Tokyo Game Show Slump Casts Shadow Across Industry

Illustration for article titled Tokyo Game Show Slump Casts Shadow Across Industry

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.



Boy I could go on forever about why Japanese games are fading from the spotlight. First and foremost it's stagnation. Japanese action games are all pretty much identical. You get some ridiculous weapon and do a ton of ridiculous actions with it...for hours and hours on end. JRPGs are obviously out of touch with modern audiences. They still rely on random encounters too much (come on guys, that's been stale since the SNES days), the storylines are so cliche you don't even have to play them anymore, and the characters are becoming more and more paper thin (looking dead at you FF12). Too much of the Japanese game culture is repetition. Fine if it works for them, but they should adjust their sales expectations to leave out a big part of the Western nations at this point. I didn't mind doing the same exact thing over and over in 1987. It was fun because ALL games were new. All genres were new. But they've all evolved, and quite heavily.

And then there's the art style. Some will throw up their fists and bitch about how anime is so Japanese that it can't be separated from anything made there. I call horseshit. Americans make anime-inspired art all the time. Just watch any given saturday morning cartoon. So Japanese need to learn to at least step a little away from it and blend with Western art. No more women looking men. No more hair that reaches the moon (and multi colored). Enough with the huge eyes.

And then there's the writing. There are tons of fanboys who love how cheesy or weird Japanese games are, but the mainstream isn't into that and at the end of the day, game makers are in a business world. They have to make money. Selling 100,000 units doesn't cut it anymore. Budgets are too high and teams are too large to settle for niche markets. Some developers pull it off, but that's because they keep the budget small and the team smaller. If Japan wants to win me back to the JRPG market, which I used to be very into, then they have to create a story that's interesting. Playing amnesiacs or teenagers who are adopted or quiet warriors with a heart of gold just doesn't cut it anymore.

Finally I want to specifically point out survival horror games. Apparently the days of Silent Hill are gone. Now you either have action games masked as horror like RE5 (a huge step backwards for that series) or something that's all about little girls with greasy hair, pale skin, and so many grainy filters, bad lighting and shaky cameras that it's a huge mess. I'm not frightened by anything Japan puts out these days, in any medium. We get it, The Ring was a big hit. LET IT GO. It doesn't have to influence everything you ever do since then. Japan used to be about psychological scares, not things jumping out at you. It used to be about the creeping dread that just keeps building, not making screeching noises while something walks jerkily across the screen really fast. I'm not saying the Western market has survival horror right (lord knows, we can't make a good survival horror game even if we had to) but Japan should have the market locked up tight.

I think the biggest problem is how many resources are pumped into hacks. I'm going to specifically call out Kojima (that's right, I think his games suck, deal with it), the entire Resident Evil team, the entire Final Fantasy team since Sakaguchi left the company, everyone who has touched Castlevania in the last 15 or so years, and that idiot who made No More Heroes. Now flame on fellas, cause I know I'm going to get blasted on this.