The lights, crowds and attention-grabbing whizzes and bangs of the Tokyo Game Show held last week in the Japanese capital should scream “migraine central” to sensitive non-gamers. But to the faithful, it is the most exciting event in the calendar, offering a glimpse into the future of entertainment.
Yet beneath the glitz and the glamour of this year’s event, cracks were palpable, exposing the instability of the world’s biggest gaming market.
Japan has always been a prolific yet insular development space with a profound impact on the global industry. A walk through Akihabara, the capital’s heaving technology district, demonstrates that while very few of the Western heavy hitters are represented in any way, legions of unknown intellectual property line the streets.
“The No. 1 thing I’ve come away with this year is the same thing I came away with 10 years ago: the massive gulf between Eastern games and everything else,” veteran British game designer Peter Molyneux says.
Molyneux came to Tokyo to peddle his new roleplaying game, Fable II, a popular Western title in a genre that dominates the Eastern market.
However, its platform, the Xbox 360, has the lowest distribution of any console in the country and is published by Microsoft, which has less than 1 percent of market share.
“We may think we are making games for the whole world, but it’s not true,” Molyneux says. “The whole ethos, the whole makeup, the whole mechanics of the games: The way they’re played is completely different. It’s a shock that we still are unable to make a piece of entertainment that works over here.”
Historically, the reverse has been equally true. Both Eastern and Western analysts describe Japanese games as unsophisticated and mediocre compared with their non-Japanese counterparts, due in large part to the demands put upon developers by publishers at the mercy of their shareholders. The results are franchises based on manga and anime characters, which don’t translate to the big-money audiences overseas.
“I’m intrigued and incredibly curious, but I recognize that many of the games I see on the show floor will never be translated into English, and so I have no idea what they’re going to be like,” Molyneux says.
“There’s a game down there called Monster Hunter,” he continues, “and the queues are incredible; there are people virtually passing out because they’ve been in the queues so long.”
In fact, the Monster Hunter series has sold more than 4 million units since it was released for the PlayStation Portable (PSP) last year. Yet it is virtually unknown elsewhere. Yoshiki Okamoto, the creator of Monster Hunter and president of developer Game Republic, had expected the game to be successful in Western markets because it was set in Ireland, but the game never took off because it was “too Japanese,” he says. It explains why the Japanese market had bottomed out, he told British companies at the show.
Microsoft held a low-key press conference on the floor with a dearth of any revolutionary information. John Schappert, corporate vice-president of Live, Software and Services for the Interactive Entertainment Business, focused much of his presentation on Resident Evil 5 and Tekken 6 — surefire, successful franchises in Japan — before mooting Xbox Experience, an avatar-driven hub that “aims to take our machine, initially released as a games machine, into an entertainment hub.”
He also backhandedly announced Halo 3: Recon, an expansion pack for the monumentally successful Halo series — an IP that has sold 22.8 million units in the West, but only 170,000 in Japan.
Nintendo was a no-show, choosing to host a press conference a week before. But in its absence, third-party publishers and developers reflected the dominance of the platform in Japan; most stands were crammed with Wiis and Nintendo DSs.
The Sony PSP was equally pervasive as developers scrambled to create software for a recently installed consumer base of 2.8 million. Western palates were better catered for on the PlayStation stand, with new releases of music-led puzzler Loco Roco 2 and platformer Ratchet and Clank PSP.
In all, the show felt like a backward glance into a forward market. There were few new games for European consumers and no big announcements. However, the floods of consumers who flocked to the conference center reiterated how central gaming is across all segments of this market.
We’ll have to wait until next year to see if the doom and gloom propositions of the business meetings will have an effect on the streets of Tokyo.
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