Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Lifting China's Console Ban: The Bigger Picture

Robert Rath | 10 Oct 2013 12:00
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In other words, we don't know how the big three could implement manufacturing, what scrutiny they'll face, whether there will be quantitative or qualitative controls on distribution, or even if Chinese consumers will want consoles, considering that they've been getting along fine without them. Given that, it's no wonder that some console manufacturers are literally thinking outside the box-Microsoft is investing $237 million to develop downloadable titles with Chinese cable company BesTV, for example. So far the assumption has been that these games will be specifically for the Xbox, but if they turn out to be played directly from the TV, it may be a bellwether for how console makers feel about the Chinese market.

Flagging confidence from foreign companies has similarly dogged the rest of the Shanghai FTZ. Though Premier Li Keqiang was supposed to be the zone's high-level champion, he didn't show up to the opening ceremonies, instead sending his lowest-ranking cabinet member to cut the ribbon. In Chinese politics, a no-show like that could be a signal that all isn't well with the FTZ, and there may be doubts about its success. Nearly a month before the zone opened, the South China Morning Post reported that Li clashed with regulators during closed-door meetings, pounding the table in frustration as subordinates openly opposed his plans and refused to support him.

As if that's not worrying enough, the government still hasn't officially published any details about how the FTZ will work or anything regarding foreign regulatory compliance-the only information has come from leaks. Considering the circumstances, it's understandable that only two foreign banks have actually applied to open a branch there while everyone else just waits and watches. Added to that, the zone's vague goals and regulations have caused a minor panic in Hong Kong, which worries it might be replaced by a new competitor. All of these missteps could be overcome with some speedy explanations, of course, but it's an inauspicious start to say the least.

While it's true that China has nominally lifted the longstanding console ban, larger issues still need to be resolved. The government needs to publish its regulations to avoid speculation, the FTZ needs to become a success in the financial arena so the experiment doesn't get closed down, and most of all console manufacturers need to figure out how to sell their product to consumers that are unfamiliar with their purchasing model. Should all that happen, we could see China's gaming renaissance channeled into new and interesting directions, perhaps even creating some interesting cross-cultural experiences for western gamers who might not understand or appreciate Chinese culture. After all, cultural exports like games and Anime did a lot to foster understanding about Japanese perspectives, and there's no reason the same can't happen for China. But if that doesn't happen and consoles flop in the PRC, there's no doubt Chinese studios will continue charting their own path and living by their own rules without outside influence-and there's something to be said for that too.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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