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Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Postquake, Japan's game companies put titles on hold
Japan is still reeling. The devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11 left thousands dead and many more homeless or unaccounted for. Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the quake the worst crisis Japan has faced since the end of World War II. The earthquake's very real impact has been felt everywhere in Japan — even in the virtual world of video games.
The recent rolling blackouts in Tokyo have slowed development on some titles, grinding others to a temporary halt. The days and weeks after March 11 resulted in many studios either closing temporarily or having employees work from home due to aftershock fears. There is now concern that the huge Tokyo Game Show, held in September, could be in jeopardy due to the amount of electricity required to air-condition Chiba's Makuhari Messe convention center and power the endless rows of TVs and game consoles. Word has it that TGS organizers are currently not thinking of canceling or downsizing the show, but note that this could change due to future developments.
The impact, however, has already been felt. In the days following the earthquake, game after game was delayed or canceled. The subject matter of some delayed games no longer seemed appropriate for release at that time. For example, delayed racing game "MotorStorm: Apocalypse" and zombie title "Yakuza: Of The End" are both set among crumbling urban settings, which naturally evoke the destruction in northeast Japan. Nintendo's "Steel Diver" and Namco's new "One Piece" game were also delayed, and while they don't depict apocalyptic cities, they do take place at sea. Their delay seems to be a result of the earthquake's ensuing tsunami. These games were not some concerted effort to cash in on tragedy. They have been in development for years, and their release window ultimately ended up as bad timing.
One gamemaker, Tokyo-based Irem, even went as far as outright canceling one of its titles, "Disaster Report 4." The game was going to be released on March 10, a day before the earthquake, but had been pushed back to later in the spring — just as well. The game takes place in a city that is ravaged by an earthquake, and the player aims to make it out alive. It was Irem's first game for the Sony PS3 and was supposed to have had the most detailed in-game world in the popular franchise's history.
Seemingly out of respect for the quake victims, Irem canned the game outright. There are reports that Irem is even canceling all future "Disaster Report" games, too. While Irem is most likely attempting to distance itself from accusations of profiting from tragedy, fans of the series are disappointed, saying that Irem is going too far by canceling a finished title on the eve of its release. Irem began making "Disaster Report" games back in 2002, and to suddenly bin its latest creation seems somewhat rash. But at the same time, Irem most likely doesn't want to come off as insensitive. Even if "Disaster Report 4" was delayed to the fall, the clean-up and rebuilding effort in the Tohoku region will continue for years to come.
In the press releases announcing the delays, gamemakers typically were citing "various reasons" for holding back their games. Even games which didn't have any apocalyptic or water imagery whatsoever were delayed. For example, the sports games "Major League Baseball 2K11" and "Top Spin 4," which were slated for an April release, have been delayed. Obviously, baseball and tennis have no connection with the quake. What's more, Sendai's Tohoku High School participated in March's high school tournament at Koshien, making the decision to delay a baseball game that much more curious, if totally unnecessary. Unnecessary, maybe, but the delays appear to be gestures of respect.
However, it wasn't only through game delays that the game industry is paying its respects to those hit hardest by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In the days following the disaster, game companies began donating heavily to the relief efforts. Capcom, Konami, Square Enix, Koei Tecmo and Namco Bandai all gave ¥100 million ($1.2 million). While Sega Sammy and Microsoft gave ¥200 million ($2.4 million), Nintendo and Sony shelled out ¥300 million ($3.6 million).
Online, some netizens are saying that companies such as Nintendo, which is one of the most profitable globally, should be doing more. While Sony, with its factories in the northeast, was directly hit by the quake and must deal with damaged facilities and displaced workers, Kyoto-based Nintendo, which outsources its manufacturing to China, wasn't directly impacted in the same way. To put things in perspective, Nintendo's ¥300 million donation was eclipsed by the ¥500 million given by idol girl group AKB48.
Certainly, all donations are needed and welcome. If there was ever a time for Japanese companies to attempt to one-up each other in ways other than high-powered graphics or engaging gameplay, that time is now — by giving even more to the relief efforts.
Victims of the quake need food and help getting back on their feet. But kids are kids, and according to the Mainichi Shimbun daily newspaper, kids at refugee centers say they want to play video games. With power shortages, that's simply not possible. Gamemaker Konami as well as Bandai and Sega's toy branch are among the 26 companies that are donating toys to the quake's youngest victims. Because when you're a child, toys are worth their weight in gold.
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.