17 Nov 2017
Dominance of VR Becomes Virtually a Reality at Tokyo Gaming Expo
With Virtual Reality proving a staple of almost every stand at this year's Tokyo Game Show, it seems this immersive technology is on the cusp of market-wide dominance, although an appetite for a retro style of gaming also lingers.
To the casual observer, this year's Tokyo Game Show (TGS) was dominated by all things Virtual Reality (VR). This, however, was far from the whole story. While many in the industry clearly see VR as the future, there are still a number of obstacles to be overcome before this becomes anything like a reality, virtual or otherwise. Understandably, then, there remains a marked reluctance among many to wholly embrace this new technology.
As a consequence, the real story at this year's TGS was that many were still committed to squeezing yet more mileage out of the established gaming formats, while keeping a wary eye on VR. Even among the established market leaders – most notably Sony – this pattern was more than evident. Ultimately, the priority among many seemed to be widening the consumer base by drawing in non-gamers, while also deepening it by enhancing the user experience of existing gamers.
As ever, the Sony PlayStation stand was one of the event's key focal points. This year, the company was primarily putting its weight behind PSVR – PlayStation Virtual Reality – the company's reality gaming system, which was launched in the October last year. Despite its emphasis on this new kit, however, the Tokyo-headquartered tech giant was clearly looking to keep its options open.
Although PSVR sales are said to be in excess of one million units globally, this hardly represents explosive growth for a company of Sony's size and stature. Perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of this, the company's stand remained well-stocked with conventional PS4 titles, while it looked to its partner companies to major on VR content.
Acknowledging that this was pretty much the company's policy, Shu Takura, a member of Sony's in-house corporate communications team, said: "Most of our VR titles have been developed by our third-party partners, something we are very grateful for. We do, however, have some content that our own studios have created, including Gran Turismo Sport and Bravo Team, a first-person shooter."
For 2017, in terms of game content, Sony's main focus was on PS4 versions of Gran Turismo Sport and Detroit: Become Human, a neo-noir thriller with a complex backstory. Its in-game action centres on an android uprising, one said to have parallels with several social-justice themes currently under the spotlight in the US.
Expanding on the premise behind the game, Takura said: "It's an interactive adventure game that lets players choose just how the story develops. The action's set in the near future at a time when androids have become commonplace. It also has something of a resonant social message, with clear parallels to both historical slavery issues and present-day problems with discrimination."
It is interesting that Sony is now looking to content with a strong moral or socio-political message as a means of driving sales. Historically, this is seen as typical of a cultural medium – whether novels, popular music, film or computer games – when it has peaked and a gradual decline has set in.
Acknowledging this comparison, if not the decline, Takura said: "Many of our latest games, such as Detroit, are fictions in a similar fashion to movies or books, while also having grand themes that resonate with people's lives."
Despite embracing these grand themes, the gaming sector is now seen as having to contend with the same problems evident in other successful industries. Following a sustained period of explosive growth, there is now a danger that the market is reaching saturation point, while structural and technological limitations are also impeding further expansion.
One way in which the sector has looked to fuel further growth has been in its active recruitment of female users, a demographic traditionally far from enamoured with gaming. This has been conducted largely through mobile-phone-based gaming rather than through the more traditional PC or console routes, though that might be about to change, at least according to Aya Shingai, a Scenario Director with Coly, a Japanese game developer.
Highlighting the neglected female demographic, she said: "Between 20% and 30% of TGS attendees are women. "In our experience, we have found that appealing to that particular audience is a good way to grow."
At this year's event, Coly was promoting Stand My Heroes, a smartphone puzzle game with a romantic theme. With its stand doubling as a beauty clinic, complete with free make-up and hair treatment sessions, it proved a major lure for many of the ladies in attendance.
While some companies are going wider and looking to appeal to previously neglected market segments, others are going deeper, seeking to provide a more intensive gaming experience. Looking to take a lead with regard to the latter strategy was Razer, the award-winning Singapore/California-based specialist gamer hardware company.
As ever, Razer had plenty to show, including Basilisk, a special gaming mouse with a number of extra buttons (US$69) and the Panthera, a customizable arcade controller ($200) with a distinctly retro appearance. This year, the company was represented in Tokyo by MSY, an Australian e-commerce player specialising in the gaming and high-tech sector.
Introducing the Panthera's particular product benefits, Shunsuke Kitaharam, a Sales Representative with MSY, said: "The lever stick can be adjusted in a number of different ways, while the control knob and the range of buttons used can also be customised, as can the values and the spring resistance of the buttons.
"As it has been specifically designed to be used in combat games, you can customise it to get multiple effects from one button. You can, for example, change a punch to a kick or you can make one button initiate a double kick or a series of simultaneous kicks and punches."
While products such as the Panthera clearly appeal to a limited and quite specialist market, the fact that such demand exists at all demonstrates that 2D gaming can be just as intense an experience for its devotees as anything in the VR realm. It also shows that, even as technology forges ahead, there remains a distinct market for a more nostalgic style of game play.
In a sure sign of this, one of the most popular stands at the event came courtesy of Marui, a Tokyo-based manufacturer of model cars and airsoft guns – low impact weapons that shoot plastic pellets. This saw showgoers given the opportunity to take down Biohazard zombies using the company's range of weapons and a touch-screen.
Such sentimental ventures into a world of less technically-advanced gaming aside, there is no doubt that most of the show's attendees saw the future as distinctly VR-shaped. This was particularly evident in the Schools and Technical College Zone, where almost every stand featured a VR game or project.
One of the more off-putting elements of the VR experience, however, remains the equipment required, with VR helmets often seen as claustrophobic and constricting. The huge amount of data that has to be continuously fed to the helmet to deliver an authentic VR experience also represents something of a problem, with the necessarily chunky PC cable connection notably reducing mobility.
Solving these technical issues remains a huge challenge for the industry, with many of the sector's big players investing heavily in devising their own solutions. In the case of Omen, Hewlett Packard's gaming division, its answer takes the form of a portable backpack PC that links directly to a VR helmet. Called the Omen X, it was launched in September with a recommended retail price of $3,200. According to Tomoyuki Moriya, the company's Product Manager, any Omen X user will enjoy unrestricted freedom of moment and will be able to roam across an area several metres in diameter.
Acknowledging that the advent of VR had seen Hewlett Packard looking to extend its commitment to developing dedicated gaming computers, he said: "A few years back, we offered a variety of products that all had possible applications in the gaming sector. We then took the decision to consolidate them under the HP Omen identity. It's our way of tapping into a changing market, one where an increasing number of people have different PCs for different uses."
While it's clear that many companies are already looking to make their mark in the future VR-dominated gaming world, it's equally apparent that there is still a long way to go before such systems become price competitive and the industry's "new normal".
Back on the Sony stand, Takura readily accepted that any progress towards the greater ubiquity of VR was likely to be steady and careful, saying: "PSVR is now entering its second year and it's already established itself as a valuable platform. Right now, we're trying to expand the number of users, but we don't want to rush things. We don't want people to go and buy it just because it's popular. We want them to experience it and enjoy a deep and lasting satisfaction."
The 2017 Tokyo Game Show (TGS) took place at the Makuhari Messe from 21-24 September. The event attracted 254,311 visitors, a slight fall on the 271,224 who attended the 2016 show.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo