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Mobile gaming shines at TGS

Is Japan's top videogames show a glimpse of the future for the mobile games industry?

When it comes to mobile content, Japan Is Different. It's a mantra that you'll hear from almost any company that's tried to do business out there, attracted by a huge and thriving mobile content market which is arguably many years more advanced than ours in terms of consumer habits. Japan Is Different, and Japan Is Difficult; a lesson which even the mighty Vodafone learned the hard way after its operation out there (acquired after the firm bought the J-Phone network several years ago) ran into trouble following an attempt to standardise handsets across all of Vodafone's global territories turned Japanese consumers away from the service.

When it comes to mobile gaming, Japan is certainly Different. Where a few years ago, nearly every commuter below the age of 30 in Tokyo spent their entire journey writing emails on their phones, now a healthy proportion of them can be spotted playing mobile games. Most of these are variations on classic board games like Go and Chess, simple card games and the occasional dialogue choice driven adventure title, a genre much beloved in the Far East. The mobile casual games market there is thriving to an extent that would make companies working in Europe and North America green with envy.

However, there's another side to mobile gaming in Japan - an exceptionally large range of games which are aimed at console gamers and hardcore gamers, and which receive a level of marketing spend which would be almost unimaginable for mobile games here in the west.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Tokyo Games Show, a three-day consumer event held each September at the giant Makuhari Messe conference centre outside Tokyo. Over 70,000 consumers visit the show on each of its two public days, and within its cavernous halls, the biggest players of the console world face off against each other with expensive stands, giant screens and booming audio systems.

Yet standing shoulder to shoulder with Microsoft's glowing green Xbox 360 stand, Sony's silver and black PlayStation 3 cinema, Sega's enormous screen and taiko drummer display and the cream of the rest of Japan's publishing industry in all their finery was a gigantic stand from NTT DoCoMo, the country's largest mobile network operator. Far from being drowned out by the loud voices of the console publishers and platform holders, DoCoMo's stand is swamped all weekend. It's the clearest signal yet of the sea change in attitudes to mobile gaming in Japan; the mobile phone is now as much a games platform as any console.

Some of the titles that have changed attitudes in this way are apparent at the stand, and there's no question that the key powerhouse driving mobile gaming into the mindspace of hardcore Japanese gamers is Square Enix. The company's Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis was by far the most popular game on DoCoMo's stand, with major crowds gathering to see previews of new content being added to the title, which is now coming up the first anniversary of its launch but continues to be heavily promoted, and has retained a large proportion of its fanbase thanks to regular content updates and continuations of its story.

Other Square Enix titles dominated the proceedings; like many companies, the company is busily porting its back catalogue of games to mobile handsets, and the impending launch of Dragon Quest titles on mobile phones is likely to be another major boost for the sector in the Japan, if the level of interest at TGS is anything to judge from. The importance of the mobile sector to the company was also demonstrated by the manner in which it showed off its new franchise, Code Age - with mobile title Code Age Brawls taking pride of place with equal billing alongside the PS2 title, Code Age Commanders.

Square Enix is far from the only company committed to the hardcore mobile games sector in the Far East, however. On nearly every publisher's stand in the TGS halls, mobile content took its place alongside console and handheld titles. Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis may have opened the floodgates, but nearly every genre of console gaming was represented, not just RPGs. Action titles are also surprisingly common - although even the advanced handsets used by Japanese consumers still present challenges to the widespread adoption of "twitch" games.

The question, of course, is how much of this incredible boom in mobile gaming in Japan can be translated back into western markets. Here, hardcore games have made remarkably little ground, with casual gaming being the order of the day on mobile handsets - and while it's tempting to believe that Japan could represent the future of the western markets, it's important to remember that Japan Is Different. The ability of mobile content to rub shoulders at an equal level with console games at the world's most important games consumer show is most certainly heartening - but whether it really means anything to markets outside the Far East is a topic for some debate.

Rob Fahey is the editor of

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