Since our Gamasutra coverage for TGS 2012 has focused mostly on developer interviews and industry analysis for the (admittedly sparse) show announcements, I thought I'd do a quick blog post on my impressions of the show for the readers who weren't able to make it out here. While reflecting on my thoughts of the show itself, however, I started thinking about why it might not be fair to consider the Japanese games industry in a "decline", so to speak.
Simultaneously growing and shrinking
First, a bit about me: Despite being reasonably fluent in Japanese and having played Japanese games for a long time, I've never actually been to the show before, so I can't compare it to previous years. And when I stepped on to the show floor for the first time, my first thought was a slightly disappointed "...Oh. That's it?"
Of course, then the public days came about, and I realized exactly why I felt that way -- the show is in a very large venue, and it's laid out to accommodate a crush of over 80,000 during the course of a single day (2011 attendance broke the show record for single-day attendance at 86,251 people), so when you're there on a business day, it feels relatively empty because there's just so much space. Now that the public days have started, the convention center is absolutely bananas.
I can appreciate the fact that most of the major companies' TGS booths are relatively widely spaced and easy to navigate for what it is -- a concession to the over 200,000 people that attended the show last year over the course of four days. E3 by comparison, feels almost labyrinthian in its complicated layout, perhaps because it's not open to the public, and as such had less than 1/4th the total attendance than TGS.
Yet despite TGS's growing attendance, most of the people I talked to at the show acknowledged that the show itself seemed to be shrinking in rather concrete ways; fewer announcements, fewer exhibitors (Microsoft had declined to appear at the show this year, while last year's notable absence was Level 5), and less buzz. It feels like it's here for the consumers, not the press or the developers, and as I understand it, that was actually the point of the show the entire time. So why did I initially react with disappointment?
Speaking as an industry professional and as a games enthusiast, Tokyo Game Show has always been one of the capital-E Events that I looked forward to hearing about every year, but from what I can tell about the design of the show itself, it was never meant to be much more than a chance to get the public excited about the upcoming year's wares. (Yes, "show design" is a thing -- as both Game Developer and Gamasutra are owned by the same parent company as the Game Developers Conference, I've learned a thing or two about what makes things happen in the events biz.)
I just looked forward to it because, well, Japan was where the video games happened, so if there was a show in Tokyo about video games, there must be something newsworthy about it. When it comes to US-based shows, however, the equivalent would probably be somewhere in-between E3 (a supposedly-closed-to-professionals show that is nonetheless fairly consumery) and Penny Arcade Expo (which is very consumery but probably too grassroots to compare to TGS in terms of industry significance).
But when I finally got a chance to walk the show floor myself, it felt like a trade show that was built around a specific theme -- kind of like an IndieCade, I guess, except instead of being about indie games, it was about Japanese games, which is a bigger niche so the show is scaled accordingly. And like I mentioned in my last post, Japanese games aren't really a theme that I am personally engaged with these days, for the most part. Aside from a few specific products (Phoenix Wright 5, the new Guilty Gear release, and Razer's new arcade stick beta), I didn't see much at the show that I was particularly interested in on a personal level.
Then I realized that it's not necessarily that my tastes have shifted since the peak of Japanese console games (which people seem to identify more or less as the peak of the PlayStation 2 era about 8 years ago); it's that when it comes to the worldwide video game industry, Japan is no longer located in the center of the conversation like it used to be. It is a specific segment -- and make no mistake, still a very large and influential segment -- but it used to be practically the entire console world, and anything less than that feels somewhat anticlimactic. We still talk about everything Nintendo and Sony both do, to be sure -- but now we also spend much more time talking about Microsoft, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and Activision, such that the Japanese industry feels almost like an afterthought by comparison.
Japan, the world, and damn good sushi
In other words: It isn't that the Japanese industry has experienced a catastrophic term in strictly concrete terms (if you search Gamasutra for "layoffs" using Google's site search operator, you'll find way more news items about restructuring and studio shutdowns for non-Japanese devs than Japanese devs). It isn't even that the world suddenly developed a distate for Japanese games. It's that the Japanese games industry is really, really good at making games for Japanese consumers, and Japan used to be able to export those games as cultural capital across the world the same way it exports anime, and manga.
Since the Good Old PS2 Days, however, we've seen game development take off across the world. We've seen developers in Korea and China pioneer free-to-play game designs that can capture an audience unwilling to spend $60 on a boxed game; we've seen US and European devs completely transform the console games industry in both hardware and software; we've seen the PC surge back into the game as the de facto platform for indies, harder-than-hardcore audiences, and players in countries where it's simply too expensive to play on consoles; we've seen indies everywhere rescue the sense of fun, wonder, and innovation that can get lost as an entertainment medium becomes ever more corporate; and, of course, we've seen mobile and social platforms completely throw a wrench in just about everything we knew about the business of making and selling video games.
In light of all these industry-wide innovations, it seems a bit unfair to think only of What's Wrong With The Japanese Game Industry, as if everyone who makes games here for a living had somehow failed in their jobs. There's nothing "wrong" with it that isn't wrong with everyone else in the biz, too; for better or worse, they have their own Zyngas and EAs, their Double Fines and Capys, and everything else. It is that, worldwide, the industry itself has gone from being a Japanese restaurant to the buffet at the Wynn -- Japanese developers may be making "damn good sushi" (as DoA lead Yosuke Hayashi put it), but when steak and hamburgers and lasagna and Peking duck are now on the menu, you're probably not going to sell sushi to people who aren't in the mood no matter how good it is.
editor, Game Developer