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Wednesday, June 6, 2012
E3: The one that got away from Japan
This week, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) roars through Los Angeles. Game companies from North America, Europe and Japan flock to the Convention Center downtown to show off their latest wares. E3 is the world's leading video-game show, populated with multimillion-dollar games, big-name game developers, and Hollywood celebrities.
What makes E3 such a big show isn't necessarily the number of attendees, which are lower than similar events in Europe and Japan, but rather, the news that is announced at the show. Last year, Sony finally revealed the name of the PS Vita (it was previously codenamed "NGP"), and Nintendo unveiled its upcoming home console, the Wii U. This is the venue where game companies — Japanese or Western — announce new hardware and new games. Out of all the gaming shows, E3 is the crown jewel.
The first E3 was held in 1995, and right off the bat, the show was a success. It was so successful that an E3 was planned for Tokyo the following year.
Dubbed E3/Tokyo '96, the show was to feature all the major console-makers: Sony, Nintendo and Sega. However, both Sony and Sega decided not to show, leaving Nintendo holding the bag. The Tokyo E3 wasn't canceled, but it was a Nintendo-only show. Without rival hardware platforms in attendance, the event lacked buzz. It lacked spectacle. And most damning, it was boring.
Failure to get all console-makers to attend the same event in Japan has long plagued Japanese game expos. If all platform-holders don't show up, the event tends to become lopsided. The wow factor, as console-makers try to outdo each other, is absent if they're not all participating. E3 is gaming's equivalent of an arms race to see which company can blow rivals — and gamers — away.
What makes E3 in Los Angeles such a big show is how hard game companies hit with brand-new goodies and games. Every other game show after E3 feels like it's sorting through the leftovers.
Japan, of course, has a game expo of its own: The Tokyo Game Show. While TGS draws big crowds, in recent years, it's been missing big announcements. Japanese game companies prefer to make their big, yearly news splash at E3.
There are several reasons for this. A big one is that L.A. is better suited to big, ritzy rollouts. Companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft hold their press conference in plush Hollywood auditoriums. The press conferences and the parties are lavish. Celebrities often attend, and Hollywood types, such as Elijah Wood and Steven Spielberg, regularly walk the E3 show floor, checking out the latest offerings. The star power is unmatched.
TGS has its big press conferences and parties, but since TGS is held out in Chiba Prefecture at Makuhari Messe and as many of the Japanese developers are located in Tokyo, everything feels far more spread out than at E3, and far less manageable. More importantly, as mentioned, not all the console-makers attend TGS.
Nintendo sits the TGS out due to bad relations with the event organizers, the Computer Entertainment Supplier's Association. This leaves Sony and Microsoft to duke it out. And since Xbox 360 isn't popular with Japanese gamers, Microsoft is largely irrelevant. Since Microsoft is irrelevant, TGS basically becomes a Sony show. That in turn means far fewer English-language media cover the event, which means that any announcement Sony makes will get less bang for its buck. And Microsoft doesn't really bother with rolling out major new products at TGS; instead it focuses on Japanese-language releases. Not getting Nintendo to work out its differences with the CESA is a black eye for TGS.
Thus, TGS will never be as big as E3, either regarding new hardware or new games. It just won't. For many gamers, the discrepancy between the two shows' importance is symbolic of the widening gap between Japanese and Western gaming. In recent years, Japanese developers have come back from E3 wowed by the high-tech, beautiful games Western developers are creating. Japanese companies such as Sony and Nintendo want to get those developers making games for their machines. Like so much in Japan, everything seems to be leaving and moving offshore to bigger markets.
If only that 1996 E3 show in Tokyo had worked out. Things might have been so different. There might be more buzz and less of a sinking feeling that the country's game industry is playing second fiddle to the Western world instead of first chair violin.