Honor of Kings: The Media Mix and a Chinese MOBA

Curator's Note

Although the marketing strategy of the “Media Mix” (as theorized by Mark Steinberg) originated in Japan, the practice can be observed in contemporary mainland China as well. Specifically, in the case of Chinese MOBA (mobile game) Honor of Kings (2015), it has become a standard marketing practice since roughly 2020 for the game production company, TiMi L1 Studio under Tencent Games, to employ a media mix approach to introduce and popularize new heroes and new “skins” in Chinese video games. Promotional videos of in-game heroes and skins come out weeks or even months before the official launch. Physical merchandise, such as figurines of popular skins, lamps shaped like books, notebooks, and tickets to HoK tournaments, are also for sale. At HoK tournaments, cosplayers are paid to dress as in-game heroes and sit in the front roles among the audience.

However, even within the domestic market, there is an extra-textual need for a historical explanation of the game characters that draw from contexts beyond the media mix that arises when certain groups of avatars come from literary Chinese classics, such as in The Journey to the West (16th century AD) and Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th century AD) spinoffs. Moreover, game company Timi also adapts, remakes, and re-introduces characters from the “classics” into a newly constructed world of contemporary Chinese “classics.” In this way, the marketing of characters takes on the weight of historical legacy and historical revisionism.

Lan, an HoK avatar, was first introduced in a promotional video in December 2020 and was later reimagined in many fan-produced short videos. Unlike most characters that are direct adaptations from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms classic text, Lan is a culturally “new" character. In the game’s diegesis, he is framed as an assassin sent by the pre-existing character Cao Cao, a warlord who wants to become an emperor, to take the imperial jade seal kept by Cai Wenji (a young girl). However, due to the in-game backstory, Lan hesitates to kill Cai Wenji and eventually revolts against Cao Cao. He injures himself badly in trying to bring Cai Wenji to safety. This narrative setup creates a strong connection between the new game avatar (Lan) and the previous one (Cai Wenji). Interestingly, such an addition to the overarching narrative does not undermine the overall coherence of classic texts. Nobody really dies in this update to the story. Rather, there is a direct handoff in the centrality of narrative, with the opening of possibilities to explore new directions with a new avatar (Lan) without ending or eliminating the arc of the previous protagonist (Cai Wenji). This sets a precedent for structural ways to introduce future characters and narrative arcs.

The choice of Cai Wenji as Lan’s entry into the grand narrative is an effective manipulation of the media mix deployment of character that draws on cultural precedents for the affective player response. Allegedly, Cai Wenji is among the top three most-used avatars amongst female players because her skills are easy to understand and she can reboot all teammates’ health bars. Personally, I learned about other over one hundred in-game heroes and their respective skills as a noob by using Cai Wenji in the “entertainment combat mode” (娱乐大乱斗). I followed others around, observing and saving my teammates to the best of my abilities. As a cis-gender, heterosexual female in my early twenties, I cried when I watched the promotional video for the first time that featured a transfer of narrative from Cai Wenji to Lan, but the day after I tried to put the academic analysis thinking cap on and started to wonder why. I subconsciously strongly identified with Cai Wenji, and I felt the second-hand emotional connection with Lan. As Lan saves Cai Wenji and Cai Wenji fails to save him (or reboot his health bar if we imagine that this is happening in-game), I felt that I was saved by Lan and I was losing him forever. Apparently, I am not alone with my deeply emotional experience, as the algorithm pushes new fan-made short videos every day to me in December 2020.

Works Cited

Steinberg, Marc. Anime's Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012.

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