When an Xbox isn’t an Xbox!

I’m writing this particular blog entry because i"ve been meaning to for a while as this is a great way to share the particular joys we face daily in china, but also because I’m appealing to a friend back home who sent me a rebuff when I asked him if he would please "mule" my xbox back to me on his Asia visit next week ("mule" as in "to carry like a mule, aka, carry as a pack animal"); hopefully upon reading this he will take pity on me and the kids and bring the replacement box with him!

So our boys have not been allowed to play video games until quite recently, sometime in the last 6 months we fell hard off the wagon and have been permitting a mix of pbskids.org games (for their considerable reading and math instructional value) and more recently, Star Wars Lego on Xbox (for its fun factor, coupled with Carlos’ two favorite things in the world = legos and star wars!).  Before packing to China the kids expressed grave concern that there wouldn’t be Star Wars Lego Xbox in China!! to which I reassured them that certainly there would be, and i would take care of all technical matters to ensure a happy gaming experience on weekends when they listened to their mama and were good  boys.

So, the first month in China we didn’t have our videogames of course as they were on the air shipment, but once they arrived at the house on a wed, i promised Carlos that when I picked him up at school that friday we could come home and play Star Wars Lego into the wee hours of the early evening before his bedtime.  This was the friday before I was to go to Spain for a week, so it was the extra sweetener to set him up for a good week with Papa away on business. 

About 10am that morning I started to plug-in the cables, and was remiss in not checking to see the power supply for the xbox; almost all of the computer and electronic devices i had plugged in up until that moment (and mind you, i have 20+ of these things) had supported 110-240v inputs, so i didn’t think twice before slamming the plug into the wall and promptly frying the power source for the Xbox, which I now know only supports 110v with the factory provided power brick.  There was an immediate electrical fire of sorts, which brought me immediately back in time to our years in Chile, when I as a 6 year old had similar fried numerous devices.  Funny how powerful smells are–i kid you not, it was the closest thing I’ve experienced to time travel in a long time!

So, i figured i’d run out to the store and get a new power source / transformer and all would be well.  I had a business meeting with a customer that AM, so afterwards I had a colleague join me at the Haidian area electronics shopping supercenter–a multi-square-block city mall of nothing but electronics and computer parts–kind of makes Frys look small and quaint by comparison, really marvelous!  A mere four hours later I had (a) a repaired version of my power source, (b) the knowledge that procuring a 240v native converter would be $400rmb, but they didn’t have in stock, and (c) for just a few hundred bucks, they would be happy to provide me with a new Xbox, with the added benefit of being able to play ALL xbox games for free–what is known as a "cracked" box–a really bad idea as far as I’m concerned since however tempting on the one hand, it completely undermines the very idea of software as a business and that is a key perception we are trying to overcome here at work/microsoft within the chinese culture/market.  Interesting nonetheless…

So, back at home with my new power adapter, a mere 6 hours after i first attempted to get everything working, I plug-in and find out that my xbox unit has suffered the "red-lights-of-death" failure–that is, the box is broken completely and needs factory repair, a apparently common hardware glitch that microsoft has acknowledged and has extensively procedures in palce to rapidlly remedy… if you are in a market where xbox is legally sold.  In China, xbox is all grey market, that is, the product is not an authorized and supported product, nor are any video game systems, as the Chinese government is not yet granting licenses for such.  They are readily available, but they all come from legal markets such as Taiwan or Hong Kong… and thus are not supported in country by microsoft.  You can get local shops to fix them, it turns out, quick and cheap–but I didn’t know that at the time… so, i packed up my dead xbox and took it with me the next morning to Spain for my business trip, where I handed it over to my colleague and asked him to take to the US for life-support-service and planned to make arrangements to get it back to me at some future date.  Meanwhile, Carlos was heartbroken after the big build up, and i promised him I would return from Spain triumphant with a working game system, intending on buying a new system in Spain.

While in Spain, however, my research led me to understand that Microsoft has "game regions" that tie the hardware and software together so that you can’t use a US game in a European xbox, or a Asian xbox with a european game… that is, my US copy of Star Wars Lego would not work with the Spanish xbox… i’d have to buy the game again at the hefty $60 Euros price ($90! when in the US it had cost me $19.95!), and none of my other games (10 or so) would work.  Furthermore, any new games I bought would have to be european versions, which of course would be hard to find anywhere but… Europe!  Hard choice ahead: one thought was to buy the frickin thing (a bird in hand…) and then see if the chinese "machine doctors" could "fix" my euro xbox so that it could play my (legal) US games?  Yes, a side benefit would be that it would also play "other games", but my only real gaming interests are Star Wars Lego and Halo 3 which i can get from work… i stared at the box at the Cote Ingles store for a good 20 minutes doing the triage in my head… what to do?  In the end, I took the advise of a chinese friend, who said, "better wait, just buy in china, there they can assure that all works well together"  So I boarded the fateful plane back to Beijing (through holland, where I again was tempted by an Xbox at the airport, with the promise of a credit for the 20% IVA imposed on retail in Euroland).

So, back in the US friday AM when the kids are already at school, Cristina and I go to microsoft office to pick up an xbox loaner system, which my colleague said I could use for the weekend to ensure a high CPE for my family (customer satisfaction index we use at work = CPE); i bring a test game with me from home, not Star Wars Lego itself (that would have been *way* too smart of me), rather a different game that the kids don’t play called Gears of War.  At the office, we set up the xbox (an Asian box from japan) and test the game, which works great. We do some grocery shopping at Carefour, then head home.  I plug the box in, not chemical fire, all seems well, and then jet off to pick up the kids at school.  They are very excited to see me, and really excited when I confirm their worst fear was for not, and "YES, the xbox is working and YES we can play star wars lego".  We walk home, have a snack, and I go to fire up the box when I learn to my dismay that the asian xbox doesn’t play the US game in question, it just happened to play Gears of War because that game is a "regionless" game, where as Star Wars Lego is a North America specific title, and the game+box combo is dead on arrival!  Oh-my-god, i couldn’t believe I had gotten this wrong and built up the kids’ expectations.  What a let down.  I reassured them that I would run out and be "right back", and that I would just solve by buying one of the local xbox’s, cracked
o
r not, and return in time to play the game this evening.  This at about 3:30pm.

So, 8pm that night I’m finally home, empty handed, with yet more understanding of the situation.  Turns out, while the xbox’s sold locally are indeed cracked and can play any game, when they say "any" they mean "any Asia region game".  As sophisticated as the hackers are, they haven’t bothered to find ways around my particular problem, playing a legal game on a legal xbox that isn’t from the same region.  I’m sure microsoft has reasons for this type of region-specific-security, i guess to prevent 6 year old boys from playing games when they move to new countries and their xbox’s break?  So while I could buy a cracked xbox, it would only be an asian cracked xbox, since nobody in china wants a North America cracked hardware since those don’t play the cracked videogames.  Oh, and funny thing, there is no cracked version of Star Wars Lego because the game is NOT AVAILABLE IN ASIA (Can you believe it) in any form… for some reason it was not published for Asia region at all?)  Basically i had walked into a perfect market that could serve everyone’s illegal whims in china, but not my legal aspirations to pay for the intellectual property!  This is a recurring theme with movies, software, and xbox & psp games–when you want to buy something here you find it is much easier to just buy cracked/hacked/illegal versions–the real versions are not supported by the economic model and the legal market.  It is very daunting for me personally with my star wars lego travails, and looms as a large issue for companies like Microsoft and the US Film Industry/etc.

So, the happy ending to this story, if any, is that Carlos called me in tears at about 7pm when I was still in the throws of my research at a illegal xbox store which was littered with literally 3-dozen xboxes in various stages of repair/disrepair all over the floor… and says to me "i don’t care about the stupid xbox, just come home and play with me".  Since then he hasn’t asked for the thing, and i’ve made no promises of when and how it will be available again… maybe its a good riddance… but maybe my friend in seattle will read this and feel a ounce of pity for us Beijingers and thus act as a happy mule and bring our now repaired US xbox back to us!  I did purchase a new power source, so barring other acts of god, we should be in business for Star Wars Lego!

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