The Big Three, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are names that almost every gamer recognizes. However, in China there are three companies that are just as big as those, and you probably have never heard of them before. Tencent, NetEase, and Shanda, three major Chinese companies that are expanding their reach beyond China. Combined, they capture 66 percent of the Chinese gaming market. That is 66 percent of the 9.5 billion RMB (US$1.5 billion) pie that is China's gaming market. Yowzers.
The big three—or as they refer to them in China, "Top 3"—have been the dominant driving forces in raising China's game market from next to nothing to the huge industry that it is today. As in any Chinese success story, there are ties to the government; however, the Top 3's rise is more than just a story about government favors, bribes and kickbacks. It is a story about timing, luck, and the internet.
It is predicted that by 2013, 718 million people (double the US population) will have access to the internet in China. Whatever percentage of those that play games, it is expected the Top 3 will own more than half of the marketshare.
Here is a quick look at the Top 3.
Arguably the largest of the Top 3 is Tencent Holdings Limited. To most people outside and inside of China, when Tencent is mentioned, the first thing that pops to mind is probably their QQ messaging service. Founded in 1998, Tencent languished in internet obscurity until it came out with its QQ messenger.
QQ, by far Tencent's most notable and well spread product to date, is an open ICQ-based messenger akin to AIM and MSN. It's the reason why Tencent is big. Using QQ as their catalyst, Tencent created blogs and a net portal called QZones to go along with QQ. Moreover, it also created an Online game portal called QQ games.
QQ Games is where Tencent gets interesting. Originally developed and released in 2007, QQ Games was the work of Tencent holdings and AOL. What set QQ Games apart from other game portals at the time was that it was almost as much a social networking hub as it was a game portal. What is notable about QQ Games is that all the games are online, web-based games; some of the bigger games, such as the MMOs, require a client, while some are browser based. Many of the games are free to play.
Another unusual aspect to Tencent is that while they are primarily an internet company like AOL/Google (They are currently ranked 10th most visited website in the world by Alexa.com), Tencent operates rather like a large game studio. Tencent is both a developer and a publisher of games. Some of the most notable games in Tencent's catalog include QQ Sanguo, a Three Kingdoms based MMO, and FPS Crossfire, as well as South Korea's Dungeon Fighter Online and Crazy Racing Kart Rider.
Currently Chinese media and Marbridge Consulting, reports that Tecent's QQ Games platform holds over 200 million registered users. What's more, it appears that Nokia will be replacing Windows Live from their phones in China with Tencent's QQ Games.
Alexa.com ranks NetEase as the number 30 most popular online destination in the world, in China it is number seven with a bullet. Now NetEase is a name that you've probably seen on Kotaku as a source for one of our many China related stories. The reason for that is because NetEase like Tencent is not primarily a gaming company.
Founded in 1997 NetEase, like Tencent, was more than just a game developer and publisher. NetEase offered news and search features through its main webpage 163.com. Originally in the search engine and news aggregating business, NetEase developed an in-house MMORPG based on the classic Chinese myth Journey to the West, which changed the shape of the company.
Released in 2004, Fantasy Westward Journey (梦幻西游) was a grand slam for NetEase. It instantly put the company on the map of Chinese gamers. By 2007, FWJ was the most popular online game in China, with a peak count of 1.5million players online per day.
NetEase is also the operator of WOW in China. Enough said.
The only pure gaming company of the Top 3, Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited is also the only one of the Top 3 to ever try to create a console. Founded in 1999, Shanda's slogan is "We are games".
Shanda originally started out as publisher of books but eventually started to develop games. Their first game, Legend (传奇), was released in 2002, and it was a wuxia-style martial arts MMO. The game was an immediate success with over 60 million registered users playing by October of 2002.
In 2005 they released their next major game called The World of Legend while licensing Korean MMO, The Legend of Mir . What made these two games stand out in 2004 was the fact that they were free to play—of course, what Shanda really did was make their games into "freemium" games.
After releasing Legend of Mir, Shanda proceeded to license and operate more Korean made MMO's such as Ragnarok Online, Aion, and the insanely popular Maple Story .
These are China's Top 3. Is it only a matter of time before they're the world's?
QQ Games [Tencent]
Shanda: We are Games [Shanda Games]