In a surgery-clean meeting room in northeast Beijing, Yang Xuefei hammers away on a video game control pad, causing his Dynasty Warriors 8 character to swipe down rows of soldiers depicted on a widescreen TV in front of him. "We want to awaken the Chinese video game market," says Yang, as his character mounts a horse and starts charging around. "It's a gamble, but there's a chance to try."
Yang is the Vice President of Fuze Entertainment, a Chinese company that entered the country's video game console market on June 11 with the launch of its new console, the Fuze 1. The Android-based machine is aimed at the middle-market between Android gaming and TV boxes from companies such as Tencent and the higher-end likes of Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One. It will only be sold in China.
With consoles banned in China from 2000 to 2014, and the Xbox One and PS4 dominating a market thought to feature only half a million legally-obtained current generation consoles, it's a huge task. Especially considering that the Fuze 1 has already been branded a shameless copy of both aforementioned products following its unveiling last month.
Forbes said that the Fuze 1 "looks like the love child of Xbox One and PS4." International Business Times called it "pretty much a PS4, Xbox rip-off." But aesthetic 'influences' aside, is there a place for the console in China? Yang invited me to Fuze's offices for a preview.
What is the Fuze 1?
Fuze's new machine is available as a Play version with 32GB of storage space and an Elite version with 500GB. They sell for 899 Yuan ($137) and 1499 Yuan ($228) respectively. This appears cheap by Western standards, but would be a considerable investment for many in China. In the capital Beijing, one of the country's richest cities, the average graduate salary is around 6,100 Yuan ($930) per month.
Both versions are considerably smaller than PS4 and Xbox One units. "Businessmen could fit these in their bags when they go on trips," says Yang, somewhat optimistically.
"We're aiming for the middle," he adds. "PS4 is high-end, things like the Xiaomi [TV and mini-console] box are low-end. The quality of gaming is close to a PS4, but our prices are much lower." Fuze 1 games are available only via download, helping to keep their prices lower than those of their PS4 and Xbox One equivalents, which retail at around 200 Yuan ($30).
Yang demonstrates an aesthetically pleasing function of the Elite by placing a controller on top of it, causing side panels to move downwards in a satisfyingly slick movement, indicating that the controller is being wirelessly charged. A full run-down of the Fuze 1's spec is listed on Chinese gaming industry blog ZhuegeEX.
How shameless an Xbox One and PS4 copy is it?
Many reports about the Fuze 1, such as those linked above, have been scathing about its supposed rip-off style. Seeing the console's controller up close, there's no denying that it's as influenced by Xbox One's as Oasis were influenced by The Beatles. Furthermore, the operating system looks almost identical to the PS4's.
"It is a little awkward," Yang says when I mention the accusations. But he says Fuze had valid reasons for choosing a design path that has led to mild ridicule, claiming that the company is not just trying to cream off fans of the existing consoles. "We're a first generation product—we can't come out with a completely unique controller with, say, six main buttons," he says. "It would be confusing for games developers. As we are new, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to make games for us."
He adds: "We have to accept people saying we're ripping things off. But we choose to make it easy for developers and with this controller we can satisfy our players."
To be fair there have been far, far more brazen rip-off console designs in China that, unlike the Fuze 1, were clearly intended to fool punters. Anyone remember the 'PolyStation' or the 'WiWi'?
Does the Chinese public give a damn about consoles?
With consoles banned in China from 2000 to 2014 due to the government viewing them as a negative influence on children, almost an entire generation of gamers grew up never having used one. Instead smartphone and PC gaming, the latter aided by the spread of internet cafes, have boomed, with an estimated 408 million online gamers in the country.
"In the US and Japan people played the NES, then the SNES, then maybe the N64, then through the PlayStations—there was progression and lineage," says Yang. "Chinese don't have this. They played the Xiao Bao [a NES rip-off console popular in China in the late 1980s and early 1990s] then most of them just stopped when the ban came in.
"So, the hardest thing for us is giving a controller to customers—they don't know how to use it. They are used to phones. When you talk about games people go, 'Is that a board game? Is it an online game?' We are still a little confused about how to promote our product."
Yang's concerns are reflected in the state of the console market in China. Consoles have been sold legally since 2014 but only around 500,000 PS4 and Xbox One units combined have been sold in the country since then. Fuze estimates that with black market sales of foreign-market PS4s and Xbox Ones, which are readily available online, included there are around two million current generation consoles in China. With the country's population currently around 1.35 million, it's a drop in the ocean.
Will being a Chinese company help or hinder Fuze?
Being a new Chinese company in the console market throws up both pros and cons for Fuze. On one hand Chinese consumers tend to favour foreign brands, which they often view as higher quality and more desirable than domestic brands. On the other, the immense success of Chinese technology brand Xiaomi, which sells Apple iPhone-style smartphones at budget prices, has shown that a domestic technology company undercutting a powerful foreign leading brand can still be hugely successful in the country.
There has been an increasing amount of reports in recent years about Chinese authorities allegedly making operating in the country more difficult for foreign technology firms, too. On this issue Yang is slightly more cagey. "If the government could [give] some kind of advantage or preferential [treatment] for a Chinese company compared to, say, a Japanese company… we can't say this [protectionism for Chinese companies] exists , because we can't approve that, but we can say it could be some kind of advantage for us. That's all I can say."
On the hardware-related advantages of being a Chinese company, things are clearer. Chinese gamers tend to prefer to buy black market foreign versions of PS4s and Xbox Ones, on which they can play games censored by the government. They are usually considerably cheaper than China-legal versions, which cost around 2,500-3,000 Yuan ($380-$460), as by being black market they dodge taxes. The Fuze 1 is at a disadvantage against these because its game selection is subject to censorship, but its compatibility with Chinese entertainment systems is a big plus.
Fuze are marketing the console as an all-in-one TV box as well as a console. The company has deals with Chinese video streaming service LeTV and a Twitch-like e-sports broadcasting service on Panda TV, offering seamless link-ups that foreign machines can't provide. "This is our advantage," says Yang. "We only have to think about the Chinese market, not the global market, like Microsoft and Sony do."
Who will buy the Fuze 1?
I had a few short gaming sessions on the console over about 25 minutes; gameplay was solidly impressive if not quite the lush feast of graphics those with PS4s and Xbox Ones will be used to. Dynasty Warriors 8, understandably popular in China as it is based on the Chinese historical text Record of the Three Kingdoms, ticked its hack and slash boxes while the other games I tried were cutesier in tone.
Assault Android Cactus and Spy Chameleon seem typical of the games available on the Fuze 1 on launch, being a cartoony, family-friendly arcade blaster and puzzler respectively. With violence and sex-laden games such as the Resident Evil titles and Dead or Alive banned, family gaming seems to be the focus.
"We are aiming it at people who aren't so hardcore about games," says Yang. Fuze's video advert for the new console, meanwhile, is designed to evoke childhood memories of consoles. It shows the lineage of gaming from arcades through to the Sega Megadrive, underground pay-per-play sessions in the 2000s, the Wii, then the Fuze 1 as the modern day equivalent in the family home.
Will it succeed?
It's a long shot, and Yang admits as such. The ZhugeEX blog has predicted that the console won't achieve great success, saying: "This is a good attempt but… there is no room for a big console market in the Chinese games industry. I can see people buying products like this as an Android streaming box but… there are plenty of other products from Xiaomi and Tencent which are cheaper and do a better job on the media side."
Yang says that Fuze does not expect to make much profit from its first generation of Fuze 1s, and is instead looking to bring out a more successful F2 version in two to three years once it is a more established brand. But with consoles becoming ever-more affordable, I'm not sure the chasms between the price points are large enough. If you're into console gaming enough in China—where it is a niche activity—why would you not spend around 1,100 Yuan ($168) more than the lower-spec Fuze machine costs, and get a top-end console?
Yang remains optimistic. "We are not competitors of PlayStation and Xbox—we want to work with them to awaken the sleeping video game market in China," he says. "We want to make the cake bigger and bigger."