When the Xbox One finally rolls out in Asian territories this September, almost a year after its western debut, all eyes will be on its performance in one key territory. Not Japan, where expectations for the console's performance are about as close to absolute zero as you can imagine, but rather China; a late, and somewhat surprising, addition to Microsoft's launch plans.
You'd think that China, the world's most populous nation and second-largest economy, would be an obvious and attractive target for a console platform holder. Indeed, China is on track to be the world's top economy within the coming years (perhaps even next year, according to recent projections in the Financial Times); corporations around the globe are eyeing the nation's rapid growth and swelling middle class as a huge opportunity. Games on PC and mobile phones are already big business in China; why shouldn't console platform holders take a piece of that pie?
Yet in September, when Microsoft introduces Xbox One to the Chinese market, it will be the first platform holder to attempt such a launch for many years. Neither Nintendo nor Sony has shown any indication that they intend to bring their present home console platforms to China, and despite the apparent potential of the market, you'd struggle to find any serious analyst who expects Xbox One's performance there to be anything more than an interesting experiment. Chinese news site QQ reports that Microsoft is only planning to ship 100,000 units of the console in the region; Microsoft denies that rumour, but only does so in pointless newspeak. It's "a figure which does not reflect Microsoft's vision," apparently, which translates into actual human language as "we can't deny it, we just don't want you to say it out loud".
"Chinese gamers have mostly grown up without consoles and are used to mobiles and PCs as their gaming platforms, so the level of demand is questionable"
So what's the problem with China? Why isn't the world's largest economy in waiting an open goal for console manufacturers? The problems are actually summed up quite well by the very circumstances which have allowed Microsoft to launch Xbox One in the market - namely the partial repeal of a rule dating back to 2000 which quite simply banned the sale of any foreign-made games console in China. Sony tried to flout the rule by marketing the PS2 as a more generalised home entertainment device, but even after trying to accommodate the thoroughly unimpressed Chinese authorities, found itself subject to a ban. Nintendo had a little more success, creating a joint venture called iQue which marketed a heavily modified N64 (the iQue Player) with a very limited range of software, but since since 2003 has focused solely on handheld consoles.
The recent expansion of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone has brought with it a change to this rule, along with many other liberalisations of trade within a specific zone around Shanghai. This has allowed Microsoft to establish a partnership with local firm BesTV - not just for Xbox One, but a more broad partnership aimed at extending Microsoft's media interests into China.
Note two things about the above narrative. Firstly, for all its rapid growth and development as a marketplace, China was as recently as 2000 and beyond still establishing strict new rules prohibiting overseas countries from bringing consoles and games to the country. These rules were justified largely on cultural grounds; the authorities were apparently concerned that console games were bad for the development of children and would violate the cultural norms which the country's censors wish to enforce. Concerns for childhood development, however, seemed not to apply to the country's homegrown games industry, which has boomed in recent years. China now has a huge market for mobile and PC games, largely served by domestic companies, with only occasional success stories for western companies who manage to navigate the nation's tough regulatory environment; Blizzard being the obvious example.
I don't doubt that Chinese concern over the cultural aspects of games was real. The Chinese authorities believe strongly in the power of media and communication to impact upon their populace, and have a particularly deep-seated fear of external influences which might loosen their grasp on power within the country. Console games, a creative industry dominated by America and Japan - nations seen as rivals at best, as enemies at worst - would certainly appear suspect to those authorities, and a belief that games are bad for children's development, albeit unsupported by research, does seem commonplace among Chinese parents. The justifications weren't untrue, then; they were just very, very convenient, since they allowed the authorities to enact trade rules that very effectively protected a burgeoning local industry from international rivalry. This kind of protectionism is not unique to China, nor is it necessarily a bad thing, but the government's willingness to wield this weapon in its economic battles around the media industries is a major concern for any new player in the marketplace.
This is far from being the only protectionist measure with which console manufacturers - Microsoft included - must contend. The second thing that's notable about the narrative is that Microsoft is to launch the Xbox One in China not by itself, but in partnership with a local company, BesTV. This is not because of any particular desire to tap into local knowledge and experience, but rather because of legal requirement; doing business in China requires a local partner. Blizzard's World of Warcraft, a rare foreign success story in the market, is presently operated in China by local firm NetEase, and as mentioned, Nintendo's foray into the market also takes the form of a joint venture.
This naturally reduces both the profitability of any operation in China, since the overseas parent company simply receives a royalty payment rather than the full profits of its operations, and also reduces control over Chinese operations in a potentially frustrating manner. Blizzard notably ran into major difficulties with the launch of World of Warcraft expansion packs in China, with the nation's censors objecting to large swathes of content; the launch of Wrath of the Lich King in particular seems to have been delayed far, far longer than the company would have wished as a consequence of switching Chinese partners (from The9 to NetEase) during the negotiation process with the authorities.
"None of this is to say that console success in China is impossible; merely that it is very, very unlikely"
Such problems are, of course, surmountable, especially if the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is big enough. Certainly, there is some audience for consoles in China; grey imports from Hong Kong are openly sold in Chinese stores, albeit at pretty high prices which are only appealing to the most devoted of enthusiasts. However, Chinese gamers have mostly grown up without consoles and are used to mobiles and PCs as their gaming platforms, so the level of demand is questionable. Moreover, those platforms are where Chinese game developers publish their work, tailor-made for their own audience. Software in a market like this is chicken-and-egg; no console platform will succeed without software that appeals to the local audience, yet no local developer will work on a new platform without a decent installed base. Microsoft's dollars could intervene to help, but that would require a very major financial commitment to a market in which success is a very, very slim possibility.
There is, of course, an appetite for content from overseas within China, which could help to drive uptake of consoles like the Xbox One. In this, however, the hand of China's censors remains a serious issue. Although the Shanghai Free Trade Zone regulations finally permit the sale of consoles, they do not free platform holders and publishers from the onerous requirement of passing their software under the watchful eye of the censorious authorities before release. In the past, the changes to software demanded by those authorities have been very significant; even small graphical elements which are seen as running counter to traditional Chinese culture in some manner are forbidden in many cases (although they pass without mention in locally developed software), while any game with an overtly political message will simply never be released. You may not think that terribly many games have an overtly political message, but then again, you're (presumably) not a member of any of China's censorship authorities, who have a penchant for seeing threats to the nation's civil order around every corner.
None of this is to say that console success in China is impossible; merely that it is very, very unlikely. I haven't even mentioned the issue of piracy, which remains rampant in the country, and means that many game consumers have become accustomed to paying incredibly low prices for software, while games companies have largely switched to business models like subscriptions and F2P for their wares. This is just another problem sitting in Microsoft's way; adding pricing and business model to a list which already contains major cultural, legal and censorship hurdles.
It's easy to see, I think, why Microsoft is alone in taking advantage of the newly liberalised Shanghai Free Trade Zone; why Sony is holding back from further engagement with the nation (although it does a fine trade in Hong Kong) while Nintendo is keeping its engagement low-level through its existing iQue partnership. Both firms actually have major business interests in China; like Microsoft, they manufacture their consoles there. Yet neither is keen to throw good money after bad in the hostile and difficult Chinese market. No doubt, they will watch Microsoft's experiment carefully - they would be foolish not to - but nobody should hold out serious hope for consoles in China. There are new markets to be tapped all around the world for videogames and consoles, but for all its growing wealth and success, China is about as far from being low-hanging fruit as you can imagine.