"I heard this was the mecca." That's how a petite 24-year-old woman—a self-described infrequent gamer—explained her decision to grab her Nintendo DS gaming console and head to the Yodobashi Camera store in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district one recent Sunday afternoon. Her idea of mecca: On the sidewalk near the store entrance, more than 150 people playing Dragon Quest IX: Hoshizora no Mamoribito ("protector of the starry skies"), a game of monsters, swords, and dungeons, on portable DS consoles.
They stood, leaned against the building, or sat, staring at their machines, occasionally flicking at the buttons or the touchscreen. One man lounged on a stowaway canopy chair he had brought. A few had parked themselves inside a café facing the sidewalk. Akihabara seemed a good place for it: Crammed with shops selling electronics, anime, and manga, the district is a magnet for Japan's nerdy hobbyists and collectors, known as otaku.
The gathering might have been dubbed a gaming party if not for the fact that there was nothing social about it. Except for a few young couples and families, nobody spoke to anyone else. They drew bemused looks from passersby and occasionally spilled into the walkway, forcing store officials to make an effort at crowd control. The scene was strangely reminiscent of the silent raves in New York, San Francisco, and London, in which people met at public spaces to dance to music playing on their own Apple (AAPL) iPods.
Dragon Quest's Popularity Over the past two months, thousands have made the pilgrimage to Yodobashi Camera's sidewalk. Some were lured by word of mouth. The young woman, who clutched a pink Nintendo DS wrapped in a furry case the shape of a teddy bear's head, said friends had told her about it. Many others read about it online on blogs or news sites, or came across it by chance. "We've had people fly from Hokkaido," Japan's northernmost island, said one store official, who asked not to be named because the store's policy was not to comment. "We had four guys pull up in a car from Nagoya," a city three hours' drive away.
Although it's not well-known overseas, the Dragon Quest franchise has a huge following in Japan. Since the original was released in 1986, every addition to the series has sold 1 million units—the benchmark for a hit game—ranking among the industry's top-selling titles.
In the game, players navigate characters through a fantasy realm full of monsters. Players can buy armor, weapons, and other items. As they go, they pick up experience points, gain strength, and discover new levels. Dragon Quest IX differs from past versions because it taps the DS's wireless antenna. Typically, the antenna links devices for multiplayer action or connects users via Wi-Fi to the Internet for downloading games or online play. With Dragon Quest IX, the DS wirelessly locates nearby machines and automatically sends or receives items such as treasure maps and clothing. So newbies can get help from seasoned players who have already unlocked secrets. The chances of rare finds are better when more players are around. And because there's no messaging function, players never know who is on the other end, skirting privacy concerns.
Analysts were predicting strong sales for Dragon Quest IX but were unprepared for the game's instant popularity. Dragon Quest VII (Dragon Warrior VII overseas), released in 2000 for Sony's (SNE) PlayStation console, holds the series sales record, at 3.9 million units. Dragon Quest IX, priced at $62, already looks set to shatter that. In just the first week, publisher Square Enix sold 2.34 million copies. Two months after its release, the game has sold more than 3.8 million units, according to Tokyo market researcher Enterbrain. Square Enix has set its sales target at 5 million units—a level few games in Japan ever reach.
Keeping the DS Fresh While the global recession has flattened gaming industry revenues, Dragon Quest IX's sales show that some titles defy economic trends. That's encouraging for many developers planning to release DS games this year. It's also a boost for Nintendo, which has sold 108 million DS machines since the console was released in late 2004, outstripping rival Sony's PlayStation Portable by nearly 2 to 1. Normally by this stage, a gaming machine starts losing momentum. But to keep the DS looking fresh, Nintendo gave the console a makeover in November, adding a camera and other new features. This fiscal year Nintendo predicts it will sell 30 million units, just 1 million fewer than last year.
Square Enix saw promise in the DS sales. But when the Tokyo company announced it would make a new Dragon Quest for the DS first, longtime gamers protested. They felt it was a mistake given the machine's appeal to people who don't normally buy games and its less robust system, say Square Enix officials. The company won't say whether it's working on a version for the PSP, which seems to have worked in its favor. "I bought the DS just so I could play Dragon Quest IX," said Yusuke Takeda, a 25-year-old Tokyo resident who works part-time jobs and is a hard-core gamer. "No other gaming device has this wireless feature. But I was surprised to find this many people in Akihabara."
The gaming party seems to have sprung up naturally. It's not clear why they chose Yodobashi Camera's flagship store in Tokyo, but its size and location near Akihabara station make it a key venue for video game launch events. Store officials say people started showing up within days of the game's July 11 release. At first they gathered inside on the sixth floor, where the store sells gaming hardware and software. But soon the crowd was too big to ignore.
Store officials say they had never seen anything like it. Since most people played quietly near a sign for a Wi-Fi hotspot targeting DS users, the store couldn't oust the visitors for making a ruckus. But at night and on weekends, Dragon Quest players would clog the space between the elevators and escalators, and store officials worried about a fire hazard. By late July, Yodobashi Camera posted signs directing Dragon Quest players to an area on the sidewalk marked off by orange pylons and signs for Ruida's Tavern, the name of a place in the game. Two weeks later, during Japan's midsummer holidays, the silent mass swelled to more than 300 people a day.
The bizarreness of the scene wasn't lost on Ichiro Ogawa, whose DS showed that he had spent 237 hours and 9 minutes playing the game. "This new communication tool brought all these people here," said the 31-year-old resident of Saitama, north of Tokyo. "And yet they don't even communicate with each other."