#8: The Latest Male Idols to Sweep China are Imaginary

This is issue #8 of the Magpie Digest newsletter, originally sent on 1/11/2018

Earlier this week, authorities shut down a slew of dating apps (and arrested hundreds of people) after it was revealed that the “sexy ladies” they were charging their customers to talk to were actually bots. Yet at the same time, hundreds of thousands of young women were knowingly spending money to talk to imaginary boyfriends — thanks to a mobile romance game called Love and Producer.

The four dateable characters of Love and Producer: Xu Mo, a scientist; Bai Qi, a special agent; Li Zeyan, an investor; Zhou Qiluo, a pop star

Created by an 80% female development team whose previous work includes the mobile dress up game Love Nikki, Love and Producer debuted on 12/13/2017 and became a national phenomenon by New Year.
Within a week of launch, the company was reporting daily iOS revenues of 300,000 RMB (~$45,000 USD); some reports suggest that the app’s daily revenue has grown as high as 5 million RMB (~$750,000 USD) since.

The popularity of Love and Producer, due in large part to its immersive design, is yet another impressive demonstration of why young women are the most powerful market in China.

Romance, Made Immersive

Love and Producer is an otome game, a relatively niche genre outside of Japan in which the player develops romantic relationships with the characters in the game. Like any successful boy band, the characters in Love and Producer have different personalities meant to appeal to (slightly) different tastes: cheerful and kind, aloof but protective, flirtatious and considerate, asshole who secretly cares. The game’s stories and tropes are no different from those found in soap operas and romance novels, just presented in a more interactive format.

For much of the game, Love and Producer’s love interests interact with the player via an in-game messaging app, a mechanic first popularized by 2016’s Korean indie otome hit Mystic Messenger. The design of this messaging app is unmistakably Chinese, however: it’s basically WeChat, down to the subscription accounts and the Moments posts. The rarest and most prized interactions are voice calls, which manage to create a relatively convincing experience of being on the phone with a character (video demo). To bring these characters to life, Pape Studios hired not one, but two sets of A-list voice actors to provide voiceovers in Japanese as well as Chinese. The investment has clearly paid off — “耳朵都怀孕了” (“my ears are pregnant”) is a common refrain surrounding the game.

Left: the menu of the in-game messenging app, which looks just like the WeChat home screen.
Center: a text chat with one of the characters, who is offering to pick up the player from work. The player chooses one of several possible responses, each of which triggers different behavior from the characters.
Right: the player can learn more about the characters through their social media posts, presented in a familiar WeChat Moments format down to the comments.

While there’s a lot more to the game — minigames for leveling up in your career as a film producer, dates with the characters, and did we mention everyone has superpowers? — it is this messaging component that lies at the heart of Love and Producer. The ability to flirt with these fantasy boyfriends using the same interface that one would use to talk to a real crush pushes the game from being a singular piece of completable entertainment to something closer to Gatebox, the “virtual girlfriend” product targeted at lonely Japanese men.

Straight, young women in China have a simple numbers advantage when it comes to dating thanks to China’s notorious gender disparity. The rampant success of Love and Producer’s messaging feature among this demographic hints at the possibility of lightweight boyfriend/girlfriend simulators going mainstream rather than remaining an extreme, last resort for lonely people.

The Spending Power of Young Women

The chats, calls, and in-game events that lay at the heart of the game are unlocked by specific cards, which players collect randomly by spending in-game currency; players looking to advance a relationship with a specific character must either be extremely patient or be willing to spend real money to increase their odds. This game mechanic, known as gacha, is common in free-to-play games and has been honed to an art in the Chinese mobile world in particular.

Love and Producer, nicknamed 论老娘砸锅卖铁也养不活的四个野男人 (“Four Wild Men You Can’t Afford to Keep Dating No Matter What You Sacrifice”) by its fans, has an array of tactics for parting the player from their money. Perhaps our favorite is this complicated (diegetic!) investment scheme:

The player is given a limited-time offer early on to spend 68 RMB (~$10 USD), which allows them to cash out increasing amounts of in-game currency as they progress through the game. The slogan at the top cajoles: “A one-time investment can score you 6 times as many diamonds.”

As much as Love and Producer’s financial success can be credited to its shameless monetization tactics, it is also a testament to the purchasing power of the young women who make up the bulk of the game’s player base. While the US continues to fixate on 18–34 year old men as the core demographic to design media for, many Chinese media industries consider young women the most valuable market segment to court.

A photo from a big data conference hosted by e-commerce giant JD which went viral in June 2017. The slide quotes a post from Meituan CEO Wang Xing: “Market value: young women > children > young married women > elders > dogs > men”

Games have long been considered the exception to this rule, but the rampant success of Love and Producer, along with Arena of Valor’s popularity among women, indicates that the tide might be turning even there.


Magpie Find:

One of the voice actors featured in the game was surprised by a phone call (video, Chinese) from a coworker who was frustrated that the character he voiced never calls her in the game. The poor guy just wanted to get home from the airport, but eventually agreed to talk to her in character.

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Magpie Digest is a project of Magpie Kingdom, a consultancy that helps companies understand Chinese consumers and develop growth strategies in China. The Magpie team (Christina Xu, Tricia Wang, and Pheona Chen) is based in New York and Shanghai.

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