Game consoles here to stay
GAMES on tablets and smartphones are better, faster and more varied than ever, but the excitement surrounding the upcoming PlayStation 4 - expected to attract big crowds at this week's Tokyo Game Show - proves consoles are here to stay, say observers.
They point to Tuesday's global roll-out of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest in a multi-billion-dollar mega-franchise that dwarfs some Hollywood films, as evidence of the sector's vitality.
Although the market has come off its peak, a hard core of gamers will continue to demand their favourite titles on high-performance machines, they say.
Combined retail sales of game consoles - static or portable - and the software for them topped 700 billion yen in Japan in 2007, the year after the release of Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PS3.
But last year, the domestic market had shrunk to an estimated 485 billion yen (S$6.2 billion), according to Computer Entertainment Supplier's Association.
The decline is a sharp contrast to the fast-expanding market for social games - those that involve some form of remote communication with others and are usually played in Japan on smartphones and other mobile devices - which now accounts for more than 400 billion yen a year.
Mr Hisakazu Hirabayashi, a long-time games-industry analyst who heads Tokyo-based consultancy firm InteractKK, said the casual observer might conclude that consoles were on their way out.
"It is a market that is not growing but it is stable," Mr Hirabayashi said, adding that software sales bottomed out in 2009 at 300 billion yen and have stayed around there since.
He said consoles can be thought of as a specific form of entertainment in their own right for a certain sector of society that will never be won over to a different format, at the expense of the thing they love.
Mr Hirabayashi added that games machines have taken root in people's lives. Millions of people are willing to buy a new instalment in a mega-hit series such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest "in the same way that kabuki fans will go to the theatre to see their favourite performers in a new version of an old play".
Big titles still generate excitement. Grand Theft Auto V, the latest addition to the multi-billion-dollar franchise, made its worldwide debut on Tuesday.
Midnight launch parties featuring DJs and free burritos were among events in Australia, where 320 stores were carrying the title.
If its predecessor is anything to go by, the rumoured US$270-million (S$340-million) price tag for development will be a sound investment for the company that owns the title - Grand Theft Auto IV raked in US$500 million in the week after its release in 2008.
In Tokyo, the Sept 14 launch of Monster Hunter 4 saw a crush of 500 people queuing up for its 7am launch on the Nintendo 3DS platform. The Monster Hunter series by Capcom, first released in 2004 for Sony's PS2, had sold 23 million copies worldwide. The firm said it had already shipped two million copies of the new game since the weekend.
Mr Takuma Kawakami, 18, who was first in line at the event, said: "There are beautiful graphics and movements that only game consoles can realise."
Mr Hirabayashi said smartphone games were easy to play and met people's need to kill time when commuting by train or waiting for food in restaurants.
The bulk of them are free to download, but charge players for extra functions or to unlock new sections. The pricing model has proved attractive to developers as it gets users hooked on a game and then demands their cash.
Users also like it because they enjoy the freedom of being able to play a game and decide whether they like it before parting with money.
"If home console games are like kabuki, smartphone games are like casinos where a small number of high rollers support the business," said Mr Hirabayashi.
The Tokyo Game Show opens today with more than 300 developers and hardware companies from around the world flocking to display their latest offerings.