Censors loom large over Sony's PlayStation China prospects

Yoshikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images

Sony Corp should fear China's censors almost as much as rival Microsoft Corp as it prepares to unveil the price and release date of its PlayStation 4 gaming console in the world's third-largest gaming market.

The announcement, due to be made in Shanghai around 0900 GMT on Thursday, comes hot on the heels of the launch of Microsoft's Xbox console in China as both firms rush to capitalize on the lifting a 14-year ban on foreign gaming consoles.

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Sony has yet to detail its plans for the PlayStation 4 in China, including the price tag and sales targets. But consumer technology analysts say one key variable could be beyond the company's control: Beijing's notoriously tough censors.

"The Chinese censor will be Sony's biggest challenge," said Roger Sheng, research director at tech research firm Gartner.

PlayStation TV - Sony's savior?
PlayStation TV - Sony's savior?   

China's tight censorship regime is expected to limit the number of gaming titles available, at least initially, as all software needs official approval before it can be sold, analysts say. These approvals can take a long time.

Some of the best-selling PlayStation games, such as "Grand Theft Auto" which features gruesome killings and scantily clad women, are unlikely to be approved.

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The Xbox, which sells for 3,699 yuan ($598), currently has 10 titles on sale in China, mainly censor-friendly sporting games such as "Forza Motorsport 5". Microsoft has not released Xbox sales figures for China.

The PlayStation 4, first launched in the United States and Europe in November last year, had sold over 13 million units globally as of September, the fastest pace of sales of all the PlayStation models since the first console was launched in 1994.

Loss-making Sony is counting on its gaming business to partially offset weakness in its mobile division, after the poor showing by its Xperia smartphones weighed heavily on recent earnings.

The Japanese electronics giant is targeting as much as 1.6 trillion yen ($13.47 billion) in global revenue from its gaming and related network businesses in the fiscal year to March 2018, from 1.3 trillion yen expected for the current year.

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China, however, may not be the right place to look for a major sales boost. Because gaming consoles were banned until January, PC and mobile games dominate the Chinese market, where gaming revenues grew by more than a third from 2012 to nearly $14 billion last year.

Sony will sell its consoles in China through a joint venture with Shanghai Oriental Pearl Group Co Ltd.