Thursday, Mar. 01, 2012

Role Reversal

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Russian terrorists invade the U.S. and Western Europe, only to be thwarted by American and European troops. Players in the hit video game side with the West, and the goal is blood-splattered victory.

The Yanks-vs.-reds plotline, reflecting '50s-era fears about Soviet Russia's threat to freedom, appeals to Western video gamers. Modern Warfare 3, created by gaming giant Activision, based in Santa Monica, Calif., earned a record $400 million its first day on sale in the U.S. and Britain, the most in video-game history. Not surprising, the story line hasn't played as well in Russia — a target of Chechen terrorists. In 2009, Russia banned Modern Warfare 2 because of a scene in which players enter an airport and kill innocent bystanders.

The blowback speaks to the state of the $75 billion gaming industry: a handful of American and Japanese companies dominate the market and the story lines. "Video games out of North America hold a certain societal view," says Brian Blau, research director at tech consultancy Gartner. "Even the big Asian gaming companies Americanize their games." The top 20 gaming companies, 11 of which are Western, claim roughly 80% of industry revenues, with 10,000 or so smaller companies sharing the rest.

Hanoi-based start-up Emobi Games plans to fight that hegemony with a role-reversing plot featuring a different set of good guys. In February, under the direction of developer Nguyen Tuan Huy, Emobi released its first PC video game, 7554, about Vietnam's famous May 7, 1954, battle at Dien Bien Phu, in which the French army surrendered to Vietnamese troops, leading to France's withdrawal from its Indochinese colonies. In the 3-D computer game, players assume the roles of the victorious Vietnamese soldiers in Ho Chi Minh's army. Nguyen says the plotline gives people in Vietnam, where video games are wildly popular, a chance to relive a day of national pride. "Everybody in Vietnam knows about the Dien Bien Phu victory from a very young age, and we're proud of it."

For Emobi's 24 employees, the project is a chance to escape the bit work typically on offer from big Western firms. "I want the world to know that Vietnam is not just an outsourcing country," says Nguyen, whose team developed 7554 over two years on a meager budget of $800,000. "We can make a big game." The appeal for Westerners, he says, is a plot twist. Western games tend to arm players with fancy weapons and protections, but in 7554, poor Vietnamese soldiers have to steal guns and ammunition from the enemy.

Commercial success won't be easy, since the PC-only game doesn't tap the much larger $28 billion console market or the rapidly growing $7 billion market for mobile games. Nguyen says Emobi plans to move 7554 onto other platforms once PC sales take off.

So far, the $12 game has sold some 5,000 copies in Vietnam and 500 abroad. But Blau thinks 7554 can find an audience. "PC gamers tend to be cult enthusiasts. And the cool thing about the gaming industry these days is that a small breakout title can make it big" by fostering its fan base online, he says. Such was the case with Rovio Entertainment, a small company in Finland that capitalized on its 2009 iPhone hit Angry Birds to become a worldwide brand. Nguyen thinks that type of success isn't out of reach. If a rudimentary game pitting pigs against birds can sweep the globe, he says, "anything is possible."