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Will Nintendo's dominance spread to Europe?

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Image credit: Eurogamer

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Despite Japan's important role in the global games industry, attempts at predicting trends in the US or Europe based on the Japanese market have traditionally been on shaky ground. The Japanese consumer, it has always seemed, is a mystery wrapped in an enigma; a strange beast obsessed with franchises and game genres destined to remain forever impenetrable to western minds.

That being said, there is compelling evidence which suggests that not all Japanese trends are unique to that nation. For over a year, we watched from afar as Nintendo's Brain Age hung on grimly in the weekly top ten - and was joined gradually by several other DS titles with similarly remarkable chart longevity. This, it was reasoned in some quarters, was another example of how crazy and faddish the Japanese market could be.

Fast forward to the present - an unexpected present, where Brain Age has turned out to be just as successful in Europe as it has been in Japan. A year after launch, Professor Kawashima's collection of puzzles, pattern recognition and memory tests has barely left sight of the upper reaches of the UK charts in 12 months.

We have enthused before in this column about the remarkable success of the DS and of Nintendo's strategy of reaching out to an audience which has traditionally shunned videogames. We all know how well the DS has done, and the recent announcement that sales of the platform have topped 40 million worldwide are merely an affirmation of that success.

What's interesting, however, is to examine just what that success looks like at street level in Japan - which remains the country where the DS has made most headway. Japan is arguably around a year further down the curve of the console's life-cycle than the US and Europe.

The first striking thing about the Japanese market is that right now, Nintendo dominates retail. From the hardcore specialist end of the spectrum in Akihabara's Electric City through to the games sections of media retailers like HMV, the tables have been utterly turned on Sony in a few short years.

The DS and the Wii occupy the prime retail real estate. Aside from occasional massive PSP releases (like last week's Final Fantasy Tactics), Sony's platforms are relegated to less prominent spaces. Neither the Xbox 360 nor the PS3 is really anywhere to be seen. Walk in to any game retailer and you'll be presented with shelves full of DS software and accessories, with the Wii occupying a significant chunk of space off to one side.

Hardware is another story, though; despite the space given to the DS and Wii software and accessories, few retailers actually have any hardware to sell you. Demand for the DS, in particular, outstrips supply by a large margin, and second hand DS Lite consoles generally retail for 3000 to 4000 Yen (18 to 25 Euro) above the SRP.

Could western retailers end up looking like this in 12 months' time? Perhaps not. Conditions here are quite different to Japan, in many respects. The existence of a third major player in the console market - Microsoft, whose Japanese presence remains utterly marginal - makes competition for shelf space and promotion significantly tougher, for one thing. In Europe, too, Sony's dominance is arguably even greater than it was in Japan a few years ago, and will be harder to shift.

However, some kind of movement is already taking place. Shelf space for the DS is growing, and the vast demand for the Wii is turning heads in retail. We're a long way from seeing Japanese-style store layouts, which force consumers to walk through vast Nintendo displays to find the Sony platforms, but after years of seeing the GameCube and GBA relegated to precarious shelves on the end of aisles full of PS2 games, the shift in the layout of retail in the UK is noticeable - and important.

The second, and perhaps even more important, factor that strikes you in any Japanese games store is that the software and accessories on offer for the DS are very, very different to any other platform's offering. The success of Brain Age was a clear sign of where the console was headed, of course, but the speed with which the Japanese software industry has embraced the new, wider demographic it now serves is still vastly impressive.

In Akihabara's AsoBitCity store, for example, two vast racks of DS software face each other across the prime ground floor space. One of them is composed of traditional "gamers' games" - RPGs, shooters, adventure titles, platform games and their ilk. The other, however, is an even bigger rack, and is filled with the progeny of Brain Age. Puzzle games of all types, translation and language learning aids, city guides for travelers, simulated board games, kanji dictionaries and tests...

An ocean of software, based on the interfaces of videogames combined with the desire for education and mental stimulation, has been opened up for Nintendo's platform, and it is the most powerful force in the Japanese market right now.

If there was ever any doubt about the new audiences which Nintendo is reaching, you need only look at the accessories being produced for the DS. Handbags with special carrying pouches for the DS and its game cartridges range from glittering bags for Tokyo's young and beautiful through to sensible brown leather satchels for grandmothers. Replacement styluses come in packs with cute character heads, beloved by children and teenage girs, on the end of them.

There are suede covers for the console so fathers and businessmen can use the console on the train and have it look like a grown-up PDA. Cases and bags aimed at young men or teenagers are, amazingly, in the minority - by a huge margin.

Already the first tendrils of this change have crept into the west. Brain Age was merely the first of a generation of software; it convinced plenty of people outside the traditional gaming demographic to invest in the console. In Japan, a second and third wave of software for that audience has followed - some of which has trickled through to Europe, but much of which has not, and will not.

This, of course, leaves a vast opportunity open for European developers and publishers. The challenge is not to mimic Brain Age, as a number of unimaginative companies have tried to do; instead, it is to examine the new demographics now available to this industry for the first time, and work out what else they might want to do with their console.

Puzzle games, board games, traditional pastimes like crosswords, language trainers, literacy and numeracy aids - all of these things, and many more besides, can be readily identified as software which would justify a place on the DS' expanding retail shelves.

The opportunity is there. While it's important to remember the caveat from the start of this column - namely, that what works in Japan has often proved inapplicable to the West - it does seem fairly clear that the DS has not peaked by any means. The pocket wonder has proved itself, created an installed base, and is rapidly going from strength to strength in European retail. What remains is for Western publishers and developers to mimic their Japanese counterparts, and start really thinking about how to capitalise on that success.

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