• Tokyo Game Show 2011 Report

    Confusion is not a word that has positive connotations. Whether it’s in news reports, or psychological reports, or art criticism, the use of the word immediately creates links to words on its broader senses: uncertainty, incertitude, anxiety, bafflement, turmoil, mess, shambles. Nothing that makes one feel optimistic, yet it’s a word that seems appropriate to describe the 2011 edition of the Tokyo Game Show, held on September 15th to the 18th.

    So many things did not make sense. At the Konami booth, you had people lining up to play Metal Gear Solid 3D, a portable port of a console game, right next to the Peace Walker HD stand--a console port of a portable game. The largest booth did not belong to either of the two platform holders at the show, nor to the software hyphenated titans Square-Enix or Namco-Bandai: it was taken up by GREE, a Japanese social network with a strong slant on mobile and social gaming. Around the show floor, strange combinations abounded--Sega and EA showing their games in the same booth being perhaps the most jarring. Others: salespeople from SoftBank (one of the top 3 mobile phone carriers in Japan) selling tablets to journalists. At the Sony Xperia booth, people being interviewed about their experience with the device. Point-card makers demonstrating their wares glued on the walls of their booth. Shouting attendants advertising live music at their booth. (A look inside revealed a vocalist singing to a recorded backing.)

    It was a show that seemed a bit more disconcerting than usual, especially after the 3DS conference that Nintendo held a few days before TGS, but, for all the issues at the show, TGS 2011 was vibrant. Developers seemed to have found a groove in PS3/360 development, and they seemed to be understanding better how to use 3D. Nothing really screamed ‘new,’ but show-goers didn’t really seem to mind. The Sega booth was interesting: the annual Sonic and Puyo Puyo sequel/updates were on show of course, but beside them was Rhythm Phantom Thief R, a game that could be described as the amalgam of Professor Layton and Rhythm Heaven. And then there were Phantasy Star Online 2, PSP Yakuza 2… Both Square-Enix and Bandai-Namco showed a slew of crowd-pleasing sequels as well. There was a good variety of games across the show floor, and the show was lifted by the presence of shiny new technology.

    The new Vita was the culmination of the forces swirling at TGS. The way it was presented, it occurred to me that perhaps Sony named the Vita so because they expect it to be a rebirth of their portable line--a Buddhist journey from one plane of the Samsara to another, made possible through the work and sacrifice of the PSP. Reading about Sony’s plans for the platform, and getting a feel of the slick shape and features of the Vita, it was easy to be impressed. The analogue sticks feel not as comfortable as the one on the 3DS, but in general everything has been smoothly integrated into a cool portable space, and the games stepped up to the task of showing off the portable well. In its current shape, Sony’s new portable is an impressive display of Now.

    That’s the ideal, however: the reality, as made physical by the actual console and the games proved to be more earthly. If anything, it was depressing to see that the Vita has given developers a chance to give life to ports and sequels that, despite being graphically impressive, look tired. No matter how many fond memories I might have of them, a new portable Everybody’s Golf and WipEout with a new lick of paint seem redundant; Dynasty Warriors, with its uber-gimmicky back-touchscreen controls, is simply dispiriting. Where was the latter-day PSP innovation? Where was the passion ignited by Monster Hunter?

    The Vita eventually turned out to be the star of the show, but it felt as if it were under threat--gripped by the confusion shaped by the big white elephant of the show: the GREE booth. Much was made of the fact that GREE, the biggest Japanese social network site, had the biggest booth at the show, a dazzling all-white canyon amongst the usual grey and black blocks. In previous years, it was Microsoft that occupied the white imposing castle at the show, but this year, with a booth not even half as big as Sony’s and a heavy focus on Kinect, it was as if they had finally admitted defeat. GREE’s booth occupied about ten percent of the floor space, and was littered with all kinds of mobile phones showing off their casual/social games.

    The games presented revealed GREE as having more bark than bite at the moment, but the booth made a powerful psychological impact, further boosted by the placement of the mobile games booth and the Sony Xperia booths to the southwest. The shock that GREE’s booth generated was not so much because of the games--mobile games have been a feature of TGS for a long time--but rather the temerity that a mobile games publisher would so brazenly show off its games in the face of the “serious” industry. For many observers, such a bold move was a surprise, though. Manohla Dargis, talking about indie movie festivals, once remarked that “festivals allow you to experience work that hasn’t been hyped up, talked down, encrusted in received wisdom, or Oscarized.” However, there is still an order to which publishers must bend their knee, and even if other mobile game companies, such as Mobage or DeNA, had considered renting a booth at the show, few would have attempted to do what GREE did.

    Sony’s booth was next to GREE’s, and it would be too much to call its location serendipity: a booth like GREE’s was bound to appear at some point in the show, and the fact that Sony anticipated this gives food for thought. The mobile games section, with dedicated sections for the iOS and Android platforms, didn’t have any amazing games on display, but it didn’t need to. What was amazing was that while in previous shows a lot of what was on display was there to catch the attention of a publisher, at TGS 2011, most of the exhibitors were already selling their games on one or various of the downloadable games stores. I always make it a point to attend the Sense of Wonder Night at every TGS I go to, (the 2011 edition web page can be found here) and it was startling to see that most of the games were already available for download as retail products somewhere.

    And connected to this new trend was the stronger presence of developers from outside the traditional hubs of video game development. Through events such as the Asia Game Business Summit and the TGS Business Matching System, developers and local publishers, from China and Korea mainly, were given the chance to talk to the big publishers at the show to sell their games, especially within the mobile, casual, and/or net spheres. This also happens every year, but the difference here as well was that the likes of Namco-Bandai were more willing to strike deals.

    What I was able to glean from TGS 2011 was a strange sensation that the industry is prepared to show a face of willful ignorance towards the forces of change in the video game industry, but is terribly anxious behind the curtain about the near- and far future of the industry. In previous years, the anxiety took the shape of a Japanese-vs-Western development dichotomy. This year, though, the anxiety loomed larger. Part of it might have been simply the feeling that TGS is now obsolete in the internet age. (Level-5, one of the bigger companies at the show, decided this year to hold its own event a month after TGS. It joins Nintendo as one of the more high-profile industry no-shows.) But the future of TGS was perhaps more of a thought extracted from the issue at the show that loomed large in people’s minds: the threat of social/mobile games.

    What was shown at the booths of the old guard might not have been very original on the whole, but it didn’t disappoint by virtue of pedigree; it only needed to display power and vibrancy, along with a catchy gameplay concept, which traditional developers have learned to do quite well. The Vita, despite the originality of Gravity Daze, was buoyed by the solid, well-crafted concepts of the PlayStation brand, and Capcom was there to show off Resident Evil Revelations and Street Fighter vs Tekken. If the waiting time to play the game were any indication, (a surrealistic fifteen hours was the top score) they had the game of the show: Monster Hunter 3G. Nevertheless, it was the business issues that you heard a lot of the people talking about after TGS was over. That is why Sony’s booth position at the show was interesting. Sony was quick to soothe gamers’ minds with promises of ‘real’ games for the Vita, but the repeated statements that the portable was about much more than just the games were perhaps an admission that the gaming industry has changed.

    It’s time to consider whether what we call video games at the moment reached their apex some time ago, and what’s being shown at trade shows, or internet sites, or video game magazines is just ludic digital decadence. Talking to people at the show and reading reports and opinions on this year’s show, there was a palpable tendency to be negative about it. It was difficult to ignore the fact that, while what was there on show was fun and interesting, there was nothing astonishing and new. In the current landscape, gaming habits and gameplay models are changing towards what mobile/social gaming and, to a lesser degree, motion technology present to players. And it felt as if the big third parties are being left behind. It’s time to consider whether the so-called ‘core’ video game industry is currently in the last stage of a golden age of video games.