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Game Over in China for PlayStation and Xbox

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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When Sony and Microsoft introduced their PS4 and Xbox One gaming consoles to China to great fanfare earlier this year, executives at those companies would have been forgiven for imagining massive profits on the horizon. China is home to 515 million gamers, of which only around 9 million, according to Bloomberg News, play on televisions. That makes China an anomaly among the world's other biggest gaming countries. If even a small fraction of China's PC gamers could be convinced to switch, China's console market would quickly become one of the world’s largest.

So far, however, the world’s two leading console makers have been reminded of an old lesson: It's hard to predict the taste of Chinese consumers. According to data released late last week by Niko, a consultancy focused on the Asian gaming industry, the Xbox One and PS4 will sell less than a combined and "disappointing" 550,000 units in China in 2015. Meanwhile, according to data from Niko, online PC games will remain the largest segment of China's gaming market in 2015, with revenues expected to hit $16.8 billion. (Mobile games, the number two segment, will reach $4 billion.)

The most important factor tamping down Chinese demand for gaming consoles is also the most local. China's gamers haven't been using PCs as a placeholder for more advanced gaming consoles -- for a variety of reasons, they prefer playing games on PCs.

In part, that's because that's what they're already used to. In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese gaming culture first took root in Internet cafes. Those public areas, packed with PCs, were the most reliable gateway to online life in China in the 1990s and 2000s. And the Chinese government's ban on foreign gaming consoles, ostensibly to protect the morals of China's youth, gave them few easy alternatives.

Consoles and their compatible games eventually became more available on the gray market, but gamers had already developed an appreciation for the advantages afforded by gaming in cafes, including social interaction with their gaming peers and low prices. (Gamers are only required to pay for the computer time, although many gladly spend money on so-called "freemium" gaming to enhance their experience of free games; in the wildly popular multi-player battle game League of Legends, for example, players can purchase "skins" that give their characters enhanced looks and powers.) And gamers in Internet cafes weren't denied access to foreign-produced games either (at least not those that met China's regulatory standards).

The advent of mobile internet gaming hasn't dissipated this market -- a fact I was surprised to confirm during a recent trip to Shanghai, when I walked by an Internet cafe I used to occasionally frequent and found it filled with nicotine-buzzed gamers and super-charged PCs. Forbes reports that between 2013 and 2014, the number of internet cafes in China grew 5 percent, to 142,000, largely driven by gamers in search of fast machines and fast connections -- something that many if not most gamers can't afford to have at home.

In January 2014, the Chinese government lifted its ban on foreign consoles, which allowed Sony and Microsoft to enter the Chinese market this year. But the companies still face other barriers in China. Strict government regulations against political content and too-realistic violence have prevented the introduction of the companies' popular, bestselling first-person shooter games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto. That's left them with a less-than-stellar, seriously neutered lineup of games for the Chinese market.

But the biggest hurdle remains price. The cheapest version of the Xbox One retails for around $480; the PS4 goes for around $460. According to a January 2014 report by CNBC, 70 percent of China's gamers make less than $645 per month.

Perhaps, if Sony and Microsoft had been allowed to enter China's gaming market years ago, they might have found ways to adapt to the Chinese market and build a core audience by luring gamers from the internet cafes. But the rise of mobile gaming (China's fastest growing segment) and smart TVs (which allow gamers to access games for the Android mobile operating system from home) doesn't bode well. (Niko argues that smart TVs a have "a better chance of success than game consoles.") In other words, despite console makers' best efforts to compete in China, it might soon be time to admit it's game over.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net