LARP enthusiasts spend big time money on chance to find 'killers' in virtual sleuth tests

Young people prepare to play jubensha, a live action role-playing game, at a bar in Jinan, Shandong province, on June 20, 2020. (WANG JIAN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Donning traditional Chinese hanfu apparel and exquisite headwear, Jiang Zi, daughter of an established family during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), was questioning a servant, trying to find out who killed her father.

Wait a minute! This is not from a television drama, it is an LARP, or live action role-playing game. LARP games have quickly gained in popularity among younger consumers in the country over the past year, spawning a multibillion dollar business.

The LARP game industry has entered a watershed period as the speed of development is struggling to catch up with booming user growth

Zhao Jiangbo, founder of LARP firm Tuili Dashi, literally translated as reasoning master

LARP games, the most popular of which is jubensha, usually involves a "whodunnit" murder mystery script. Each participant has a different role to play without the knowledge of other players. Participants act out their roles while others try to nab the killer.

Together with seven friends, Jiang, a 25-year-old Beijing-based State-owned investment firm employee, had been involved in one particular game for nearly three hours. Every player tried to find out inconsistencies in other players to determine who committed the butchery.

"Not only do we get the thrill of finding the killer, over even being killers ourselves, but we also have the chance to experience a character's story that is totally different from our own reality, which is a good way to escape from the monotony of day-to-day life," Jiang said.

"It is amazing that such an experience can bond several players together, which is much more interesting than other social activities like karaoke. You will never be awkward to speak up for yourself during a LARP game since it is not reality," she added.

According to a report from the Meituan Research Institute, sales revenue of the country's LARP market is expected to exceed 15 billion yuan ($2.32 billion) this year, with the number of consumers hitting 9.4 million.

More than 40 percent of fans play LARP at least once a week. Some devotees don't hesitate to spend as much as 3,000 yuan per month, the report said.

For many other game lovers, they enjoy the process of reasoning and argumentation. "It is a funny process seeing different people's personalities and ways of speaking," said Hu Chunlin, a 29-year-old internet worker who pays around 300 yuan for each round at least twice a month.

The Meituan report also noted that over 70 percent of consumers of such games are under the age of 30. Hu, who also met his girlfriend during a LARP game, said that it is one of the few social activities that he truly enjoys.

"Also, we often say that we see a third life while playing such games. The first life is the one that you are born with and the second life is the ideal life that you are dreaming of. The third life helps you to view this world in a broader perspective, which triggers you to ponder over your first life and to make changes to transit to the second life," he said.

Liu Minghao, a host of a jubensha game, reads the game script at a jubensha shop in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, on March 22. (ZHANG YUAN / CHINA NEWS SERVICE)

LARP games, adapted from the Murder & Mystery Party that has been popular in Western countries, is regarded as a form of interactive literature or theater because of the participation of the audience.

The game's popularity further soared following the launch of the reality TV show Who's the Murderer in 2016 in China. With its first episode being watched by 300,000 viewers, the show raised the recognition of LARP among the public.

Data analytics firm Tianyancha said that the number of registered companies related to LARP games saw an explosive growth last year and exceeded 30,000 as of August this year. It was a sharp contrast to less than 1,000 registered companies five years ago.

Despite offline stores, puzzle-solving applications such as Wo Shi Mi soon gained traction as the COVID-19 pandemic restricted movement for many young people. Differing from offline games in that players sit around a table, each with a book and a pen to aid in plotting, players join each other in the application through videos for online LARP games.

"The essence of the LARP games market is a social entertainment industry driven by content," said Zhao Jiangbo, founder of LARP firm Tuili Dashi, literally translated as reasoning master.

"But the development of this industry knows no boundaries. It can be equipped with virtual reality, augmented reality, holographic projections, performances and much more to inject new impetus into the LARP games sector," Zhao said.

Tuili Dashi, founded in late 2017, started with online mini programs where the system acts as a guide to help offline game players process the whole game. In February last year, the company opened its first offline store in Beijing.

Industry experts said that for consumers, when they choose to pay for LARP games, the professionalism of the DM-Dungeon Master-matters greatly. The DM is host of the game and is responsible to provide basic plotlines of the story script.

"But at present, 95 percent of LARP game scripts are written by store owners, which is highly internalized and homogenized," Zhao said. "The LARP game industry has entered a watershed period as the speed of development is struggling to catch up with booming user growth."

Zhao said that more efforts should be made in content, offline scenarios and influencers. "For instance, organizers need to develop stories that are suitable for all ages, not merely for the young, and to diversify content and develop more stories that have educational significance.

In July, Tuili Dashi finished its pre-A round of fundraising worth tens of millions of dollars, which according to the firm will help to hit its goal of opening 300 stores by the end of this year.

"The LARP game market just finished its first period of reshuffling. Consumers began to have a preliminary understanding of the quality of story script, DM, brand as well as experience," said Wu Shichun, founding partner of Plum Ventures, a VC firm.

"Under this background, high-quality scripts and sound offline operations just emerged in the country, which also means the market has great development potential in the coming years," Wu added.

The booming market also enhances the tourism industry, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected offline tourism across the country. Many tourist destinations strive to combine LARP games with tourism for more interactive experiences.

In Anren town, Chengdu, Sichuan province, tourists can be involved in mega LARP games that last two days. They put on Chinese costumes such as qipao to explore the town that has been decorated as in bygone days.

Besides playing LARP games, the town organized a series of fun activities. There are also many NPC, or non-player characters, who act like residents from days gone by, to interact with travelers and make the game truly immersive.

As offline LARP games continue to grow, industry experts pointed out that problems like safety issues can also be triggered. Public security authorities from Shanghai conducted visits and investigations recently into offline LARP game stores to rectify potential safety hazards.