Big in Japan

Sony has much to prove at TGS - but Microsoft will be closely watched, too.

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The Tokyo Game Show is, arguably, one of the videogame industry's most unusual fixtures. The innate peculiarity of the Japanese market as seen by western eyes aside, the mere timing of the event makes it distinctly odd.

By the time TGS rolls around, in late September or early October, the release schedule for Christmas has already been firmly locked into place in the USA and Europe. By and large, E3 is the show where we find out what'll appear in October and November. Europe's Games Convention is where the schedule is tweaked and polished. TGS makes a running leap off the end of the pier and misses the boat entirely.

There are a couple of key reasons for this. Firstly, the Japanese market itself isn't remotely as Christmas-focused as the rest of the world. The New Year celebrations do help to get the Yen pouring into the tills, but the country's really big spending (on interactive entertainment, at least) is reserved for Golden Week - a series of national holidays at the beginning of May. As such, TGS is a good opportunity to show the domestic market what's upcoming for that key period.

Secondly, there's the simple fact that TGS is a consumer show. Given the heavy focus on keynotes and new unveilings in western press coverage of the event, it's easy to forget that the show's raison d'etre is showing off upcoming games to consumers. Admittedly, once you've made the error of being stuck in the immense crowds who descend on Makuhari Messe for the consumer days of the show, this knowledge is liable to be permanently stamped on your memory.

From a local perspective, then, TGS makes perfect sense. Looking at it internationally, however, it's obviously tough for games companies and media alike to know how to treat the event. Unlike other regional shows, TGS is unquestionably a global event for the industry (look at South Korea's intriguing but distinctly parochial G-Star show by comparison). This is partially because Japanese games continue to hold both fascination and commercial value for the global market, but also because TGS has become another front in the ongoing console battle.

In recent years, the event has seen a rising tide both of western media, and of western publishers and game titles. Microsoft's entry into the console market - and its renewed assault on Japanese hearts, minds and wallets with the Xbox 360 - is largely the root cause of this. Combined with the prominence of European-developed titles in Sony's line-up, it's led to the unusual situation where journalists from Europe and the United States travel to Japan in order to see games developed in their home countries, often presented by executives from their home countries.

More often than not, these games aren't even that relevant to the Japanese market - and are greeted distinctly coldly by the Japanese media and consumers in attendance. Companies bringing titles to TGS also walk a tightrope - do they show off titles due to launch after Christmas, and risk being buried in the rush of new games in October? Or do they show off their Christmas line-up, and risk the media wondering why on earth they're looking at the same games they saw last month, but eight time zones from home?

The oddly ill-defined nature of TGS is hugely relevant to how this year's show will play out. Watched closely by "hardcore" gamers (an unpleasant term I'm going to have to continue using until someone coins a better one), there is one main thing they're looking for.

This week, once again, Sony is on trial. Whatever the firm's views on TGS and its relevance to the western market may be, the company simply can't afford a weak showing in Tokyo. TGS is home turf for Sony's Japanese studios and partners, and it's from those studios that gamers are expecting to see growing evidence of the PlayStation 3's relevance as a gaming platform.

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