Mei is a typical Vietnamese girl in her early 20s. A tour guide, her passions in life are her family, her boyfriend, Westlife and, in particular, PC online game Audition. Whilst there’s no accounting for her taste in music, her taste in games is far from unusual. Mei is, like many, an Audition addict spending, by her own admission, more time playing it than she does with her boyfriend or family.
If you have not heard of Audition, it’s time you did. It is a gaming phenomenon that has swept across Asia during the last eighteen months. In some territories it has overtaken World of Warcraft, Maple Story and Kart Rider as the most popular online title. Remarkably, its core market is dominated by that most elusive of gaming demographics: young women.
Audition is a simple concept that borrows heavily from the long-established dance game genre and taps into the popularity of talent TV shows like Pop Idol. Players compete in online dance tournaments using the keyboard’s cursor keys to choreograph their dance moves with the music and other dancers, scoring points to beat other players. Audition has succeeded because within this unexceptional gameplay are cleverly woven such sticky online components as multiple tournament modes, a challenging ladder structure, voice/text communications, constantly-changing songs and, critically, the ability to personalise characters extensively with virtual clothes and make-overs.
Like many of its peers, Audition began life as a comic before being developed into a game by Korea’s T3 Entertainment in 2004. Publishing rights were picked up by Yedang Entertainment and, after early success in Korea, the game was licensed into other Asian territories. The title is currently available in 11 Asian territories with other countries expected to launch through 2007. The most recent was dance-crazy Brazil where the rights were signed by Brazilian publisher Kaizen (despite there being almost no online games market to speak of there) securing Yedang a US$1m advance and 30% of gross sales.
Kaizen’s confidence is based on some remarkable Asian usage figures. During its beta test in Taiwan alone, over 1.5m registrants applied for accounts. In China total account registrations have reportedly now passed the 70 million mark – twenty times World of Warcraft’s estimated 3.5m-4m subscribers (although we acknowledge that subscriptions and registrations are not the same) – with peak concurrent users comfortably exceeding 600,000. Yedang estimates that 60% of its vast global user base is female with the majority either teenage or in their early 20s.
Mei, like most Vietnamese, receives a tiny salary compared to western pay levels. Nevertheless, Audition claims between 10%-20% of her disposable income, around US$8/month. Audition uses the standard virtual item purchase model – players use virtual currency to acquire new characters (which can be “lost” in some of the more competitive elimination tournaments), some new songs and virtual clothes or make-overs. Competent players can enjoy the game without having to spend money: tournament victories secure players virtual currency prizes which can also be used in the game’s shop. This free-play potential is undoubtedly core to development and maintenance of the game’s massive user base even if it decimates the per-player revenue generated.
Accruing $0.5-$1 per month per account from 70 million accounts, however, can be just as economically viable as generating $15 from two to three million players. Yedang Online (who only license the rights on to others and appear not to publish the game themselves anywhere) reported that early in 2006 it was generating US$4m of operating profit per month whilst turnover growth was hitting 300% per annum and operating profit growth 200%.
Whether the success of Audition can be replicated in the West is another matter. The retail success of SingStar in Europe and Guitar Hero in North America as well as the continued popularity of western talent TV shows would suggest that there may well be a substantial latent market here. Anyone for an online dance-off? Anything, bar Westlife, acceptable…