Browsing the news this morning, I spotted a rumor that Netease may be poised to launch a DOTA-style game of its own next month. DOTA is very popular here, and a domestic take on it could be interesting. Then I read the second half of the headline: “…it may be called Heroes of the Three Kingdoms.” Oh. Excitement deleted.
The Three Kingdoms is actually a historical period of Chinese history, but games about it are generally based on the book Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four great classics of Chinese literature. I’ve read it, and it’s not hard to understand why; the book is full of exciting twists, really memorable characters, and clever strategic one-upsmanship between the generals fighting for each of the titular kingdoms. These are really interesting stories, and that’s part of why they resonate so strongly after hundreds and hundreds of years.
That said, could we please have some games that are based on something else? Chinese devs seem to be the worst about this (note, for example, the four Three Kingdoms games GREE just picked up, all the developers are in China), but there are plenty of Three Kingdoms games coming from other Asian countries too, especially Japan. In China, though, it seems almost as if “Three Kingdoms” is the default setting for any developer looking to make a game, virtually regardless of the genre. Many Three Kingdoms games are role-playing games, but I’ve even seen a Three Kingdoms card game. On the front page of Sina Weibo’s games section, there are four different Three Kingdoms games right now.
It really has gotten out of hand. Here are just a few Three Kingdoms games, whose titles I’m translating directly from Chinese: Three Kingdoms Killing, Hot Blood of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Three Kingdoms, Legends of the Three Kingdoms Heroes, Three Kingdoms Battle Records, Three Kingdoms RPG （winner of the ‘Least Creative Title’ award!), Rise of the Heroes of the Three Kingdoms, Fantasy of the Will of the Three Kingdoms, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Three Kingdoms Tactics, and Interstellar Three Kingdoms, because apparently even space isn’t far enough to get away from the Three Kingdoms. That’s just a partial list, by the way. I could keep going (and that’s just a partial list, too).
Of course, Western game developers are just as guilty of this, although their way oversaturated historical period of choice is World War II. Moreover, I understand that there are some very good reasons to do make a Three Kingdoms game. For one, people love them! The characters and stories are already popular, and a number of Three Kingdoms games and series have been extremely successful in China and elsewhere in Asia, so it makes business sense.
That said, it’s also kind of lazy. The plot and the characters are written for you. The setting is more or less designed. And if you’re not sure where to take things during the development process, you’ve got a hundred other games on the same topic that you can imitate. That’s not to say it’s impossible to make a unique, interesting game about the Three Kingdoms, of course, but at this point, I think it’d be pretty damn hard. Someone has already made Three Kingdoms in space. What could you possible bring to the table that no one has seen before?
Plus, there are so many other things you can do with games! Even restricting yourself to time periods in Chinese history, there are plenty of great stories for games that aren’t getting used because everyone’s making games about the same few Three Kingdoms bigwigs over and over again. And look, I love Zhuge Liang as much as anyone. That trick with the arrows? Awesome. But let’s give some other time periods, some other people, some other settings a chance, OK?
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