Microsoft will be the icebreaker in China’s previously prohibited video game industry with the introduction of the Chinese Xbox One later this year. We have voiced our concerns about that bizarre adventure, like pricing, and the rigid content censorship for game software. The ridiculously high price might be a placeholder, but the frustration on the game content front seems to be very true.

As we have mentioned earlier, the problem of China as a game market is that there are no rules to follow. The country doesn’t have a game rating system like the ESRB. Every game is to be reviewed separately by multiple government organs, led by the Ministry of Culture. In this process a game could be condemned improper, harmful, or politically incorrect, and banned for all sorts of reasons.

Did I just mention the country doesn’t have a game rating system? If it’s banned for kids, it’s banned for grandpas too. The worst part is that the Chinese censorship organs never laid out any guideline for appropriate games, or any list for taboo contents, meaning that they are free to ban games with reasons invented on the fly. For example, if a sudden surge of child accidents make the safety of youngsters a public concern, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood might easily take the official blame or even be banned, because the game, rated Everyone 10+ by ESRB, seems to be encouraging kids to commit suicide by diving into valleys, lava, and stuff, if you are determined to think that way. Common sense and gamer opinion do not matter here. The censor officers have the final say. It’s their way or the highway. This is a very real possibility. Have a look at a story here. The maker of a popular Chinese cartoon, which is in much the same spirit as The Smurfs, took the blame and was ordered to compensate the victims, when two 10-year-old boys set their friends on fire, “in imitation of the cartoon”. By that logic, even Tom & Jerry might take the boot under the right (or wrong, depending your point of view) circumstances, because… how many times have we seen the duo beating each other with big blunt instruments? Anyone kept a record?

Thus, publishing games in China is an art, in the sense of high magic. The government seems to be a lot more merciful to online games and mobile games, because the former is easier to regulate (one change on the server applies to all end users), and the latter is too trivial to cause any real social influence. But that cannot be counted on. Because not so long ago there came a new prohibition from the governors, forbidding video games, including mobile ones, to feature any girl in a bikini.

It’s still now clear what games will be there for Xbox One’s China debut. But yesterday, one game was revealed, and it has me quite worried.

It’s a MMORPG.

A PC MMORPG.

A PC MMORPG ported directly from PC, onto Xbox One, in what feels like a very short time.

Perfect World (rebranded as Arc Games for overseas market), a Chinese developer of online games (mostly MMORPG, entirely for PC), just announced that it has ported Neverwinter Online specifically over to the Chinese Xbox One. The PC version was released in June 2013, and Microsoft formally announced its plan for Xbox One in China back in April 2014. That means even if Perfect World has known about Microsoft’s secret plan as soon as Neverwinter Online was released, it has a grand total of approximately one year to port the game to new platform. Yet according to Perfect World, Neverwinter Online for Xbox One will available for hands-on later this month, on the ChinaJoy expo in Shanghai. For those who are wondering, ChinaJoy is China’s largest game expo, only with not that much game content, but a whole lot of cosplay. For your ease of understanding, just imagine it as Comic-Con pretending to be E3.

This does not look like good news, for several reasons:

  • MMORPGs on PC don’t tend to work well on home consoles, because the control is so different. An Xbox (or any other console) controller is hardly the best device to juggle 25 shortcuts for spells and skills, or achieve fast and precise cursor movement. There haven’t been many games of the RTS and MMORPG genre on game consoles, and that happened for a solid reason.
  • Given the time Perfect World has for development, this is most likely a straight port. They can’t possibly have enough time to completely redesign the game for console experience.
  • Microsoft seems mighty desperate, to grant one developer a special permit to port a PC game for one specific market.
  • The game itself may not be so enjoyable on Xbox One. If console gamers are pitched against keyboards-and-mice-dual-wielding PC opponents, they face one heck of a hard competition. If gamers on Xbox One play among themselves… well, considering the console is just released in China, how many users could there be? An unpopulated online game is not much of a game.
  • Fundamentally, why don’t people just play it on the PC? China is one huge nest of PC multiplayer games, thanks to the decade-long ban of game consoles.

Industry insiders also said that Perfect World has two more games for the Chinese Xbox One. One of them is Torchlight 2, the other a Chinese kungfu-themed MMORPG called Swordsman. The same problems again: PC ports, short production cycle, and console-unfriendly hostile controls.

If Microsoft is relying this much on Perfect World and its PC ports, does it mean they have failed to get any proper Xbox One game pass the Chinese censorship?

But on the bright side, hardcore Xbox One gamers (the true fans) do not have to worry about it. They can either buy smuggled versions of the console from China’s extremely advanced grey market (many have already done so), or tweak the region settings in the local version. I have heard from multiple sources that the Chinese Xbox One will not be region-locked, meaning that a quick change of the machine’s region setting will grant its owner instant access to Microsoft’s online game store in other countries.

ChinaJoy starts on July 31 (Beijing time). We will keep track on this. Meanwhile, as always, wish Microsoft good luck. China is a strange market with harsh rules, where everyone is bound to have a rocky start. It’s OK as long as you improve with time.

For a side note… Does that mean cross-platform development across the entire Microsoft ecosystem (Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox) is made super easy?

Update:

Fresh news coming in. According to the insider source of the Chinese site WPDang, Microsoft has a total of 20 games and 20 apps for the debut of the Chinese Xbox One. However, these games will  generally be of the casual kind, developed mostly by Chinese local developers. Of the apps, the overwhelming majority of them are educational, different from what Xbox One users elsewhere have access to. The apps will be crafted by local developers too.

It looks like the Microsoft is either being super cautious in the beginning, or has already hit a wall at the censor offers'. The Chinese Xbox One is indeed starting off as a walled garden, operating in a "from locals, for locals" mode. We certainly hope the situation will improve over time.

Source: Sina Games, WPDang