11 Dec 2018
Phone Fun and Virtual Reality Virtually Abandoned at Tokyo Game Show
Consoles and PCs once again ruled at this year's Tokyo Game Show, with Virtual Reality relegated to the realms of future possibility, while users looked to upgrade from phone gaming to the enhanced experience offered by other formats.
In global terms, the gaming industry has more than enough room to expand. Within Japan, though, the sector faces the challenges that always accrue when any market enters a distinctly mature phase. At this year's Tokyo Game Show (TGS), the very different ways that individual players are choosing to meet this particular issue became more than apparent.
With its relatively long history of gaming, the Japanese market has developed certain characteristics that are pretty much unique within Asia. There is, for example, sustained demand for more nostalgia-themed games, while there also remains a distinct preference for console gaming above smart phone play.
There is also the fact that the leading companies are very well established indeed, with the big players far more dominant than they are in many developing markets. Overall, this maturity has seen an end to the "wild frontier" feel that was once very much the dominant ethos in Japan's gaming market.
It's a change that is immediately apparent on the TGS show floor, where the majority of the big players now shun impromptu media queries, deferring all comments to highly stage-managed corporate-style press events. In another sign of the singular nature of the local market, while the #MeToo movement may have rewritten the promotional protocols that apply elsewhere in the world, within the Japanese expo sector comely campaign girls, all dressed in skimpy costumes, are still very much de rigueur.
Although the TGS is still a major industry event – with two of its four days reserved for business visitors – the presence of these campaign girls also betrays the fact that it is primarily a PR and promotional event aimed directly at Japan's game consumers, remaining very much the place where they can get hands-on experience of the games they have been hearing about for so long. Despite that, there remains plenty to mull over for those with a wider interest in the industry.
As with other tech-related industries, such as social media and online shopping, which are dominated by a small number of near-monopolies, the gaming industry too has its own distinctive hierarchy. Here, too, size has its rewards, with the big names seldom shy when it comes to deploying their corporate clout to assert their dominance or to seek out synergies across various sectors.
A good example of this came courtesy of Google, the social media giant, which has its own interests in the gaming sector through its smart phones, online store and assorted apps. Via its inevitably huge pavilion, the Californian company was this year throwing its weight behind Google Play Points. Essentially, a loyalty scheme, this allows Google users to set accrued points off against the cost of apps or game purchases.
Perhaps reflecting the initially low-key launch of the scheme, an unusually reticent company spokesman said: "At present this is only available in Japan. Actually, we only launched it a few days ago."
Sony, another diversified global brand, was, perhaps unsurprisingly, attempting something rather similar. In recent years, its gaming side – notably in its PlayStation incarnation – has made a point of collaborating with small, independent content makers. Inevitably, such relationships tend to be rather one-sided, with the indies drawn into the gravitational field of the big players, who then take full credit for any success.
One previous beneficiary of such largesse was Epic Games, the North Carolina-based company behind Fortnite, the smash-hit online survival game. Although 40% owned by Tencent, the Shenzhen-headquartered tech giant, Epic designs specifically for many of the dominant platforms, most notably the PlayStation.
Outlining the relationship between the two companies, Asumi Maeda, representing Sony Corporate Communications, said: "While Fortnite is not our title, Epic is publishing it through our platform, meaning there are many people enjoying it via PlayStation. In the case of Battle Royale [a Fortnite variant], for instance, I believe we are the optimum platform."
Sony also sees itself as offering the optimum platform when it comes to virtual reality (VR), with PlayStation VR (PSVR) rightfully seen as one of the market leaders. Interestingly, though, while many previous shows saw exhibitors keen to big up the possibilities of VR, this year it was rather less centre stage.
Maintaining that this was mainly due to the market entering a phase of steadier growth, Maeda said: "This year, the number of PSVR's sold worldwide passed the three million mark.
"In addition to that, PSVR games can be played if you have a PS4, with 80 million of those already in circulation. Clearly, then, there is a lot of potential and, in order to cater to this growth in demand, this year we are demoing 30 new VR games, including PSVR versions of Astrobot and Everybody Golf."
While PSVR's raw sales data may be impressive, it's also clear that VR remains very niche. Indeed, any particular market is only seen as mature once it has extended beyond dedicated gamers and become accepted by the public at large. At present, it seems the mass market is far from ready for something as immersive as VR, especially when more conventional platforms still have plenty to offer in terms of speed, graphics and game options.
Solid State Storage
By contrast to the currently becalmed VR sector, improvements to the technical side of basic gaming are currently driving considerable growth across the rest of the industry. Samsung, the Korean electronics giant, for one, was looking to wow showgoers with its new T5 solid state storage device (SSD). The device, which is about the size of a stack of credit cards, has enormous storage capacity (250GB-2TB) and a fast 10Gbps USB connector that is said to make it ideal for gaming.
The company was using a racing game, complete with high definition graphics (made by British game developer Codemasters) to demonstrate the capability of its SSD system. Keen to highlight its uptake by serious gamers, Jihee Kim, a Senior Electronics Professional with the company said: "Most hardcore gamers are very aware of our SSD and the way it can transform their gaming experience.
"Basically, it's a product that provides additional, high-speed storage for PCs or external storage for laptops or desktops. So, if you download a game onto our SSD, it will flow faster than one downloaded to a PC-embedded hard-disk-drive."
Although the T5, with its improvements in data flow and graphics, could play a decisive role in the development of VR, Kim said the company's interest in any such application lay more with its future possibilities than in anything currently available, saying: "At present, the range of VR game titles remains very limited while, in the case of consoles and PCs, there is a flood of titles. In the future, though, I believe VR developers will be able to make good use of SDD when it comes to rapidly rendering high-resolution, 3D graphics."
Similar reservations with regard to VR were to be had from Yuki Bungo, a Senior Planner with DMM Games, a Tokyo-based streaming company that currently provides an online PC gaming platform for some 220 million monthly users. Outlining how his company is looking to create rivals to Fortnite rather than focusing on VR, he said: "We're not touching VR at the moment, as VR game development is so difficult and takes such a huge investment in terms of time. Instead, our focus is very much on introducing new titles – such as our recently-launched Player Unknown's Battleground (PUBG) – and driving interest in our e-sports service."
With VR seen as the future and mobile phone gaming primarily considered as an effective way to attract first-time players, it was the consoles and PCs – especially those with internet connectivity – that clearly dominated proceedings at this year's TGS. Indeed, phone gaming, once a hugely prominent feature of the event, now seems to be a little past its sell-by date. One of the major reasons for its downfall seems to be that female gamers appear to be upgrading from mobile phone games to PCs and consoles.
This phenomenon has been noted by many in the industry, including Bungo. Seemingly writing the epitaph of this particular sub-sector, he said: "We now have a lot of women playing PUBG. While many of them started playing via the smartphone version, they soon wanted a more beautiful monitor to play on, with many of them subsequently upgrading to the PC version."
The 2018 Tokyo Game Show (TGS) took place from 23-26 September at Tokyo's Makuhari Messe, attracting a record attendance of 298,690.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo