About six days after arriving in Japan, I found myself in Tokyo in the company of a suddenly homeless friend. Stuck without anywhere to stay, we ended up doing something many foreigners find themselves doing in a state of desperation when they don't have enough money for a hotel, and checked into an all-night manga cafe. Imagine rows of miniature computer booths, just slightly too small for the average Western frame, all lined-up side by side, their sleep-deprived, hunched-up inhabitants bathed in the same harsh, fluorescent glare of white strip-lighting at any time of day or night.
There are endless shelves of manga and wee PlayStations under the desks, and a caffeinated drinks dispenser in the corner, but at night-time all anyone is trying to do is catch a few moments of furtive sleep, slumped face-forward on the desks or hunched up against a wall. If you're forced to spend more than a few hours there it begins to feel like time has ceased and you're going to be stuck there forever surrounded by endless entertainment that your exhausted brain will never absorb.
Perfect, then, for Japanese MMO gamers, who seem to congregate in these places rather than indulging their obsession in the comfort of their own homes. It's part of a wider Asian cyber-cafe culture, but that doesn't make it any more comprehensible. Getting stuck in one of these places for a torturous seven hours was my first brush with Japanese MMO gaming - bored out of my mind, wired on melon soda, searching the Japanese computer for something to entertain me until the trains started again.
MMOs in general aren't that popular in Japan, certainly nowhere near as popular as they are in Korea or China; the games that are popular tend to be Korean-developed efforts like the wildly successful and completely bonkers PangYa Golf. The only homegrown PC game that's achieved any kind of success in Japan is Final Fantasy XI, which is still played by many thousands. This strikes me as really very odd, as Japanese hardcore gaming culture revolves around the sort of obsessive dedication and grind-gaming mentality that MMOs channel well. It seems strange that in a country where people will happily pour hundreds of hours into things like Dragon Quest and Star Ocean and things like Pop'n Music, players seem uninterested in investing that time in a persistent online character.
Final Fantasy, being a console series crossover title, obviously has the right idea, combining a recognised and hugely loved name and universe with a persistent online world. There's just one other Japanese-developed MMO that has had the same idea. Among the pre-loaded online games on the PC in my fluorescent hovel in Tokyo was a Monster Hunter game I didn't recognise, which turned out to be Monster Hunter Frontier, a massively multiplayer reworking of the wildly successful PS2/PSP game Monster Hunter 2.
Being one of the seven non-Japanese Monster Hunter obsessives in the Western world, I was slightly wary of even signing up for Monster Hunter Frontier. I'd already lost about two-hundred hours of my life to the PSP games, and you'd think that a game in which you team up to slay enormous monsters in a two-hour-long epic battle would work perfectly online. Not so, as it turns out. All of the sane Monster Hunter players are busy working away on their PSPs - Frontier is for the most terrifying of obsessives only. There's no levelling - like MH2, you improve and get better by slaying better monsters and crafting better equipment out of their remains - and there appear to be practically no new players at all. Everyone else in the enlarged town that acts as a hub for Frontier players appears to be decked out in cloaks crafted from the fur of Cerberus himself.
What you end up doing, then, is playing quests on your own, which makes the game exactly like MH2 anyway, except with a house for which you can earn or buy display items. It's also seemingly impossible to play if you're not based in Japan, which scuppers my chances of finding anyone back home who'll play it with me. Oh well. It's not the only Japanese-developed MMORPG. "Taste the salt on your lips while a gentle breeze from the seaside fondles your heated face!" claims Florensia. Who are we to argue with that?
Florensia is an absolutely brand new pirate-themed MMO, and also playable in English, German, French and four other languages if you feel like it. I went for it because of the blue-skied, wide-eyed Skies of Arcadia feel (and because it was the only other thing on that manga cafe PC that didn't require a stupidly complex sign-up process). Eurogamer MMO took a look at it back when it was in open beta, and not much has changed; it's still a pretty-looking anime-style pirate MMO with amazingly unimaginative questing and entertaining sea-battles. The Japanese servers are busy, though, with a lot of new players joining up and a massive content update apparently on the way.
Perhaps it's to be expected that Florensia would prove popular, at least initially. It has a lot in common with PangYa and Ragnarok Online, the two most popular online games in Japan - it's grind-heavy, anime-styled and free-to-play. The only popular MMO in Japan that doesn't make its money from microtransactions is FFXI. It seems that in this hugely time-poor culture, people are unwilling to invest a monthly sum in a game, and instead prefer to put time in when they can, buying themselves an advantage with real money from the in-game shop when they feel the need. It rather removes the elitism that springs up in time-heavy MMOs. Instead of working for hours and hours to get your hands on a hat with cat ears, you can just buy one for 50p if you like the look of it.
Or, you could play Yogurting. It's Korean too, but it was so unpopular there that the servers ended up shutting down, whereas they remain inexplicably well-populated in Japan. You can get around the security and play this from anywhere in the world if you can figure out the sign-up procedure. It's basically a game in which you fight monsters in and around a high school. I'll admit to not having the faintest idea what's going on in Yogurting most of the time. It took me hours to find the upgrade penguin, and an hour more to realise that half the items in the game were unusable to me because I was from the wrong school.
I'm much more at home in Danpara, or Dance Battle Audition as we know it - a game in which a variety of strange Japanese men pretend to be teenaged girls and dance around for points. The fact that this game is still popular actually speaks volumes for its appeal. It takes the mildly creepy grooming of other teenaged-pop-star management games like The Idolmaster and marries it with rhythm-action and, yes, microtransactions. Nobody seems to be remotely embarrassed about playing this. Just as you see rows of men sitting at the constantly-occupied Idolmaster machines at the arcade, polishing their 14-year-old pop starlet's glasses, it's not hard to catch a glimpse of Danpara if you let your eyes stray to others' screens in cyber cafes.
One thing that's clear about Japanese MMO gaming culture is that it's much more disparate than our own. There is no WOW, no one hub of online questing activity to which everything else aspires to an extent, and from which most other games' populations tend to migrate. Instead, you have a random selection of free-to-play, almost exclusively Korean-developed fantasy RPGs, Final Fantasy, a wildly popular MMO golf game and yet another Monster Hunter, apparently played mostly by insomniacs and salarymen on their daily hour off between work and sleep. Wherever the next MMO revolution is brewing, it's almost certainly not here.