After exhausting just about every elf, dragon and knight featured in Western cultures, makers of popular online games are turning to ancient Asian history and war heroes for new inspiration.
Chief among their sources is "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," an epic Chinese novel whose plots and characters are familiar to most Asians.
"Romance," which long existed in oral form before it was put together in writing in the 14th century, covers a chaotic two-century period in ancient China marked by infighting between warlords following the fall of the Han Dynasty.
The story, full of dramatic and bloody episodes about ruthless ambition, military tactics, loyalty and betrayal, yielded numerous battle legends and war heroes that are still venerated by Asians.
It also makes for an ideal theme for movies and TV shows, with the latest being John Woo's "Red Cliff," to be released just before the Beijing Olympics.
While awareness of ancient Chinese history is still limited in the West, critical and popular hits such as the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and last week's Jackie Chan vehicle "Forbidden Kingdom" are preparing Western gamers for the idiosyncrasies of Asian-based games.
Japanese game developer Koei Co Ltd has pioneered games based on "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," from PC games in floppy disk to brand new console versions running on Microsoft's Xbox 360.
Its "Dynasty Warriors" series, featuring legendary characters from the novel combined with kung-fu style action, sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.
Now, makers of online games are trying to bring the well-known saga into multiplayer role-playing games. They say the novel provides all the materials needed, from characters to political landscape, to entertain online gamers for months of play.
"Romance" could re-energize an industry suffering from the lack of a major blockbuster game since "World of Warcraft" by Blizzard Entertainment Inc launched in 2004.
South Korean game developer Wemade Entertainment unveiled a multiplayer role-playing game, "Chang Chun," last year. In it, characters mingle with people from real Chinese history and get involved in politics and battles. Gamers build their martial art skills, acquire weapons and armor, form clans and lead wars against each other.
Converting centuries-old texts into virtual reality, however, proved a tough task.
"It took more than four years of research into the novel's contents, Chinese history, architecture, clothing and so on," said Park Jung-soo, who leads Wemade's development team. "All members of our team went on research trips to China."
Gamers appreciate such efforts, saying details and historical facts are key attractions.
"Managing troops, food supply and other elements to win the war is very interesting. There's also a whole system for government offices and rankings," said an online user, who wanted to be identified by ID sbh8243.
"If you want to engage more, you can join the policy team and lead the country you're in."
"Warlord" by Neowiz Games takes a step further in its attempt to blend Western and Eastern war history. A gamer can choose among characters from different cultures, such as a Chinese general, a Japanese ninja or a magician knight from ancient Europe. As the game progresses, the gamer faces famous generals and warriors from history books.
Kim Jae-young, production manager at Neowiz Games, said developers at the firm combed through not only history books but artwork, prehistoric wall paintings and artifacts to rebuild the scenes from long-gone historic moments.
Analysts say well-made games based on "Romance" have the potential to become money-spinners, given the fast-growing gamer population in China. Wemade, which is offering a trial of "Chang Chun" in China, said it ranks among the most popular online games there.
"The Chinese online game market has yet to fully boom up," said Shim Jun-bo, an analyst at CJ Investment & Securities.
"One day there will be a perfectly made 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' game from a major studio like Blizzard, and it will become an absolute blockbuster."