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Spot On: Behind the scenes at Namco's LEDZone

Networked gameplay gets a boost from Namco as arcade giant makes a move toward creating PC bang culture in Japan. First of a four-part series starts today.

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TOKYO--Behind every big idea there is usually a single creative spark. Tetsuo Tsuchiya provided that spark at Namco, helping the arcade and publishing giant take its first steps towards the networked future. Tsuchiya has led the Japanese company’s efforts to license Counter-Strike from Valve Software, create a localized version called Counter-Strike NEO for Japanese gamers, and install specially designed consoles running the game in Namco's LEDZone LAN arcades. Now he’s working on building the brand, gaining more users, and convincing third-party operators to license the concept and open new locations.

This is the story of LEDZone. It starts with Tsuchiya (shown in the photo above, with LEDZone store manager Kitamura Tomoko), and fittingly enough, when this reporter arrived at LEDZone for an interview, Tsuchiya was seated at one of the consoles, playing Counter-Strike NEO with the store’s staff.

Building LEDZone from scratch was a long process. Tsuchiya started his research in 2001, spurred by Namco’s realization that networked games were becoming big business. Interestingly, the company’s definition of networked games includes many of the games found in Japanese video arcades, like Virtua Fighter 4, Gundam, Virtual On, and Atama-Moji D. According to the literal definition, these are indeed networked games, since they are networked together to allow head-to-head competitive play.

As Tsuchiya explained it, in the age of Namco greats like Galaxian and Pac-Man “video games used to be man vs. machine. Now, they’re man vs. man, with the PC in between.” He cites the current popularity of games with PvP gameplay as proof, and suggests that this is the next stage in the evolution of games: rather than serving as the opponent, machines will only serve as a tool to facilitate interaction with other humans.

Namco saw that there were two basic game types that fit this model: MMORPGs and LAN-based games. Tsuchiya explored both and decided that the LAN-based game market was more attractive. First of all, he pointed out, MMORPG development is slow and costly. Second, MMORPGs have heavy infrastructure demands, so businesses based on this kind of game have high overhead costs. Finally, Namco’s management is a stumbling block: their unfamiliarity with PC-based and online games makes it hard to gain funding for MMORPG projects.

So Tsuchiya turned his attention to the LAN-based game model. After researching LAN cafes and LAN parties in a number of countries, he came to the conclusion that this market had the potential to be even bigger than the MMORPG market. Now he just needed to sell the idea to Namco’s management. cafe project.

Tsuchiya envisioned an atmosphere like a U.S. LAN party: lots of people making noise and lots of offline chatter between players. But when he described the facility he wanted to build to Namco management, they just picked up on the PCs, LAN, and high-speed Internet connection and decided it was the same thing as Namco's ongoing Internet cafe project. In 2002, when Tsuchiya first sought funding for his LAN-based game project, he received permission to perform only a test run using existing Namco facilities. Namco brass asked “What’s the difference between Internet cafes and LAN cafes? No difference!” Tsuchiya was told to install Counter-Strike in Namco-owned Internet cafes, known as “manga kissaten,” and evaluate customer response. As Tsuchiya feared, in the first tests, the game attracted very few customers.

Manga kissaten are a by-product of Japan’s flourishing comic book culture. It would be very expensive for an individual to keep up to date with all the popular titles, so these establishments have sprung up to serve this need. They have complete runs of dozens of different titles, and customers pay an hourly rate to sit in the shop, read the latest comics, and maybe drink some coffee or have a snack. Internet cafes were slow to take off in Japan, and when the concept finally became popular, the role was filled by manga kissaten with Internet-connected PCs, rather than stand-alone cafes. As a result, the environment was poorly suited to LAN games.

“Why do people come to manga kissa?” Tsuchiya asks rhetorically. “They come to read comics! That means the shops have to be well-lit and quiet.” He pauses and looks out the window of the office where we’re conducting our interview. LEDZone is dimly lit. Blue lights under the monitors give it the atmosphere of a space-age jazz club, and the occasional sound of an explosion followed by whooping and cheering leaks through the office soundproofing. “That’s no fun. People want to be able to shout and make a ruckus when they play LAN games. And the shop needs to be cool.” Moreover, he hadn’t received funds to localize the game, so during the trial, Namco had been trying to sell gamers on playing the English version of Counter-Strike--an unappealing prospect for most Japanese gamers.

So Tsuchiya went back to Namco’s management to present his case one more time. This time he was helped by external conditions: it was 2003, and Japanese broadband subscriptions were booming. Namco’s management still wasn’t familiar with PC games or the Internet, but they knew that broadband was the next big thing. According to Tsuchiya, the outcome of this presentation depended on his response to one question: “Is this broadband?” Tsuchiya said yes and got his funding. (Although LEDZone has some fat pipes for inter-store matches--two fiber optic lines delivering 100 Mbps and an ADSL line running at 12 Mbps--Tsuchiya privately admits that the shops are much more “LAN-based” than “broadband-based.” But he knew that answer wouldn’t have gotten the project approved.)

Tomorrow's Part II: Pitching Valve: The kingpins of multiplayer gameplay hear Tsuchiya's pitch and decide to play ball.

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