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Can Sony and Microsoft Crack the Chinese Market?

by William Schwartz

Xbox-One-PlayStation-4

My PlayStation 2 came encased in a blue cardboard box, coupled with Tekken 4 and Grand Theft Auto 3; I’d not heard of the latter, but that would soon change. I loved Tekken, but I’ve always found its combos needlessly complicated, (who on Earth can memorise this?). I didn’t have the time or patience required to master such combos but it mattered little, as button mashing with Eddy Gordo often provided equal if not superior results. In GTA 3, I’d created the virtual embodiment of evil. Spawning tanks teamed with infinite health and the ability to fly resulted in frequent stand offs with Liberty City’s armed forces.

I’d enjoyed what at the time was the next generation of gaming. From the unprecedented freedom of Grand Theft Auto to the tight platforming of Jak and Daxter, the PlayStation 2 sported a litany of critically acclaimed titles that still rank among some of the greatest games of all time. Thousands of miles eastward, those same experiences would be entirely absent from China’s ambit. Research often undermines the antiquated idea that a positive correlation exists between video games and violence. It’s an inexplicable link, but, in 2000, the Chinese government took a different view.

Fearful of the negative implications on children and young people as a result of video game violence, the Chinese government banned the manufacturing and distribution of video game consoles. Fifteen years later, and that ban has been lifted. With a population of billions, China could soon represent the next significant gaming market, but can Microsoft and Sony figure out a way to crack it?

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Despite the long absence of video game consoles, the Chinese people have not been denied access to all games. With no presence from PlayStation, Xbox or Nintendo, PC games now dominate the scene; World of Warcraft, Starcraft and MOBA’s like Dota 2 and League of Legends are ubiquitous with gaming in China.

This poses a bit of a problem for Nathan Drake and Master Chief. While we marvel at the stories told by Naughty Dog, or gush at the prospect of 24-man Halo multiplayer, nothing indicates that our friends in the East share the same excitement.

It’s not a terminal issue, but it does throw the proverbial spanner into the works; what happens when your million dollar investment in space marines, Greek gods and superhuman adventurers try and fail to garner significant interest? What if they never even get the chance to try?

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As the pillars of the PlayStation and Xbox ecosystems, Drake or Marcus Phoenix can often be the deciding factor of a consumer’s choice to purchase either a PlayStation or Xbox. Often heralded as the best in their class, and coupled with the splenetic Spartan Kratos, and the gruff badass Marcus Phoenix, the games these characters originate from have disparate styles and gameplay mechanics, but they do share one common theme – murder and violence.

Although the Chinese government has lifted the ban on video game consoles, they’re seemingly unmoved on their infamously strict censorship policy. How strict you ask? Releasing a game in China must adhere to the following:

  • No gambling-related content or game features
  • Nothing that violates China’s constitution
  • Nothing that threatens China’s national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity
  • Nothing that harms the nation’s reputation, security, or interests
  • Nothing that instigates racial/ethnic hatred, or harms ethnic traditions and cultures
  • Nothing that violates China’s policy on religion by promoting cults or superstitions
  • Nothing that promotes or incites obscenity, drug use, violence, or gambling
  • Nothing that harms public ethics or China’s culture and traditions
  • Nothing that insults, slanders, or violates the rights of others
  • Other content that violates the law

So, no GTA then. Notable games that have been banned include Battlefield 4, which the Chinese Ministry claim showed a “cultural invasion.” Killzone: Shadowfall, Bloodborne and Call of Duty are all also banned and even the seemingly innocent Football Manager 2005 was initially banned from China for officially recognizing Tibet as an independent country.

Video games that aren’t permeated with violence, substance abuse or obscenities are a rarity in any society; making a title that can appeal to the sensibilities of the Chinese consumer while simultaneously adhering to the strict censorship laws serves as Sony and Microsoft’s biggest barrier to entry.

It’s a salient issue, one that limits the prominence of both Sony and Microsoft, and it’s no secret that both the Japanese and American giants have seen particularly egregious sales of their next generation consoles thus far; that has yet to dissuade either console manufacturer however. At the recent China Joy Expo, Sony announced that over 70 games would be localized for mainland China, including titles like Journey, Ratchet and Clank, Warframe and Project CARS. Microsoft, too, made announcements of their own, most notably the release of The Master Chief Collection this August.

Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, admitted that the Chinese market is a “long-term investment” for Xbox, but added what he believes to be the missing component.

“The reason we are here today is not only to bring Xbox One to China but to open up the world to games made in China,” he said.

“We believe it is incredibly important to open up the opportunity to all developers in China. What is missing so far is a game developed in China, and games locally developed in China that are reaching large global audiences. Hopefully all of us together can strive for that success point.”

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There’s still some significant restrictions in place, but China are a step closer to achieving gaming parity with most other countries. With a vast population, and an audience that’s already engaged in video games, China could grow into a market that rivals North America and Europe before too long. Whether Chinese gamers attach themselves to PlayStation and Xbox quite in the same way as the rest of the world has remains to be seen, but an interest from such a large nation can only be a good thing for the medium.

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