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TGS shows Japan's mobile dominance

Console games are swamped by mobile titles in Tokyo; is this a glimpse of the industry's future?

If you've been following any of the news from this week's Tokyo Game Show, you've probably got a fair idea of what the "big" games of the show are. Metal Gear Solid 5; Final Fantasy XV; Silent Hills; Bloodborne. To Western reporters who have travelled to Tokyo for the show, these are the games of note, while the opportunity to try out virtual reality headsets or get hands on the New Nintendo 3DS models (despite Nintendo's own non-appearance) also rate as headline-worthy.

There's no fault to what writers focusing on those games are doing; they're serving the interests of their audience. There are the best part of a thousand games on display at TGS and thus, focus is essential. Remarkably few of those games will ever be launched overseas, let alone enjoy any commercial success there; the task of the TGS reporter is largely to filter through the immense amounts of noise on the show floor and find some signal that's relevant or interesting for an overseas audience.

If you're just following the news generated from the show, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this year's TGS has sunk yet further into irrelevance. Coming a mere month after the vastly more international jamboree that is Germany's GamesCom, TGS this year has little to offer beyond new trailers for games we've already heard plenty about. Few announcements of interest have been made at the show, and while it's a good opportunity for media and consumers to go hands-on with titles that haven't been shown in public before, it's absolutely not a show that will shift the needle in the console war in any way.

"Even while consoles, especially handhelds, continue to be a moderately healthy market in Japan, this is a country where even the local core gaming sector is increasingly focused on mobile devices."

I suspect that a great many western media outlets will walk away from this year's TGS with a sense of disappointment. Even the keynotes this year were of limited relevance to what we think of as "core games"; the primary keynote was presented not by a console platform holder but by Google. We're a long way from the glory days when new consoles made their debut at TGS and when new games dropped by the dozen in the heady first days of the conference. Already this year I've noticed a few missing faces among those who usually make it to Tokyo to cover the event; next year will be sparser yet. Tokyo may be the games media's most sought-after jolly, but this year it certainly isn't justifying the trip.

However, if you're less interested in the immediate question of the "console war" and the coming six months of launch schedule, and more interested in an overview of the games market and where it's heading, TGS is a fascinating lesson. Google's pride of place in the keynote programme is no aberration; it's a perfect summation of the status of the show. On the show floor, mobile absolutely dominates proceedings. Huge stands and displays are a testament to the budget and expectations attached to console titles like Metal Gear Solid, but the sheer scale of the floor space given over to mobile games speaks to a broader reality. Even while consoles, especially handhelds, continue to be a moderately healthy market in Japan, this is a country where even the local core gaming sector is increasingly focused on mobile devices. For publishers and investors looking to the future, in particular, it's to Google and Apple that they look, not Nintendo or Sony.

If you stop filtering out the endless banks of mobile titles in search of the next big console hit, you'll find that TGS this year demonstrates a breadth of mobile games that truly suggests the maturation of this market. Across every genre, every aesthetic and every possible target demographic, from absolutely casual to devotedly hardcore, there are mobile games to fit the bill. Certainly, some genres and aesthetics are dominant - Japan has always had its favourites in these regards - but among the hundreds and hundreds of mobile titles on display, it's honestly the case that there's something for everyone.

Little of this will ever make its way beyond the Japanese market, of course. It's arguably in the nature of the mobile market that the vast majority of its products will be laser-focused on specific regions and demographics; the mobile experience itself is more "personal" than the experience of any other gaming platform to date, thus many consumers will demand a more targeted and personal type of game. Something which can and should escape beyond Japan's shores, though, is the degree of respect afforded to mobile gaming. Publishers at TGS give mobile titles pride of place alongside console games; the organisers have been comfortable putting mobile publishers alongside the giants of the console world on the show floor. There's a recognition and acceptance that the majority of the hundreds of thousands of gamers who turn up to TGS will be mobile gamers as well as having an interest in more traditional platforms; some may be mobile gamers first and foremost. With little hand-wringing over the death of handhelds or the creeping decline of home consoles, mobile games have simply taken their place alongside the others as the latest evolution of the medium - attracting a huge new demographic but also providing plenty of entertainment to core gamers along the way.

"[A] willingness on the part of consumers and developers alike to accept mobile as a logical evolution of gaming has given the Japanese market a kind of breadth and maturity which many other markets have yet to attain."

In the Western market, a false dichotomy has emerged between mobile and social games on one side, and console, PC, "core" games on the other. The contempt of the latter for the former has been stoked over and over; yet in truth, it's a rare console gamer who doesn't have a handful of mobile favourites. No amount of scorn or begrudgery on the part of core gamers has slowed the growth of the mobile market. Rather, the damage has flowed the other direction. At TGS, there's every opportunity for a gamer whose primary platform is mobile to be entranced by something on another platform and find themselves taking the plunge; the fabled notion of "swimming upstream", entering on mobile and ending up as a console gamer, is alive at well. In Western markets, though, the insistence on acting as though mobile is solely the preserve of the casual gamer means that there's no sensible upgrade path, and a relatively small number of mobile titles that genuinely appeal to the core gamer by means of their depth and intricacy (rather than the occasional wrong-headed attempt to create a "core" mobile title by dressing up shallow gameplay in dark colours, gore and swearing).

Japan's mobile gaming market is by no means some kind of Eden; were that the case, the government would not have had to threaten legislation banning deeply abusive "konbu-gacha" sales practices in F2P games a couple of years ago. Like every other market, Japan is still figuring out mobile game monetisation and discovering best practices for the sector as a whole; mistakes are being made while developers learn. However, a willingness on the part of consumers and developers alike to accept mobile as a logical evolution of gaming has given the Japanese market a kind of breadth and maturity which many other markets have yet to attain.

This is what's truly exciting about TGS; the possibility that it's a glimpse into the future of the games market as a whole, not just a sideways glance at the "weird" Japanese market. Some may recoil in horror at the notion that within a few years, E3 or GamesCom may also find itself dominated by mobile titles; yet as the phones we carry become more and more powerful and the games they play become more adventurous in every way, it seems inevitable that we will follow along Japan's path to some extent. To those lucky enough to be spending time at TGS this week, I recommend tearing your eyes away from the multi-multi-million-dollar console exclusives on the big screens for a few moments and checking out the smallest screens of all; you may find that there's a glimmer of the future being played out in the Makuhari Messe after all.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

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.