Tokyo Game Show 2013: Quiet on the Eastern Front
Japan's games market is in fine health, but Makuhari Messe has never seemed so empty. What's gone wrong?
The Tokyo Game Show has never been the largest event on the industry's calendar - an odd and often uncomfortable marriage between utterly provincial consumer show for the insular Japanese market and ambitious international showcase for world-beating Japanese development studios, it has ebbed and flowed over the years in both size and prominence. This year, though, TGS was tiny. Stretched thin over the cavernous halls of the Makuhari Messe which it still - somewhat inexplicably - inhabits, the show is a shadow of its former self.
Tokyo Game Show occupies three hangar-sized halls in Makuhari, a gigantic if awkwardly located convention centre whose claim to be in "Tokyo" is distinctly dubious (imagine a London Games Show held in Reading, or a New York Games Show in New Jersey, by way of comparison). This year, only two of those halls actually has games on display - booths have finally retreated entirely from the half-empty third hall, which is given over to fast food stalls and a handful of merchandise stores.
The other two halls are spread thin. At least half of each is filled with surprisingly large stalls for local design colleges or regional development agencies from places like Taiwan and Singapore (whose presence is perfectly welcome, but whose large booths suggest deep discounting). Between the booths of large publishers, enormous walkway areas loom, which makes moving around very easy but also makes it very clear that booths have been moved apart in order to give the illusion of filling both halls.
"TGS has often attracted criticism, both fair and unfair, for failing to be relevant to the international market, but never has it seemed to face a genuinely existential crisis to quite this extent"
In short, TGS is in decline. In parts, its atmosphere isn't dissimilar to the latter days of ECTS, London's long-running and ultimately ill-fated trade show, whose demise left the UK without a major games event for the best part of a decade. I'm not remotely convinced that TGS is going to go the same direction - the enormous crowds of consumers who will doubtless turn up over the weekend for the public days of the event pretty much ensure that it has a commercial future - but the fact that the latter-days-of-ECTS comparison even springs to mind is concerning. TGS has often attracted criticism, both fair and unfair, for failing to be relevant to the international market, but never has it seemed to face a genuinely existential crisis to quite this extent.
It will be tempting for many writers to use this decline to sketch a broader narrative of decline in the Japanese games market, but that's a completely false conclusion to draw. Japan's games market is in rude health - some sectors, such as the once-beloved arcades, are unquestionably in decline, but the markets for handheld software, mobile games and breakout titles like Monster Hunter are soaring. As in the west, some of the growth is hidden - retail sales have dropped and hard data on digital sales is scant, which leads to lazily negative interpretations, but the broader context pretty clearly indicates that the market overall is in fine fettle.
Actually, TGS 2013's woes aren't Japan-specific at all - they're exactly the same "woes" which afflict the games business around the world, but which have arguably progressed more quickly in Japan than elsewhere. In that sense, TGS gives us a preview of where we're all likely to be in years to come - or perhaps a warning of how things may turn out unless some parts of our industry take different paths to the Japanese business.
Look specifically at the booths which are present at TGS this year. Nintendo is as ever conspicuous by its absence, having abandoned the show many years ago, but both Sony and Microsoft continue to have large, impressive booths. Namco Bandai, Square Enix, Capcom and Sega have reasonably large publisher spaces, as does EA - although Capcom, absent of a major Monster Hunter title to promote at this year's event, has scaled back somewhat, while Level 5 skipped the show entirely, likely simply because it doesn't have a huge game to promote in the near future. In short, if we're talking about the AAA end of the market, the gang's all here (though Konami has shoved its booth over in the Family section, which is inexplicably hived away in a distant hall, a move that contributes further to TGS' quietness this year).
"Nintendo is as ever conspicuous by its absence, having abandoned the show many years ago, but both Sony and Microsoft continue to have large, impressive booths"
These heavy hitters are joined by World of Tanks creator Wargaming, Puzzle and Dragons creator GungHo and mobile giant GREE, whose booth was second in size only to Sony's. The "new" games market is trying to engage with TGS and its audience, then, but the audience doesn't seem to care terribly - these huge booths were extremely quiet compared to their neighbours. There's a definite disconnect between the games people are playing and the games which people who come to shows like TGS actually care about - an inevitable and not necessarily problematic disconnect that's simply a result of demographic expansion into audiences who may be deeply engaged in terms of time and money, but still have no desire to call themselves "gamer" or attend a geeky gaming show.
What's missing from this list is the entire swathe of territory that used to lie between high-budget AAA games with multi-million-dollar marketing budgets, and F2P mobile and casual titles. The single-A or triple-B games; the mid-range titles which were developed at reasonable cost and released to take advantage of a thriving niche, or to take a low-budget punt at stardom. This used to be the bread and butter of the games industry, where half a dozen enormous "tentpole" releases each year were filled in by dozens upon dozens of low-budget games - many of them terrible, but many others absolutely beloved within the niche they targeted, or even capable of break-out success as a cult hit.
Almost all of those games are gone. Even on the big publisher booths, the number of games on display has dwindled - most of the publishers are only seriously showcasing three or four games this year. Release slates have been pared down to the games which seem like guaranteed hits - AAA games which will be promoted to the hilt and supported with enormous marketing budgets. Only Sony's stand promised any hidden gems, thanks to the company's seeming willingness to cast the net wide for its publishing agreements and indie developer outreach. Every other stand at TGS this year is a sparse microcosm of the show itself; ultra high budget games only need apply. The financial risk on display is breathtaking, but the creative risk is negligible.
"Only Sony's stand promised any hidden gems, thanks to the company's seeming willingness to cast the net wide for its publishing agreements and indie developer outreach"
Again, this is not a story about Japan - it's a story about games as a whole, and this chapter just happens to take place in Tokyo (well, a bloody long train ride outside Tokyo, but who's counting). The polarisation of the industry is underway around the world. At one end are the games developed on a shoestring - indie games, mobile games, PC games clamouring for attention through Steam Greenlight, the slow motion rush of developers doing cool things on Nintendo eShop or PSN. At the other end lie the games whose budget is in the hundreds of millions, once you combine marketing. The space in the middle is a wilderness full of tumbleweed, despair and failing development studios that simply never managed to make the leap from "A" to "AAA". It's that howling nothingness that you can feel when you walk around TGS this year. The big games got too big for very many of them to exist; the small games aren't big enough to warrant expensive booths and girls paid to pose for creepshots in skimpy outfits with pasted-on smiles. What that means for a show like TGS is hard to predict, but unless the show's format can change radically to match the huge change in the kind of games being made right now, it's hard to find much cause for optimism.