Tokyo Game Show and the myth of the "average gamer"
We debate whether TGS is "relevant"; but in the internet age, all audiences can be global
Game release dates come and go, but for as long as most of us can recall, the games industry's calendar has been punctuated by a handful of major events that serve as showcases for our wares. Some have waxed or waned over the years; ECTS has long-since disappeared, while the likes of Germany's GamesCom, the UK's Eurogamer Expo and the US' Penny Arcade Expo have grown rapidly in prominence. Others have remained as stable fixtures. E3 runs at the start of summer in LA; Tokyo Game Show heralds the arrival of autumn in Tokyo.
In recent years, it's been a little more complex than that, since we've been forced (some of us less willingly than others, and with occasional bouts of unseemly kicking and screaming) to accept the broadening of many definitions - most notably, the definitions of what constitutes gaming hardware and what constitutes a gamer. Major device or platform announcements from Apple, Google and Facebook are a big deal for the games business now, much to the eternal disgust of the more traditionally minded, and Amazon is set to join that list in short order as well. With those companies (and bigger game companies, too) now tending to avoid general-purpose trade shows and hold their own announcement events instead, it's no wonder the calendar is getting a bit packed.
"We are, thankfully, getting past the point where everyone who works in games assumes that the audience for games is made up of people much like themselves"
In that context, it's not hard to see why TGS is greeted - this year, as every year - with a discussion over whether the Japanese show is still relevant to the industry. For most people, this is a bit of a hypothetical dialogue - more of a proxy debate for the question of Japan's relevance to the modern games industry than a real discussion about TGS itself. For some, it's a bit more pressing, not least because it's bloody expensive to send staff from the USA or Europe to TGS either to run a stand, to hold meetings or to cover the event.
In either case, though, it's not a new debate. Anyone posing the question "is TGS still relevant?" ought to remind themselves that it's a question which has been posed for the best part of two decades. It's been the topic of op-ed column every September, regular as clockwork, since the mid-nineties, and the balance of the discussion has shifted significantly against TGS (and Japan in general) since the Xbox 360 rose to prominence and the JRPG, once a benchmark genre for console gaming, fell from grace with the main body of the press at the end of the PS2 era.
The fact that it's an old discussion, though, doesn't mean that it's not a relevant one - or that the answer has stayed the same for all these years. In fact, on the surface, it's not hard to see the TGS detractors' point. Looking at this year's event, one could argue with some conviction that had Sony announced the PS3 super-slim back at GamesCom as we all anticipated, there would have been almost nothing whatsoever of any consequence at the show for the average western gamer.
While that statement is absolutely true, there are a couple of problems with it. Firstly, there's the assumption that TGS is trying to be an Eastern version of E3, replete with huge platform and title announcements. The reality is that TGS is more of a consumer show than anything else, with a few keynotes preceding it for good measure; it's more comparable to something like GamesCom or PAX than it is to a dedicated trade event like E3. One could argue, then, that the show's detractors are being disappointed by its failure to provide something it never aimed to provide in the first place.
"One could argue that the show's detractors are being disappointed by its failure to provide something it never aimed to provide in the first place"
The second problem, to my mind, is with the idea of the "average western gamer". I have no idea who that is any more, and nor do you, but I'd hope that both of us recognise that it's probably not anyone who resembles either of us very much. We are, thankfully, getting past the point where everyone who works in games assumes that the audience for games is made up of people much like themselves; yet while that's a more mature and intelligent attitude to take, it does also rob us of a lot of certainty around phrases like "the average gamer", which suddenly lose all meaning.
In fact, as the industry grows and expands, we're increasingly forced to acknowledge the sheer breadth of tastes and interests among its audience. That forces another uncomfortable realisation - that there's no such thing as "average", or even as "mainstream". There are successful products and unsuccessful products, and a wide spectrum in between; there are games which successfully ignite the passions of one niche market and become cult hits, and games which are very competent jacks-of-all-trades and become breakout commercial successes by tapping into a host of different niches.
Moreover, there's a huge geographic difference in tastes and interests - a pronounced one between Japan and the West, but also a significant (and often under-estimated) one between the USA and the Europe, and even between the UK and Continental Europe. Yet even this difference is not absolute; it pushes the lines around on the chart, but doesn't change it completely. There are gamers in New York who share more tastes with compatriots in Osaka than they do with other gamers in the next block over, and gamers in Berlin whose interests have more in common with someone in Los Angeles than they do with someone in Munich.
We know that, innately, but for many years it's been easier (it's still easier, in fact) to say "oh, that won't work in the European market" or "that'll never sell in Japan", rather than looking for ways to structure a business (be it press or publishing) around the incredible complexity and diversity of tastes in every major world market. Hence, even though any of us can probably think of western friends who are terribly excited about things announced or showcased at TGS (Monster Hunter, Phoenix Wright, Yakuza, Soul Sacrifice, etc, etc), there's a tendency to assume that they're not representative of any important market or sector. Equally, especially since the failure of the Xbox and the 360 in Japan, there's a tendency to pigeonhole all Japanese gamers as disinterested in what the west produces.
"There's no reason to leave behind potential customers anywhere in the world just because their local market isn't quite at critical mass for you"
In other words, when people dismiss TGS as irrelevant, they're not necessarily dismissing the Japanese market - everyone knows it's huge - what they're actually implying is that the market differences between Japan and the West make their products irrelevant to us and our products irrelevant to them. And once upon a time, that argument was, unfortunately, quite correct. The cost of launching a Japanese game in the west, or vice versa - of which translation is only the first and often the smallest element - meant that you needed to have incredible confidence in its market appeal to be willing to take the plunge.
Yet today, such a viewpoint seems to run counter to the way the industry is developing. We talk constantly about how the barriers to market access are coming down; about how creators and developers can simply make games and present them to consumers, without having to ask permission along the way. We know that digital distribution, whether it's Steam, an App Store, or even the consoles' rather more walled-off gardens, is making it easier and cheaper than ever simply to put a product on the market and see how it does. The same technology is breaking down geographic barriers along the way. If you do digital distribution right, there's no reason why the guy in the New York and the guy in Osaka can't be playing the same game and paying you the same money; there's no reason to leave behind potential customers anywhere in the world just because their local market isn't quite at critical mass for you.
Does this make TGS "relevant"? Perhaps not in the way many of us would like - the harsh reality for the press, for example, is that you still need to weigh up the interest TGS coverage will generate against the costs of sending people there, and that's not an equation that's always going to work out favourably. It does, however, point to how a digital, globalised games industry will look - one in which the question "is it relevant?" will be answered, quite rightly, with the question "relevant to whom?" In TGS' case, it's relevant to its local market, of course (and as such, the show has a bright future domestically), and it will increasingly become a show that's laying out Japan's wares to a market distributed around the world as well. Expect the same to be true of many regional shows in the coming years. The much sought-after TGS junket may yet become a thing of the past - but the show itself, like GamesCom and others like it, will be selling more software than ever to more people than ever. I'd call that "relevant".