Japan's gaming market is a world apart
The latest version of blockbuster videogame Grand Theft Auto may have stoked a worldwide buying frenzy, but the ultra-violent offering is likely to be a minnow in Japan's vast gaming market.
Shoot-em-up offerings from abroad often struggle to gain traction in the multi-billon-dollar Japanese videogame sector where fantasy-style games reign supreme and sell in the millions—though many in the West have not heard of them.
They include the hugely popular Monster Hunter franchise, which has sold 23 million copies and counting since its debut a decade ago.
"But most of them were sold in Japan even though we did make an English version," said a spokeswoman for game creator Capcom.
Language translation problems and cultural differences were among the reasons cited for the struggles of foreign game operators in Japan, a rift that was apparent as gamers flocked to the Tokyo Game Show this week.
Over 600 games titles were on offer at the four-day extravaganza that wraps up Sunday.
Though Japan once dominated the worldwide market with the likes of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, the country appears to be looking increasingly inward.
"The main trends of the videogame market in Japan are divided into two categories: major worldwide successes like Pokemon, Final Fantasy or Biohazard, and games that are specifically designed for core Japanese gamers," said the Asia Trend Map institute, pointing to the "overwhelming dominance of games made in Japan".
A blockbuster offering based on the popular comic book "Shonen Jump" reflects a common theme in which many Japanese games are centred around a character well known in multiple media platforms, from so-called manga cartoons and movies to music and television series.
Namco Bandai's AKB 1/149 Renai Sosenkyo, a popular dating simulation game, is the kind of title known to most at home but with little name familiarity abroad—AKB48 is the name of a well-known girl band.
"The title isn't suited to foreign markets," said Namco Bandai spokesman Toshiaki Honda.
Even Japanese giant Sony is releasing its PlayStation 4 abroad before its hits store shelves in Japan—a first—with executives saying that titles expected to be hits at home won't be ready in time.
Eiji Araki, senior official of mobile social game maker Gree, added: "We've learned that characters and visuals favoured in the United States are different from those in Japan."
For some, the unique character of Japan's gaming market encapsulates the country's so-called Galapagos Syndrome in which firms concentrate almost solely on the domestic market.
The take up in Japan on Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy smartphones trailed huge sales abroad as many mobile carriers focused on homegrown flip-phone offerings.
While iPhone is now selling well in Japan, a ride on the Tokyo subway underscores another unique aspect of the nation's gaming market—a love of handheld gaming devices.
Commuters on the city's vast transportation network are frequently seen thumbing away on portable devices to pass the time while, at home, consoles outpace the rising popularity abroad of playing games on personal computers
For one official at Japan's Computer Entertainment Rating Organisation, the love of fantasy and role-playing games in low-crime Japan stands in stark contrast to Grand Theft Auto's brutal depictions of urban violence.
"Japanese consumers prefer family-use games to those with violent, anti-social or extreme expressions of sexuality," she said.
A report by Internet firm GMO Cloud characterises the difference as "self-escapism versus self-expression".
True or not, Grand Theft Auto is undoubtedly violent, especially when compared to Nintendo's award-winning "Animal Crossing: New Leaf" in which players take on the role of a mayor running a rural community.
By contrast, past versions of Grand Theft Auto have included simulated sex with prostitutes and drunken driving, along with profanity-packed dialogue. Carjacking, gambling and killing are the staples of a game in which players take on the role of a psychopathic killer in fictional Los Angeles.
When Grand Theft Auto IV was released five years ago it blew away videogame and Hollywood records by taking an unprecedented $500 million in the week after its release, and it shows few signs of slowing with the game's fifth incarnation released days ago.
Despite its foreign pedigree, Hisakazu Hirabayashi, of Tokyo-based consultancy firm InteractKK, said he still expects the newest Grand Theft Auto to have relative success among Japanese consumers, at least "for a Western game".
© 2013 AFP