Sony’s (possible) China connection

I’ve talked about Sony censoring games recently more than I’ve intended to, in addition with how DoA6 has been more or less a PR disaster (though they’ve turned that a bit around), but that has never been my intention. Talking about censorship in this manner has not been in spirit of the blog, but the latest twists and turns with Sony’s censorship lead me back into this rabbit hole. That said, this won’t be a usual post, and I’ll drop the author persona and try to gobble together something cohesive I’ve been reading around lately.

In an event held for Dies irae some time ago, the developers discuss how Sony has been moving towards disallowing ports and titles that would be R-18 or up, as it would be in case of certain nation’s rating systems. They go further into how these titles are being inspected with a magnifying glass with scrutiny. The developers are then presented with a questionnaire about their product’s content and are required to reply in English. This of course raises a language barrier between any developer who do not have staff with English skills, like most Japanese studios. Dies irae at the time of the event was completely finished and ready to go, but had been sitting on the waiting shelf, waiting for Sony’s approval on the content. Similarly, Nekopara Vol.1 sat on the approval list for the longest time to t he point of my previous post on the subject already thinking it was stealthily cancelled. However, turns out the developers had to spend extra time censoring the title. Interestingly enough, the Switch version has become home for Japanese console titles that have less censorship across the board than the PS4. I talked about the English-only bit previously, but it begs to be repeated as it was just edited in afterwards.

Why would Sony enact these policies relatively suddenly on what seems to be on a global scale? While virtue signalling around probably has something to do with it, seeing practically every company has jumped that ship and have enacted policies across the board to cover their assess just as globally, misaligned intentions from California probably wouldn’t pass at this scale. The reason why I’d argue this is because there is no money in there, and no other company has enacted similar policies. It’s not too often when Sony does something that is not following Nintendo’s example, like with the PlayStation Motion controller, but when they do, it’s always about the money they perceive to be possible.

China, of course, is where a lot of untapped console market might exists.

While China has seen loads of consoles throughout the years, they’ve been mostly pirated copies or heavily modified versions for their market. I’m sure most of my readers are old enough to remember how Chinese products were almost always guaranteed to be complete and utter garbage if they weren’t branded in a certain way or produced in a particular place. That applies nowadays too, but to a lesser extent. Piracy is still a problem, as is rampant IP infringement that the Chinese government themselves mostly ignore, as it brings them revenue. Chinese government is very self-centered and favours in-house competition over any fair and free market, but that is because they are a communist nation. They may not practice pure communism, but Chinese communism nevertheless colours the way business and market works there.

China has argued that video games have harmful effects on their users, and probably were the force that ultimately pushed ICD-11’s video game addiction through, on which I’ve covered in two occasions. ICD-11 regarding video game addiction has weak basis at best, and with official representative admitting Asian governments pushing for its acceptance would jive with how certain Asian nations like China and South Korea. China has become more and more influencing power as their economy has grown, though that bubble might burst sometime in the near future as it has no real basis. Related to their negative view on video games can be found in China’s social credit system, which views video games as harmful and buying too many games within an allotted time will impact a citizen’s credit negatively. None of this has been the first time Chinese government has dabbled in disallowing video games to an extent, as a complete game console ban existed form 2000 to 2014. However, the ban was not lifted because Chinese government deemed game consoles as worthwhile entertainment, but to allow the Shanghai Free Trade Zone to produce these consoles. The government’s attitude towards these consoles and the sheer amount of regulations and censorship they enact on the games require specific modifications to be made just for the market, something that costs resources. Developers of course are less interested in making region specific titles, but rather simply enact the demanded censoring globally. I guess that’s one result of game regions meshing together more and more, and both Sony and Nintendo allowing access to their cross-region stores on any console. That, of course, is one thing the Chinese would not like. For example, when interviewing foreigners they are demanded not to speak of Japan or Taiwan in relation to China. If you follow Western Youtubers like ADVChina or StrangeParts, you can pick certain parts here and there where self-censorship is practiced in order not get in trouble with the local police. The old communist practice of informing another to the government is still in place.

Nintendo did attempt to break into the Chinese game markets in 2003 with a localised variation of N64 named iQue Player with the help of Wei Yen, a Chinese American developer. At the time iQue got some press in the West, but was fast forgotten due to low sales. This Dreamcast controller-lookalike was essentially a plug-n-play console-on-a-chip deal, and was advertised to be beneficial for children’s growth in terms of cognitive thinking and hand-eye coordination skills. What sort of loophole Nintendo and Wei Yen used hasn’t been expanded upon, but some have guessed it being related to the N64 being a console before the ban was put into effect, but it is more probable that the letter of the law banned consoles in a very specific manner, where consoles had separate cartridges. The plug-n-play nature of the system, like that of many Famiclones, circumvented it altogether by not having any separate games, though you could download new games from an iQue Depot or Fugue online. None of the games on the system were exactly offending, with all the text and spoken language were translated into Chinese.

Video game sales, while stronger than what they were a decade ago, don’t seem to sate Sony. Much like in gaming, China has become the main audience and revenue area for Hollywood to the point of China being incorporated into the movies in hamfisted manners, .e.g. including Chinese characters and locations in order to cater to the market. Something like Star Wars could not be a success there, as it can’t be directly made to cater to the Chinese audience without intentionally making it fully transparent and degrading the brand itself. Chinese design mentality has also affected video game character and environmental designs, as they are extremely keen on perfect and beautiful characters. Whole King of Fighters XIV was lambasted for its visual style and design, but that was an intentional design choice in order to appeal to the Chinese market. It is a prime example how a franchise can lose certain kind of ruggedness and down-to-earth designs on their characters and be cleaned, polished and waxed for an audience that wants that sort of visual ‘perfection’ from their entertainment. This is the reason why some Japanese actors, AV, porn or other, have found some success in the Chinese market as they have a chance to sell their looks first and foremost while downplaying their nationality, like Sora Aoi.

However, just as I’ve covered, Chinese market is not easy to access. The 2016 Ghostbusters bombed like no other, and Sony lost more money after it turned out it wouldn’t get a Chinese release due to it having a supernatural element. Numerous games have been censored for the same reason, with violence probably being the largest offender in the eyes of the Chinese, with nudity following as the runner up. The Censorship wikia has some examples listed, but it is woefully incomplete. If a company is intending to enter the market, they have to abide to the rules. It should be noted that despite China pushing censorship on loads of foreign titles across the board, but the same does not apply to their own products, at least not to the same extent.

Sony entering the Chinese market is nothing new, this was news in 2014 when the ban was lifted. The PlayStation 4 has been in China about three years now, and according to Sony their largest challenge has been localisation. Not only the high price of the consoles have curbed the sales, but so has the strict regulation. Last year, only 52 titles were approved to be on sale on the system. That’s 52 out of 1 837. That is less than two percent of the library, and its growing constantly, while the approval rating is stagnating in comparison. This means if a Chinese video game consumer wants access to larger library or certain games, they are required to import or use the system’s digital stores to get off-region sales. That is, if the system or their Internet allows that. China is the biggest single market for games, though the vast majority of it is taken by PC and mobile phone titles. Console gaming, however, doesn’t seem to be all that hot. The China Hero project isn’t dead yet and is entering its second stage, all the while Sony’s pushing both Spider-Man and Monster Hunter World as their killer titles. It should be noted that MonHunWorld‘s Steam version got pulled from the store in China, despite Tencent, the game’s publisher there, had already made changes needing those approvals. Tencent is a company we’ll have to talk some other day.

Sony has tried to push through the market with their China Hero project, which aimed to produce games by Chinese developers to the Chinese consumers. However, that seems to have been a bust. Sony has put lots of money into trying to become a success in the Chinese market, both in and out of gaming, but only their movie division has seen some success. Even then, they’re more or less bleeding money and haven’t had a breakthrough. This leads to the natural idea of simply enacting the demanded limitations and regulations to the games even before they are published on the platform, netting Sony credit both in the eyes of the Chinese government and the fringe political left that demand similar censorship across the board. Saving money all the while ensuring more titles will be available in China seems like a sureshot bet, though whether or not China actually wants these games is a matter altogether different.

All this is just conjecture and a conspiracy theory, I hear you and little voice in my head say. It’s true that there is no solid leads to with and all we have is what we’re presented with. China probably is part of the puzzle as is Sony’s North American section demanding the censorship. However, in business things coincide with each other within one company more than you’d think, and running after a region with little direct competition seems appetising. Considering Sony hasn’t exactly been the leading model for market expansion, their attempt in China should be followed with keen eyes. We’re not talking a company like Nintendo tapping a market with specific products designed to expand the market, but a company putting regulations that would turn all products viable within a market into effect, if I’m even close with all this. This is also why no petition will work, like the one on the change.org. This isn’t just ideological, but also because Sony seems to think PlayStation is a strong brand enough with quality titles to make similar big bucks in Chinese game market. I doubt they expect smartphone game level income, but considering what sort of expectations some of these corporations have, I wouldn’t put it past them altogether either.

All that said, this is probably the best argument against games as art. They’re made into a mould to be pressed and sold, damned be the author’s or authors’ original intent. Sony can deliver whatever flowery PR speech about high art, when they’re effectively stabbing the core idea of free expression.

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