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Analysis: Tokyo Game Show's Over -- What Of It?

Another Gamasutra-attended Tokyo Game Show has wrapped -- what does it presage for the Japanese industry at large and, in particular, the region's fierce competition between mobile social games, the 3DS, and the PS Vita?
Another Tokyo Game Show has come and gone and, as it has for the past few years, it brings with it the question: what of Tokyo Game Show? While official attendance numbers have not been released, the show appears to have been in rude health from a gamer perspective, with the public day boasting snaking queues and long waits for popular titles. But for that matter, what about the Japanese industry at large? The Japanese console market shrank almost 7 percent in 2009 and almost 14 percent in 2010. This is obvious even if you don't read the numbers. If you simply take a look at the Tokyo Game Show floor, the event has shrunk perceptibly -- an entire hall is now put to other uses than publisher booths. Even the corner of the show where companies sell overpriced tchochkes to gamers has shrunk. Why? Almost all of the major Japanese publishers have merged; most big companies now have two familiar names instead of one, and just one booth. Square Enix. Sega Sammy. Namco Bandai. Koei Tecmo. EA has abandoned the Japanese market once again, and is showing its games in publishing partner Sega's booth. This year, fan-favorite (and builder of huge booths) Level-5 (Professor Layton series) decided to ditch the show in favor of a private event to be held in October -- though it did spring for some tables and chairs for attendees on the show floor. Also missing from the show, except as attendees, were other Japanese upstarts like ex-Capcom man Keiji Inafune, who has his own studio, Comcept, up and running, and ex-Team Ninja head Tomonobu Itagaki, whose THQ-published Devil's Third did not make its promised appearance. Who came in its place? Japanese social game giant GREE, owner of OpenFeint, with one of the biggest and most centrally located booths at the show -- complete with the most hotpants-clad models. It's as if Zynga had the biggest booth at E3. Nobody in the Western gaming press could stop talking about this fact, though few of them probably bothered to venture inside. GREE's booth, in bright blue and white, was opposite a huge smartphone, tablet, and social pavilion with the Sony PlayStation-equipped Android phone Xperia Play on prominent display. GREE's major competitor, DeNA, owner of Ngmoco, didn't fight back with its own booth, however, perhaps realizing that the expense doesn't make sense when you think about who comes to the show. In other words, the legions of gamers who come to the show on the public days -- filling huge queues that looped around the outside of the Makuhari Messe convention center before heading inside -- were not there for GREE. They were there to play games like Capcom's big in Japan Monster Hunter series (with 3G on display and 4 announced, both for Nintendo's 3DS, it was a good show for the fans) and Sengoku Basara (another IP that doesn't move the needle in the West but has scads of fans in the motherland). They were also there to preview Sony's PlayStation Vita before its just-announced December release in Japan. By 10 am on Saturday, many of the Vita demo lines had already filled to capacity for the entire day and were accepting no more entrants. As dead as it is in the U.S., the PSP is still very much alive in Japan, with a massive, original Final Fantasy release in the form of FF: Type-0 due this year, just to name one major game. Japanese gamers are hungry for its successor -- this, despite the PSP's killer app, Monster Hunter, being on the 3DS for 2011. That's a good sign for Sony. The lineup of Vita titles at TGS was very large, and filled with familiar series like Dynasty Warriors, Uncharted, and Wipeout. It's going to be a solid launch, even if the system still lacks blockbuster new IP. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 -- well, they're both as mid-generation as they can get, and with no major title announcements, it was absolutely business as usual for the two systems. Lineup-wise, both were largely repeats of Gamescom and E3, but this time presented to Japanese audiences. The rumored announcement of Resident Evil 6 stayed a rumor, and as that was the only major sequel Western gamers were anticipating for the show, well... It was a dud, from that perspective. Though Nintendo never has a presence at the show, it had a rare pre-TGS press conference with a slew of first and third party announcements, dominating the show with the announcement of Monster Hunter 4 for the 3DS. Most of the attention of the non-monster hunting U.S. press was focused on the previously-announced "slide pad", which adds an analog stick and and shoulder button to the 3DS -- dubbed the "Frankenstick" by American gamers, it's been a PR disaster for Nintendo in the West... and what it presages either for the fate of the current hardware design or likelihood to either attract or alienate gamers is still very unclear. Speaking of PR disasters, Sony's mishandling of the Vita as regards the Western press is well-documented elsewhere. It probably won't hurt the system in the long run, but as far as pre-release hype building goes, well... Sony's pre-TGS press conference, on the other hand, showed that the company is, of late, thinking more deeply about its product launches before they hit the shelves. The problem is, we didn't need TGS to know if the Vita would pique the interest of Japanese gamers, or if social games are now massive, or if the 3DS lineup would pick up. While confirming all of these things is nice, Tokyo Game Show 2011 was not a show that held many surprises.

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