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Phone games in play
- report from the Tokyo Game Show 2011

  Sony captures the spotlight.
  Sony captures the spotlight.
This year's Tokyo Game Show (TGS) was dominated by the rise of the smartphone as a gaming platform and the debut of the PlayStation Vita, which drew in the crowds and helped the four-day expo to break new attendance records.

TGS fits distinctively into a global pattern as one of the 'Big Three' international game shows, along with E3 in North America and Gamescom in Europe.

The Japanese show could claim to be bigger and more international than ever with a record 222,600 people visiting over the four-day period, after planners earlier expected about 190,000.

The event opened with the Asian Game Business Summit. This was a discussion with four panellists from the Chinese mainland, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan on the opportunities opened up by new portable gaming devices such as smartphones.

However it proved to be a low-impact meeting, leading to the suspicion that it may have been arranged mainly to camouflage the fact that TGS is a lot less cosmopolitan than the organisers would like it to be.

Doubts about whether the show truly represents Asia came to the fore in conversations with a variety of people including Hiroshi Kawano, President of Sony Computer Entertainment Japan, and Robert Krakoff, President of Razer, a US company that specialises in mice, keyboards and other equipment for the serious gamer.

Computer game tournament underway.   Haming it up at the show.
Computer game tournament underway.   Haming it up at the show.

The main reason for the higher than ever attendance was the draw of Sony's new PlayStation Vita gaming console, which the company is aiming to launch in December in Japan and in early 2012 elsewhere.

The Vita 3G Wi-Fi model weighs in at US$389 while the Wi-Fi model costs US$324 at retail.

Kawano's focus was firmly on the Japanese aspect of the forthcoming launch. "As you can see here, most of the visitors are Japanese, and this show is for Japan," he said, referring to the long lines waiting to play the new Vita on 80 available machines. "Although it's true we have no message for Asian countries here, as a company and as publishers we are looking at opportunities in Asia."

Kawano: planning to relaunch in China.   Event included character marketing.
Kawano: planning to relaunch in China.   Event included character marketing.

While expanding its operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, the company is currently considering its plans to relaunch its business on the Chinese mainland, where the company does not officially sell or ship any hardware or software titles.

The message of a Japan-centric show was also echoed by Krakoff, whose company's most eye-catching item was a modifiable, arcade-style fightstick prototype that will have the narrow but deep appeal that the company is known for.

"Japan's an interesting country because it's a little more insulated," Krakoff explained. "It's not as global as some of the other countries you go to. You go to the show in Cologne and you'll find people from all over Europe coming in there. I think [TGS attendees] are building everything for the Japanese market. I mean, look at Capcom here [the Japanese game developer]. Look at the space they've taken. They've got a multitude of games, more games than I would ever imagine would be released at a show like this. I think it's maybe a cultural thing."

Krakoff: unique Japanese show.   Presenting Razer's prototype.
Krakoff: unique Japanese show.   Presenting Razer's prototype.

The large number of game consoles and titles at the show revealed one of the key features of TGS: getting as much product into the hands of players as possible.

"It's all about hands on experience," Kawano explained, before revealing that Sony is also going to take the Vita on the road to five additional cities in Japan after TGS.

Re-focused gaming

Overshadowed by Sony's hardware push, other big name companies made do with lower key presentations.

Name of the game: smart solutions ubiquitous.   Gaming title.
Name of the game: smart solutions ubiquitous.   Gaming title.

At the Sega pavilion, a range of titles strove to capture the public's imagination, including Binary Domain, a third-person shooter with a "deep story" for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and due for release next February.

Gree representative Sakura Inoue with applications.  
Gree representative Sakura Inoue with applications.  
There was also Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure, a rhythm-action game for Nintendo 3DS.

Over at the not particularly busy Microsoft pavilion, much of the focus seemed to be on games using the body tracking input device Kinect, such as the dancing game, Michael Jackson: The Experience.

Reflecting the trend toward smartphone gaming, one of the biggest pavilions at the event was by debutante Gree, the major Japanese internet service and gaming company and the main driver of social network software games in Japan, with 25 million users signed up.

Given the trend towards using smartphones and "microtime" to get in a little gaming, one of the most interesting products at the expo was Mophie Pulse, a discrete accessory that fits around the iPhone and is designed to refine and amplify the gaming outputs of sound and vibration.

The ViviTouch technology behind this was developed by Artificial Muscle, a recent acquisition of Germany-based polymer firm Bayer MaterialScience. The Mophie Pulse retails in the US for US$100. As tried on an iPhone pinball game it was surprising how visceral it felt.

Student game called Pinchball.   Accessories for the iPhone.
Student game called Pinchball.   Accessories for the iPhone.

Offerings from abroad

Among the companies from Asia the most noticeable was NHN Japan, the local affiliate of the South Korean Internet content service operator.

At some of the smaller and less well-attended booths there was also a number of companies from the Chinese mainland and Taiwan that seemed focused on securing publishing deals with Japanese companies for online gaming content.

3D game.   Kingsoft booth.
3D game.   Kingsoft booth.

These included Kingsoft, better known for application software, and Beijing-based online gaming company Baiyou Huitong, which was attending for the first time.

Baiyou's representative, Andy Yu, stressed the importance of listening to what potential Japanese partners want and adapting accordingly.

Yu: importance of listening.  
Yu: importance of listening.    
"As we know we have to bring some 3D titles here," he said. "The Japanese like 3D. This year we only have 2D TV, so next time we have to have 3D and then come back."

The main Hong Kong interest at the fair was Siggraph Asia, the conference organiser, which was promoting its upcoming computer graphics and interactive event in Hong Kong in December.

Among confirmed attendees are Nihon Kogakuin College, the Tokyo University of Technology, and companies like Chinese mainland software company Kingsoft, the Japanese game developer h.a.n.d. Inc, and the computer entertainment magazine company Enterbrain.

With TGS serving predominantly Japanese interests, more cosmopolitan conference events of the sort organised by Siggraph would be welcome.

"A challenge we have been facing in the first years of organising Siggraph Asia is that many people and companies in Asia did originally not know the brand name ACM Siggraph," explained Japan Representative Haruko Tanaka.

"Siggraph Asia covers many different areas from graphics to interactive techniques. It takes a while to reach the relevant communities and to position the event as a number one platform."

This year's Tokyo Game Show ran from 15 to 18 September, with the 2012 event scheduled for 20 to 23 September.

from special correspondent Marius Gombrich, Tokyo

Artificial Muscle, Inc
David Humphreys, Director Global Sales and Marketing
Tel: (1) 408-215-7362
Web: http://www.vivitouch.com
Beijing Baiyou Huitong Network Technology Co, Ltd
Andy Yu, Senior Vice President
Tel: (86) 10-5993-4199
Fax: (86) 10-5993-4109
Email: yuxiang@gameocean.com.cn
Web: http://www.baiyou100.com
Email: pr@gree.co.jp, inquiry@gree-corp.com
Web: http://www.gree.jp
Tel: (81) 3-3582-8230, (86) 10-8233-4488
Fax: (81) 3-3582-8231, (86) 10-8232-5655
Web: http://www.kingsoft.com
NHN Japan
Web: http://www.nhncorp.jp
Razer USA Ltd
Robert Krakoff, President
Tel: (1) 760-579-0180
Fax: (1) 760-579-0182
Email: razerguy@razerzone.com
Web: http://www.razerzone.com
Siggraph Asia
Web: http://www.siggraph.org/asia2011/
Sony Computer Entertainment Inc
Web: http://www.scei.co.jp/
Tokyo Game Show (TGS) Tel: (81) 3-3470-8920
Email: tgs2011press@fullhouse.jp
Web: http://expo.nikkeibp.co.jp/tgs/2011/en/

Content provided by Hong Kong Trade Development Council