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Console Makers Focus on the West, But You'll Still Get Japanese Games

What does Sony's moving PlayStation headquarters from Japan to San Mateo mean for Japanese game development?

by Heidi Kemps
Jan 27 2016, 1:39pm

Image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

The news that Sony Computer Entertainment—now Sony Interactive Entertainment—was merging with Sony Entertainment Network and moving its base of operations from Tokyo to San Mateo, California was simultaneously surprising and to be expected. Surprising because, well, Japanese companies rarely decide to just up and leave their home country, but expected because, well, have you seen the console sales numbers coming out of Japan lately?

It's a big shift for one the most influential companies in the business, and a potentially scary one if you're a fan of Japanese games. Does it mean that Sony is giving up on Japanese game development? What will happen to Japanese role-playing games, fighting games, and other distinctly Japanese genres?

Ultimately, not too much. Don't panic.

First, let's look at an example of the numbers that probably prompted Sony's move. Here's how many units each console sold for the the week of January 17, according to Japanese research firm Media Create (via 4gamer):

  • New 3DS LL: 30,172
  • PlayStation 4: 25,592
  • PlayStation Vita: 18,202
  • Wii U: 15, 398
  • New 3DS: 4,797
  • PlayStation 3: 1,939
  • 3DS LL: 1,162
  • Xbox One: 99

(And yes, that's the actual sales numbers for the Xbox One in Japan for a week. Scary, huh?)

Right now, out of all three consoles, the Wii U has sold the most in its lifetime to date—a very different story from the West, where it's seen as lagging behind. Even so, the sales of all three platforms are pretty abysmal compared to the West—the 2.2 million Japanese sales of the PlayStation 4 are but a teensy fraction of its nearly 36 million units sold globally. Boxed software sales in Japan are at their lowest numbers in decades.

Quite bluntly: Japan is now a mobile gaming country. I don't just mean smartphones, either: eight of the top ten software best-sellers of 2015 were 3DS games. Even the Vita, which is on niche life support outside of Japan, is doing quite well for itself over there. Long story short: The PlayStation 4 isn't doing as well as the PlayStation 3 did in Japan, and the PlayStation 3 was already known for not reaching the lofty sales heights of the PlayStation 2. Ever since the mid-00s, it's been a downwards slope for Sony console sales in Japan. Meanwhile, it's selling like hotcakes everywhere else. For example, In the West, Sony expects the PlayStation 4 sell more than the PlayStation 3.

Given these numbers, it only makes sense for a company division whose primary business is consoles to locate themselves in a place where the consoles are actually selling worth a damn. Following the market and all that. It's the sign of a dramatic shift that's happened in the last decade: Japan is no longer seen as the "home base" of console gaming, from a development or sales perspective, even among Japanese companies.

Some fans of Japanese games might be worried by this—does this mean that Sony is leaving Japanese development behind? Is the doom and gloom about Japanese gaming's irrelevance true?

Well, no. There are plenty of great Japanese-developed titles still releasing. What is happening, however, is that fewer Japanese developers are making console games, and the ones that are still working on them are now doing so with a global audience in mind, rather than treating them as an afterthought. You can see this at work in the Japanese-developed exclusives Sony's been working to secure—games like Persona 5, Street Fighter V, and King of Fighters XIV are all games with a distinctly Japanese flair, but have big global fan followings.

But what about niche genres, like traditional Japanese role-playing games and visual novels? Since those are geared towards a Japanese audience first, they'll appear mostly on portables like the 3DS and PS Vita.

Sony's certainly not abandoning Japanese development on their end, either—we've got Gravity Rush 2 and The Last Guardian coming, along with plenty of other rad-looking titles (including whatever Hideo Kojima has up his sleeve). It doesn't look like development in Japan will be too heavily impacted by the move, either. After all, we got great Western-made games like God of War and Uncharted while Sony Computer Entertainment was headquartered in Tokyo, why would the situation be any different for their Japanese development branches when things shift Stateside?