"They look cute," says 20-something-year-old Takahiro Yamaguchi. "So cute." He's spent a good chunk of his day taking booth companion photos. "It's not just how the girls look," he explains, "but what they're wearing. That's what I'm taking pictures of."
Every year there are two shows at the Tokyo Game Show: the games that are played and the clothes that are worn. While cosplayers have the market cornered on outrageous spectacle, it's the booth companions that often provide the most revealing look into a company's corporate culture.
"The traditional booth companion uniform — you know, the short skirts, the high heels, the vinyl — are designed to appeal to men," says Xbox Japan's Yuichiro Aoki. "Our uniforms are designed to appeal to women." That in turn, Aoki believes, will make the booth companions feel more comfortable. "We didn't want to force the girls to look sexy. We wanted their appeal to come out naturally. Maybe this is just my opinion, but I think that's when women look their most beautiful."
Booth uniforms tend to run on cycles for some companies, while others change it every year. Last year, Japanese newspapers reported that Microsoft would be revealing a new booth companion uniform. While the company has had varying degrees of success, Microsoft has been picked for best booth companion uniform by game magazine Famitsu year after year after year at TGS. Famitsu quoted one attendee as saying, "Microsoft's outfits didn't seem to reveal much at first, but look again, and..."
In uniform-crazy Japan, there was considerable buzz about what the new Microsoft 2008 uniform would look like. Xbox Japan marketing exec Jyoji Sakaguchi said, "Every year, our booth companion outfits get an extremely favourable reception, and they are very popular among women. This year, we're going to finally introduce a new design for the outfits. During the booth companion fitting, things like 'Wow, I want to wear this outside work!' were overheard about the cool costume."
The design process began in early fall, and a hand-made prototype was created before the show. After it was approved, Japanese craftspeople produced the finished product. This year, Microsoft once again rolled out last year's model.
Uniforms dominate the Japanese landscape. It's not only cops, firefighters and train station employees who wear standardized outfits, but elevator operators, office ladies and taxi drivers. While researching the book I am writing on Japanese schoolgirls, it's been surprising to see how the design of uniforms often dictate to young women where they want to go to junior high or high school — often as much or more than academic reputation!
"Often when booth companions from other companies are on their break, they say that they think the Xbox booth companion outfits are so cute," explains Aoki. A lot of the girls who apply to be booth companions say they did so because they like the uniform." Microsoft isn;t trying to lure other companies' booth companions. It's not like that at all.
At 32-years-old, Aoki is Microsoft's creative director for the Tokyo Game Show. Fashionably dressed in a black sweater, blue button-up and camo pants, he's got a clip board in his hand, ear piece in his ear. The first days are always the most nerve racking, he says. Besides handling the Xbox 360 TV and print ads in Japan, Aoki overseas the TGS booth lay-out, any graphic design work that needs doing as well as conceptualizing the look of the booth companions. "I was heavily involved in designing the uniforms," he says. "We wanted it to be modern and something that the girls could actually wear outside."
And the girls do want to wear it outside. "But Aoki-san won't give me a uniform to take home!" bubbles 23-year-old booth companion Megumi. "This uniform is so cute, and it's comfortable — it's actually wearable." This isn't the first time Megumi has worn the Xbox Japan TGS outfit — she was one of 10 or so booth companions involved in the design process, offering opinions on what kind of clothes she would want to wear. While other companies dictate TGS wear to companions from on high, Xbox Japan involved them from the start. A closer look shows how playful the uniform is with visual gags like "Information ?" written on the seat of the uniform's shorts.
Design-wise, Xbox Japan tried to message the freedom and customisation that the Xbox 360 platform gives players. So while users can swap out hard drives or use different coloured controllers, the booth companions can do likewise: Belts come in green and silver, and there are hats for companions who want to wear them. "I think the hats are so adorable," gushes Megumi. There are metal star pins that the girls can put where they like. "It's easier to stand in cowboy boots than in high heels all day," adds Megumi. The ability to swap out accessories gives the uniforms customised, while keeping a standardized look. Megumi's favourite thing about the uniform is that, around her neck, she wears an Xbox LIVE-type gamer card with her name and photo on it. "I think it's really cool," she says. "It personalizes the experience, for me."
Out of the approximately 120 girls that auditioned in late summer, only 40 or so made the grade. Those that did attended a lecture on manners to ensure they interact with customers in a polite and respectful fashion. Decorum and manners play a large part in Japanese culture — ditto for the Tokyo Game Show. As part of their training, the companions also took a five hour seminar about the Xbox brand and Xbox LIVE. To help facilitate the experience, the booth companions were broken down into groups lead by core staff. So someone like Megumi who has experience working with Xbox Japan would oversee and help train new girls. At the end of the show each day, all the girls lined up in front of the booth, posed for photos and then bowed in unison.
"We don't have a predetermined idea of what kind of girls we want," says Aoki. Uniforms run small, medium and large — but even then, it's possible for the girls to customise the outfit. Straps on the back of the suit make it possible for quick and easily tailoring: tighten the straps for those girls who want a tighter fit and loosen them for girls who need more room. The shorts can be rolled up and buttoned in place for those who want their legs to appear longer and can be rolled down to minimize unflattering thighs. Because the uniform is open in the chest, revealing a bikini-type top, it's also possible to accessorize with a stole-type scarf for those companions hesitant to walk around with their shirt open all day long. Xbox Japan and its design team have thought of everything that can make the companions more comfortable as they do their job.
"Because the girls are in shorts and wearing stockings," says Aoki, "they also don't have to worrying about the kinds of things girls in mini-skirts have to." Meaning? "They don't have to worry about people seeing their underpants and can just relax. Our goal is to make sure the girls feel comfortable with the uniforms and comfortable with the Xbox 360," Aoki says, "because honestly, that will motivate them during the show."