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Gaming the System:
a One-time Accountant Finds a New Career in Online Games
Frank Ng, EMBA '09, parlayed an early love of computer games into the top role at one of China's leading online game operators.
Frank Ng's job offers one very big perk. As he puts it, half-jokingly: "Imagine that you could play games all day in your office and no one could say a thing about it." For Ng, CEO of online game firm Ourgame, playing games is merely part of a day's work.
But in China, online games are also serious business. Overall last year, gaming revenues nationwide amounted to about 20 billion RMB (about USD2.8 billion). Ourgame, an online games operator founded in 1998, has grown into a USD30 million company with a staff of 450, headquartered in Beijing and with satellite studios in Shanghai, Xi An and Chengdu.
"Online games are part of the culture in China, part of the mainstream," Ng explains. "In North America, Europe, Australia, if you tell people, ‘I'm a World of Warcraft player,' they'll say, ‘Hey, get a life. Get some sunlight.' But in China, if you tell your friends at school or work that you're playing so-and-so game, they won't think you're a geek."
In fact, China's gaming market has matured enough to show up some noticeable differences in consumer behavior patterns, compared with other big Asian markets. "In Japan or Korea, people will pay more for good-looking avatars. But in China you can't sell that," explains Ng. "People are more logical, and they want practical things.
"Chinese gamers might buy clothes with special attributes that make the avatar stronger, but they don't care so much about appearance. They can run around naked for all they care, but just give them the best sword and they'll be happy."
It's no surprise, given his line of work, that the Hong Kong-born Ng is himself a gaming aficionado – one whose memories date back to intensive rounds of Pac-Man at age 13. But the route he took to his current position was far from direct.
As an undergraduate, Ng studied accounting at the University of California, Berkeley. He spent the first five years of his career working as an accountant at Grant Thornton, first in San Francisco and later in his native Hong Kong. Looking back, Ng says that experience offered valuable perspective on what it takes to operate a successful company. It also convinced him he wanted to do something more entrepreneurial.
After leaving Grant Thornton, he worked for a time at a consulting firm he co-founded with two other partners, advising companies on how to invest in Internet projects. Then he moved on to a post at PCCW, the Hong Kong-based telecom provider, where his job was to acquire music, games and radio content that could used online and on PCCW's interactive t.v. service. It was an assignment that, in retrospect, would prove key in launching his career in the gaming industry.
While at PCCW, Ng was approached by NHN, the giant Korean search and gaming company, which wanted a partner to help it set up operations on the mainland. The two companies agreed to create a joint venture in 2003, and Ng subsequently became the company's China-based co-CEO. Not long afterwards, at the urging of NHN, the JV spent $100 million to acquire Chinese game firm Ourgame. Ng joined the new company as CFO, and was later promoted to CEO in 2007.
A year later, he decided to enter the CKGSB EMBA program. "I'd been focusing purely on the Internet business and Internet games, and I wanted a chance to think more about business in China in other areas. Normally I can't slow down and think about things." The program helped him see his own industry in a broader perspective, Ng says, while giving him a chance to think more about bigger-picture strategies.
Ourgame primarily focuses on card games oriented towards the domestic market, such as online poker, mahjong, and chess, but under Ng's leadership it has begun venturing into more complex games. It's started developing a game that multiple players can play at once (a popular category known as MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing game). The company is also working on a 3D "street fighter" game and Monopoly-like online games, both of which it plans to market overseas.
While Ng plans to expand Ourgame's international sales, China remains by far the biggest target market. In the past couple of years the nation's gaming market has entered an entirely new phase, as Chinese companies have started hiring homegrown programmers to create games instead of merely importing licensed game titles from Korea and other countries. The local competition has also gotten tougher – especially since instant messaging giant QQ entered the gaming business four years ago, quickly establishing itself as the industry leader.
Ourgame is currently ranked twelfth overall in the overall China game market. Ng says he's set himself an ambitious goal: propelling his company into the ranks of the top three gaming companies nationwide.