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Japan's console market: Lost in Transition?

The shift to mobile continued in 2015 - but there's plenty of life in the console market yet, especially if you happen to be Nintendo

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of year-end content to be published daily leading up to Christmas that includes analysis, opinion and insights into the biggest news and trends of 2015.

It's been a hectic and occasionally bizarre year in the gaming market. As the dust settles, it's also reasonably certain that it's been yet another year of growth for a corner of the industry that, despite regular proclamations of doom from various commentators, has actually been growing strongly for most of the past decade. The overall market for games in Japan is on track to have doubled in size between 2005 and 2015, and the country still accounts for something like one fifth of the global spend on games - with the Japanese market somewhere slightly north of $10 billion being a sizeable chunk of the global market, which is somewhere in the mid-$50 billions range (source: Kadokawa/Famitsu).

"Japan's games market has doubled in size in ten years" is a fantastic headline, but it disguises a great deal of complexity in those figures. There's actually some truth to what the doom-mongers claim; sales of video game hardware and software have been on a slow decline since 2007, and despite the reasonable success of the PS4 (which recently topped two million units sold in Japan), all the figures for the year to date suggest that 2015 saw revenues from these "traditional" game sectors drop again. Making up the difference, and then some, is revenue from mobile games and from online game services - with mobile now being by far the biggest revenue sector for games in Japan. In fact, mobile in 2015 is worth more than console gaming has ever been worth here, even at the peak of its popularity.

"Mobile in 2015 is worth more than console gaming has ever been worth here, even at the peak of its popularity"

That transition explains the two biggest news stories to come out of Japan in 2015 - the shift towards mobile of two of Japan's biggest traditional publishers, Konami and Nintendo. The impetus for these companies turning their attention to mobile gaming may be the same; the way it's been handled could not be more different. Nintendo struck a deal with one of Japan's more established mobile publishers, DeNA, which will see it extending its console network services to mobile platforms ahead of launching five mobile games, at least some of which will be free-to-play - a relatively cautious toe in the water that's clearly aimed at trying to cultivate mobile as a new pillar of its business rather than abandoning the console space entirely for a mobile-first approach. Despite the failure of the Wii U (which didn't do too badly in 2015 in Japan, thanks to Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, but still ranks as the firm's worst-selling home console), Nintendo isn't prepared to upturn its entire business and creative approach in order to jump onto mobile - not least, I'd imagine, because it knows that success in mobile is elusive and risky.

Konami, on the other hand, has jumped onto the mobile bandwagon with the prowess of an Olympic high-jumper and the grace of a relapsed alcoholic. Following a few notable successes in the mobile space in Japan, the publisher decided to double down on mobile - and reportedly exiled staff with lingering affection for the company's long history as a leading console publisher to jobs as janitors or service staff in its large network of gyms and fitness centres. That didn't stop Konami from having one of the biggest hits of the year in the form of Hideo Kojima's swansong, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, but Kojima's planned collaboration with acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro on a relaunch of the Silent Hill franchise was an early casualty of Konami's transition, while Kojima himself left the company shortly after MGS5's launch. Or rather, according to Konami's hapless PR staff - channeling the spirit of Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, and unmoved by actual photographs of his leaving party published by New Yorker writer Simon Parkin in support of his story on the departure - he took a holiday. A few days after he went on "holiday", Konami confirmed the closure of Kojima Studios' US office. Kojima, wags on Twitter were quick to observe, will undoubtedly be very annoyed by this when he gets back from his "holiday".

Konami's heavy-handed transition towards mobile is perhaps the most egregious example of badly-handled corporate communications and PR in 2015, but that's because of a series of spectacular goofs on Konami's part, not because the company's actions are outside the general trend of the Japanese industry. Every other publisher in Japan is bullish on mobile, and many are pushing increasingly large amounts of resources into the sector; incidentally, while Square Enix' Final Fantasy XV failed to appear this year on consoles, the Yoshinori Kitase produced Mobius Final Fantasy, a sprawling RPG with a complex plot and battle system, turned up bright and early on mobile devices in June. All of the traditional publishers are looking jealously (and not a little nervously) at the massive success of mobile upstarts; Mixi's Monster Strike overtook GungHo's Puzzle & Dragons as Japan's (and the world's) biggest grossing mobile game in the middle of this year, and is reportedly making a cool $4 million every single day right now. At the Tokyo Game Show in September, the largest and most obviously expensive booth wasn't Sony's (admittedly impressive) PlayStation extravaganza - it was the booth for Cygames' mobile RPG title GranBlue Fantasy, which sported a full-size fantasy airship floating above the booth, just because they bloody well can.

"[Nintendo is] still very much the dominant game company in Japan... although the PS4 outsells the Wii U on a week-to-week basis, Nintendo's worst-selling home console still has a larger installed base than Sony's juggernaut here"

All the excitement about mobile does somewhat drive home the fact that the traditional console market in Japan is in a slow decline, but that's not to say that consoles aren't still big business here - especially if your name happens to be Nintendo. It's sometimes a little difficult, sitting in Tokyo, to appreciate the extent to which Nintendo's fortunes are considered troubled elsewhere in the world, because while the firm has never quite recaptured the magic of the peak days of the Wii and DS, it's still very much the dominant game company in Japan. Almost every best-selling game in Japan is a 3DS title, and the full-year top ten will almost certainly feature eight or nine 3DS games. As for home consoles, although the PS4 outsells the Wii U on a week-to-week basis, Nintendo's worst-selling home console still has a larger installed base than Sony's juggernaut here - which probably explains why Wii U exclusive Splatoon has sold better than any PS4 game in Japan this year.

One of the major things that still supports the console industry in Japan - and which may explain, to some degree, Nintendo's dominance of that industry - is the enormous popularity of franchises aimed at children, like Yo-kai Watch. Perhaps due to concerns over online content or a simple question of cost, it's still far more common to see young children sporting 3DS consoles than it is to see them with smartphones, and that's played perfectly into the hands of Level 5's enormous franchise, whose latest instalment, Yo-kai Watch Busters, is set to be the top-selling game of 2015 in Japan (and last year's chart-topper Yo-kai Watch 2 Shinuchi sold enough additional copies this year to keep it firmly in the top ten, too). This isn't to say that adults aren't playing lots of games too; there's still a huge market for nostalgia in Japan that's being tapped effectively by the likes of the Dragon Quest franchise, while at the time of writing, the number two game in the annual best-selling chart is Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, which I'm going to go out on a limb and say probably isn't the latest craze among 12-year-old boys.

Coming back briefly to nostalgia, it's truly hard to overestimate just what a powerful factor this is in the Japanese videogame market. Online RPGs have made big inroads in Japan in recent years, but the two most popular games in the market are both nostalgia-fests - Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is laden with homages and references to the series' past, more commonly dipping into the NES and SNES eras than the PlayStation era with which western gamers might be more familiar, while Dragon Quest X is even more heavily shrouded in the trappings of its venerable franchise. Even on the mobile front, it's hard to escape the nostalgia - games like Puzzle & Dragons boost their sales markedly when they do collaborations with other games or manga series which are often two or three decades old, while the likes of GranBlue Fantasy or Final Fantasy Record Keeper constantly hark back to the conventions and style of RPGs from the early 1990s.

For many years, there has been a fear that this focus on nostalgia effectively amounts to continuing to milk the same population of gamers - people now in their late thirties and forties - and failing to cultivate new audiences for games. Perhaps there was some truth to that; perhaps it explains, to some degree, why so many younger gamers seem to have adopted smartphones as their gaming platform of choice. Another factor is undoubtedly the extent to which handheld devices dominate Japan's gaming market, making the transition to smartphones far less jarring than it would be in a market where home consoles take the lion's share. Despite being past its peak, the 3DS is Japan's biggest selling console again this year, and will comfortably exceed a 20 million unit installed base by the end of the year; the PS Vita, practically dead in the water overseas, has sold only a fraction less than the PS4, and is closing in on a 4.5 million unit installed base, which goes some way to explaining its continuing popularity among Japanese publishers and developers. If you're making a Japan-focused title, your addressable market on Vita is more than twice the size of the PS4 market, after all.

Looking forward to 2016 in the console market, a betting man would probably wager that the momentum of the PS4 will carry it past the 3DS in the sales charts next year, putting Sony back on top of the pile in its home market for the first time in many, many years. It's the top of a shrinking pile, though; absent a huge launch for Nintendo's as-yet mysterious NX device, sales of both console hardware and software will likely continue to decline, albeit slowly, over the coming 12 months. Even if PS4 does beat 3DS in hardware sales next year, it'll still lag behind in software sales; this year, while their hardware numbers weren't terribly far apart, the 3DS has sold three games for every one sold on the PS4, according to Media Create's numbers and a few rough calculations on the back of a napkin.

"The other story of 2016, I suspect, will be what becomes of Japan's remarkable line-up of game creators as the landscape of the domestic market increasingly shifts towards mobile"

The really interesting thing to look for in Japan in 2016, though, will be whether the country's enormously successful mobile market players can find ways to replicate that success overseas. It's possible - likely, I'd argue - that the factors which make Japan's market so large and profitable are very specific to the region, and the experience and skill of local game operators here doesn't translate well abroad; but then again, Japan has a remarkable history of selling videogames abroad, and it would be foolish to entirely write off the potential of its mobile titles in other markets.

The other story of 2016, I suspect, will be what becomes of Japan's remarkable line-up of game creators as the landscape of the domestic market increasingly shifts towards mobile. Some of them have pinned their colours to the mast already - most of Square Enix' well-known creators seem pretty much at home on mobile, for example - but lots of others remain status unknown, either making a racket on their way out the door (e.g. Kojima's lovely holiday) or simply finishing up projects and quietly slipping from sight. Some have resurfaced at the helm of Kickstarter projects aimed at reclaiming their glory days, some have founded studios (as Kojima finally was confirmed to have done) and it will be extremely interesting to see where others wind up over the coming year. Japan still teems with development talent, and many of those developers are far better suited to console game creation than the brave new world of mobile; which companies become the beneficiaries of that talent in the fallout from the mobile transition will be worth keeping an eye on.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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