News Item

Shanghai skyline

China plans to end its ban on game consoles

By John Teti • July 10, 2013

Coming to us by way of Kotaku, a report in the South China Morning Post says that the Chinese government plans to lift its official ban on the sale of game consoles, which has been in effect since 2000. That sound you hear is the sound of studio executives’ mouths watering. (And since mouth-watering is usually noiseless, you can tell that their mouths are watering quite forcefully.) The enormity of China’s burgeoning middle class makes it a plum target for the console industry, but so far, they’ve been forced to sit by as black-market sales proliferate. It’s not exactly hard for a Chinese player to find a place to buy a PlayStation.

And as smartphones have become a viable platform for games, the console ban has made even less sense, not that sensibility is a prime factor in the making of the Chinese bureaucracy. The Post explains:

Nowadays young Chinese increasingly like playing games on Apple’s popular mobile devices including iPads and iPhones, which are assembled in China and sold across the country legally because they are not considered gaming products.

If the policy change goes through, there’s still a catch: Any consoles manufactured for sale in China will have to be made in a new “free-trade zone” that the government is setting up in Shanghai. (The “big three” consoles are already made in China, but not in Shanghai, which is more highly developed and thus generally more expensive than the country’s electronics-manufacturing centers.)

From our vantage point in the U.S., we often talk about Chinese policy in monolithic terms, but the country is dotted with small regions that, by decree of policymakers in Beijing, are granted exemption from certain regulations in an effort to stimulate development. So now that Chinese policymakers have set up a new economic stimulus zone in Shanghai, they wouldn’t mind having some high-profile tenants—like maybe Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft—who can get capital flowing in and help attract other corporations to the area.

This might not seem like a big deal to players elsewhere in the world, but consider recent reports that filmmakers are calibrating the content of their movies to please Chinese censors. I don’t find game studios to be more craven than Hollywood overall, but I don’t find them a whole lot less craven, either. If the console industry establishes a foothold in China, this is an issue worth keeping an eye on. China is a huge market, and given the marketing-driven structure of the big studios, it’s easy to picture a scenario where artistic visions are “reshaped” to fit the desires of China’s Communist Party gatekeepers.

(Photo of Shanghai: Warren R.M. Stuart)

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  • WaxTom

    Well of course. Now that modern game consoles have oppressive regulations to be followed in order to play, on top of the constant monitoring and data mining, the Chinese government finally understands the appeal.

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      Plus, it’s much easier to farm gold on a legitimate console, rather than face the bugginess of a black market version.

  • Dave Dalrymple

    Are we all completely sure that the South China Morning Post wasn’t being snarky?

  • Destroy Him My Robots

    I don’t think censorship in China would be a huge deal, seeing how video games already have a fairly rich history of being retooled to suit different markets. We found ways to turn God into Totally-Not-God and Nazis into Totally-Not-Nazis and opiates into Totally-Not-Opiates and blood into Totally-Not-Blood. China won’t be the first market to raise silly objections about video game content and get their way and they won’t be the last.

    • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

       Fun fact: Chinese standards restrict the depiction of things associated with death, such as skeletons, skulls and zombies, which was a problem when trying to release the second World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, there.  It took nearly a year and several approval bids to accomplish, going through the art assets and removing skulls and bones from as much as they could.  Bit of a hassle for an expansion themed around an army of the undead.

      A video with some comparisons

      • Aurora Boreanaz

        The concept of that sort of censorship from a country’s government seems insane to me.  I recall a news story from a few months back that China had also banned time travel stories?

        I am trying to do better at not judging others’ belief systems, but that’s damn stupid.

        • brickwallviews

           ”Time travel ban” is the sarcastic way of putting it, but my understanding is it’s more of a ban on movies with alternate timelines, because then that might involve a timeline without the Party ruling China.  Which is obviously the darkest timeline.

        • Chum Joely

          Yep, anything with alternate timelines, and it doesn’t have to directly involve China. “What if the Nazis won”, for example.

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    I have heard people freak out about the possibility of some of these “free trade zones” being created in the US for Chinese companies, that would essentially be foreign compounds on American soil.  Not sure if this will actually happen, but if they’re willing to do it in their own country, why not convince other countries to let them do it too?

  • neodocT

    I went to Beijing last year, and they were selling pirated videogames everywhere. I even bought a copy of AssCreed Revelations for, like, $2, just to see if it would work (spoilers: it didn’t).

    But I find these restrictions, like the ones in Australia, strange to live with. Here in Brazil the gaming market is pretty free, if extremely expensive. However, every once in a while someone makes an uproar over a specific game and something gets banned. Bully was the subject of a lawsuit years ago, and it’s still banned. It was on sale on Steam last week, but not even available over here.

    • Chum Joely

      My personal favorite “pirated games in China” story was from a colleague who went over to our studio in Chengdu to help close out a game that was nearly completed. He went across the street on his lunch break to check out an electronics/entertainment store, and he saw pirated copies on sale of the game that he and his team were currently working on.

      • neodocT

         Hah! And was it the real game or some other thing with the unreleased game’s cover? Because I saw some weird clearly fake pirated games too: my favorite was one that promised a party fighting game featuring Nintendo characters, Shrek and the Power Rangers. I regret not picking that up…

  • Citric

    I’m not sure this was a very well enforced ban, since my cousin’s kids each got a DS (and a flash cart, for that extra dose of legal grey area) with no difficulty.

    • Chum Joely

      Mainland China, or Taiwan/Hong Kong? The latter didn’t have this ban anyway…

      • Citric

        Mainland, Beijing I think but I don’t actually remember. Definitely mainland though.

    • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

      I have never heard of it being enforced at all, except around the time of the big Communist Party meetings in Beijing, when the authorities tend to get stricter for a couple of weeks. The ban’s main effect, in practice, is to funnel money toward pirates rather than to console makers and game studios.

  • brickwallviews

    If they don’t time this with the release of the next generation and a Chinese pirate gets to it first, it will be a moot point, but it still won’t facilitate too many legitimate sales.  Outside of arcades and movie theaters, entertainment is rarely paid for here.  Mobile gaming has expanded, but Androids are filled with pirated apps from third-party sites, and a significant number of iPhones are jailbroken shortly after purchase.  For the black market consoles, pirated games are about $.50 a copy, and those pirates won’t get shut down either; the bribery and guanxi systems here will ensure they keep doing their thing.  This is a conciliatory gesture to those companies that have been losing sales for so long.  If anyone thinks that the Chinese market will just up and start paying $60 for a single game, they’re nuts.

    • Chum Joely

      What will probably happen is that the major studios will start selling games there at much less of a profit (but with the size of the potential market, it could still be a good business move). Admittedly, it’s hard to compete with 50 cents a copy, but I imagine there’d be a significant difference in quality and stability that would appeal to middle-class consumers (of which there are apparently an ever-increasing number in China).

      I’d guess that the versions that they sell there would then only have the Chinese localization, not even the original English, in order to prevent the less expensive retail copies intended for China from escaping to other markets where the retail price is higher. This is what we do for the Russian versions of our games now, for the same reason.

  • Marozeph

    According to the article in the WP, one reason movies get retooled is because China only allows a certain number of foreign movies to be released every year. Which makes me wonder if there will be a comparable restriction for video games.
    If there is, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if games get some China-exclusive DLC (and if Iron Man 3 is any indication, it will totally suck).