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China just lifted console bans, but will it actually matter?

After almost 14 years, the ban on foreign game consoles in the China has been lifted temporarily. Now, companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft will be able to manufacture their consoles within Shanghai’s free-trade zone--and more importantly, sell them legally throughout the country. You'd think that after a near-14-year drought, the floodgates would open and China would be chomping at the bit for the latest batch of consoles. But there are some key barriers getting in the way of a thriving console market in China--ones that may take years to overcome.

It all started way back in 2000, when the ban was first enacted. Fearing that sitting in front of the TV all day could harm Chinese youth, seven ministries (including the General Administration of Press and Publication, and the Ministry of the Information Industry), got together and decided to ban the import and sales of consoles. This left only one legitimate avenue open to starved gamers in the People’s Republic: PC gaming. And so, ironically, over the next couple of years, online gaming in China absolutely exploded in popularity, creating an industry that generated $1.04 billion (or 8 billion yuan) in 2006.

This ban on foreign consoles also had the unintended fallout of boosting the piracy issue in China to extreme levels. There’s a reason everyone jokes about cheap Chinese knock-offs: they do exist, in almost every size and shape imaginable. Gaming hardware is no exception: The Vii (a blatant Wii clone) and The Winner (the less obviously named PS3 version)--as well as pirated versions of their most successful games-- were at one point sold in Chinese gaming stores.

Rampant piracy may be the biggest reason that companies are quite wary to breach the potentially lucrative marketplace. The second new technology is made public, it’ll be ripped apart and distributed on the grey market. There’s even already been an attempt that ended in flames. In 2004, Sony tried to introduce the PS2 to Chinese consumers. (But wait, wasn't the ban still in effect? Those sly foxes at Sony tried to pull the wool over the collective eyes of China's Ministry of Culture.) Almost instantly, disaster struck in the form of mass piracy of all games and the console itself. If Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo plan on introducing their modern products to Chinese gamers, they need to make sure their DRM is watertight, and that their copy protection is second to none.

There’s also the issue that Chinese ministries continue to worry about time spent in front of video games. Since the first ban failed to reduce time spent gaming (and may have made the problem worse through the massive popularity boost of MMOs), the ministries tried again in 2005 with the Anti-Addiction system. Also referred to as the fatigue system, the Anti-Addiction system would deter players after a certain amount of play time each day... in every game. It’s a forcible measure that every developer has to build into their games, which leads to extra development time just to adhere to the standards of the Chinese market.

So yeah, the ban is lifted, yay! But that’s not the only thing stopping the big three from shoving their consoles into the Chinese market. PC gaming is so dominant in China that its console market may be in danger of irreparability; only time will tell. A change in legislation is the first step towards a console market in China, but there's much more work that needs doing, and plenty of pirates to eradicate in the process.

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15 comments

  • TanookiMan - January 8, 2014 11:34 a.m.

    Now I really want to try a Vii.
  • CatcarDriver - January 8, 2014 9:08 a.m.

    Hey you guys, I'm a Chinese who works at 2K China, and I'm also an editor in a game news website. It's great to see that other parts of the world haven't abandoned us ;). BTW Zack, great article, pretty much summarized every aspect of the "console bans lifting" thing. Here I just wanted to talk about my feeling for this lifting as a Chinese gamer. It's hard to be a gamer in China, especially a "non-onlie gamer". Last year, the income for "non-online" PC game (I know it's weird, but we can't call it video game or console game, 'cause we don't even have it) industry takes up 0.1% in the whole gaming industry. More than 64% for onlie game, other 35.9% are mobile games and webgames. Let alone the whole "console ban" thing, you know our situation here. We actually had some video game titles released, but I guess they didn't make much noise worldwide. They are all in Chinese "kung-fu" style, kinda like JRPG, or some ARPG. It's all on PC platform only. But yea, the torch is still passing :) Actually we have console gamers, and the number is growing fast. Most of the consoles here are smuggled , for now, because that's the only way to get them. As well as for the games. Pirated games dominated the whole market,especially on PC. I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth now. However, more and more gamers started to realise the whole copyright thing. We have gamers who buy games from steam, or buy genuine games(smuggled though, but not pirated) online. We love video games as well as you guys! Video gamers here arguing topics like the controversy Dmc Dante, stabbing the immutable COD, or excited about the arrival of the 8th generation consoles. We care about this industry in every way despite the poor gaming environment. So, with the unbanning of the console ristriction, I believe things are going to get better. It may not be an earthshaking change for the overall inustry, but at least it's a good sign. It's a sign that the "top" class started to treat games diffirently, a sign that intellectual property rights is becoming part of our life, a sign that more an more "online gamer" or casual gamers in China will have chances to expreince the beauty of console games. This is just the beginning, though, and there are a lot things need to be done, a lot of obstacles need to be overcomed, and a lot of concepts to be corrected. But just like the old saying, well begun is half done. Hopefully in the near future, video gamers in China can enjoy the console games just like players in other parts of the world. Or even you guys will have chance to play console games made in China!
  • GR_ZachBetka - January 8, 2014 12:12 p.m.

    We all just read this reply around the office, thanks so much for taking the time to share it. It's such an interesting video game environment over there right now (example: the need to call them "non-online PC games"), glad that there's still a small yet thriving community for console games! Definitely let us know how gaming over there changes during the aftermath of this ban lifting.
  • seanpwns - January 8, 2014 6:53 a.m.

    We LoL fans need consoles to catch on so NA or EU can finally win worlds.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - January 8, 2014 8:49 a.m.

    HAHAHA keep dreamin' man. NA / EU don't stand a chance against the power house that is Korea. Their teams are just too Good :(
  • seanpwns - January 8, 2014 9:06 a.m.

    Yeah that's why Riot had to put on Battle of the Atlantic. Battle of the Pacific would have been too painful to watch, hahaha.
  • brickman409 - January 8, 2014 12:37 a.m.

    China's Ministry of information is a bit disturbing. It makes me think of the Ministry of truth from the book "1984".
  • Daree - January 7, 2014 8:36 p.m.

    Currently teaching English in China, I would agree that this probably won't matter all that much. There's an internet cafe right near me that's always full of LoL players, but I have yet to see a console or a game store (but I know one is here somewhere.) I asked one of my students about prices and he said he bought NBA 2k something or other for like 16 yuan. So basically free in US dollars. That being said, he also really wants to play GTA5, and apparently an xbox will run him around 2000 RMB, around $330. From what I hear that can be most of a month's salary for most people (the kid is loaded.) He was totally unaware of the new gen of consoles though, so I doubt most normal not rich folks know a damn thing about em.
  • GR_ZachBetka - January 7, 2014 11:21 p.m.

    Hey thanks for the insightful comment! Yeah in doing research for the article it was incredible to see how pervasive internet cafes were, seems like they sprouted up as necessary alternatives and now are integral to China's online gaming culture.
  • Daree - January 8, 2014 3:16 a.m.

    I imagine they are also great sources of decent internet connections. This all being said, my student that I teach one on one did start humming the classic Super Mario Bros tune, and actually recognized Star Fox, which really surprised me. I doubt he's the norm, although I don't want to generalize over a billion people. Side note- Pop/Soda/Coke Machines play episodes of Tom and Jerry and McDonalds has toys of them, I feel like they are off by a few decades.
  • GOD - January 7, 2014 7:36 p.m.

    Messages that tell you to go outside and take a break from your games over and over...... Wait a minute! Nintendo has been getting all of it's game ready for release in China for the past couple of years just waiting for this ban to be lifted!
  • SnakeinmyBoot - January 8, 2014 3:31 a.m.

    Ugh!! I hate picking up my 3DS after it had been in sleep mode for over an hour and having Navi or that damned bird weather vain tell me I should take a break 5 minutes into the session. All right things need to change. I don't want my media affected since another big market is run by a censorship happy dictatorship. I'll never watch the new Red Dawn or play Homefront since their artistic directions (and possibility of actually happening completely destroyed) were changed to make more moolah. At least in Germany they have WW2 games were you fight the Third Reich (i.e. German soldiers forced to fight). They just can't have the swastikas in the game. Even in America you could sell a game where we were idiots or evil. It might not sell here that much, but it would be legal. Could you imagine if they had to change a Mario game since Bowser's defeats "threatened the stability of government". Nintendo don't give in! Give me games that have no "take a break" messages, that have time travel that disrespects our ancestors, and have anarchy in the streets (wait this last one isn't very Nintendo).
  • TokenGamesRadarFurry - January 7, 2014 5:32 p.m.

    Why bother? They already have Viis and Popstations! Who needs next gen?
  • SnakeinmyBoot - January 8, 2014 3:03 a.m.

    Because then Stuart Ashen can review an official Xbone and PopstationQuad!
  • wadesmit - January 11, 2014 1:17 p.m.

    An excellent reference.

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