Strong show for Sony, but mobile rules at TGS 2015
Tokyo Games Show is bigger than ever, but a conservative showing from publishers and the absence of Microsoft leaves it feeling a little hollow
This year's Tokyo Games Show is the largest that the event has been for many years. The main show floor has been extended into a third of Makuhari Messe's huge hall spaces, occupied in previous years by food concessions and merchandise stalls, which have now been shoved off into a separate area entirely. Now sprawled out over three full halls, with a fourth given over largely to a public event stage, the scale of TGS this year feels like a statement of intent; the international relevance of the show may be in decline, but as a consumer show for local audiences, it's in rude health, as the weekend's attendance figures will no doubt confirm (as long as the unseasonably miserable weather doesn't lead everyone to stay home and play video games instead).
Yet for all the sale of TGS 2015, it feels oddly empty. Perhaps it's the slightly peculiar decisions in booth placement, which mean that rather than having publishing giants with enormous, world-class games facing each other across the broad isles, they're scattered out in a sea of smaller booths. Only the central hall, where Sony's huge stand lines up next to Sega's bombastic display and Cygames' frankly jaw-dropping GranBlue Fantasy booth (complete with damned near life-sized airship), still has that sense of seeing the giants of gaming go head to head. This is almost certainly a decent decision from a crowd control perspective; it's just a shame to lose a little of the spectacle.
"...there's nothing with which to contrast the Sony booth any more; it's just great in isolation. There's no contest, nothing to "win." It's a victory by default."
Contributing greatly to the sense of emptiness is the hole left by Microsoft's decision not to attend TGS for only the second time since the launch of the Xbox (the company also sat out the 2012 show). However troubled Microsoft's consoles have been in Japan, they've generally made a strong fist of TGS, as much for the international media as for the sake of the local market; sitting out in 2012 resulted in headlines about "giving up" on Japan, and the company returned with a major presence in 2013. Their absence this year is felt strongly; it changes the atmosphere of the show greatly. Nintendo has been a TGS refusenik for many years, meaning that Sony is the only platform holder at the show - and unlike 2012, when third-party publishers still showed off Xbox 360 and Wii U titles, this year there's nobody to hold the flag for any home platform other than PS4.
The Sony booth is great; it's loaded down with a healthy selection of games, sandwiching lots of big titles that are genuinely coming soon and playable on the show floor in between the two rather more speculative bookends of PlayStation VR and The Last Guardian (the E3 footage of which is on loop, leading to some uncomfortable cogitation about just how far down the development path this long-delayed game actually is). However, there's nothing with which to contrast the Sony booth any more; it's just great in isolation. There's no contest, nothing to "win." It's a victory by default.
It's not that Microsoft's absence isn't understandable; the company's position in the Japanese market feels even more hopeless now than it was in the Xbox 360 era, when the sheer triumph of the 360 overseas gave it a certain cachet among Japanese gamers with Western tastes (yes, plenty of those exist), not to mention reflected media glory even when local sales were weak. Xbox One is by no means selling badly, but its total eclipse by PlayStation 4 makes it an almost total irrelevance in the Japanese market. There's no point in Microsoft attending TGS to woo Japanese consumers, then, and with TGS itself increasingly local in focus - and attended, I suspect, by a dwindling band of international media, who were far less evident on the show floor today than in previous years - there's not even much point in attending for the sake of international image. As with the arrangement of the publishers being reasonable for the sake of crowd control, one can't fault Microsoft's logic, merely lament its outcome.
A final reason for the sense that TGS, though expanded in scale, is nevertheless diminished, lies in the sheer fragmentation of the show. Last year, I wrote that mobile dominated TGS 2014; I realise now that I used the word "domination" rather too early, and have left myself without a useful further superlative for which to reach this year. This year, mobile - and to a lesser but still significant and growing extent, PC F2P - is unquestionably the core focus of TGS. The GranBlue Fantasy booth I mentioned above? That's the joint-largest booth in the show, a booth for a single game which is the same size as the entire booth occupied by Sony for the PlayStation; it's for a mobile F2P RPG, which has also taken almost every inch of advertising space at the train station for the show, Kaihin Makuhari, not to mention every other prime-time TV advertising slot for the past few months. At the other end of the hall, Supercell has a stand for Clash of Clans which is as big as Electronic Arts' mammoth Star Wars Battlefront display a few paces away, while Wargaming have devoted a space as large as any of the publishers to World of Tanks and World of Warships - and in case anyone didn't get the message, they've also parked an actual tank in front of the exhibition hall. That's even before we get to the likes of mobile stalwarts GREE and DeNA, each of whom have major stands, as does social game operator DMM; on top of which, there's a mobile and social game area housing several dozen stands and occupying about the space of four or five major publisher booths combined.
"Almost every single major console title at the show is an extension of a well-known franchise, and a very tame, uncontroversial extension at that."
By contrast, no single console game enjoys remotely the level of promotion afforded to GranBlue Fantasy, Clash of Clans or World of Tanks - with the exception, oddly, of the already released Metal Gear Solid 5, which occupies a solid three-quarters of Konami's booth, the remainder being almost entirely given over to Winning Eleven and Power Pro Baseball (primarily to pushing mobile offshoots of both franchises). Even Capcom's enormous Monster Hunter X presence is dwarfed by the push being given to the biggest mobile titles - yet this show isn't even remotely a who's-who of Japan's top mobile games, with many of the top-grossing titles in the country, including Monster Strike and venerable chart-topper Puzzle & Dragons, putting in no appearance.
That Japan is an increasingly mobile gaming focused market isn't exactly breaking news, though the level of penetration of mobile titles into the mid-core and even hardcore markets - as demonstrated by their presence at an event like TGS - is still eye-opening for many people used to Western markets. What's perhaps more interesting is what the show tells us about the console side of things. After a year in which Konami seemingly gleefully set fire to bridges behind it as it lumbered out of the console space, more or less, console consumers don't need to be traumatised any more by developments in Japan - so it's worth nothing that it is, I think, highly unlikely that any other publishers will be following suit very soon.
All the same, publishers are very clearly following quite a similar thought process in how they approach console development at the moment. Almost every single major console title at the show is an extension of a well-known franchise, and a very tame, uncontroversial extension at that. Sega's making a new Yakuza game and putting Phantasy Star Online 2 on PS4; Atlus is making Persona 5; Koei Tecmo and Namco Bandai are working almost exclusively on tie-ins to successful anime series like Attack on Titan, Gundam, Naruto and so on. Square Enix showed Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Star Ocean; Capcom showed Monster Hunter, Street Fighter, Phoenix Wright, and Resident Evil. As close to "innovation" as you were likely to find on publisher booths was some pretty blatant cloning of game designs from elsewhere dressed up in the clothing of big Japanese franchises; Counter-Strike wearing the clothes of Resident Evil; Minecraft all done up to look like Dragon Quest (this one was particularly shameless, and it was hard not to wonder how veteran designer Yuji Horii, out on stage to introduce the title, felt about talking up design features so clearly lifted wholesale from someone else's game).
"Wii U, for instance, is clearly now a busted flush among third-party publishers even in Japan..."
That incredibly cautious, paint-by-the-numbers approach doesn't mean that some, indeed many, of these games won't be fun, satisfying and enjoyable - it just means they won't really be anything new. It's for precisely this reason that the Sony booth is head and shoulders above everything else at TGS; Sony, as a platform holder, isn't playing careful risk-management in an attempt to balance a portfolio of mobile F2P and console premium titles, it's going all-out on trying to get the best, most interesting games onto its platform. With publishers (in Japan, at least) not terribly willing to play ball with the need for innovation to drive console sales, it's clear that an increasingly high weight of expectation is going to be placed on the shoulders of Sony's internal studios and their "second-party" development partners.
What else can we take away from this year's TGS? Snippets, here and there, that give a sense of the market's heading; Wii U, for instance, is clearly now a busted flush among third-party publishers even in Japan, because while the show guide claims that 23 Wii U titles are at the event in some form, I failed to find a single one in a day largely spent wearing down shoe leather around the halls. I started asking around, and couldn't find anybody who had held a Gamepad in their hands all day. Whatever is coming for the Wii U in Japan, it's going to have to be first-party (or a bloody well kept secret). The 3DS, by contrast, is still in very good health; almost every publisher booth had its fair share of 3DS titles, suggesting a solid pipeline of games for the platform stretching well into the future. Vita, too, isn't entirely finished in Japan, with a handful of titles (many of them perhaps unlikely to be released abroad) to be found peppered around the halls.
"[TGS] is, absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt, no longer an internationally relevant showcase, but a show solely designed for the Japanese market."
VR, too, made a big splash at the show - not just in the form of PlayStation VR, though that was clearly the big event, but also in the form of Oculus, whose booth showed off both the latest Oculus Rift and the Samsung Gear VR, though a really poor bit of booth design meant that anyone who didn't stand in the queues to try the headsets didn't really get to see anything whatsoever of what was on display (or even to know what they were queuing for). Elsewhere, many smaller booths boasted VR demos, VR controllers, VR accessories; no more than in the West, there's a strong sense that the high-end, hardcore market has latched on to VR not just as a cool, interesting technology, but as its "saviour" in the face of the rising tide of mobile and social gaming. Yet what a show like TGS really demonstrates is just how far off this still is; PlayStation VR may feel like very slick, nicely designed and damned near consumer-ready technology, but it still doesn't actually have a game to its name, while many of the other VR displays at the show have more of a feeling of being cobbled together in the garage of a talented inventor than of being the future of gaming, ready to take the world by storm. We'll get there, but trying out the VR gear at TGS feels like touching the future, only to be reminded that the future is still a ways off.
On Saturday and Sunday, consumers will flood through the doors of Makuhari Messe, and I don't think they'll be disappointed; the very mobile titles whose dominance (that word again, and at this rate I'll be regretting its use even more in 2016) is bemoaned in some quarters are probably precisely the games that many of them are turning up to see. For those who have come from abroad, TGS is once again likely to be something of a disappointment; this is, absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt, no longer an internationally relevant showcase, but a show solely designed for the Japanese market, and unless that's a market in which you're doing business (or simply very, very interested), it's likely to be a wasted trip. Its great value lies in being a way to take the pulse of the market, and in that sense, the reading it gives is as you'd expect; Sony doing well, mobile in the ascendancy, and publishers still uncertain of the future and retreating into ever safer risk profiles as insurance against what it brings.