You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d entered an imaginary realm when stepping onto the campus of NetDragon Websoft, where spaceships sit beside steam-powered locomotives. Is that a fairway or a landing strip; a launch pad flanked by guardian deities or simply an elaborate sun shade? The piece de resistance at the complex, and mission control for NetDragon chairman Liu Dejian and the team of designers he’s assembled into one of China’s most successful online gaming, internet and technology firms, is the building constructed to resemble Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.
With a vast fortune and a fertile imagination, Liu, who is known to staff and friends as DJ, resembles a real-life Tony Stark. He has an enduring passion for Lego – he sets aside time every day to construct cars, planes, buildings, anything that comes in a collector’s set – and the campus he’s created embodies the kind of imaginary gaming world that helped Hong Kong-listed NetDragon make its mark. It’s a composite of East and West, of future and past and of science fiction and science fact.
Chinese games developer NetDragon moves into global online education after buying London-listed Promethean for U$130m
Located just outside Fuzhou’s Changle International Airport, and probably first “discovered” by commercial airline pilots flying overhead, Liu’s headquarters made international headlines last summer when he revealed the company had bought the rights to the Starship Enterprise from American television network CBS and spent more than HK$1 billion constructing premises in the spaceship’s likeness. Yet while most reports focused on the building and the quirky entrepreneur’s penchant for sci-fi, none asked why Liu is so determined to go where no man has gone before – nor exactly where it is that he’s going.
“When I started NetDragon, we were interested in artificial intelligence,” says the 44-year-old. “It was 1999, we had the internet and I was thinking that, with millions of people to interact with, we could create a very powerful mind that could be used to solve all kinds of problems. But it didn’t pay off.”
Chinese tech firm CEO converts offices into Star Trek Enterprise replica
Other things have paid off, however. One of China’s first internet companies to expand overseas, NetDragon has been transformed by Liu from a small domestic gaming start-up into a global internet and technology powerhouse, one that is known specifically as the operator of massively multiplayer online games such as Eudemons Online and Conquer Online.
In 2013, NetDragon sold its hugely popular mobile app store 91 Wireless to Baidu for US$1.9 billion in what, at the time, was China’s largest internet acquisition. With the purchase last year of Britain’s Promethean, the company steamed into interactive education, reaching 1.3 million classrooms and 30 million students in more than 100 countries. NetDragon launched the world’s first virtual-reality open platform this year and, in February, the firm invested in Canada’s ARHT Media, which specialises in human holograms and holographic transport. Last week, NetDragon bought cherrypicks alpha, the augmented and virtual research arm of Hong Kong subsidiary Cherrypicks.
Named “Enterprise” and measuring 260 metres long, 100 metres wide and five storeys tall, the headquarters house NetDragon’s design and animation studios, work stations, corridors lined with life-size figures of Iron Man, Terminator and stormtroopers, a heated indoor pool, a yoga studio, a gym (Liu works out every day and encourages his staff to do the same), an Imax cinema, slides and fireman’s poles between floors and a café overlooking the sea. Outside is an Olympic-length swimming pool, tennis courts and a football pitch. Liu’s offices are, of course, on the bridge, behind sliding portal doors emblazoned with the words “United Federation of Planets – Office of the President”.
Liu has come a long way from the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, when he was raised by a single mother. “My mother was one of the earlier businesswomen in China. In those days, not many university professors started their own businesses, especially women. That had a very early impact on me. When I look at her, how hard working she was and how she was always trying new things, it’s amazing.
“Everybody in China was quite poor. My mother couldn’t provide a good life for my brother and I and she felt bad. She wanted to do better, so she started to do small projects. She started to invent a kind of fishing bait. It was a very early product and what she did then sort of shocked me.”
Born and raised in Fujian, Liu’s mother, Yang Zhenhua, developed a floating bait that made life easier for fishermen. She then travelled alone some 1,000km north, to Shandong province, home to numerous fishing ponds, and went door-to-door demonstrating the product until she got her first break. “These kinds of things helped to inspire me, to show a young teenager that, if she could do it, I could probably do it, too. At the time, it was quite difficult to do things, even if you had some money. So it was a very good exercise. It taught me that, even if you don’t welcome challenges, at the very least you shouldn’t fear them.”
“It’s important to realise why people want to go to the movies or play games … The answer is … you actually get a better life”
With her hard-earned money, Liu’s mother sent her son to high school in America, where he developed his love of science fiction. “It was quite helpful,” says Liu, “especially a show like Star Trek, which often addresses … ways of dealing with conflict. I didn’t necessarily agree all the time but, as a young person, watching those episodes served a purpose, sort of like a mental exercise.
“People usually only have one chance in life. But somehow, by watching movies and considering the different characters and scenarios, it’s almost like we live multiple lifetimes. We can sort of put ourselves in those situations and ask ourselves if that’s the kind of life we want.”
Multiple lifetimes would become a recurring theme for Liu after he returned to China in the mid-1990s, having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Kansas and taken on the role of vice-president at both Beso Biological Research Center, in Kansas, and Fuzhou Yangzhenhua 851 Bio-Engineering Research.
As players, Liu and his friends grew frustrated at having to wait in long online queues, caused by low server capacity, to get into Japanese game Stone Age. As more and more people lined up, real money in virtual hand, Liu and his future colleagues at NetDragon saw an opportunity.
“We were young, about 29 years old, and we started to make games. It was fun and, at that time, the market was quite forgiving. We were allowed to make many mistakes, we were lucky that way. Nobody can become a successful game designer overnight. But over several years, many of us grew to become capable game designers.”
So what’s the secret to designing a successful game?
“It’s important to realise why people want to go to the movies or play games. What do they get out of it? The answer is that, in a game or in a movie, you actually get a better life.
“In real life, you try very hard but your boss is always criticising you, and then you go home and your wife is complaining the money’s not enough. Sometimes even the kids are complaining that the TV set is too small. This happens in life. However, in a game, it’s like you’re being appreciated somehow. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, but many things are, by definition or by rule, guaranteed. For example, if you keep playing and you keep killing monsters, you’re guaranteed to go up a level. In life, even for a very successful person, success may only come after many years of hard work.
“If we design it carefully, every couple of minutes the player can feel good about themselves, like every skill they learn is useful.” Some computer game characters are designed to make poor decisions as an invitation to be beaten. “This kind of problem-solving makes the user feel better about themselves. They think, ‘Hey, I’m capable. I’m not a nobody! I’m somebody!'”
NetDragon prides itself on the steps it takes to combat gaming addiction – such as producing tablets for students that unlock games only after a specified number of lessons have been completed – and its promotion of positive values, such as caring for fellow players, so it was perhaps a logical move to have invested the windfall reaped from the sale of 91 Wireless in education. “We see that the advances in technology are not widely used or utilised as tools in the educational field, which presents us with a big advantage.”
Liu opens a computer program, driven by a gaming engine and kitted out with high-resolution 3D graphics, that starts with an empty apartment space: the kind of property developer’s floor plan a home buyer may encounter. By going through menus of options, he changes wall colours, chooses furniture and adds or removes walls, all of which would enable an inexperienced user to experiment with interior design.
He then launches into a demonstration of free software that presents literature and poetry lesson plans complete with 3D graphics and animation. This particular software, called The Emperor’s New Clothes, is aimed at 12- and 13-year-olds and comes with desert or tropical backdrops, options to view proceedings by day or night and the ability to add animated graphics of the emperor himself, all of which is meant to excite children’s interest and help them better visualise the lessons.
“For a very long time,” says Liu, “knowledge was very expensive. But the internet has somehow solved this problem. Now lots of knowledge, especially information, is free. I think we can all feel this, it’s become a part of our society now.”
Liu warms to the theme. “What if Einstein was still around and could talk about the theory of relativity, himself? It might be easier to learn and, I guess, because he’s so famous, students would pay better attention to what he has to say. In that way, everybody could afford the best. Especially people in remote areas, they could enjoy learning from the best in the world. “When we look at it in this way, it’s more like a sharing process or a group buy.” With complementary developments in robotics and artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality and holographic telegrams, all of which NetDragon is working on, the field of education looks likely to be disrupted in many as-yet-unimagined ways.
“When I speak with colleagues, I often tell them that we’re in one of the golden ages of human history. Though there are still many regional conflicts, the whole world is achieving a much higher standard of living than ever before. And with information now available to almost anyone with a cheap internet device, from a fairness point of view, people have more chance than ever before.
“If people look at the period we’re in now in 500 years, they’ll say that it was one of the great moments of human history. And if we can do well with education, the world will become even better.”
Source: South China Morning Post