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At a time when some are looking to the Chinese market to find a way out of the financial crisis, others are tapping into Chinese culture for inspiration.
The company behind a leading online multiplayer role-playing game, World of Warcraft, on Tuesday globally released its fourth expansion pack — Mists of Pandaria — at a time when its number of subscribers is shrinking.
The company’s latest bet is an enigmatic type of character, the Pandaren — a humanoid race resembling pandas.
The Pandaren practice martial arts and isolated themselves from the outside world by building a wall around the misty continent of Pandaria.
The game’s developer, United States-based Blizzard Entertainment, is not the only international company tapping into Asian culture for fresh content.
According to figures from China’s Ministry of Culture, online games have become a new engine driving the cultural industry. The number of players in China grew to 324 million, and the market was worth 42.85 billion yuan ($6.73 billion) by the end of 2011.
Michael Morhaime, Blizzard’s president, told analysts that WoW ended the second quarter with about 9.1 million subscribers worldwide, down from a record high of more than 12 million subscribers two years ago, according to a BBC report.
Morhaime said that the company expects a "substantial number" of subscribers to return after the release of the expansion pack.
Dave Kosak, a game designer for WoW, said on Wednesday in Beijing that the company introduced the Pandaren characters in Blizzard games nine years ago and that the team always wanted to do an expansion pack with the Pandaren.
Kosak said that Chinese culture was their main inspiration while developing the expansion pack.
"We had a lot of ideas, and eventually everybody got excited (about Pandaria) and we thought it could get our players excited," Kosak said.
The essence of the expansion pack then became Chinese, with some twists added to make the game unique and surprising.
The music team was influenced by Chinese music and played Chinese folk instruments in the game’s soundtrack.
Also, the game’s graphics depicting landscapes, temples, and the Great Wall built by the Pandaren in the game will look familiar to those in China.
According to the game’s introduction, the noble history of the Pandaren stretches back thousands of years. They enjoy a good meal, practice inner-peace rituals, and are bouncy to minimize injuries when they fall.
And a new type of characters — the monks of Pandaren — can harness their inner strength and potent chi energy for self-defense and healing.
"The new characters were inspired by kung fu for sure," Kosak said. "Early in the process, our team watched kung fu movies every week."
About 25 artists worked on the expansion pack, and five of them have Chinese heritage.
"Martial arts are just great for video games. Nothing is cooler than seeing a Pandaren flying in the air and kicking," Kosak said.
The design team looked at Chinese philosophy as well.
"Taoist philosophy is always fascinating to us," said Kosak.
He said that the Pandaren characters come from a richer and warmer culture that cares about other things besides fighting.
The Pandaren are different from other characters in the game, such as the aggressive Alliance and Horde characters. In comparison, the Pandaren are philosophical and peaceful.
Kosak said that Blizzard didn’t make the decision to specifically target the Chinese market. Instead, the company just wanted to make the best game possible and make it attractive to a global audience.
Kosak, who has 15 years of experience in the industry, said he hopes the expansion pack can keep the game fresh and carry it forward.
That view is also shared by other international developers that want to get a boost from other cultures.
"The cultural wealth and depth of Chinese history and storytelling work as a source of inspiration for us," said Henri Holm, senior vice-president for Asia of Finland-based Rovio, which developed the hit game Angry Birds.
Besides offering a version of the game featuring the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Year of the Dragon, Rovio has produced moon cakes in the shape of popular Angry Birds characters this year.