Friday, November 11, 2011

Tokyo Game Show 2011 – A Loosening Grip

Autumn in Japan is the time for momiji. Well, momiji, and the Tokyo Game Show (TGS). In terms of timing, it is the last of the big video game conventions each year. For 2011 there were two points that certainly stick out after reviewing TGS:

First, this year's show saw an attendance number of 222,668 people across all four days of the event (a record!), surpassing last year’s number of 207,000, but still behind Gamescom in Germany which drew 275,000 people.

Second, unlike its glory days in years past, the show doesn’t have any surprises anymore. Nothing new was presented that haven’t already been seen and many industry veterans are voicing the opinion that it is losing its position as one of the most important game conventions in the world. But what are the reasons for this development? The reason can be found not only in Japan but partially abroad!


The downfall of traditional gaming

While attendance numbers don’t seem to reflect it, the show appears to have been in a bad shape from a gamer perspective. On the one hand the queues for popular titles on the public days have been growing longer, while on the other the number of booths at which visitors can play has been cut down.

Even without knowing the exact figures, anyone in attendance at the show could guess that the Japanese console market shrank over the last few years by simply taking a look at the Tokyo Game Show floor: this year a whole hall was not used to put out publisher booths, but for other purposes such as selling overpriced merchandise (by the way, those exact figures are -7 percent in 2009 and -14 percent in 2010.)

Many Japanese publishers from 10 years ago simply don’t exist anymore, but have merged, such as Square Enix, Namco Bandai, or Koei Tecmo.  While Nintendo simple never exerted a presence at TGS, other global players like EA have opted to abandon the Japanese market and show off their titles at other shows such as E3. They are not alone, as some smaller Japanese developers have decided to entirely stay away from TGS; case in point:  Fukuoka-based Level-5 and Comcept run by ex-Capcom man Keiji Inafune.

In place of these traditional market players we saw a newer face at TGS, who happened to have one of the biggest and most centrally located booths at the show: GREE - the market leader for Japanese social games. This is something that seems unimaginable abroad. It would be like Zygna or Big Fish  ‘out-boothing’ EA at E3. GREE  not only showed off one the biggest booths at the show but also sported one of the biggest armada of ‘companions’ at TGS. Considering the average profile and interests of a TGS visitor, this luxury works to show what kind of financial position GREE currently commands.

But it is not only social but also smartphone, tablet and online gaming that is usurping a position traditional held by console gaming at the show.  Which isn’t to say that console gaming has rolled over dead: an exceptional number of players did line up to try playing with Sony’s PlayStation Vita. Even so, despite that for Japanese gamers this may have been their first chance to try the successor of their popular PSP, nobody really expected any new surprises for Sony’s new handheld since most of its features have been revealed before.
With this, and coupled with the lack of announcements for the slowly aging current-gen consoles, the industry has showed that they would rather continue with typical gaming business and reap revenues with current titles/IP rather than experimenting with new content –merely repeating everything that has already been seen at Gamescom and E3.

Increasing competition – decreasing hype

There was a time when TGS together with the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) were the only video game shows that mattered. But over time it seemed as if TGS was loosing its momentum, and became an entity with regional influence only rather than worldwide.

Publishers and developers were always preparing many new announcements, content or video games just for those two major game shows. However increasingly it seems almost every week a new game convention or similar Expo pops out of nowhere. Asking publishers and developers what game show to attend and they come up with different answers: Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Gamescom, Tokyo Game Show (TGS), PAX: Penny Arcade Expo or the Game Developers Conference (GDC). Those conventions are already the bigger ones that most big publishers consider attending. Besides those it seems as if every country has its own small games festival –down to regions or even game genres. For smaller British studios, it indeed is reasonable to attend the London Game Festival, or for indie developers to submit their game to the Independent Games Festival (IGF) since not all of them can afford to take part in the big shows. But even global players from the industry are starting to keep away from E3 or TGS. EA for example prefers to stay at E3 and Japanese publisher Level-5 is preparing to hold its own private show in October.
What’s more, even big shows like PAX and GDC expand by holding several shows in different regions, as with PAX East and West, or GDC China.

For that reason publisher and developers have to carefully consider which convention at which to exhibit, or what kind of news they are going to reveal if attending more than one. As a result the Tokyo Game Show not only is losing exhibitors from abroad but also announcements of news value from publishers within Japan who – due to shrinking market in Japan – prefer to attend foreign conventions to extend sales in overseas markets.

Another dilemma is that making and selling video games always went hand-in-hand with creating hype around both the products and the convention itself. But now with publishers showing off their latest game at another new show waiting around the corner, the hype that was once concentrated into a small package has turned into an addiction for more new trailers, or screenshots or any other small morsel of information –which has diluted the satisfaction gamers used to feel with just two major conventions. TGS has lost its news value and is not capable of creating this hype anymore.

While it’s great to have so many conventions celebrating the industry, the problem with hype is that it can’t run on indefinitely; highs are only possible when combined with lows, otherwise all that remains is a plateau.

The oversaturation of convention coverage isn’t a problem with the conventions per se, as long as all of them focus on different aspects of the industry, e.g. PAX focusing on the ‘everyday’ gamer or GDC on industry folks. But most marketing departments try to take advantage of each convention to promote their game and to come up with convention specific pre-orders or over-priced merchandise should the budget allow it. And the games press writes about it to feed their readers with ‘news’ who experience the convention through their pc or laptop.

But the fact is that a single announcement of a new weapon or costume is not news. And as long as all players in the gaming industry don’t focus on covering on what makes a convention of a certain region or genre unique all goes at the cost of hype.

A silver lining at the horizon

But there is a ray of hope at the horizon for the Tokyo Game Show, and I am not speaking about the increasing number of cosplayers showing up at the event or about middle-aged men taking hundreds of pictures of all the booth babes; no, I’m talking about one tiny event that becomes increasingly more popular every year at TGS: The Sense of Wonder Night.
Even though most of the works presented at this small counterpart of the IGF are already published, most people haven’t heard about these exceptional games. Almost every of the ten independent games from both Japanese and Western boundaries could draw an ‘Ohh’ from the audience. And it is those small innovative games that drew hundreds of Japanese game fans to the event and that may dictate TGS’ future as an event that showcases video games that players get exited about.
Sense Of Wonder Night ended by having each of the participating judges pick their favorite games, giving away an Audience Award and with the hopeful promise to hold another – maybe even bigger – SOWN in 2012.