Tokyo Game Show, and why Japan isn’t ready for next-gen home consoles

TGS

September’s Tokyo Game Show offered the first chance for Japanese players to get their hands on next-gen hardware as well as a larger selection of mobile and social games than has ever filled the Makuhari Messe before. It was a show packed with evidence of handheld gaming usurping home consoles in the region, and of new niches opening up.

“The venue has got bigger this year, but at the same time the number of publishers not attending has also increased,” said Toshihiro Nagoshi of Sega’s Yakuza Studio. Konami and Level-5 were absent from the main floor, as were many western publishers; Tecmo Koei’s booth bafflingly showed nothing but a gallery celebrating its ancient wargame Nobunaga’s Ambition. And Capcom’s release of Monster Hunter 4 just days before TGS meant there was no obvious must-play game of the show.

“However, the attendance is very good, and it feels like a carnival, so I think it’s OK to have simple booths that don’t require much outlay,” Nagoshi said, noting what would turn out to be a record 270,197 attendees. “But I do believe that the future of consoles will be decided with this generation, so if we don’t make the effort to whip up interest, we could lose out.”

Japan will get the next generation of hardware later than North America and Europe – PlayStation 4 in February, Xbox One some time later – and Japanese players have mixed feelings about the delay. Many feel Sony is taking Japan for granted, not least because several countries around Asia will see PS4 this side of Christmas. Others told us they are in no rush to snap up new hardware, the sting of Wii U’s performance still fresh in their minds. “I don’t care about graphics anyway – if the new generation doesn’t bring new ways to play, I’m not that interested,” said one attendee, echoing the opinions of many we spoke to.

Nonetheless, Sony and Microsoft’s booths were still mobbed by attendees hungry to see what the coming generation will offer. Lines for all PS4 games at Sony’s stand were maxed out repeatedly, closed off at the 100-minute-wait mark. This benefited smaller indie titles such as Octodad and Hohokum, which got the overspill of the more popular Knack and Deep Down.

And Microsoft, which has always struggled in Japan, drew players willing to wait three hours for Titanfall and two hours for Crimson Dragon. “Japanese people don’t usually care about FPS games, but the mecha in Titanfall will appeal to our culture,” said one Xbox fan lining up to play. “Perhaps it will be the FPS that breaks the genre in Japan.” The 32-player Battlefield 4 matches at EA’s booth also drew long lines, although both games were aided in large part by their status as the graphical showpieces for the next generation.

But perhaps the fate of the next-gen console is beside the point in a nation where home gaming has long been on the wane, replaced by the take-anywhere thrills of handheld devices. To illustrate the point, 3DS’s lifetime sales here have recently exceeded 12.75 million units, surpassing even the Wii’s 12.69 million sales. Homes in Japan are typically smaller than in the west, and many people live with their parents until they marry. It’s a country where young people are used to being out of the home, communing at a karaoke booth or a bar, or perhaps enjoying me-time at a manga cafe or department store.

“That’s one of the reasons that games like Monster Hunter are very popular, because people bring their own device and get together to play rather than doing a home party,” said Shuhei Yoshida, president of SCE worldwide studios. “It [was] definitely one major factor when we decided where to launch [PS4], and when. Japan is a more portable-heavy business, and PS3 is popular. Famitsu’s data showed 70 per cent of home-console games were sold on PS3 for the past year. Many quality games are being released on PS3 now, so they’re not exactly asking for PS4.”

And so, in a year when next-gen consoles arrive in the west, Japan’s biggest gaming show was defined by portable news. Though Nintendo stays away from TGS, thirdparty 3DS games made up a significant proportion of the show floor, and Vita also left its mark. Of the playable titles on Sega’s booth, the most popular were its Hatsune Miku-based rhythm games for 3DS and Vita, along with Sonic: Lost World and Puyo Puyo Tetris on 3DS. Sony’s revamped Vita hardware was a draw, and Monster Hunter-style team-action games such as Soul Sacrifice Delta and God Eater 2 attracted long lines, with the latter the only title at the show to have a dedicated booth in the merchandise area.

PS Vita TV, meanwhile, was presented as a sort of bridge device for Vita owners to continue their game at home on the big screen or to consume e-manga and video content. It’s a questionable move, in that Japan is trending away from the TV set, but no doubt Sony hopes it will give the Vita brand stronger resonance as it attempts to catch up with 3DS.

Mobile gaming is also a huge deal in Japan, where microtransactions can make a company’s fortunes. No one knows this better than Kazuki Morishita, president of GungHo, whose mobile F2P game Puzzle & Dragons has close to 20 million users and reportedly brings in over $2 million per month. And, fittingly, a 3DS port was on show, which is due for a December release.

In a keynote speech, Morishita put the game’s success partly down to its appeal to female players. “Women like the game’s kawaii [cute] factor,” he said, before adding self-deprecatingly, “not that a guy like me knows what women like.” And, indeed, you are more likely to see women playing games in Japan than in the west, usually on 3DS or smartphone.

Smartphone games were everywhere at TGS. Capcom had Monster Hunter Smart and OtoRanger on display, and its big announcement at the show was smartphone RPG Blade Fantasia. Social gaming company Gree had a large booth with versions of Final Fantasy and The Idolm@ster, the latter alongside a tie-up with J-pop idol group AKB48. Smartphone games and paraphernalia dominated the indie area, the new otome (female-oriented romance sim) area, and the merchandise zone.

And so Japanese developers are split, perhaps more now than ever before. Do they focus on super-powerful, world-beating new game engines such as Kojima’s Fox Engine, Capcom’s Panta Rhei and Square Enix’s Luminous Studio to give them the edge where in the previous generation they lagged behind? Or do they put their focus into smaller social games that are potentially more lucrative in the short term?

“Japanese developers are still unsure of how best to utilise their R&D and their resources,” Nagoshi said. “Mobile and social, consumer console, consumer handheld; what’s the best way to distribute resources and make a business model? They’re unsure, and so am I.”

“Up until now, there was an obvious step up in performance from PS1 to PS2 to PS3,” noted Comcept CEO and Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z lead Keiji Inafune. “But PS4 takes a step both up and down, because it is a platform for triple-A games and low-budget indie [games]. Just as social and tablet gaming are becoming the future of the industry, consoles are also widening their appeal. Up until now, we’d always thought in terms of raw power, but not any more. That’s a good thing for creators, but we’ll have to wait and see how the public reacts.”

Perhaps part of the problem is the adherence to the same old control schemes, with the new versions of Kinect and PlayStation Eye yet to make themselves felt as real draws after the tepid reaction to their first iterations. But help on this front may come from outside of Sony or Microsoft.

“I love the Oculus Rift. For me, that’s the real next-gen machine,” says The Evil Within developer Shinji Mikami, .

“The only new feature out there that could enhance a horror game is a head-mounted display,” said Shinji Mikami, who is currently developing The Evil Within for simultaneous release on current- and next-gen consoles. “I love the Oculus Rift – that’s a thrill. For me, that’s the real next-gen machine.”

Mikami welcomes the idea of new home consoles, though, stating that despite the rise of handheld gaming in Japan, gamers will always hanker for big-screen, big-budget rollercoaster rides. But he also feels that just one next-gen machine would have been enough this time around. “There’s no real difference between them. Why do I have to make two versions of my game? Either one will do. The user doesn’t care about spec; they want the design to be cool. If Apple released a game console, it would make a lot of gamers happy.”

And don’t mention Nintendo’s Wii U – certainly no one here does. We spotted just two Wii U games on show at TGS, and one of those, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, has been out for months in Japan. The console still hasn’t found a place in local players’ hearts, with a software lineup that holds little appeal for adults and hardware that is not portable enough to appeal to children. When Nagoshi mentioned that the future of consoles will be decided this generation, it was no doubt said in the knowledge of widespread consumer indifference to Nintendo’s ailing product.

So what are the games Japan wants to make and play? The territory is becoming ever more insular, with sales of western music, movies and games in steady decline as the younger generation embraces home-grown pop culture. Again, Japanese developers face a dilemma: to target Japan or to aim to appeal to the western audience? It’s tricky to do both effectively.

Comcept’s Keiji Inafune: “Western games aren’t exactly bad, they’re just not what Japan wants.”

“The only people in the west who play Japanese games are hardcore gamers, usually of a certain age,” said Inafune. “If you told a 20-year-old kid [in the west] that Japan makes good games, he’d laugh at you. And from a Japanese perspective, western games aren’t exactly bad, they’re just not what Japan wants.

“Japan is a very strange country. For example, everyone [here] loves Apple but they have no interest in Xbox or in Samsung. It’s like someone decides that Apple is cool and everyone else follows along, whether they think so or not. But I think it would be easier to convince Japan to play western games than the other way around. All we can do is to consider the rest of the world when we make our games.”

Having said that, TGS 2013 hosted several key Japanese games that are making a stir the world over. Metal Gear Solid V, The Evil Within, Dark Souls II, Crimson Dragon, D4: all of these have confirmed western releases, and others such as Deep Down and Yakuza Isshin feature high up on many western players’ localisation wishlists.

Nagoshi speculated that hosting the 2020 Olympic Games will draw the world’s attention to Japan, offering an opportunity to win new fans with the sort of content only this territory can create. And Hidetaka ‘Swery65’ Suehiro, the maverick mind behind Access Games’ Deadly Premonition and D4, said he feels that the renewed focus on independent games will bode well for Japan’s future on the videogame world stage.

“Both the Xbox One and PS4 are rounding up indie titles, and I think that if they do a good job of that then Japan is in with a chance,” he said. “I hope the world will be able to see the passion we have for our games, and that it will encourage Japanese developers to make more games that can appeal to the world and be picked up by international publishers – just like D4 was.”