Tokyo Game Show back with a bang

By Mathias CENA

The Tokyo Game Show is back in full swing after the pandemic, one of the sector’s biggest trade fairs with 200,000 visitors expected over four days.

AFP looks at the main trends at this year’s event, which throws its doors open to the public this weekend in a huge convention centre in Chiba, outside Tokyo.

– Mobiles to PCs –

Mobile games account for 60 percent of sales in Japan — the world’s third-largest market, after the United States and China — with revenues of almost $14 billion last year.

One in three Japanese are regular players on their phones, according to Kadokawa Ascii research, with the games’ popularity often attributed to long hours spent on public transport and a more mature market.

This lucrative sector is made more profitable by in-game purchases known as “gacha”, popular throughout East Asia that give players the chance to obtain a rare item or character.

“To obtain characters, lots of people can spend tens of thousands of yen (hundreds of dollars) at one time,” said analyst Hideki Yasuda from Toyo Securities.

The concept of gacha has failed to catch on a big way among Western consumers, and “is essentially an East Asian phenomenon.”

But with people stuck indoors during the pandemic, the PC market has also taken off, with sales soaring 43 percent in 2022 to around $1.3 billion, according to Kadokawa Ascii.

“Over the last five years, Japan has been one of the fastest growing major markets in the world,” said Erik Peterson from Steam, a platform for PC games.

– Homegrown dominance –

Japan’s biggest money-spinning mobile game in 2022 was “Monster Strike”, that combined role-play, strategising, puzzle-solving and collecting “Pokemon”-style monsters.

Last year, the game made its Japanese developer Mixi almost $600 million. Already 10 years old, it has been adapted into anime films and features regularly in events and concerts.

Foreign games find it hard to make it big in Japan, where locally developed products dominate.

Of the top 10 console games in 2022, there is only one non-Japanese title: “Minecraft”, the best-selling game in history.

It was created by Mojang, a Swedish developer bought in 2014 by Microsoft, the company behind the XBox console.

For Hideki Yasuda, the game’s dominance is down to console, with “Minecraft”, like nine of the 10 leading games, available on Japanese giant Nintendo’s Switch.

Switch dominates the Japanese market. Nintendo’s compatriot Sony only sells around 10 percent of its PlayStation 5 machines in its home market.

“Japanese gamers don’t really accept too much the Western style of art direction, design (and) narrative,” Serkan Toto from Kantan Games told AFP.

“Japanese video game companies are much better in understanding Japanese values or expectations in games, or the mindset of Japanese gamers, and cater to them.”

– Blockchain –

Japanese firms like Square Enix, Bandai Namco, and Sega also stand apart from Western rivals by exploring the use of blockchain technologies, such as crypto currencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

NFTs can be used to represent characters, cards or objects that can be transferred — as well as bought and sold — between players within and outside games.

“Blockchain gaming might be the next big frontier and (Japanese firms) want to be the pioneers on that frontier otherwise we will get swallowed up by other game companies,” said Toto.

“In classic games, objects that we have made or developed exist only in the game,” said Akari Oeda from Oasys, a blockchain developer working with major game firms.

“But with blockchain, they become ‘assets’ owned by the player, who can use them even if the game no longer exists, or even in another game,” she told AFP.

Not everyone in the industry is keen though.

Last year, Mojang said that it would no longer allow NFTs within “Minecraft”, saying they “can create models of scarcity and exclusion” and conflict with the “spirit” of the game. — Agence France-Presse

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