• Tokyo Game Show 2010 Report

    This year’s goal: to cover the Tokyo Game Show in one day. Not the easiest of tasks, as I was aware from my experience of previous shows that it’s tough even trying to see everything on the four days that the event is usually open for, let alone just one. Still, if it was only one day, I knew I could make it count. I just had to be realistic about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to play many of the big-name titles at the show, and I had to make a fool-proof plan in order to actually do stuff. No matter how much you’re accustomed to the rhythms and machinations of the show, and no matter how much you know already about the big announcements, you always get sidetracked; always distracted by one thing or another.

    What was there? Sega’s booth was the usual blue and white, accentuated by the Vanquish booth, with a corner devoted to the Yakuza franchise--which, in this year’s show, was a caged play area and a ‘throne’ with cabaret girls and zombies. This was less exciting than it sounds. Konami was their usual red, showing off the new Castlevania, Pro Evo and a few other games. DanceMasters, their Kinect dance game, was also a highlight, but more for the amused audience. And then there was blue-and-gold Capcom, whose booth was destined to be the star of the show, thanks to Monster Hunter Portable 3. If there was any doubt, though, then Marvel vs Capcom 3, Okamiden and Dead Rising 2 were there to settle the issue.

    Every year, though, there are two monoliths at the show: black Sony and white Microsoft, which feature the biggest showcase of games at their booths and the new hip technology of the show. This year was no different, but TGS 2010 was a bit of a surprise. Despite expectations about topics-of-the-moment such as motion gaming, 3D, or digital distribution, nothing really stood out. The PR materials might have been enthusing about motion controllers, and the booth assistants were quite enthusiastic about demostrating the new hardware, but third parties didn’t really seem to be as enthusiastic about Move or Kinect as they were with the Wii, (although this might be because there were very few third-party Move or Kinect games) so it was up to Sony and Microsoft to present the Move, Kinect and 3D technology.

    Both of them did a great job in doing so--at least motion gaming. The most visible one of the two was Kinect--interestingly, it was the space that Kinect needs to work that made it stand out. Move was less visible, but Sony chose a more idiosyncratic way of presenting their technology by setting up a two-tier series of rooms at the back of the booth (living rooms, evidently) with a Move guide. (Not every room had the same game; there were about six games you could choose from.)

    Move came out the better motion controller, but more by default, as there wasn’t anything really amazing on display at either camp. Microsoft’s gizmo looked the more intriguing and fun of the two, but performance-wise, it didn’t impress. There was noticeable lag in most games, and the guides had to reset the camera more than a couple of times most sessions, especially for Sonic Free Riders. Nevertheless, Microsoft made a very smart move in hiring a group of models who presented the Kinect games throughout the show on the main platform in the booth. The energy, exuberance, and sheer ‘family fun’ joy that the models radiated while doing their presentation was a true highlight of the show. There was nothing like it elsewhere.

    Nevertheless, the overall impression of this year’s TGS is that the show is becoming:
    1) a show that seeks to show the biggest, most headline-worthy games that might appeal to a Japanese audience. It's true that there there are "minor" exhibitors at the show--they have an unusually high representation--but this might be because of the nature of the show, and the wish for the exhibitors from China, Taiwan, etc to be represented in the show. It is, after all, the biggest game show in Asia, and it is to everybody's benefit that they appear. The smaller exhibitors, however, always receive the least amount of visitors, especially on the public days. It seems everybody in the market: the public, developers and publishers, is interested in the big games--which is a shame. Rough and unpolished they might be, but it was really interesting to see the games being developed by the games schools around Japan and Japanese XNA and PSN developers, especially because the games used ideas such as Augmented Reality in puzzle or shooting games, which were not seen at the big booths.

    At the same time, however, I wondered about whether the organisers of the show were trying to project a different kind of gaming experience for Japanese gamers in order to avoid a 'Galapagos Syndrome' in the Japanese market. 'Galapagos Syndrome' describes the phenomenon of a product or a society evolving in isolation from the global market--a term that has come to describe more than anything the current situation in the isolated, curious mobile phone market in Japan.

    There were many games on display that one could tell would not be getting released outside Japan anytime this decade. A lot of them at the Bandai-Namco booth, with some eccentric manga and men-in-rubber-suit adaptations--an approach that seemed to spread to other small games. The Sega booth also had its own share of idiosyncratic games, a lot of them dating sims seen only in photo or video form, including Rekishi Taisen Gettenka, a charming cartoon sort-of-card-based battle game for the DS featuring famous war figures from Japanese history. It ties in to an arcade game. Poupée Girl DS 2, a fashion game that ties in to a Japanese fashion social network, (interconnectivity was recurring theme) was something that would be nice to see outside of Japan. Dotted around the show you could also find cabaret club-based games, even from Level 5, and games that featured high-school girls, such as Gal Gun, a light gun game set in a high school. However, these were really in a minority. The Japan-crowd pleasers were also there, but the showcase games were often not these ones.

    It was something that was felt more strongly at the booths of the Hyphens (Square-Enix, Bandai-Namco, Koei-Tecmo). All three publishers had good showings, showcasing a healthy range of RPGs and history-themed games. However, there was more to the show than just these crowd-pleasers, and the Square-Enix booth, in particular was interesting. Like every year, a theatre was set up at the back of the booth to show off the new RPGs; at the front, however, were other sections showing off the latest Call of Duty and Deus Ex.

    Is this significant? There is no obvious agenda to do so, but the aim of showing an 'international' view of the market, and the messages of the organisers about the international market, make it seem as if the underlying aim of the show is to help developers make the games they are developing 'for the Western market' appeal to the Japanese audience; to encourage Japanese developers to make games with a more 'international' mindset, and to force the Japanese audience to look at and play non-Japanese games.

    2) a show without (against?) Nintendo. This is not really the intention of the organisers, I believe, and it might be just a coincidence. DS games were visibly fewer in number, and you see a diminished presence of Wii games at TGS, which may coincide with the general reluctance of developers in general to develop for the console. More importantly, however, is that because Nintendo actively avoids showing at TGS, (and held their own event later in September) the show has become a showcase for Sony and Microsoft games.

    However, given the place that Nintendo occupies in the market, this is something that highlights the strange disconnect between the show and reality. Waiting in line to play a game (which, at TGS, means a 45-minute wait on average), it was interesting to see what people were playing while they were waiting: despite the impressive HD games on display, it was quite common to see in gamers' hands the new Pokemon Black and White. Perhaps it was because the organisers of the show wanted to project the HD experience at TGS, but it was odd to see that for all the thousands of Nintendo DSs in the halls of the Makuhari Messe, there was an almost tangible lack of DS titles at the show. Perhaps it was a sign that everybody was waiting to see what Nintendo was going to show at their own show later in the month.

    It’s not only a disconnect between TGS and reality: there was also a visible gap between the reality and the dreams of the industry, as projected in the show. A significant portion of the PR material was devoted to portables and mobile games, but it was odd to see these two genres pushed to the side on the floor. Portable gaming plays a large part in the Japanese market, and there were plenty of impressive games shown, especially on the PSP, with Monster Hunter Portable 3, The 3rd Birthday, Yakuza: Black Panther, and the remade Tactics Ogre making a rather good impression. Unexpectedly, though, this aspect of the industry had a quiet showing. Particularly surprising was the lack of presence of the iPhone; in comparison to the splash it made last year, there were only a few titles on display at its dedicated booth, off to the side of the hall, and only a few other titles shown at other booths. There was also a small booth reserved for Android games and development and a couple of Japan-centred mobile phone game booths on the periphery, but nothing approaching the level of previous years.

    On paper, TGS 2010 seems like a disappointment. It was a smaller show, and all surprises in-store were spoiled before the show began. However, perhaps it’s because the games shown this year looked more interesting, or because there were more gadgets and gimmicks this time around, but this year’s show had flavour. One nice touch was being let to play the games that were shown at the Sense of Wonder Night event on the second business day. In previous shows, they were only shown at the press-only event, but being able to play what was presented was really, really interesting.

    The goal of the event/initiative is, according to the organisers, to show ‘new game ideas that will catch people by surprise and give them a "Sense of Wonder."’ (Videos of the presentation or games will hopefully be added to http://expo.nikkeibp.co.jp/tgs/2010/en/sown/ ) Ideas being the focus of the event, the games felt a bit more experimental--one title shown was a massage simulator using the Wii Balance Board--but the games didn’t disappoint; there was something really appealing about the games on show, with their offbeat graphics and themes.

    The role of music in gaming is one of those topics that always comes up at this kind of event, and most of the games explored this aspect to some degree or other. MusicMineSweeper and Orfeo: A Game in Music were obvious examples, but there were others that explored the idea of putting music in contexts where one would not expect. Record Tripping, for example, placed turntable mechanics and music in settings like puzzles, clocks, train schedules. None of the ideas on show were very complicated, but it engaged people’s attention. SOWN was one of many things that made TGS, despite the heavy emphasis on the blockbusters, feel like a gamers' event.

    The organisers have been trying to spice up the show for a couple of years now, and this year they added on top of the fringe exhibits the Tougeki “Space Battle Opera”--a series of fighting game tournaments encompassing several games. As a spectator, it was interesting to see some of the the top fighting game players duking it out up there on a mammoth stage in the Messe. As a gamer, though, the best thing about the tournament was the atmosphere. Sometime that afternoon of the last day, TGS stopped being so much about business and started being a little more about the games themselves. You could sense it at the Tougeki tournament, with people cheering and reacting to the SFIV action on-screen.

    My favourite moment of TGS 2010, though, was at the end of the last public day, when I stumbled across a concert being held at the Sega booth, and found Takenobu Mitsuyoshi singing a Vocaloid song. Intrigued about this, I stayed to see the band play “Let’s Go Away,” from Daytona USA. The Sega of old is dead, of course, and this was an old trick. I realised that even then, but it still worked on me. Maybe it’s an illusion, but, like at the Tougeki tournament, it was good to be reminded that the game business isn’t just about business.