|

Tokyo Game Show fails to impress

by Brian Ashcraft

The theme for the 2009 Tokyo Game Show is “Game, it’s so energetic!” Ironic, as the energy for this year’s show was less palpable than for previous ones.

Organized by Japan’s Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association, Tokyo Game Show is the premier domestic industry event, attracting buyers, press and fans from around the globe. Blame swine flu fears or the fact that the show was scheduled on the tail-end of the “silver week” holidays, but attendance was down on Saturday, the first public day: 62,138 visitors compared to 71,639 in 2008.

It also could be that this year’s Tokyo Game Show just didn’t pack much of a wow or buzz factor. The keynote address by Sony Computer Entertainment President Kazuo Hirai didn’t include any announcements about new games or hardware.

In the past, companies have used the keynote to make their biggest announcements. At the 2005 game show, Nintendo (who does not traditionally attend the show) revealed the Wii Remote for the first time. A year later, Ken Kutaragi, the creator of the PlayStation, used the keynote forum to announce the first PS3 price cut. This year, the keynote was simply a recap of announcements Sony had already made — a handy summary for those not paying attention.

“This year’s Tokyo Game Show was a bit of an anticlimax,” says analyst Hiroshi Kamide at KBC Financial Products. The game show had tough acts to follow, such as industry event E3 in Los Angeles in June. Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison all appeared on stage at a Microsoft E3 press event to promote the music game “The Beatles: Rock Band.”

It wasn’t just the pundits who were underwhelmed, but the industry as well. “Speaking with other Japanese developers,” says one Tokyo-based game developer who wished to remain anonymous, “there is definitely a consensus that this year’s TGS was a little shallow. TGS seems to be losing its position as an event to announce new games and hardware.” Sony did make press announcements later at a Japanese press conference, such as providing a rough release window for car-simulator “Gran Turismo 5″ (due out March 2010) and demonstrating new wand-motion controls for horror game “Resident Evil 5″ and platformer “LittleBigPlanet.”

In years past, the game industry has not been hit by economic downturns like in the auto and electronic industries. But with the effects of the global financial crisis now being felt even in video games by way of slowing sales, companies have become increasingly cautious. “I think the industry is in ‘playing it safe’ mode — no major risk taking, output is primarily tried-and-tested franchises with a track record,” says KBC’s Kamide. Or, as one Japanese developer put it, the game industry has regressed into its “otaku (geek) mode,” appealing to the core segment of loyal, hardcore gamers. The number of booths from game publishers dwindled down to a mere 13, and small-to-medium-size game companies like SNK and Hudson, who have had booths in years past, did not this year.

“I do think there is significant interest among Japanese gamers for the new PSP Go and Microsoft’s Natal — both of which are at this year’s TGS,” insists Jun Takeuchi, producer of the multimillion selling “Resident Evil 5.”

The PSP Go is a digital-download-only version of Sony’s portable hand-held gaming machine, the PSP, and Natal is a controller-free motion interface that allows players to play games with their bodies and hands. However, both products were announced earlier at Western game shows: the PSP Go at last month’s gamescom in Germany and Natal at Los Angeles’ E3 event. It’s as though the Tokyo Game Show has become a venue for companies to dump their table scraps.

While Nintendo has been a beacon of success, the Japanese game industry has been in steady decline for the past couple of years, however, with Western developers releasing immensely profitable titles in North America and Europe such as crime game “Grand Theft Auto IV” and music title “Rock Band.” Last year, the Japanese game industry shrank by 13 percent according to industry research company and magazine publisher Enterbrain.

With a market contracting at home and expanding abroad, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for Japanese publishers to focus only on the domestic market. At an event at a Tokyo cantina, Capcom’s Keiji Inafune, who is responsible for the hugely popular “Mega Man” franchise, told a crowd that walking around the TGS floor made him think that the Japanese game industry was “dead”. Inafune would go to champ games from his Osaka-based company — the most anticipated of which, “Dead Rising 2,” was not developed domestically, but farmed out to Canadians.

Still, more than 60,000 people did turn out on the first day to check out the games and the sites were hardly dead.

“I really want to try out ‘Final Fantasy XIII,’ ” says 21-year-old student Masanori Nakata. Forget that “Final Fantasy” developer Square Enix has already released a playable demo of the upcoming role-playing game earlier this year, for Nakata, that’s besides the point. “I’ve made lots of friends here at the Tokyo Game Show, and I always enjoy coming here.”

There is a sharp divide between what the game industry was expecting to get from this year’s Tokyo Game Show and what Japanese gamers were expecting. “Let me just say that the business days had a very subdued feeling this year,” says Xbox LIVE programming director Larry Hryb. “The public days were madness as always.”