Gizmodo is pleased to introduce its new Tokyo bureau chief, Yongfook. Many of you may be familiar with his work as a crappy Japanese snack food critic. He will now be turning his tastebuds to consumer electronics. His first report is from the opening the Xbox 360 lounge in Harajuku.
As part of the Xbox 360 marketing extravaganza — or what I like to affectionately call The Green Campaign: lessons in how to spend shitloads of cash in short amounts of time — Microsoft has snapped up a very expensive piece of land in the snazzy Harajuku / Aoyama area of Tokyo and created the Microsoft Xbox Lounge. You could call this an exercise in passive marketing; it s a place where you can sit down, play with the system on comfortable sofas and large TVs, order drinks and snacks and basically chill out. And not once will a sales person actually try to sell you the thing.
Lets analyse this with the awesome power of analogy. If the video game industry was Disneyland, Microsoft and its lounge would be the It s a Small World ride. Meticulously engineered and expensive, but ultimately there is very little to do and you leave the premises feeling deflated and filled with the desire to indiscriminately kill gnomes. Carrying the analogy further, Sony with its PS3 is Space Mountain — everyone is in the dark and you haven t got a clue what s going on, but it s ex-citing and even makes you pee a little. Nintendo then, is that old bouncy castle on the outskirts of Disneyland, run by a single old man who bought it on eBay and is charging $1 for 10 minutes. The old man hammers a crude Open 4 bizness sign into the ground, upon which a stampede of 500,000 children crash their way onto the bouncy castle and have the best time in the whole world, incidentally allowing the old man to do a healthy side-business in bouncy castle-themed merchandise.
Whilst I don t doubt that the Xbox 360 is going to sell well in the West, the conquering of the Japanese market is going to be a tough slog for Microsoft, and here s why:
1) Hey Microsoft, you put your giant game advert in Aoyama. That s like the World Wrestling Federation opening up a shop on the Champs Elysees. You could only find a more inappropriate position for the Xbox Lounge if you smashed down the emperor s palace and built it there instead, whilst all the time calling him Ching Chong Chinaman Charlie and beating his wife about the face with your penis. I d like to think the idea to build the Xbox Lounge in Aoyama was part of a large, calculated decision-making process that I wasn t privy to — but I have the sneaking suspicion that it s the fault of some western Microsoft executive who got off the plane and boomed, ok so this is Tokyo huh? Cool. What s the most EXPENSIVE bit of land we can get? Why they didn t choose, oh I don t know, Akihabara as the spot I ll never understand. (Akihabara is the meeting place and Mecca of Tokyo s video game-playing and pc-modding community. You know, basically the Xbox s entire consumer base all in one convenient location.) I get that Microsoft is trying to send a bold message by putting the lounge in such an exclusive place, but I don t think the message is being sent properly when you look around and see only a handful of people milling about on opening day, 25% of whom are wide-eyed middle aged women who thought this was the new Gucci store.
2) There is no Xbox game. The original Xbox failed to make much of an impact in Japan and as such there is no legacy franchise that the Xbox 360 can ride the popularity of. Nintendo has Mario and Zelda, Sony has the (latter end of the) Final Fantasy series and Metal Gear Solid. Xbox is having to enter a notoriously finicky market without an original franchise and also without an RPG.
Then again, these are just the thoughts of one cynical video game fan. I do want Microsoft to succeed with this one — they seem to have learned a few lessons from the original Xbox and indeed, many of the games do look rather lovely (Ninety-Nine Nights in particular was a glorious melee of eye candy, even if the game mechanics do look alarmingly similar to Dynasty Warriors). But when I look at things like the Microsoft Lounge and think how much money must have been sunk into it, and how that money might be better spent making some actual games, or on a more suitable location, or being donated to Uwe Boll to ensure he never darkens the video game world with one of his films ever again, I become somewhat melancholy about it all.
Still, with a decent product a big company couldn t possibly fumble the Japanese game market twice in a row, could it? Those, I believe, were the famous last words at SNK.