China’s Game Console Ban Might Finally Be Lifted! Now Everybody Calm Down
C. Custer | On July 12, 2013 at 9:00 am
Once again, we find ourselves looking at media reports suggesting that China might lift its decade-long ban on game consoles. That’s the kind of news that gets people excited. But before you buy all the Sony stock, let’s take a look at this news and see if it differs at all from previous and erroneous reports about consoles coming to China. Although I’ve been a strong doubter in the past, I think this time it might really be happening.
Is this legit?
It’s impossible to be sure, of course, but this is the most believable and well-sourced report on this issue that I can remember. The uproar over the ban being lifted back in January, for example, was based on a single, anonymous source that said the government was considering lifting the ban. This week’s report in the South China Morning Post, by contrast, appears to be based on official documents reviewed by several sources.
But I find this to be the most believable report yet because it offers some explanation as to why China would change its policies. Supposedly, China’s new leadership — and specifically Premier Li Keqiang — is using the legalization of consoles as a kind of bartering chip to get console companies to manufacture their hardware in a new Shanghai free trade zone that the government hopes will bolster the Chinese economy. If consoles are legalized in China, it would reportedly be with the condition that they would have to be produced in this new free trade zone, and that means the government actually gets something out of the deal.
Is it time to party?
No. Even though consoles might really be coming officially to China this time, a lot of what I wrote earlier this year in my subtly-titled article “Oh My God, Shut Up About China’s Game Console Ban Being Lifted” still applies. Although consoles likely won’t be taxed like imported electronics if they’re being produced in a Shanghai free trade zone, the other issues with console gaming blowing up in China are as relevant as they ever were:
- Consoles are already widely available in China, so while being allowed to market them officially might bolster sales, most of China’s console-inclined gamers already own consoles.
- Hacking consoles is extremely common, and players aren’t going to want to pay $60 for games they can buy for $0.50 if they have a hacked console.
- Chinese gamers still prefer PCs, and increasingly also mobile devices, for gaming.
- Many of the most popular gaming genres in China (MMORPG games like World of Warcraft, RTS games like Starcraft) don’t work well on consoles and are easier to control with a mouse and keyboard.
- The console business model doesn’t work well for games in China, where the most successful games are virtually all “freemium” online games rather than packaged games with hefty price tags.
- China tried a domestic game console, and that went about as badly as it could possibly have gone.
But hey, I’ve already rained on this parade, so to spice things up let’s look at a few reasons why console gaming could work in China (although I’m still not holding my breath):
- Officially-translated games could help get Chinese gamers more excited about consoles. Part of the lack of interest now is due to lack of interest in the games, which often come with no localization or only poorly-done subtitles. If game companies put some effort into localization, some of the West’s big console franchises might be able to take a bigger foothold in China.
- China’s gamers may not want consoles, but half the point of marketing is to convince people to want things they don’t actually want, and if Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft can bring the full force of their marketing power to bear on the Chinese market, they might be able to create more interest than seems to exist at the moment.
- Reliable online connections might be enough to get players to pay more for games. Right now, pirated games are cheap and that’s the way Chinese console gamers like it, but the downside is that you can’t play hacked consoles online (the console makers can detect and ban them remotely), and even if you could, the consoles’ online services are terrible in China because there aren’t any official servers there. China’s gamers might be willing to pay more for games if they could reliably play online with their friends on fast domestic servers.
I’m still not all that sanguine about the opening of China’s console market being the billion-dollar windfall some pundits have suggested it might be. But this latest report seems to be the strongest evidence yet that we might really be going to see an open console market in China. As a fan of console gaming, I’m hoping that happens, and then I’m hoping that the market proves me totally wrong.
Of course, even if China really does plan to open the market, there’s a lot of red tape between now and the day when consoles will go on sale, so don’t expect to be playing an officially sanctioned PS4 next fall or anything like that. (And it goes without saying, but obviously the same Ministry of Culture censorship rules that apply to PC games would apply to console games as well, so some games still probably wouldn’t be playable in China).