While my previous writeup of the 2003 Tokyo Game show was a general
overview, I wanted to take a closer look at some interesting
and disturbing trends that were lurking behind every booth (And
distracting booth babe). It's easy to say, as I did, that the TGS-as-
yardstick showed the Japanese game industry in a serious doldrums,
with very little innovation on display. Anyone can form an opinion,
but many people are going to form different opinions. I wanted to
use some stats here to show in a little more detail what kind of
state the industry appears to be in here. Unless stated I'm not
comparing it to 'the industry' in any other region, and I'm not
suggesting anything here beyond what I say. Please try not to infer
anything extra by my words, I'm using some facts to try and shed
light on what is, to many people, an unknown world. I have no
agenda, I own no stocks, I've nothing to gain or lose from this. Now
The industry has an aversion to risk.
This is true, from what I hear, everywhere else. Production costs
are huge, failures are plenty, and no one wants to back a 'maybe'
when they can invest in a 'probably'. The TGS itself is now a yearly
event, instead of a bi-annual fling. It's easy for them to say more
games have been shown this year than any other when it's concentrated
two events into one. One show is less likely to fail than two,
'cause when the chips are down decisions have to be made. Now there
are no decisions.
The industry is polarizing.
Like everything else the information age and the internet make it
very easy to spread the word, be it good or bad. Trends appear
overnight, movies fail based on the first showing instead of the
first weekend, and the popular console becomes more popular.
According to TGS' official stats, Sony alone displayed almost a third
of the games on show, at 28%. Mobile phones and the PC accounted for
over 25% of the remainder, leaving three platforms commanding 55% of
the total number of games shown this year. That leaves only 45%
for 'everyone else' and this seems to increasingly be true. Each of
the big three mentioned is firmly in command of their demographic.
Sony owns the console industry, and all three of these are, for now,
operating at the top of their game without competing with each other. The message seems
clear: if you want to compete with the big guys, you'll never win. The GameBoy Advance
had less than half the number of games on show that mobile phones
did, and we all know the Macintosh sells basically zero software
compared to the Wintel juggernaut.
Mobile phones are huge.
According to Namco, they make more profit from their cellular phone
content division than any other division, including the arcade,
consoles and redemption (think UFO catchers) divisions. It's easy to
see why, most of the games (but not all) are ports, and depending on
the carrier there's little to no cost of entry, no media to produce,
billing is easy, and the content cannot (so far) be copied. A game
can be produced on the cheap by a single skilled programmer in a
matter of weeks, instead of the years it now takes large teams to
complete a console game. There's a huge backlog of games to convert,
and people are proving very happy to pay for it. Namco says
ringtones make more money than games, and it would appear this is a
common thread: ringtones are big money. In many cases you get what
you pay for with hardware as capable as this. And the prices are
reasonable: Namco has several premium titles at three hundred Yen per
download as well as subscription services for both games and
ringtones. For the same price (Which works out to about $2.70 at
today's exchange) every month you can download as many games or
ringtones as you like. This is a boon for anyone wanting to try
something without a huge commitment, or for people like me without
removable media and space for a mere ten games on the phone. Laugh
if you must, but most modern cellular phones in Japan have full-
color screens, Java capability, 160x120 resolution, 16-40 voices and
can easily handle many different game styles and very complex and
rich-sounding melodies. Many people deride the concept of game-
playing phones, but while unwilling to give exact numbers, Namco alone
claims subscribers in the 'several hundreds of thousands' range at
almost three bucks a pop. Every month. If you're laughing, Namco's
If you're not Sony your console is doomed.
Microsoft had a sad, sad showing this year, with about half the
number of games on show as the previous three years (2.8% of the total). What
they did have looked awesome, but they proved once again they can't
attract the Japanese players with their x-treme imagery and
ridiculous in-your-face videos. Dead or Alive is the only reason
anyone here pays attention to Microsoft, who had not a single top-fifty
release, and shifted only 570 consoles for the week ending
September 14th. Nintendo didn't even show up but games for the
GameCube and the GameBoy Advance accounted for 6.5% and 6.3%
respectively. Sega of course has no hardware to sell thanks to the
Playstation 2 machine.
Online gaming is going to be huge.
This one is easy. Even if you don't like online gaming, you're in
the minority. The money is good, and broadband uptake is finally
gaining momentum even in resistant countries like the USA and
Britain, bringing more customers into the target zone. Development
costs vary wildly, but the rewards can be phenomenal. Even a small
number of dedicated subscribers can mean a significant recurring
income for a developer with compelling content. It's not easy to
create the stuff, but when you do the money is way bigger than
anything else. The biggest, Everquest, brings Sony nearly five
million dollars a month. Everyone wants a piece of this pie, and
asian developers are bursting at the seams to provide ways to spend
your monthly money, with a fanciful, beautiful RPG in every corner of
the show. They will never reach the number of subscribers Everquest
did, but even a fraction of that number can pay for more development
and another shot at the big time. Most online games never reach
50,000 subscribers, but even at that mark you can expect $500,000
coming in every month. That's a lot.
The third-person 3D adventure games.
If one genre can be thought of as being responsible for a serious amount of customer
disinterest it would have to be the 3D adventure game. Every game
company presented a game that, at first glance, looked like the same
game every other company had. RPGs, action-fighting, action-
shooting, running, jumping, boring. It's the 16-bit platform glut
all over again, and there's almost no differentiating content.
There's nothing special here that you can unearth without spending
many hours with each one. Most suck, a few are ok, but even the
truly great ones are visually the same as the rest. This is a sad,
sad state of affairs. Most rely on another hook to draw in the
player. Konami's version used the theme from their very popular
Castlevania franchise. Taito's version had J-pop sensation Gackt as
the main character. Sega is using their Shinobi franchise as a
springboard. Many online RPGs are switching to this format instead
of the traditional top-down or isometric view, and they're looking
very similar indeed.
Where is it going from here?
Square and Enix merged. Konami owns Genki + Hudson. Sega
consolidated their divisions recently. The world is getting smaller,
and you can see it everywhere. A handful of giant companies and a
scattering of independents. It was ever thus, and it's unlikely to
change. The cost of entry, the cost of marketing, the cost of defeat
- only the big boys can play. Perhaps this explains some of the
success of the mobile phone sector: cheaper, faster, easier. Small
companies like G-Mode and Success can produce hundreds of cellular
phone games and still spend a fraction the cost of a console title. And
there's more buyers. Way more people have mobile phones in Japan
than own Playstation 2 consoles. Consoles like the GP32 and to some
extent the GBA provide an outlet for cheaper and newer games, but for
the big consoles and big PC releases it's going to be a 3D platformer
and RPG world for the foreseeable future. And this isn't good.
Lawrence Wright - nfg games