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Shin Unozawa thinks Japan’s game industry has an image problem

By Janelle | September 20, 2012 at 11:57 am

Every year, TGS forum brings important industry figures together to debate and discuss important trends in the market and industry. This year’s first keynote speech was made by Shin Unozawa, the new Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association (CESA) chairman and current Vice President of Namco Bandai games. The topic is one that has been debated around the internet in much less eloquent terms: “What Japan’s Game Industry Needs: The Outlook for the New Era of Game Business,” or in internet speak, why the Japanese Game industry is doomed, and how we can fix it.

His answer? Trick question: the industry is actually quite healthy and we don’t need to fix it!

Unozawa’s argument boiled down to two main points: one, that the industry (especially the mobile market) is rapidly expanding and finding new ways to bring in income (like with freemium games and DLC), so all the companies who have previously focused heavily on physical media are making and should continue to make changes to orient their business in that direction; two, that because of this growth the industry in Japan is healthy, but since the world’s current perception of the games market is physical-media-based and doesn’t completely take the mobile market into account, the decline of physical media has analysts declaring that the whole market is in danger.

That first part isn’t in much dispute in the industry nowadays, but Unozawa backed up his assertion with numbers and examples of Japanese developers who made a jump to a new business model with significant results. Among them, he cited Fire Emblem: Awakening‘s DLC, Phantasy Star Online 2, and Namco Bandai’s free-to-play Mobile Suit Gundam: Battle Operation for the PS3, where players can play three 8-minute matches every six hours, or may pay to play more frequently. It’s his second point that takes a greater logical leap: that the problems with the Japanese game industry are primarily ones of PR and perception.

If the impression the international market has that the Japanese game market is floundering is wrong, then what can be done to fix it? Aside from putting on a positive face to show the world, Unozawa suggested working hard to refocus the public’s perception of the market from the old physical-media based model to mobile and eventually cloud models as well. This seems reasonable enough: games contained within social networking services, after all, are often decried in the west as “not real games,” so why should the explosive growth of Japan’s GREE matter? Unozawa also suggested making efforts to create physical spaces, communities and connections where people can enjoy games together, even in the wake of vanishing physical media sales and game shops, and trying to find ways to engage younger audiences and children who don’t have credit card access with the mobile market. In this way, mobile games might become a more publicly recognized part of the game industry, rather than just an extension of social networks.

Regardless of whether the problems in the Japanese game industry are a result of bad PR, or of something more dangerous, Unozawa was clear on what the effects a negative perception of the industry has. Of course, a perception that the industry is failing will cause decreased investment over time, but the greatest consequence that Unozawa stressed was that young talent might avoid the industry. Talented young people are a wellspring of new ideas, and are a product of an age that’s more digital and fast-paced, and can grasp the trends of the market more easily. He even said that since his generation learned to work on keyboards, they’ll need young people who have learned to work on smartphones to speak up and say “You’re too old and you don’t understand the direction this technology is headed!”

Overall, Mr. Unozawa’s speech certainly put a different spin on the issue, by tackling it from another angle. But is that all it is: spin? One thing that he didn’t define that I wish he had was exactly what are the problems the Japanese industry is facing. Declining physical media sales are a problem, certainly, but isn’t that a worldwide issue? What about some of the stagnation, the poor budgeting of time and money by companies like Square Enix, or the failure to create content compelling for an international audience? Or alternately, the failure to correctly identify which games would be strong international successes? What about a sluggish adoption of digital distribution? I’m not familiar enough with the Japanese game industry to say one way or another which factors are causing problems, which is why I wish he had gone into more detail about the problems. That might have made his assertion that the problems are image-related seem less like a dismissal of the issue entirely.

What do you think? Do you believe that the problems in the Japanese game industry are a result of bad image? What exactly are the problems the Japanese game industry is facing?

Topics: Editorials, Tokyo Game Show, Tokyo Game Show 2012