Event Wrap-Up: Tokyo Game Show 2003

At the Tokyo Game Show, which took place September 26-28, Japan's publishers and developers demonstrated their latest titles to both businesses and consumers. Here's a rundown of the show, plus plenty of insight into the game development scene in Japan as witnessed by Justin Hall.

After rescuing electronic entertainment from an American glut, Japanese game makers coaxed glory from their scrappy model of back of the envelope production. For twenty years, Japan has been keeper of the world's interactive childhood. But technology has evolved and game developers elsewhere have been studying. Developers in other countries have taken children raised in Nintendo's kindergarten and given them graduate school games. For the last year or two, the Japanese game industry has been in a serious doldrums.

Perhaps Japan has fallen into a genre-induced slumber, publishers generating a steady stream of the same-old to please a shrinking base of hard-core fans. The market for Japanese games has not been growing, it's been shrinking. CESA is a Japanese organization charged with promoting the domestic games industry. Last year they noted a decline in the number of active game players, a decline in domestic and overseas sales, and a marked decline in console sales. The boom-and-bust cycle of console hardware releases might hit PC-adverse Japan harder than other countries, but this recent, rapid falloff has many people in Japan wondering if the great Japanese amusement making machine has broken down.

It seems the Nintendo generation has aged into a group of broke "freeters," part-time workers who would prefer to spend their 5000 yen on two DVDs, rather than buying one PS2 slideshow adventure game based on a mediocre anime series. That's if those kids have any money left for entertainment at all, after paying their mobile phone bills. While Japan's game industry is slumping, Japan has some of the most fun mobile phones in the world. If the game you're playing is getting boring, there's a chance a friend has just emailed you a picture from their mobile phone.

Two young folks dressed as Square Enix's Final Fantasy characters, carrying some video game taxidermy - a stuffed Chocobo.

The Tokyo Game Show

The Makuhari Messe Convention Center looks like a few decomissioned commuter spaceships parked East of central Tokyo. Here at the Tokyo Game Show, which took place September 26-28, Japan's publishers and developers demonstrated their latest titles to a business audience for one day, and the general public for two days. Picture E3 open to the game-playing public -- thousands of schoolkids allowed inside, many of them wearing costumes celebrating video game characters. This open spirit is charming - fans and business people share the games industry.

All the lingering stagnancy and doubt comes to a head at this annual event. The industry is open to foreign observers, and Japanese game makers converge for a single public display. In a culture and society where much is left to be inferred from posture and the silences between remarks, the annual game show presents a ready spectacle that sets the tone for the Japanese gaming industry for the year to come.

This young man collected sixteen vendor-branded bags at the Tokyo Game Show.

Every year, the genres that have calcified at the center of Japanese games are widely displayed. Anime shows foreigners have never seen adorn large banners celebrating new adventure titles. Waist-high hamsters wiggle stunted arms at passersby, promoting rodent-raising games. Still, amidst giant inflatable floating Chocobos and slime monsters, there were some signs that Japanese game publishers are reaching for new markets.

In the last eighteen months, the first few Japanese-developed massively multiplayer online games have appeared. Japan has produced the world's leading console-based MMOGs. Putting aside the small-party adventures of Sega's early Phantasy Star Online, Final Fantasy XI was the first modern MMOG for consoles, followed up shortly by Koei's Nobunaga's Ambition Online. The upcoming voice-driven Xbox MMOG True Fantasy Live Online was on display at the show, running only a demo reel. Between the poor sales of the Xbox in Japan and a small population of Japanese online console gamers, it could be tough times ahead for these console MMOG publishers.

The trouble is that the bulk of Japanese web surfers are still using their thumbs - mobile phones are people's primary portal to online information. Japan has the world's lowest prices for broadband internet access (try around US$ 20 a month), and subscription rates are climbing. But of the 15 million PlayStation 2 owners in Japan, roughly 300,000 have invested in the broadband unit.

Koei's Ambition Online

Koei's front door, south of Tokyo: Sun, Moon and Stars sliding doors, stone lions standing guard, and large astrological marble mural.

Kenji Matsubara runs the online, mobile and action games software division for Koei in Japan. We met in Koei's offices, out past Shibuya south of Tokyo. The decoration is decidedly astrological - the design sense of the company's co-founder, Matsubara says. He seems accustomed to explaining the animal-star patterns on the walls and carpet.

When I spoke with him after the Tokyo Game Show, Matsubara had a headache: used software sales. Game resale stores are old news in Akihabara, the electronics district on the East side of Tokyo. These places function like shrines to the systems of yore, offering ultra-rare titles like Treasure's Radiant Silvergun for the Sega Saturn priced over $150. They cater to the video game otaku, the collectors, not to the mainstream gamers seeking the latest hits for a lower price.

Perhaps a symptom of the 12-year recession gripping the country, mainstream media stores are selling recently purchased Playstation 2 titles for a few yen off the cover price. Tsutaya is a popular chain of CD/DVD/game stores in Japan and they have recently begun selling used games in earnest. Matsubara claims that publishers releasing a popular title can expect only two to three months of solid sales. After a few short weeks, most triple-A titles show a notable decline in sales as used sales take over.

Koei's Matsubara-san shows his Dynasty Warriers wallpaper on his mobile phone.

Koei is working with Square Enix to lobby the government to ban these sales or at least impose a used software sales fee to fund publishers. Matsubara estimates that over one third of gamer dollars go to this used economy: "That's why we're developing online games."

Koei's first offering was Nobunaga's Ambition Online, a 3D action role-playing game based in a fantasy feudal Japan. The founding designer at Koei, Kou Shibusawa, wanted to launch their first MMOG on the Playstation 2, as a sort of experiment. Now they are porting Nobunaga's Ambition Online from PS2 for a PC release next year. Their next as-yet-unannounced historical simulation online multiplayer game will be created for the PC first, "with the entire Asian market in mind," reports Kenji Matsubara. "The Playstation 2 is still a small [MMOG] market, even if it doubles or triples. Korea, China will be bigger for the near term." And those East Asian markets are all playing their games on PCs.

After years of being the leading PC game publisher in Japan, Koei has seen that market shrink. And finally, after Korea and China have had years to get started, this flagship Japanese developer is making a serious commitment to PC-based MMOG games to distribute in Asia.

Shin Smiles

Those Korean and Chinese companies that have had a head start in MMOGs are eager to have at the Japanese market market. For years, the average Japanese gamer was believed to prefer homegrown characters and game design, played comfortably on a console instead of a PC. "The Korean model won't work" the common wisdom went - Japanese gamers play RPGs at home, by themselves.

Journalist Kiyoshi Shin.

But the recent, rapid growth in Japan of the firmly Korean title Ragnarok Online has disabused the game market of these assumptions. Since its launch in Japan late last year, Ragnarok Online has gained nearly as many subscribers as the PS2-based Final Fantasy XI, in half the time. Ragnarok Online is currently the number two massively-multiplayer online game title in Japan, according to MMOG subscription statistics compiled by Bruce Sterling Woodcock.

All of this is quite delightful to Kiyoshi Shin. A hyperactive man with a ready smile, Shin was formerly a game designer, working on Synergy's interactive fiction project Gadget, and an FPS project with Atlus. After a cancelled projects or two, he ended up in bed for a solid week with a serious case of game development fatigue. He took up journalism, writing about game development and working to foster game developer community in Japan, "it would have helped with my burnout!" he says with a nodding grin.

Now a widely traveled commentator on Japanese game development, Shin laments the fact that Japanese game companies still freeze nearly all information. "Even unimportant information," Shin says, shaking his head. There's not a culture of sharing expertise within the Japanese games industry. Last year was Shin's first time at the Game Developers' Conference (GDC) in San Jose; there were just two members of the Japanese media, himself and some friends. "The United States has studied [Japanese game development] and they've caught up." But he doesn't see Japanese developers studying enough in other countries yet.

A small group meets in Tokyo to discuss academic game programs.

I'm meeting Shin near the prestigious Tokyo University. He was sitting on a leather sofa under a curved window, watching the Lord of the Rings DVD subtitled on his laptop. Near this small alcove where we're sitting, a small group will soon meet to pick speakers and discussion topics for an ongoing series of video game seminars at the nearby University. There are already technical schools for game design in Japan, but few places to study the business and culture of games. Shin's got a hand in many projects - promoting dialog between game developers and academia is just one of them.

IGDA Japan

Bill Swartz would like agree that Japan needs some formal education in games. Swartz greatly expanded Activision's operations in Japan, after a stint at Koei America. Now he runs Mastiff, a company dedicated to localizing titles between Japan and the rest of the world.

Swartz sees most Japanese developers still reliant on self-taught programming skills and on-the-fly design, which worked better when games were less complicated to design. In email correspondence, Swartz writes: "While they are rare, you are seeing game programmers in Japan with formal backgrounds now (ten years ago there were virtually none). As academic computer knowledge increases in Japan and larger teams force adoption of more advanced project management techniques, you'll see an advance in quality."

Swartz was particularly excited to see information sharing start between developers in Japan. "By and large the game development community in Japan hasn't worked to share information and experience with itself the way the US and European community has. I think that's changing. For example, the first meeting of the Japanese branch of the IGDA, held last year, was a success, really spoke to a thirst in the industry and probably is just the beginning."

Kiyoshi Shin helped jumpstart the Tokyo chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Their first local chapter meeting took place in April 2002, with fifty members. The next few meetings featured speakers like the project leads on Ico, and steadily growing audience. The Tokyo IGDA people recently consulted with CEDEC, the closest thing Japan has to the GDC. It happened earlier in September; the mix of panels and exhibits drew over 1000 Japanese game developers.


Gotterdammerung Online

Shin has been studying Ragnarok Online, the first "Korean-style" MMOG to make it big in Japan. Final Fantasy XI is expensive to start, with a PS2 hardware upgrade and keyboard required. The artful 3D virtual space may appeal to an older set of players, maybe 24-35 years. But Ragnarok Online runs simpler graphics, only 2D, and it is happy to be drawing a younger audience: 15 to 20 year olds. Japanese teenagers with old computers are signing up for Ragnarok Online in droves. Ragnarok Online publisher GungHo uses the free-beta, trial period method; players can try the game with a free downloaded application. Then if they want to keep playing, they can buy game-time cards in the ubiquitous convenience stores of Japan (Koei just this month announced a similar approach to Nobunaga's Ambition Online - a free 770 megabyte demo version can be downloaded over broadband into the Playstation 2. Play free for ten days and keep your character if you buy the game disc).

Journalist Kiyoshi Shin.

The GungHo booth at the Tokyo Game show was a broad stage that was occasionally filled with synchronized dancers in fantasy garb. It looked like a teen band, suffused with energy and bright smiles. Unlike the closed character of many Japanese companies, Shin describes GungHo as unafraid to admit mistakes to their users. Accordingly, Shin says, "Users think they are honest." Opening communication up between players and developers, reaching out to underserved markets with new business models; according to Shin, Ragnarok Online is an inspiring example of new thinking for the Japanese market.

Masaya Matsura created the pioneering music game PaRappa the Rapper. His recent music-calligraphy game, the enchanting MojibRibon was shown at the Tokyo Game Show this year (it was also shown at the GDC's Experimental Gameplay Workshop, back in March). I spied him at the conference, wandering the halls outside of the show floor, wearing bright orange pants with the seams turned out. He shared a few curmudgeonly reflections on this year's Tokyo Game Show over email: "As usual, there's too much information for me so I always get tired while wondering about what's interesting. The sound coming from each booth is getting bigger every year. Maybe it's time to think about ways to make the sound situation better."

Matsura sees the next phase of game innovation coming from the capacity for networked play: "The multimedia technology innovation in late 80s fueled the enthusiasm of current game industry. Now, there's tremendous energy in IT technology innovation. This kind of energy can never be a negative source for game design. Since IT technology is changing dramatically, it's not easy to develop in the scheme of console based games, but we must move forward [with it]."

Significant numbers of Japanese people now play Korean-style MMOGs so popular in the rest of East Asia. Other domestic and foreign companies are bringing their games to this newly awakened market. This October, Konami Mobile, previously handling Konami's mobile phone games, changed its name to Konami Online, hinting at a strategic move into networked play.


Journalist Kiyoshi Shin is also studying the oft-cited aversion of Japanese players to first-person shooter games (FPS). At E3, these games loom so large, but they are nearly nowhere to be found on the top ten lists in Japan. Shin points out that all the money Microsoft spent advertising Halo may not have sold too many Xboxes in Japan, but it did teach Japanese gamers to appreciate the first-person shooter genre.

The IGDA Uruguay's Chairman and sole member, Gonzalo Frasca of here holds this witty Metal Gear Solid
in check.

Now one of Japan's most venerated names in video games is getting involved with some serious FPS research. Namco has merged their arcade expertise with perhaps the world's most popular online FPS, Counter Strike, to make LEDZone. LEDZone is in testing around Tokyo: cyber-cafes designed only to play Counter Strike - renamed Counter Strike Neo for this incarnation. In addition to custom crafting a physical environment for team play online, Namco is doing extensive data collection on play patterns, map usage and team dynamics. According to Shin, they're tweaking the LEDZone levels on a nightly basis.

Before our time is up, Shin wants to share one last bit of enthusiasm. Besides studying the advent of Asian-style MMOGs and FPSs in Japan, he is working on a book about game design. So far, the task of game design in Japan has been undefined, left up to the artist or the programmer or someone called a "planner." He hopes to codify the role of level and game design with a book, packaged with tools for making levels with Half-Life 1 and 2. "People here want a new style of game. They are bored of the old style of scripted titles - they want free style play," Shin says with an evangelist's zeal.

A Scottish game parodying big city crime in America was shown at the Tokyo Game Show, behind closed doors made up like a paddy wagon. Grand Theft Auto III was licensed for release in Japan by Capcom. The GTA play was intact, including the ability to harm passersby; it appeared that only the Japanese subtitles were

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