Tokyo Game Show Slump Casts Shadow Across IndustryS

The United States may have given birth to video games, but it was Japan that brought them to life.

Games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong introduced the concept of plot and character to something that started out as more diversion, more science in motion than art.

From these deep gaming roots sprung an entire subculture. And over the years Japan's otaku have metamorphosed from social outcasts to counting among its members: salary men, music and movie stars, housewives and even a prime minster.

For more than a dozen years the Tokyo Game Show has been the barometer of that culture and the country's blossoming game development community.

But this year the show, which wrapped up over the weekend, reveals an industry scrambling to stay relevant in an increasingly westernized gaming world.

At a screening of his latest game last week, Capcom's famed developer Keiji Inafune, the man behind such hits as Mega Man, Onimusha and Dead Rising, warned that Japanese game development has one foot in the grave.

"I have a question for you: What did you think TGS this year? Be honest" Inafune asked a crowd of gathered press. "Personally when I looked around [at] all the different games at the TGS floor, I said "Man, Japan is over. We're done. Our game industry is finished."

But then Inafune said that his latest game is proof that Japan can stay relevant. The game, Dead Rising 2, is being made by Blue Castle Games, a Canadian game developer.

This year's Tokyo Game Show isn't a watershed moment for Japan, instead it's the latest evidence of an industry struggling to find its identity and place in a facet of pop culture that is becoming increasingly mainstream, and leaving its roots behind.

Earlier this year, Capcom developers talked about the importance of marrying Japanese and Western game design philosophies in a way that would help increase a game's popularity without losing its cultural identity. And they aren't the only ones dealing with the problem.

It doesn't help that the video gaming industry in Japan, like many industries, is struggling financially, something made more apparent by the annual public game show.

The mammoth Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba, Japan, usually nearly filled with developer booths, closed off entire sections this year because of the lack of industry attendance. Public attendance was also down, plummeting to just above 2005 levels with 185,030 people

Filling in those gaps were more cultural, less video-game themed exhibits including one dedicated to the armor and helmets of Japan's most famous feudal warlords.

Western developers Microsoft and Ubisoft both had large booths at the show this year, though Electronic Arts wasn't in the show this time around. Other big booths included those for Sony Computer Entertainment, portable game developer Level 5 and Japanese developers Square Enix, Konami and Sega.

The most popular game on the floor still belonged to Japanese game developers, with Square Enix filling to capacity for the day in just hours,

It was easy to get sucked into a human riptide walking between the packed display areas for Square-Enix and Sega during the show. The press of people dangerously close to trampling one another as they shouldered their way through an area wide enough to drive trucks side-by-side when empty.

But Microsoft also boasted a number of long waits for their games, including a nearly three-hour wait for the latest Halo title. And Ubisoft's games, from James Cameron's Avatar to Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, were both big draws at the show.

While many of the industry in attendance saw the dipping numbers at this year's Tokyo Game Show as a warning that developers in Japan need to rethink the way they do things. That's the last thing I 'd want to see happen.

By chasing success in broader, more western channels, the same themes and backdrops that fuel summer blockbusters, Japanese game developers run the very real risk of losing sight of what made their influence different and in turn helped make gaming something unique.

We don't need another first-person shooter that takes place during World War II, something famed Ninja-themed game developer Tomonobu Itagaki recently said he was considering making. We don't need more space-themed strategy games, like the ones Square Enix will be publishing this year.

What we need more of are the distinctly Japanese games that push the medium forward. Games like Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy and the visually stunning Okami.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.