Siding with all the sides of the market

Every international corporation has multiple ‘faces’ of promotion. Rare companies like Coca-Cola has relatively universal marketing across the globe, while entertainment companies like Nintendo and Sony have very much different approach depending on the market region they are in. In Japan, Kirby smiles and is happy-go-lucky, while in the US he wears a determined frown ready to cut shit down. This is extremely simple and straightforward example, yet it extents how corporations act in different markets. When a corporation tells you they act globally and think globally, it’s less about ‘Global’ thinking and more about being in as many probable markets around the globe they can. Why? Money, of course.

The whole deal with Blizzard nuking Hearthstone player blitzchung’s status and winning money has made some people realise this. For example, some of the characters in Overtwatch are gay outside China, while in China this statement has not been made, as Chinese standards on statistically deviating and abnormal sexuality in media is rather harsh. That is, it’s pretty much banned without any exception. Video and computer games themselves are considered to be detriment to the society, and having such examples that don’t align with Chinese standards of what is considered accepted. Then you had Blizzard making a statement that is very much different from their official Weibo account. One makes clear that Blizzard is not tied to Chinese in any way nor they can influence Blizzard’s decision, while the other rather clearly sides with the Chinese government and side with the current Hong Kong situation. Let’s put aside that Blizzard’s Western statement has been questioned anyway, as its language structure appears to be by someone Chinese who speaks English relatively fluently.

This is, of course, completely normal.

Wait Aalt, isn’t this Blizzard having two different opposite stands at the same time? Yes and no. Company can have completely different standards and practices in different market regions. For China, they have to conform to Chinese standards, and have majority of Chinese ownership somehow in order to operate there. This is why many companies would rather work together with a Chinese company, like what Nintendo used to do with the iQue Player. The company named iQue was fully owned by the Chinese while being Nintendo’s subsidiary. This has been the de-facto way of doing business in China, though within the last decade or so the Chinese have taken major parts of shares of some companies, while Chinese companies doing the heavy lifting, especially in the movie industry, All movies that Legendary Pictures have been part of somehow have had relatively heavy Chinese influence in them, and seeing China has become the single largest film market, it’s not unsurprising that studios are making Chinese-only edits of their movies. I recall Iron Man 3 having a China specific cut, where a Chinese doctor was cut in throughout the movie and is set to be person who ultimately removes all the metal shards from Tony Stark’s chest.

The question whether or not this is good or bad is really up to you, dear reader. This is largely just the reality of things. Don’t mistake one second that companies don’t have conflicting interests globally. While claiming to be progressive by being in favour of whatever class of minorities works as a decent way of making money in the West, this of course doesn’t apply everywhere and strategies need to be adjusted. Make no mistake, whatever the surface dwelling issue might be, companies will strike it to make money. Revealing characters to be homosexual seems to be very easy way to get in the good side of some of the customers seems to be a successful plan, at least in the US. Europe is not unified in this nearly to the same extent, and one way of advertising in London wouldn’t really work as well in Germany. Different cultures, different values.

That is the core here really. We expect companies to work under the regulations and values set in a country or region when they come from abroad. They might have damn good products, but they better hit the local consensus. Blizzard might be an American company, but that doesn’t negate that it is more sensible to try to cater the Chinese as well. Of course, most of the Western audience expects stances that cover the global market, but that is largely impossible. You can’t expect Americans to placate to Chinese values and vice versa. In the US, and probably in most regions outside China, banning blitzchung was extremely bad PR move. English speaking users have gone their way of closing their accounts, burning their games and overall voting with their wallets. Not all, some just don’t give a rat’s ass either way.

The question of course is if this is financially all that sensible. The Chinese market bubble isn’t looking too healthy in the future, despite being less than one third of the US economy. This is important, as US can be largely self-sufficient when it comes to international markets, while places like Japan have to import foodstuff and such. China could be too, but it doesn’t have the infrastructure or culture to be so. Chinese economical interests have been in building empty cities and expanding in Africa and Europe. China is dependent on exporting to the US though. According to George Friedman, China sends quarter of its exports to the US. If, perhaps when the US decides to pull off from the world stage, China’s economy is fucked. Around 2010, Friedman also estimated that China’s debt is around 40%, but still won’t enforce economic discipline. Japan had to do this in the 1990’s, which lead many unprofitable companies to be culled, something that continues to this day. Just look at how many Visual Novel companies have gone down in the recent years.

While catering to Chinese markets is completely standard procedure, something you don’t hear about because you’re not in the market, Chinese economy has higher chances imploding. Gaming is high-risk investment, and the Chinese are putting lots of money into gaming now to ride it. Electronic games market will feel when it hits. Companies with majority Chinese holders and money sources will dry up, projects will be cancelled and lots of people will lose their jobs. The Chinese government will put its citizens and companies before foreign ones. The Chinese market is not the same as Western markets, it is a twisted version of it at best. China is a communist nation after all, though their practices are more akin to fascism. Not Nazi fascism, but the kind that made The New Deal successful, the third road between capitalism and communism, putting the state at the handle of markets and companies. With Western companies, especially the US ones during when US seems to be retracting itself, are investing and putting their focus and effort like Blizzard has, the end result will be weak performance outside Chinese market, at worst straight out losing out if and when the Chinese economical implosion takes place.

I wouldn’t be worried about what happens to a games company in China. I’d be more worried about the incoming macro-economic shitstorm that is about to hit the world. The US can handle themselves just fine, the rest of the world really can’t. The Western world has fatal number of elderly people compared to the younger generation to replace them as workforce. When nations say they need immigrants to do work, they’re not lying. Global recession is imminent and countries have to look after their own asses. Common money like the Euro might end up fucking many nations over, thanks to already existing EMU partner nations who lied about their economical statuses and expected other member nations to bail them out whenever needed. In retrospect, it was a stupid idea for any EU nation to follow EU’s trading ban with Russia when Russia is one of the largest trading partners. In Finland, some of the industries like dairy products had to revamp their sales models and where they imported their products, as Russia was the most important trading partner. The dairy industry never got the same money off from European sales they managed to put up. If you’re not your own boss, you should be worried about your job.

It’s a small miracle that companies don’t practice different branding and advertising more in different regions. Of course, this is part of the whole globally recognised brand thing. I may not appreciate Blizzard having almost opposite stances in China compared to most of the rest of the world, but I can’t really boycott a company I was never a customer of. Game companies hope to hit gold with the Chinese bubble before it bursts, but after treating their PR this badly, they’ll have to work thrice as hard to win back the audience. All of it will be plastic surgery on the surface, while the core won’t change. Blizzard’s PR disaster probably will haunt them for a while among the fandom, but that will last only so long. They’ve lost a lot of good will from their customers, but their interest lies elsewhere. Vote with your wallet. People who say this doesn’t work clearly haven’t kept theirs closed enough. Make the company know your displeasure, hit where it hurts, and demand their focus to be on more solid market, market that houses the consumers who made their company.

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.