JIN-291 -- Playing it Safe -- Our '04 Tokyo Game Show Report

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T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R

Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 291
Thursday, September 30, 2004

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Playing it Safe -- Our '04 Tokyo Game Show Report

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Playing it Safe -- Our '04 Tokyo Game Show Report

Last week's Tokyo Game Show is the final major industry trade event of
the year before the crucial Christmas period.

70 percent of all video game and console sales are made during the
winter months -- so the stakes out at the Makuhari exhibition hall
are always high.

We took our seats on the Chiba-bound train, notebooks at the ready,
but we were prepared for the worst. The press on Japan's gaming industry
has been gloomy in recent years, with industry sales reportedly off
some 40 percent from their peak in 1997.

Gaming, like pop stars, supermodels and TV shows, needs to be red-hot
in order stay cool.

"Today's young talent in Japan is no longer interested in game
design," a veteran publishing executive told us a couple weeks
before the show. "They're actually turning back to manga and anime,
stuff like that. Even novels. As an outlet for talented storytellers,
game design has become kind of static."

But the show itself was hardly static. We were greeted by all the
usual glitz, and the short-skirted promotional girls -- the so-called
"booth babes" -- were as sprightly as ever. As veterans of this
sort of affair, we could see that the level of competition
between software developers was the highest it has been in years.
Both the PlayStation2 and Xbox are reaching that tantalizing point
of maturity where programmers are stretching the consoles to their
upper limits.

Sony paraded the qualities of its PlayStation Portable (PSP). The
company is looking to supply three million PlayStation Portables by
the end of March 2005, calculating that if it maintains a comparable
sales rate with the early days of the PS2, it will gain control of
both the home and handheld markets.

Finally given a chance to put the machine through its paces, we
and an assortment of investment analysts and hardcore gamers were
quick to conclude that the wait for Sony's entry into the handheld
games market had been worthwhile.

典his is an industry where some very big names have historically
made some big mistakes," mused Horie Nishikawa, a video games
analyst at a specialist Japanese research house. "But from what
is on show here, it looks as though Sony has hit the right formula."

Via its PlayStation2 console, which has sold globally at the rate
of one unit every 1.7 seconds since its release in March 2000, Sony
already towers over the home console market. But the PSP
represents a serious bid by Sony to take on one of its oldest
rivals, Nintendo, in a new arena.

Nintendo will soon be releasing a new handheld machine of its own.
Since the arrival of the GameBoy in 1990, Nintendo has faced plenty
of challengers, but it has retained control of the lucrative handheld
market on the strength of its games. Sega, Atari and others have
all dipped into that market and crashed miserably, but Sony has
bided its time.

Industry experts believe that Sony's likely success with the PSP
will arise from its games -- many of which compare very closely
to the quality of earlier PS2 titles. (They also believe that
Nintendo's deliberate absence from this year's Tokyo Game Show
was a tactical error. By letting the Japanese public fix the image
of Sony's machine in collective pre-Christmas minds, Nintendo may
have lost out on the all-important seasonal yearnings.)

Overall, the games on display looked and played beautifully. We had
few complaints. And titles like Metal Gear Solid 3, Halo 2, Final
Fantasy XI and Devil May Cry 3 are evidently going to be big hits.

But what concerns us most is the titles themselves. They are
all merely the latest rounds of already successful series. The
games were all great, and will likely serve their publishers'
missions by selling in the millions. But there was very little
in the way of vibrant originality.

Given the massive range of titles on display, it was odd to feel
an overwhelming sense of safety. We departed Chiba satiated but
hardly stimulated.

The industry may be acquiring sophistication, but much like
Hollywood, it has also learned that the tried and well-tested --
while cowardly -- is what brings in the big cash.

-- The Editors

[*Incoming Editor Burritt Sabin will be taking over JIN beginning
with next week's issue. We thank all of you for your continued
readership and support. -- RK/LL]

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Written and edited by Roland Kelts
and Leo Lewis (editors2@japaninc.com)


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