Big In Japan
Sony has much to prove at TGS - but Microsoft will be closely watched, too
The Tokyo Games Show is, arguably, one of the videogame industry's most unusual fixtures. The innate peculiarity of the Japanese market as seen by western eyes aside, the mere timing of the event makes it distinctly odd.
By the time TGS rolls around, in late September or early October, the release schedule for Christmas has already been firmly locked into place in the USA and Europe. By and large, E3 is the show where we find out what'll appear in October and November. Europe's Game Convention is where the schedule is tweaked and polished. TGS makes a running leap off the end of the pier and misses the boat entirely.
There are a couple of key reasons for this. Firstly, the Japanese market itself isn't remotely as Christmas-focused as the rest of the world. The New Year celebrations do help to get the Yen pouring into the tills, but the country's really big spending (on interactive entertainment, at least) is reserved for Golden Week - a series of national holidays at the beginning of May. As such, TGS is a good opportunity to show the domestic market what's upcoming for that key period.
Secondly, there's the simple fact that TGS is a consumer show. Given the heavy focus on keynotes and new unveilings in western press coverage of the event, it's easy to forget that the show's raison d'etre is showing off upcoming games to consumers. Admittedly, once you've made the error of being stuck in the immense crowds who descend on Makuhari Messe for the consumer days of the show, this knowledge is liable to be permanently stamped on your memory.
From a local perspective, then, TGS makes perfect sense. Looking at it internationally, however, it's obviously tough for games companies and media alike to know how to treat the event. Unlike other regional shows, TGS is unquestionably a global event for the industry (look at South Korea's intriguing but distinctly parochial G-Star show by comparison). This is partially because Japanese games continue to hold both fascination and commercial value for the global market, but also because TGS has become another front in the ongoing console battle.
In recent years, the event has seen a rising tide both of western media, and of western publishers and game titles. Microsoft's entry into the console market - and its renewed assault on Japanese hearts, minds and wallets with the Xbox 360 - is largely the root cause of this. Combined with the prominence of European-developed titles in Sony's line-up, it's led to the unusual situation where journalists from Europe and the United States travel to Japan in order to see games developed in their home countries, often presented by executives from their home countries.
More often than not, these games aren't even that relevant to the Japanese market - and are greeted distinctly coldly by the Japanese media and consumers in attendance. Companies bringing titles to TGS also walk a tightrope - do they show off titles due to launch after Christmas, and risk being buried in the rush of new games in October? Or do they show off their Christmas line-up, and risk the media wondering why on earth they're looking at the same games they saw last month, but eight time zones from home?
The oddly ill-defined nature of TGS is hugely relevant to how this year's show will play out. Watched closely by "hardcore" gamers (an unpleasant term I'm going to have to continue using until someone coins a better one), there is one main thing they're looking for.
This week, once again, Sony is on trial. Whatever the firm's views on TGS and its relevance to the western market may be, the company simply can't afford a weak showing in Tokyo. TGS is home turf for Sony's Japanese studios and partners, and it's from those studios that gamers are expecting to see growing evidence of the PlayStation 3's relevance as a gaming platform.
It's been becoming increasingly obvious over the past year that whatever about Nintendo fans who feel deserted by the company's strategy with the Wii, there is also a growing band of Sony consumers who feel that the PS3 simply isn't the platform for them any more. In conversations in recent months, I've heard the same sentiment expressed over and over again - that the PS3 seems to be engaged in a "race to the bottom" with the Xbox 360, pumping out action games and racing games rather than building the strong, diverse catalogue which made the PlayStation 2 appealing to such a wide audience.
Much of that diversity came from Sony's Japanese studios, strongly augmented by contributions (especially in the social gaming space) from Europe. Yet in this generation thus far, Sony's console has failed to even deliver on key genres which were the PS2's core strength, like J-RPGs - let alone creating a broad church of games that brought in minorities and niches from all around the population, from the colourful lunacy of Keita Takahashi's Katamari Damacy to the solemn majesty of Fumito Ueda's Shadow of the Colossus. Individually, games like those didn't sell many PlayStations. Taken as a whole, the vast collection of niche interests and unusual tastes catered to by the PS2 secured its place as the most popular console in the history of the business.
Nobody expects Sony to break out a whole range of software this week and finally reclaim that strange, diverse market it has tapped for the past decade - served by a myriad of titles, none of them blockbuster hits but every one of them dearly loved by its own faithful. What's being sought, however, is an inkling that they might be on the way; that the PS3, like the PS2 and the PlayStation before it, might be the right place to look for creativity and entertainment that's a bit off the beaten track.
LittleBigPlanet is an excellent start, sterling proof that Sony understands a world beyond guns and tyres. If TGS can deliver even a handful of games that have the potential to captivate even a handful of players apiece, stuffed somewhere into the cracks between the inevitable soi-disant AAA titles, it will offer a solid ray of hope for the PS3 to continue building a strong market in 2009.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is also on trial - but this is a far less crucial trial. In fact, it's really just curiosity on the part of the media and gamers alike. After weeks of resurgent Xbox 360 sales in Japan, people want to know if Microsoft really can succeed in a country which has traditionally been utterly nonplussed about the Xbox and its successor.
Despite some deeply uninformed conventional wisdom that's passed around the industry in recent years, Japan isn't inherently resistant to American- or European-developed electronics or entertainment products. Just ask Apple, whose iPods have done great business in Japan just as they have everywhere else, and whose iPhone is making an unexpectedly significant dent in the "closed shop" of the Japanese mobile phone business.
The problem with the Xbox and the 360 was that they just didn't appeal to Japanese consumers. The industrial design seemed ugly (a problem for Europeans too, it should be noted), the game line-up was heavily tailored for American tastes, and previous forays into Japanese developer relationships were fleeting enough to leave consumers worried that they could buy an Xbox for one or two games, and then watch it gather dust.
Now, however, there's evidence that a corner could have been turned - a vital tipping point where consumers see enough software and enough evidence of future software development to be willing to invest in the console hardware. Barriers remain, of course. The Xbox 360 is still (arguably) ugly and (provably) noisy as hell, factors which don't go down terribly well with those who live in homes with small living spaces - a problem, it's worth pointing out again, which applies in Europe too.
That won't be solved at TGS - but what we will get to see is whether Japanese consumers are really taking an interest in what Microsoft is doing. The calibre of locally developed software on display, and the size of the queues for the Xbox 360 displays on the show floor, will give industry analysts plenty to think about. As Sony struggles to convince the broad market it won with PS2 that PS3 is really the right upgrade for them, Microsoft could finally be about to become Big In Japan - and for once, that won't involve a photoshop of a giant Xbox looming over Mount Fuji.