PS4 launches in Japan – but with a lacklustre turnout at retail, do Japanese players care?

PS4 Japan launch

The first three customers to buy a PS4 without a preorder, at Akihabara’s Yodobashi Camera store.

Three months after its release in North America and Europe, PlayStation 4 is finally available in Japan. On Saturday February 22 it was greeted across the nation by the after-effects of the heaviest snowfall in decades; while stores in the major cities were unaffected, blocked roads in some parts of Japan meant that Amazon was unable to fulfill its preorders on time, emailing customers to inform them that their consoles would not arrive on launch day.

You might think this would only make for heavier demand at bricks-and-mortar stores. But at close of business Sunday, after two full days, most of the major game and electronics stores we contacted in Tokyo and Osaka said they had had plenty of stock still available – a far cry from the scenes in Europe, where PS4 consoles are still scarce months later.

The day before the February 22 launch, major retailers such as Sofmap and Yodobashi Camera were still accepting preorders, and those who queued through the night in the bitter cold found that other customers without preorders could easily stroll up to the counter and buy one of the two available models (with or without camera).

The first customer to walk away with a preordered PS4 at Akihabara’s Yodobashi Camera.

Whether this reflects a lack of interest or a comfortable surplus of stock will become clear when the first sales figures are published by Media Create. A spokesperson for Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Asia declined to give sales figures when contacted, instead simply quoting PS4’s global sales of 5.3 million units, though this figure excludes Japan.

The official midnight launch was held on Friday night at the Sony Building in Ginza. Some gamers queued through Thursday night to be among the lucky 100 to receive an invitation to the countdown event, held from 10:30pm until midnight, when one customer was picked by lotto to receive the console he had paid for that morning.

The event was broadcast live on Ustream and Niconico and boasted a certain amount of star power, with guests including Hideo Kojima, Yakuza series producer Toshiro Nagoshi and Final Fantasy XIV producer Naoki Yoshida, as well as the cast of TV show GameCenter CX and other local celebrities. Video messages included Capcom’s Yoshinori Ono making an apology for the delayed release of Deep Down, as well as words from Sony-signed J-pop stars such as Scandal and Fujifabric. A round of applause greeted Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida as he entered the lobby before the event.

Japanese media trained their cameras and microphones on the waiting invitees, some of whom turned up in cosplay that rivalled that of the professional cosplayers parading in front of a giant PS4 box outside. One punter came as a Move controller, perhaps a plea for compatible PS4 games, and had trouble sitting down, while another, Ryo Watanabe, was decked out in military gear. Watanabe would later win the lotto to become the first customer to buy a Japanese PS4.

PlayStation’s launch livestream starred Sony execs including Andrew House and Shuhei Yoshida, plus other developers.

“I bought the model with the camera included,” Watanabe said, showing us the package he’d got signed by the special guests. Regarding his impressive military cosplay outfit, he said, “Since there are three FPS games at launch and Kojima is here, this seemed like the appropriate dress code.”

Despite the limited space, however, some ticket holders told us that they had easily secured their invitation an hour or more after the promotion began.

The lines at the Akihabara branches of Yodobashi Camera and Sofmap on launch morning paled in comparison with the chaos that greeted PS3 eight years earlier. We counted roughly 30 customers at Sofmap’s special 7am opening (all male), while Yodobashi drew about 80 customers with preorders and a walk-up line of 100 or so. Weekly Famitsu magazine’s website reported similar short lines at spots all around the capital.

Sony has its work cut out in Japan, where Nintendo rules the handheld market and usually outsells home consoles too with 3DS. Wii U and Xbox One do not represent much of a threat (and the latter still has no confirmed release date in Japan), but in a culture where gamers are migrating ever further from the TV to portable devices, big sales of a new home consoles seem far from guaranteed. The top-grossing games are increasingly on mobile platforms, such as smartphone smash Puzzle & Dragons.

There was the expected fanfare at PS4’s Japanese launch, but Sony faces the difficult task of stealing players away from their portable game devices.

Sony has attempted to tackle this challenge by switching to a new PR firm, from Antil to heavy-hitter Kyodo, and investing in a high-profile TV and billboard campaign. Playing on the release date of February 22, or 2/22, promotional material features a variety of gloved or nail-painted hands holding a DualShock 4 while flicking the two-finger peace sign, with the tagline ‘Play & Peace’ scrawled in friendly handwritten English below. Given the outrage among PlayStation fans last year when it was announced that Japan would get PS4 three months after the US and Europe, and later even than parts of Asia, this genial approach may have been aimed at winning gamers back.

The official reason for PS4’s delayed release in Japan was to allow extra time for Japanese developers to prepare launch titles for the domestic market. Speaking at Tokyo Game Show in September, Shuhei Yoshida explained to us: “After we announced PS4 in February, (Japanese) publishers are showing interest and announcing new titles, but it’s a totally different picture in terms of readiness compared with Western publishers.”

Japanese PS4 launch games included titles in the Yakuza, Dynasty Warriors and Dream Club series, as well as a beta test of Final Fantasy XIV. In a showreel played at the midnight launch event, Sony made up the numbers by leaning heavily on post-launch titles such as The Evil Within and Deep Down. Kojima’s presence on stage was a clear reminder that PlayStation has the goodwill of Japanese publishers behind it, certainly more so than Wii U or Xbox One. But whether this will be enough to convince Japanese gamers to return to the living room remains to be seen.