Despite the growth in 2011 of social network games for mobile phones and smartphones from companies such as Gree Inc. and DeNA Co., console games are poised for a comeback with Nintendo Co.’s 3DS portable device selling strongly in recent weeks and Sony Corp. launching its PlayStation Vita hand-held console in December.
“We would like to see the Nintendo 3DS spread explosively and quell reports that game-dedicated devices are coming to an end,” Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said at a news conference in late October.
As he predicted, the 3DS console has been drawing brisk demand recently, aided by the launch of new titles from popular games series such as “Mario Kart” and “Monster Hunter,” with sales topping the 3 million mark in December in Japan, according to data compiled by game magazine publisher Enterbrain Inc.
“Achieving its targeted global sales of 16 million by the end of March is coming into sight,” said Etsuko Tamura, an analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co., citing upcoming major software titles and strong overseas sales.
Intensifying the competition was the Dec. 17 launch by Nintendo’s rival Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. of the successor to the PlayStation Portable hand-held game console, the PlayStation Vita, which sold some 321,400 units in its first two days on the market, according to Enterbrain data.
On the day the Vita was launched, more than 100 game fans lined up at a Tsutaya movie and music rental shop in Shibuya Ward,Tokyo, to buy the new gadget.
Twenty-six-year-old company employee Daichi Teranishi, who used to play games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, or the Famicom as it was known in Japan, and the PlayStation, said he understands the popularity of social network games, which are often offered free of charge with further features available for purchase.
But he is also eager to play console games designed for the Vita as it employs advanced technology, including high-definition images and enhanced network functions.
“By buying console games, I would like to see the game industry revitalized,” he said.
Andrew House, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, told reporters that Sony’s game unit wants to see sales of the new console “far” outstrip those of the PSP, which topped 73.10 million at the end of September.
“There will be a sufficient market for game-dedicated consoles if we continue to offer cutting-edge game experiences,” House said.
According to Enterbrain, the domestic game market — combining both hardware and software sales — shrank to about ¥494 billion in 2010 after hitting a peak of some ¥688 billion in 2007.
In contrast, the social network game market has been growing sharply, reaching ¥112 billion in 2010, a 4.4-fold jump from the previous year.
“A generational change took place” in 2011 as social network platforms such as Gree and Mobage became widely recognized with more people starting to play games on smartphones, said Enterbrain President Hirokazu Hamamura. But Hamamura predicted that console developers will come into the limelight as they try to play the leading role in the game industry.
In addition to the 3DS and the Vita, Wii U, the successor to Nintendo’s Wii home console, may become the leading player in the next-generation console market following its scheduled launch later this year.
A fierce race is expected among game makers to grab players’ time, said Hamamura, adding there will be no big losers in the game industry because customers for console games and social network games differ.
“A battle to take the spotlight will begin,” he said, adding the expected trend is likely to spur the entire gamong industry in 2012.
In a bid to outperform rivals, traditional console makers are trying to diversify their earnings sources by enhancing network functions as well as selling software content.
One model of Sony’s Vita, for example, features 3G mobile data connectivity as part of the company’s efforts to enhance the Internet connection. Players will be able to use social network media such as Twitter by downloading dedicated applications via the Internet.
But Mizuho Investors’ Tamura said what the Vita really needs is to expand its corresponding game titles. “For the Vita to be successful, there needs to be a variety of new software,” she said.
Nintendo, meanwhile, has introduced in its online shopping content for the 3DS a mechanism that enables users to purchase additional content such as new levels for a game they have already bought, though such content is not yet available.