Japan isn’t ready for next-gen and it doesn’t seem to care

As much as I hate to admit it, I was dead wrong about this year's Tokyo Game Show. Days before the show opened, I wrote that this year’s Japanese trade show was going to be the most important in years, finally bringing back the “big time feel” TGS had been missing for some time. TGS 2013 would supposedly be the show where Japan caught up with the west via a bunch of ground-breaking next-gen games. Yet, despite my hopeful predictions, Tokyo Game Show continued its march inward. Instead of this upcoming console generation being a time for renewal in Japanese development, it seems more likely that this will be the generation where the companies finally give up on the west for good.

In my defense, TGS 2013 was theoretically going to host games that would prove Japanese development was on the rebound. Metal Gear Solid V and Final Fantasy XV both look like top tier next-gen games, but the pair lacked any real presence at the show, least of all anything playable. Sony may have had footage of both at its booth, but that was all you were going to get out of those PS4/Xbox One frontrunners.

What about the rest of Japan’s next-gen titles? The Evil Within was there in non-playable form, as was Yakuza Ishin, but given that America hasn’t recieved the last two Yakuza titles, don’t count on playing that one soon. D4, the Xbox One exclusive from the creator of Deadly Premonition was shown behind closed doors, similarly unplayable (though we liked what we saw). Other than that, PS4 exclusive Deep Down was one of the very few Japanese-developed next-gen games that were actually playable.

Deep Down was also a standout for being one of the very few PS4 games--Japanese or otherwise--that wasn’t a retread of what had been shown before at E3 or Gamescom. Sony and Microsoft had large booths to show off their new consoles, but they were displaying weeks old demos to fresh audiences instead of having any international premiers. The overall lack of new content made the whole thing feel smaller, even if Sony and Microsoft were trying harder than other exhibitors.

Instead of next-gen content, much of the floor space was taken by mobile heavyweights like GungHo and Gree, publishers whose games rule the smartphones of Japan. Outside of those and smaller mobile companies, console heavyweights like Square Enix, Capcom, Sega and Namco showed up, but current gen games only. At least they showed up, unlike the notably absent Konami and Level-5. However, their booths were mainly dedicated to titles that have low odds of being localized.

Capcom had flashy areas devoted to Sengoku Basara and Gaist Crusher, titles remain unannounced for the west. Sega teased even more games that have no planned localization, like the aforementioned Yakuza and new Phantasy Star and Puyo Puyo releases that (frustratingly) look like some of the best franchise entries in some time. Both publishers increasingly treat the US and Japan as separate markets, and that divide only extended at TGS this year.

Capcom and Sega played to the fans in their home country about as hard as Namco did, but I’ll give Namco credit for actually localizing its intensely Japanese titles. Games based on popular anime franchises like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and One Piece headlined the booth, all of which are coming to the US, as are more obscure fighters like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Saint Seya. Sure, you likely won’t see J-Stars Victory in America, but Namco appears to have far more faith in the western market than its colleagues.

Despite my disappointment, TGS broke its previous attendance records this year and the previous week saw Monster Hunter 4 sell an astounding number of copies, so Japanese gamers clearly haven’t vanished. But they don’t seem too excited for anything that isn’t portable. PS3 games still do fine, but Wii U sales have been weak, even for major games like Wonderful 101 and Wind Waker HD. Meanwhile, neither Sony and Microsoft are launching their next consoles in Japan this year. This marks the first time ever a PlayStation console was released in Japan after the US. If a thoroughly Japanese corporation like Sony wants to wait on launching there, that should be more than enough proof of Japan’s next-gen disinterest.

So what happens at TGS 2014? The PS4 will be on store shelves by then and hopefully major releases like MGSV and FFXV will be far enough along that they’ll make a splash with some playable demos--demos that will likely be identical to what’s shown at E3 2014. Maybe the next 12 months will allow the country’s developers to catch up with technology, and they’ll have next-gen titles the whole world can get excited for. I truly want to believe Japan can be a global leader in gaming, but each year I go to TGS, my optimism fades.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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  • Vonter - October 9, 2013 3:24 p.m.

    At the very least I'm glad their's a platforming resurgence. It's my favorite genre and it gives a break from simulation, shooting or fantasy epic. Indies are taking hold in regards to fresh ideas and also given the fact that they have yet from becoming sequel factories like the AAA companies. Still this new gen feels weird since it has yet to form it's identity, since mainly what we know is more power and online communities will be the bases of it. I'm kind of sad Japanese games are relegated to portables and HD remasters. Still I can't come to accept many western games, very few appeal to me (even more when Survival Horror is "dead"). I hope options wide this next gen, kickstarter is a start but it't still hasn't shown an impact in general.
  • supaMcnugget - October 9, 2013 6:49 a.m.

    I've been gaming since I was five years old and I'd say that about 60 to 70% of all the games I've played and enjoyed were Japanese. I love the creativity and nostalgia of all my favorite titles. Many of them were RPGs, such as Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, and Disgaea. Of course, I love stuff from Fumito Ueda and many other talented developers. Unfortunately, the Japanese gaming industry certainly seems to be on the decline. This is rather sad seeing as how they've been industry leaders for so long.... Here's why I think this is so: 1. Economic troubles are leading publishers to "play it safe" and release games for their market rather than international titles. 2. The Japanese don't seem to accept change as readily as the US videogame industry. Therefore, the US is able to come out with awesome indie titles and experiment with new subgenres (such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls). Consequently, the Japanese release titles mostly comprise sequels and "safe" games that won't be risky. 3. The overwhelming amount of quality Western titles also seem to be overshadowing many promising Japanese games. Of course, I'm still looking forward to Final Fantasy XV, Deep Down (hopefully it comes out in the US), Smash Bros. for the 3DS/ Wii U, Kingdom Hearts III, and many others.
  • Arobadope - October 9, 2013 6:37 a.m.

    Since when was Japan ever behind? Imo they've never really been behind the west it's more the west actually caught up. But hell there are few things this next gen that look all that interesting, just looks to be more of the same ad nauseum.
  • Cyberninja - October 8, 2013 9:51 p.m.

    If want the Japanese games they are still there in great quality and numbers only I bought this year that is western is Bioshock Infinite
  • garnsr - October 8, 2013 8:25 p.m.

    Japanese games have fallen into that section of games that I wait until the price comes down to buy. They're entertaining enough, but in a second-run sort of way, now.
  • ZeeCaptain - October 8, 2013 6:22 p.m.

    Well when they have sales in last gen consoles already exceeding current gen consoles you have to wonder what the developers gather from that, obviously Japanese gamers aren't concerned about next gen because they're still playing their favorite games of this gen and more games they want to play are being released for the consoles they already own.
  • TokenGamesRadarFurry - October 8, 2013 5:30 p.m.

    How far they've fallen. A far cry from the time of my childhood when, not known to me, nearly all the awesome games I was playing came from Japanese studios. Western studios took up the mantle, and as far as I'm concerned, have largely replaced Japan as the source of good/great developers.
  • zach583 - October 8, 2013 5 p.m.

    PS4 sold out preorders in 40min
  • Sinosaur - October 8, 2013 4:55 p.m.

    It is really weird, I used to be almost exclusively into Japanese games (especially jRPGs), with exceptions for things like the GTA games, but this generation it's fallen hard. This gen about a tenth of the games I've played are Japanese, and half of them I didn't even get halfway through before I lost interest in them (sorry Henry, but Shadows of the Damned was on that list). Most of those games were from Capcom. This gen, the west really figured out how to make games and just kept moving forward, whereas a lot of Japanese games put out what felt like some of their weakest entries ever.
  • BladedFalcon - October 8, 2013 4:46 p.m.

    " I truly want to believe Japan can be a global leader in gaming, but each year I go to TGS, my optimism fades." I'm sorry to say Henry, but I very much doubt Japan will ever become a global leader in gaming again, at least, not in it's current state. Thing is, Japanese companies are in general obviously having financial troubles, but unlike in the west, indies are almost non-existent, and crowfunding options such as kickstarter are largely unheard of, Mighty Number 9 I believe is one of the very few projects that have tried crowdsorcing from people in Japan. Because of this, most developer's creativity is completely stifled by publisher's demands, who are obviously less and less willing to take risks, and so, they rather just bank on what's obviously popular over there and nothing more. So, unless those companies crumble and give way to a new way of thinking and developing games in Japan, just as such options have already opened up here in the west. I'm afraid we're going to see Japanese gaming encroach on itself further and further.
  • Arobadope - October 9, 2013 6:40 a.m.

    Indies are everywhere in Japan, they are just making hentai games and visual novels. Kickstarter is known about in Japan, but again, most of the games made are visual novels, look at Yatagarasu (which ran an indiegogo campaign that was hugely successful). Your comment seems more misinformed on this part. at thinking a new way of thinking has cropped up in western devs, don't let the rise of indie games fool you, most are lucky to break even, and most companies here still don't want to try anything new.
  • BladedFalcon - October 9, 2013 7:57 a.m.

    Not really, my point still stands. The indie presence, as you just stated, is relegated mainly to a very specific kind of market, and with such perception, there isn't that many developers there yet that are willing to try anything new. Yes, Yatagarasu is ONE exception... but that's hardly saying much. Also, if you're failing to see the impact that indie and kickstarter projects are having, then I don't know what to say to you. Yes, most AAA companies over here are also risk-adverse, and as a result, most of them are having financial problems, and continuously downsizing personnel to try and stay afloat. The rising indie scene obviously isn't perfect, and has it's big share of risks, yet the fact that a lot of developers are willingly leaving their "safer" positions at AAA companies in order to take such risks, clearly speaks of a climate that desperately needs, and WANTS that change. That's the difference with Japan. That wave of developers seeking or wanting to try and do new stuff is largely non-existent, like you just said, most of them are focused on making more of the same shit, so everything I said still applies: They are stuck in a loop, encroaching on themselves further and further, and when that approach no longer works, they are going to struggle harder than the west is, because at the very least the west is showing potential in other areas that are NOT the AAA market or ultra specific genres like visual novels.
  • Arobadope - October 9, 2013 1:25 p.m.

    THere's more than one example, Yatagarasu was just the first to my mind, if you really want to say Yata is the only one come on. Never said they didn't have an impact, but let's put words where I didn't. I never said you were wrong, I said the west is the same. /facepalm.
  • BladedFalcon - October 9, 2013 1:34 p.m.

    Except it ISN'T the same, that's the point :P Yatagarasu might not be the only one, but the amount of kickstarters like that coming from Japan that aren't dedicated to visual novels is absolutely pitiful compared to the amount coming from the west.
  • Arobadope - October 10, 2013 1:09 p.m.

    ....hmmm ok I think we got derailed, what I was disagreeing with you on was that large companies in the west are the same as large companies in Japan in that they both turn out the same games over and over (from what it seemed like was that you believed western devs weren't doing that). After that, everything else I agree with you on. And yes, it is pitiful, but it's there. The reason why we don't see more indies from Japan is because so many are doing that visual novel stuff.
  • BladedFalcon - October 10, 2013 1:27 p.m.

    *nods* okay, I admit I also misunderstood you. I definitely agree with you there. Large companies in the west are just as bad, I am just more hopeful for the gaming future here because at least the indie scene is flourishing. And yeah... You have to wonder if that can last indefinitely though, as poplar as visual novels obviously are, (And no doubt cheap to make, all things considered) you'd think that they would be bound to reach an over-saturation sooner than later.
  • Arobadope - October 10, 2013 1:46 p.m.

    I don't think they will hit oversaturation just because so many of them are more or less fanfictions from established series already. However, what I do think will happen is that "real" (if you want to apply that label) indie devs will end up getting more of a voice. NIntendo snubbing Japan I think was kind of a minor jolt to the indie scene there, and I think Sony said they were looking into whether they will allow publishing in Japan as well? I can't remember if Sony released a statement on that.
  • BladedFalcon - October 10, 2013 1:50 p.m.

    I don't know any specifics to that, but I do know that Sony has been very vocal in their support and courting of indies in general, so perhaps it's true, here's hoping! Frankly, I'm still convinced that when they put their minds into it, Japanese game makers can be super creative in ways that westerners aren't. Which is why I really want to see what will happen if/when the real indie scene in Japan explodes and becomes more noticed just like it's doing right now in the west.
  • Arobadope - October 10, 2013 2:22 p.m.

    I agree I think Japan is a great place and has a knack for putting very unique spins on things, where as the west seems more likely to fall into well trodden paths, break out of them, then fall back into a well trodden path. I have been liking the message from both Nintendo and Sony when it comes to indies, MS has been...way too mixed for me to get behind on any occasion, plus the way they f***ed people over this last gen has left me with a bad taste in my mouth and why I am ditching xbox and going back to my roots of Nintendo/Sony
  • BladedFalcon - October 10, 2013 3:39 p.m.

    Well, I think both cultures have the capacity to innovate, it's just that because japan thinks in a way that is very distinct from ours, when they come up with new ideas, they feel far more interesting than what we usually come up with, even when we innovate. Also, they seem to be far less concerned about stepping on people's toes when going into mature or complex themes, even if sometimes they don't explore such themes fully. And yeah, I completely agree there. I don't have any perpetual loyalty to any side, but just as the 360 felt like the more compelling choice last gen, right now Sony seems to have the best idea and approach, and Nintendo is doing a very good job with the 3DS. And heck, you can already see the plus of Nintendo courting indie devs, what with getting pretty cool titles like mutant mudds, bit trip runner, steamworld dig, and the upcoming Shovel knight.