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About two weeks before I left for Tokyo to cover Tokyo Game Show, I had to confess something to Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft: I wasn't sure where to begin scheduling. Not because I was overflowing with great ideas for TGS coverage, but because, well, I wasn't.
We ended up turning it around, and I think we'll have some great stuff coming for you over the next few days, but that moment left me wondering: At what point did I lose touch with the Japanese games industry? Outside of fighting games (of which I am a devoted fan, and Japan's are still the best show in town), I haven't spent much significant time with many Japanese games at all recently -- certainly not enough to have a great idea of what I wanted to chase down at TGS, anyway.
This post isn't going to be yet another "Japanese games are dead, guys, really" post. I do think that there is quite a lot of creativity left on this side of the industry, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it comes out over the next few days. Instead, I'm going to tell you a story.
Earlier in the week, I met up with a good friend of mine who works in finance in Japan (mergers and acquisitions and such). When I saw him last, four years ago, he was excited about starting his career in finance; now, he is fascinated by the world of tech and startups, which is looking like The Place To Be for young people who enter the financial sector and quickly become disillusioned by the doom and gloom of the last four years.
Younger finance workers feel like they're pushing papers around to make money for ways that will never matter, while tech entrepreneurs get to evaluate the world with a critical eye and use the startup approach to determine how they can make the world work a little bit better (and maybe make a few billion dollars along the way, of course)
But Japan's tech startup sector isn't nearly as developed as the US's. (One notable place he brought me to was a cafe called Freeman Cafe, which was established explicitly to encourage freelancers and entrepreneurs to work out of, he told me -- in short, a nicer, cleaner version of pretty much any coffee shack in the greater SF Bay Area.)
Japan doesn't really have its own Facebook or Google -- that is, a massively influential, successful tech company that began as a startup and created a halo effect that encouraged yet more startups.
What it does have is some major mobile/social games companies, like DeNA and GREE, which work closer to the tech startup ethos than other Japanese tech companies. As a result, many of Japan's young, talented folks are going to work at mobile/social games companies in business roles, not the older, established old guard of the Japanese games industry.
It's anyone's guess as to how this will turn out; for better or worse, I think we're seeing a parallel between the rise of mobile/social games in the US (and look how that's turning out right now!). But it's always easy to forecast doom and gloom. I wouldn't be surprised if the new guard's young, enthusiastic talent and business savvy could reach across the aisle to those who are responsible for maintaining and advancing the creative legacy of the Japanese games industry and come up with something truly great.
Before you post a comment on this post lamenting the decline of the Japanese industry/how much you dislike mobile and social games/etc., you should know that there is one big reason why I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of Japan this year, and next year, and the years thereafter.
That friend that I was talking to? He isn't much of a gamer, and he normally doesn't play anything except the odd game of Winning Eleven since the NES days, but he mentioned he had been playing Limbo and Minecraft lately. Seems to me that it might just be the rest of the world's games that could inspire this next generation of Japanese game developers to greater heights.
Patrick Miller Editor, Game Developer magazine (@pattheflip)