had gotten away with murder. Fighting game aficionados could do nothing but standby and watch. Well, actually the aficionados did more than that. They were eager to try out the character and see how he stacked up against the others in the King of Combat. In a way it settled the bet of what would happen if Capcom's best fighters turned up in a different franchise.

 

To be fair the artists, designers and programmers working for Tencent were as big a fan of the genre as any studio in the world. Perhaps more than most. They wanted to demonstrate that they were capable of creating a fighting game that was beat-for-beat as good as anything released from Japan or the US. They wanted to show their contemporaries that they weren't sleeping when the various franchises became hits. They were learning how to code and dissected the elements that made the various fighters successful. They were able to release a solid game in the fraction of the time that it would have taken a Japanese studio to. They made sure to include nods to the legacy characters and hide details in Xuan Dou Zhi Wang for the most die-hard fighting game fans to find. King was actually added as an answer to a partnership that Tencent had started up with a Japanese publisher. It would not be the first time that this studio, and long-time rival to Capcom, had tried to break into the Chinese market. The next blog will set the groundwork for how Tencent capitalized on a franchise and made it their own.

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