The rapid growth of China as a major market for videogames has the potential to be one of the most important factors in the future development of the industry. For years, conferences and publications have been thrilled by the prospect of a middle-class China with an appetite for gaming, with experts (defined here as just about anyone who's ever been to China and played a videogame, even the two events were not concurrent) being hauled in from across the spectrum to feed the hunger for knowledge on this emerging market.
It's a wild overstatement, of course, to talk about China in terms of "a billion new consumers". When we think in terms of the rapidly modernising China and its new wealthy classes (wealthy enough to consider spending money on their leisure activities, at least), we're really only talking about the coastal states and cities. Vast regional inequalities within the country mean that huge swathes of its 1.3 billion people, especially those in areas deep inland, continue to live in conditions not dissimilar to feudal peasantry. It will be many years before the modernisation of China reaches those regions.
Yet even if we're only considering the new "wealthy" classes, China as a consumer nation for videogames is still a hugely exciting prospect. China's urban population, even counting only cities with a population of over two million, is well over 110 million people - almost twice the size of the United Kingdom, and similar to the size of Japan.
There are, of course, major hurdles to be cleared in opening up a market like this. Developing markets are extremely price sensitive, which doesn't just mean that manufacturers need to think carefully about the types of hardware they introduce - it also means that software pricing, and even the pricing models on which the industry has relied for many years, may need to be reconsidered.
Piracy, too, is a serious issue. In part, this is due to the pricing issue, since a market in which consumers are less wealthy is also a market in which consumers will seek cheaper (or free) alternatives to paying full price for products. Additionally, the governments of these countries simply aren't likely to be terribly bothered about piracy. Developing economies rarely develop IP of their own, and may in fact thrive on cloning products from the first world more cheaply - making it tough to get their authorities to care about software piracy.
Such hurdles, however, can be cleared. A few weeks ago I mentioned the interesting direction Nintendo is taking with the DSi, a console which continues to drive down manufacturing costs while introducing technologies that would allow for (mostly) secure digital distribution of content, as opposed to easily copied cartridges. This seems likely to be a prelude to the launch of a cut-price DS system in China, with a digital distribution model instead of a cartridge slot in order to combat piracy.
Other consoles will follow, as the Chinese market becomes increasingly appealing and digital distribution technology becomes increasingly well understood. If neither Sony nor Microsoft have a roadmap which includes a cut-price version of their flagship consoles for the developing world, lacking a physical media slot but designed to take advantage of secure digital distribution, then both companies are almost certainly missing out on a huge opportunity.
However, if such a product is lacking from their future plans, it may be because of the other hurdle which companies hoping to do business in China must surmount - the elephant in the room during any discussion of China's emerging markets, the Chinese government itself.
The Chinese government demands various regulatory conditions be met in order for any product to be launched in China. Some of them are complex and arcane, and far beyond the scope of this article - others are simple and fairly profound, such as the general requirement for any business operating in China to be significantly Chinese-owned. As a result, Western franchises (including game publishers) who set up in the nation must find a local business to enter into a partnership with.
One of the companies which has most successfully navigated this minefield is Blizzard. Massively multiplayer games are among the most popular genres in China, and as in every other market in the world, World of Warcraft sits at the captain's table. Blizzard has, thus far, done just about everything right in terms of its Chinese operations. It operates WoW in China through local firm The9, uses a completely different revenue system to its Western model (in China, you buy time cards rather than paying a monthly subscription), and has even carefully danced around content questions, such as avoiding putting any mention of Warcraft's beloved Pandaren race in the game, for fear of falling foul of China's laws on the depiction of the national animal.
The problem with China, and a dose of cold water presently being poured over excitement over expansion of the videogames industry into this new market, is that its government is unpredictable and largely unaccountable. As such, it's starting to look as though all of Blizzard's careful manoeuvres haven't been enough. The company itself hotly denies that anything has gone wrong, but in recent weeks it has been reported that the Chinese authorities aren't happy with the depiction of skeletons and undead characters in the latest expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King - which hasn't yet launched in China. That's a bit of a problem for Blizzard, since the entire pack focuses on a war against an undead army.
This week saw an announcement which suggests that China's problems with WoW go somewhat deeper than a cultural disagreement over skeletons, however. China's General Administration of Press and Publication - its censorship board - has made it clear that it wants to tighten up the regulations on imported online games, and will henceforth be holding foreign-developed games to significantly tighter standards than locally developed content.
The reasons given by the GAPP's digital publishing boss, Kou Xiaowei, are straightforward - the country is worried that foreign culture is becoming too accessible to Chinese youths, and it wants to protect its local game development industry from products like World of Warcraft. Critics have sniffed at the cultural argument, describing the move as pure protectionism - an attitude which belies a deep ignorance over how China's government thinks and acts, since for decades cultural protectionism has been every bit as important to the Chinese administration as economic protectionism.
This hurdle is one which Western game makers and operators may find most difficult to vault. China's unusual economic situation and its business rules can be navigated, but if its government decides that Western-developed games are culturally and economically undesirable, the consequences for the hoped-for expansion of the market into this new territory will be significant. Indeed, "Western-developed" is probably a misnomer; games developed in Japan aren't likely to be much more welcome under such a regime, given the animosity between the two nations.
While this isn't good news for existing publishers and developers, who will undoubtedly be waiting anxiously to see what the GAPP's next move in this regard is, it does however raise an interesting prospect. China is obviously keen to promote and preserve its native game development industry - not only as a game creator for the native audience, but presumably also as an exporter of entertainment to the rest of the world.
Japanese game creators found a receptive audience for their culture around the world in the 1980s and 90s; could China repeat that success? Japanese games created a "Japanophile" culture which has led to vast success for Japanese films, animation and other art forms in recent years; China, another nation whose cultural heritage and richness is dimly understood in the West could easily fill that position if Chinese game developers manage to hit upon successful formulae.
However, protectionism almost certainly isn't the way to go about achieving this aim. China's rise as a cultural superpower will not come about through denying its people access to external cultural influences, because the very strength of those cultures comes about through the wide range of influences to which they have been exposed. In a protected market, robbed of the need to compete with Western or Japanese games and media, Chinese games will almost certainly be anaemic, inward-looking creations.
The GAPP's intentions are clear in the message it sends. China isn't just a new market for everyone else. China is a nation with its own ambitions and its own culture, and it plans for a future where it will be much more than a bazaar for the cultural products of the West. It's a lofty, laudable goal - but this isn't the right way to go about it.