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.
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
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.
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.
Tokyo Game Show
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.