It started with a game called Pong – released by Atari in 1972. Since then video games have established themselves as an important form of mainstream entertainment.
As columnist for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, and former games journalist, Charlie Brooker puts it, the new breed of game software has even won over some parents. The games are now so interactive, Brooker writes, that they are “infinitely more social than mere television”.
The Chinese government prefers not to see video gaming as a wellspring of creativity. It holds a more traditional view of the medium as closer to a social evil. Not too dissimilar to the way that Western governments worry about knife crime or drug abuse, in fact.
So it is somewhat surprising that Lenovo Group, China’s flagship PC manufacturer, is developing a video game console for release in November. Last month, Lenovo spun off a separate company, Beijing Eedoo Technology, to market the new product, known as the “Ebox” (echoing Microsoft’s gaming platform, the Xbox).
But the Ebox will be unlike most other consoles, as one of the first systems to lack a handheld controller. Rather than sitting on the couch and grasping a joypad, gamers will use physical movement to interact with the gaming software. It’s made possible by a camera that can translate the movement into in-game play. Microsoft has a similar product in the works, with the Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360. The North American release date is also set (coincidentally) for November.
Both products are looking to capitalise on the success of the Nintendo Wii – the console that pioneered the use of physical activity in games (albeit with a controller).
Rather than press buttons the Wii allowed users to imitate the act of swinging a tennis racket or bowling a ball – making gameplay more accessible and (nominally) more aerobic. The novel interface meant that the Wii had attained a gaming holy grail, attracting buyers who’d never played video games before (significant, given they still represent the majority of the population).
Hard-core gamers will probably get little satisfaction out of the Ebox. “Our product is designed for family entertainment,” Jack Luo, president of Eedoo Technology, told China Daily. “Ebox may not have exquisite game graphics, or extensive violence, but it can inspire family members to get off the couch and get some exercise.”
In theory the Ebox should encounter little competition in its domestic market, since the government bans the import of consoles into China. In practice however, all the main systems can be bought on the grey market. One major impact of the current ban, introduced in 2000, is that it has limited the availability of consoles, thus pushing gamers towards PC games – mostly notably online roleplaying games, such as World of Warcraft.
Even if there were no barriers to entry, China is not necessarily an attractive market for the likes of Nintendo and Sony. The main reason is piracy: copied Wii games are easily available for around Rmb5 ($0.75), compared to originals that go for around $25 to $30.
Eeedoo’s Luo said that the Ebox could be priced more cheaply than the Xbox, which currently sells for $300. The platform will come with 30 games, and 16 developers have already signed contracts to produce more games for the system in future.
More generally, the Ebox shows that Lenovo is continuing to diversify away from its core PC business. This year, the company has already entered the smartphone business, and it is developing a tablet computer.
The console market is not an easy one to break into. Over the last decade several industry champions of yesteryear, such as Sega, have given up producing hardware. The only companies that have managed to make an entry, Sony and Microsoft, have deep pockets that allowed them to pay their way through the expensive process of developing and marketing a new product.
Time will tell whether Lenovo can match their staying power with the Ebox.
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