Editorial: Japanese Gaming Doesn’t Need Saving

NOTE: This is an editorial piece by Timothy MacKenzie. The comments and views expressed therein do not necessarily represent Project COE as a whole.

Chances are, in one popular media site or another, you’ve read a statement that either implies or outright proclaims Japanese game development is irrelevant. During this generation, there has been a growing sentiment among gamers (particularly those in the United States), that Japanese game designers no longer “understand” what it means to create a quality game or that the torch has officially been passed to Western game developers. The glory days of Japanese gaming on the Super NES and PlayStation have given rise to a swath of popular Western IPs like Uncharted, God of War, and Call of Duty. There is truth to that. Mainstream gaming appeal in the West is undeniably strong, thanks to a flurry of excellent content, new IPs, new risks, and new strategies. However, I do find fault with saying another country’s contributions are entirely irrelevant.

I’m here to tell you that to dismiss Japanese game developers is not only misguided, it’s just plain silly. I’ll give you full disclosure here: I’m a huge gaming nerd. I’m also a fanatic for Japanese gaming, animation, and culture. Yet I still take issue with the pervading sentiment that Japanese gaming is doomed–I’ll tackle each point, one at a time.

“Japanese companies just don’t matter anymore!”

This claim is false. There is simply no other way to approach it. While gamers can choose to spin this statement, and chances are some media analysts and journalists have chosen to embrace this mantra, the fact remains that two out of the three major current hardware manufacturers are of Japanese origin. Sony and Nintendo are not exactly bit players in the video game market either. This would be a different case if Microsoft was utterly dominating the market share, but that’s far from the truth. The fact remains that it was the Wii that “won” this generation and Sony’s performance is far from shabby. When “Nintendo” and “Sony” remain has viable terms in the gaming zeitgeist and characters like Mario remain a huge part of gamer culture, I take issue with the notion that Japanese gaming no longer has any importance.

Who doesn't know Mario?

Critics of Japanese game companies will obviously point to the lagging sales of the Nintendo Wii (and the slow start of the 3DS, which has resulted in a loss for Nintendo) as a sign of a decline in hardware relevancy. However, the 3DS has performed far better than other noteworthy failure, the Virtual Boy. It has also performed better in the first eight months of its life than the Nintendo DS did in its entire first year. In the case of the 3DS though, sales have surged dramatically since the drop and it is far more probable that the system will have a healthy, profitable lifespan once even more respectable software begins to hit the system. This is already evident thanks to the appearance of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7.

Sales of the Nintendo Wii have been lagging, and thus critics have pointed to a drastic decline in Nintendo’s stock. Remember that the Wii launched back in 2006. The system was never intended to last for a 10-year life cycle. Besides, the fact that the system is finally slowing down in sales after about 5 years probably has less to do with Nintendo being in big trouble, and more to do with the fact the Wii has reached a saturation point. It has sold exceptionally well during its lifetime, so wouldn’t it stand to reason that at some point, the market will just not need anymore of said product because everyone already has one? Even with the lagging starting performance of Sony’s Vita machine, we still have to accept that the game public has a strong interest in these game consoles. Many of the problems we attribute aren’t because Microsoft is “crushing” the competition or because there isn’t any room for Japanese games or consoles…it’s a fundamental shift in our views on platforms in general. I think it just goes to show the strength of these game platforms that they’ve managed to hold such strong appeal for so long, staving off attention even from the burgeoning smart phone market. The shift we are seeing in attention is not representative of a decline in quality from Japan-there are still excellent titles produced there. It’s a shift caused by a number of other trends.

“Japanese games suck. Western games are better.”

This is another claim that gamers tend to make, but critics can be guilty of too. Making a base generalization or semantic all-ness statement is something that everyone is guilty of, but it’s still fair to point out that this generalization is simply false.

Throughout the history of video gaming, Japanese-developed games have had a huge impact on both the progress of the industry and the development of video games in popular culture. Japanese companies like Nintendo have such an amazing amount of “soft power” that it’s impossible to ignore. Nintendo products have disseminated around the world and have become staples of popular culture. Super Mario can be seen on t-shirts, candy, belts, and more. Poke’mon is a massive worldwide phenomenon. The Legend of Zelda also commands a huge fanbase and its influence has extended far beyond the sphere of video gaming alone.

The Legend of Zelda has transcended its status as a game. It's part of game culture.

Super Mario Bros. defined side-scrollers for generations to come. Super Mario Bros. 3 further improved on the formula and is considered one of the best platformer games of all-time. Super Mario World re-introduced the series for the Super NES and garners as much love as its predecessors. Super Mario 64 helped usher in 3D platformers with its impressive controls, immersive gameplay and colorful visuals. SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog was one of the most popular game characters of the 90s, and was at one point considered more well-known to US audiences than Mickey Mouse. Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, and 3 are frequently cited in best games of all time lists.

Metroid introduced an innovative and interesting spin on 2D adventure games. Super Metroid brilliantly refined Nintendo’s formula from the Metroid series and is sometimes referred to as one of the best games of all time on game media lists. The Legend of Zelda defined adventure games for generations to come. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past further developed the series and introduced many of the series conventions. IGN recently named it the best Super NES game of all time. Ocarina of Time has broad acclaim and has consistently received perfect ratings. Skyward Sword is in a similar position.

Dragon Warrior streamlined the Dungeon-and-Dragons style role-playing game format and is considered the “grandfather” of the Japanese RPG genre. Final Fantasy brought forward more conventions that defined RPGs for years to come, like with its job class system. Final Fantasy II/IV was an amazing step forward in character progression and narrative storytelling video games. Final Fantasy III/VI went one further, and VII is almost single-handedly responsible for the explosion of JRPGs in the PlayStation generation. There are almost too many other noteworthy JRPG franchises to name: Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Vagrant Story, Parasite Eve, Tales, Earthbound/Mother, Suikoden, etc.

Street Fighter II was not only responsible for the popularity of arcades and the fighting game genre in the 90s (sparking competitors such as Mortal Kombat and King of Fighters), the series has also commanded a huge following in the tournament scene. Street Fighter III: Third Strike defined competitive tournament play and Street Fighter IV re-introduced the fighting game genre to mainstream popularity. The vast majority of fighting game series: Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Dead or Alive, Soul Calibur, Guilty Gear, King of Fighters, BlazBlue, etc, are all the creations of Japanese companies.

If you have any interest in fighting games, you like Japanese gaming.

There are literally hundreds more that could be named. Metal Gear Solid practically invented the stealth action genre. ICO and Shadow of the Colossus command a great deal of critical acclaim. Okami was a fore-runner for Game of the Year in 2006. Cave Story is a major indie-game success story.  To ignore these games and their relevance is insulting. Granted, there are many poorly executed or just plain bad Japanese-developed games, sure. But there are plenty of awful Western games too.

“Well, Japanese games USED to be good. There aren’t any good ones anymore.”

This is another unsubstantiated claim. It can easily be disproven by casually throwing out names of critically well-received games: Super Mario Galaxy, Valkyria Chronicles, Professor Layton, Phoenix Wright, Bayonetta, etc. There are many great Japanese games across multiple platforms and various genres. There are still many talented and respectable Japanese developers that still take prominent roles in game design. Let’s not forget that many great Japanese games have come out in 2011, including: Catherine, Shadows of the Damned, El Shaddai, Ghost Trick, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D, Super Mario 3D Land, Pokemon Black/White, Ys Chronicles, Dragon Quest VI Realms of Revelation, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, King of Fighters XIII, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, Okamiden, Arcana Heart 3, Sonic Generations, Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, etc.

If you like Dead Space, you owe a huge debt of gratitude to Resident Evil 4.

There is, however, a noticeable trend that is most likely responsible for the generalization that Japanese gaming doesn’t have a large presence on current generation platforms. The PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS, and PlayStation Portable were, and still are to some degree, popular platforms. This was and is especially true in Japan, where those platforms excelled even beyond their insane success in the United States. As of January 31st, 2011, the PlayStation 2 has sold 150 million units worldwide according to 1up’s reporting. Because of the popularity of these platforms in Japan, Japanese companies chose to spend more time and resources on development for them. Some gamers may question why Japanese software companies didn’t jump ship as quickly into the HD market.

Pretend that it is the year 2005. The Xbox 360 has launched and the PlayStation 3 is on the horizon. You are an executive in a Japanese company. Do you stick with the incredibly popular PlayStation 2, which represents a huge market share and has a large fanbase? Or do you gamble on a brand new system, from a company that is unpopular in your country, which has very little market penetration? The third option is to wait and develop a game for the PlayStation 3. However, game development costs significantly more on the PS3 than the PS2, and again, PS2 has the legacy behind it.

Handheld systems also have a huge following, especially in Japan. They are easy to develop for and do not require as large an investment as an HD console game. Japanese companies did not shy away from HD consoles because they are afraid of competition or because the developers lack ability; such a claim is silly. It was a conscious choice.

We also need to consider that mainstream appeal and popularity are not always synonymous with quality.

“Japanese-developed games are too simple and linear. Western games have more depth and complexity.”

Supporters of this claim tend to point to Western-developed role-playing games versus their Japanese counterparts. It is plain to see that games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion do offer more depth and customization than, say, Final Fantasy X, Baten Kaitos, or Tales of Symphonia (all of which are great games). The main problem isn’t necessarily that a game is more or less linear than another. The problem is that we’re projecting a negative context onto one end of the spectrum and glorifying the other side. My argument in return is that customization, or lack thereof, is not an immediate indicator of quality. A simple game can be great. A complex can be bad. It depends on how the game elements work and if the game manages to make the player feel satisfied. There has to be a sense of autonomy (being able to play without feelings of restriction, within reason), viable rewards for any risks taken (i.e. challenge and satisfaction), and a sense of mastery (feelings of accomplishment).

BioWare’s Mass Effect series is noteworthy because it allows players to choose uniquely tailored responses in dialog, customize the lead character’s gender, appearance, and behavior, and so on. This innovation is far from new though. Even JRPGs have used this feature to some degree, an example being the fame system and dialog trees in Skies of Arcadia. These features are meant to evoke a sense of immersion, or a feeling that the player is actually “there,” in the shoes of the main character. This does not, however, automatically make the game “better” or “worse.” It depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. If the inclusion of dialog trees immediately means a “better fantasy game,” then by that logic, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book would be better than Lord of the Rings. See? Contextualization is key to discourse. I can just as easily dismiss Mass Effect by framing it as a bunch of sidequests all loosely connected to an end goal with some morality choices tacked on. Sounds a lot less impressive when framed in a negative context, huh?

Persona is arguably one of the best RPG series of the last decade.

Japanese development company ATLUS has proven that they can provide an excellent spin on the RPG genre with the Persona series. Persona 3 and 4 both combine elements of character building and player preference-fueled customization options with typical Japanese role-playing game conventions. The player takes the role of the main character and can shape the game experience around his or her preferences: this takes the form of joining clubs, interacting with characters, forming and refining relationships, and managing activities. The battle system and general “style” of the game embrace the developer’s heritage, resulting in both satisfaction and familiarity (turn-based menu-driven battle system). It’s not these elements on their own that establishes the game as “good” or “bad,” but how they work together to engage the player. This can be seen as a hybrid approach between both the typical JRPG and the typical Western design approach.

However, there still is nothing “wrong” with having predefined characters and responses, as long as they are engaging and easy to like. Chrono Trigger has resonated deeply with fans because of excellent character design and character development. Fans are easily able to identify characters by their unique mannerisms and behavior. For example, who will you remember more vividly: Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII or your custom avatar from Oblivion? Western-role playing games tend to feature “blank slate” characters, where the player is encouraged to explore the game world and assume the role of the protagonist. In Japanese role playing games, the general trend is to put the player in the role of a fly on the wall. Perhaps the best example of this is Baten Kaitos, where the player assumes this role almost literally. Rather than actually play as the main character, the player is a subtle guide, who never physically manifests in the game world.

The prominent trend in Western-developed role-playing games is to give the player a heightened sense of immersion, evoking the sensation that “you” are the hero or anti-hero. Again, look at Fable, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, and Fallout. I am in no way asserting that these are bad games. Far from it. They are fantastic. However, gamers should recognize that the degree of customization is a conscious design choice. Valkyria Chronicles has a set of pre-defined characters and a script that the player is unable to meddle with. The lead character, Welkin Gunther, has a set base of values that do not change regardless of what the player desires. This does not make the game any worse than the aforementioned titles though. It just makes it a different kind of experience.

Valkyria Chronicles is one of the best games in the PS3 library and a brilliant RPG.

I’m not implying that all JRPGs are immediately exempt from criticism because of the differences in design philosophy either. There are some Japanese-developed games that just missed the mark for whatever reason, whether it’s shoddy dialog (Star Ocean: The Last Hope) or somewhat poor execution (Resonance of Fate). Few other genres have attracted so much venom during this console generation, especially in reaction to the disappointing HD debut of the Final Fantasy series. However, it’s more than fair to point out that genre, as a whole, still has a lot of potential and should not be dismissed so casually. Xenoblade Chronicles, which was released in Japan and the UK and is gearing up for releasing in the US, has garnered massive critical acclaim. Other JRPGs from this generation, including Eternal Sonata, Tales of Vesperia, and Lost Odyssey, have also received positive praise.

Another common complaint is how gameplay concepts are implemented. Namely, Western developers opt for real-time combat, while many prominent Japanese role-playing games still have turn-based battle systems. Many gamers consider this element a “flaw,” but the truth isn’t so simple. Utilizing a turn-based system is a conscious design choice, which is not good or bad by itself. It depends on how well the game utilizes the system and if it manages to be enjoyable. Are Dragon Quest VIII and Lost Odyssey great games? Absolutely. The turn-based system is not a flaw for people who enjoy that classic style of play. It is clearly an issue that can be interpreted as a matter of preference.

“The Japanese don’t know how to make the industry move forward anymore. Western developers are far more innovative and artistic.”

I would never downplay the success of the developers behind innovative games like Portal 2, LA Noire, or Heavy Rain. They are great game experiences. Go play them. Enjoy.

I will, however, dispute the claim that Japanese developers “don’t know how” to make the industry move forward. That’s nonsense. They’ve done so many times in the past and demonstrate the ability to do so still. Entire genres owe much thanks to Japanese-developed games. Take a look at the action genre. Games like Dead Space and Gears of War owe a large debt of gratitude to Shinji Mikami and the rest of the development team behind Resident Evil 4, due to the over-the-shoulder 3rd person camera angle and impressive action gameplay. I would go so far as to say that without Resident Evil 4, Gears of War and Dead Space probably wouldn’t exist; at least not in the form we know them today. Critics may argue that games like Gears are more inspired from the Unreal games, but compare the gameplay between those games. Even in one of the only 3rd person shooter games in the series, Unreal Championship 2, the perspective, controls, and gameplay are significantly different.

What more can be said about one of the greatest games of the decade?

Games like ICO and Shadows of the Colossus have garnered special attention for their unorthodox and artistic approach. Catherine transcends genres. Japanese developers have even been willing to explore genres rarely touched by Western developers. A great example of this is the “Visual Novel/Adventure” genre, which focuses on lengthy dialog sequences. The Nintendo DS has enjoyed a number of excellent visual novel/adventure games, such as Phoenix Wright, Time Hollow, 999, Hotel Dusk, and Professor Layton. All of these games have enjoyable stories, which range from family friendly (Layton) to mature (999), yet incorporate vastly differently progression and puzzle solving mechanics (finding lies in testimony in Phoenix Wright versus playing the detective in Hotel Dusk).

We know that Japanese developers have done quite a bit for the industry. But we’re not looking at another major flaw in the argument. The above claim insinuates that a game is only “valid” if it does something new, which is ridiculous. Games don’t need to constantly innovate or change boundaries, in the same way that film or literature can re-use common themes and motifs to make something enjoyable throughout the years. Super Mario made platformers fun in the mid 80s. What’s wrong with improving on the formula and re-introducing it for future generations? Super Mario Galaxy 2 didn’t have to dramatically change what is possible in video games for it to be regarded as one of the best games of 2010. Cave Story, the indie smash-hit, was largely inspired from Metroid and Mega Man, but is fun and worthwhile. It’s arguably the most recognizable indie game ever created.

Cave Story is a satisfying, nostalgic adventure.

Catherine is also an excellent step forward for game design. It’s probably one of the few mainstream console games I can point to that is specifically geared towards adults. Opponents of this claim will immediately cite the game’s marketing and then decree “it’s just selling sex to teens!” That is far from the truth. Catherine is actually an excellent game and has one of the best pieces of narrative in a video game. Lead character Vincent begins the game as a sort of thirty-something man-child. He slinks through life while avoiding responsibility. Once his girlfriend reveals to him that she is pregnant and wants to get married, his life spirals into chaos. At night, he’s plagued by terrible nightmares—which is where the game’s “puzzle” element comes in. Climbing the daunting towers of boxes isn’t there just to make Catherine into a tangible “game.” It’s there for a specific design purpose. It is a direct metaphor for tackling the hurdles in adult life. Vincent’s journey is all about taking responsibility and making a choice. The choices are ultimately up to the player, but the point is that the journey is all about having the courage to face responsibility. That’s a far more noteworthy story than a game that revolves around shooting bad guys in the face.

“Why don’t Japanese companies listen to US audiences?”

This is an interesting question to answer. There are many Japanese game companies, several of which have a diverse portfolio of titles. Capcom, Konami, Square-Enix, SEGA, and Namco Bandai have delivered vastly different gaming experiences over the years.

However, it is not quite true that they do not “listen” to gamers in the US at all. We can see that these companies have made large strides in Western territories, at least in some capacity. Capcom, for example, communicates frequently with fans via the company blog, Facebook, and twitter. Company representatives also interact frequently with fans at gaming events, tournaments, and more. Several of their games are directly in response to the condition of the Western market and some are made with a very specific “Western development” mindset. Dead Rising and Lost Planet especially exemplify this, along with the upcoming Dragon’s Dogma.

However, in the cases where the company “ignores” the US, the decision is not always unfounded. For example, Western gamers have given Square-Enix a lot of criticism over the announcements of Final Fantasy X HD. We wanted a Final Fantasy VII remake! Come on, Square-Enix, isn’t that obvious?

Well, let’s slow things down for a second, shall we? Remember how popular that these games are in Square-Enix’s native Japan. What exactly is wrong with developing a game with the motive of pursuing your own market and supporting the industry location that you belong to? It would be like criticizing BioWare for not making the games that Asian fans want most. It just so happens in this case that there are many fans worldwide who like Square-Enix’s games.

I’m in no way trying to give Japanese companies a “pass” for any mistakes made. Several companies have made moves I disagree with. For example, I’m personally annoyed with how Capcom has handled the Mega Man franchise and especially dissatisfied with how the cancellation announcement was delivered. I’m also angered by how Capcom has withheld content for Street Fighter X Tekken and is charging consumers to unlock content that is already on the disk. I’m annoyed with how Square-Enix is just sitting on a mountain of excellent IPs and developer talent but continually just plays it safe. However, Western game companies aren’t exactly totally immune to mistakes. Remember the horse armor DLC for Oblivion? How about the completely useless weapon skins for the Gears of War games? How about the total glitch-fests that are Dead Island and The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim? Or Duke Nukem Forever, which is now an eternal joke in the game industry? How about Western developers completely saturating the market in yearly sequels and needless amounts of shooters?

Here’s the bottom line: The truth is that the “future” of gaming will not be handled by one particular region. Gaming is a global phenomenon. We can all deliver great content that can drive the industry forward…that includes Japan. While the Japanese game industry doesn’t have the same economic might it had in the late 80s and early 90s, it still has a definite presence. Besides, not having a total command on the market doesn’t immediately translate into “completely irrelevant.”

Who's pre-ordering this? Me!

What do you say? Do you have fond memories of Japanese developed games? Are there any upcoming games that you are excited for, like Gravity Rush, Resident Evil 6Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch or Xenoblade Chronicles? Do you think Japanese gaming is doomed?

15 thoughts on “Editorial: Japanese Gaming Doesn’t Need Saving”

  1. Man, as soon as you dissed Mass Effect, I stopped reading! Saying bad stuff about that series should be a crime! haha, but seriously, good article. Japanese games are still awesome, but there decline is a bit off there own fault in my opinion. The JRPG use to be an extremely popular genre even here in North America, but that is in my opinion a genre that desperately needs to evolve. Kind of like how Resident Evil 4 did, JRPG’s have been stock with the same formula for so many years, hard to blame gamers for starting to ignore them. Granted, I still like them (having recently finished DQ 6) but I think that something can be done to re-invent the JRPG.

    1. Haha, I thought the Mass Effect comment would grab your attention. lol but no, I didn’t mean to diss the games. They’re excellent. I’m just showing it’s possible to highlight those design choices in a negative context, to show that just singling out specific design choices as the reason for why a game is “good” or “bad” can be kind of silly.

      I never said that Japanese gaming still retains dominance. That’s certainly not the case, because I’d say the torch has been passed. Again, I just say that relevance is clearly still there, when for many of us, PlayStation and Nintendo are viable platforms and we’re still talking about gaming legacies like Poke’mon and Mario. If a ripoff Pokemon Yellow app can be one of the most downloaded things on the iOS store, what else can you take from that? People really like Poke’mon.

  2. This was a very interesting article from the viewpoint of a self-proclaimed Japanese fan. Let’s get one thing straight up front, the Japanese gaming industry isn’t dead, but it does need a nice boost moving forward. Simply looking at the Japanese market, from a Japanese perspective, they’re not doing so well right now. This has nothing to do with North American developers, it has more to do with stagnation of their market and changing tastes, or at least this is what it appears. Years ago Zelda was an instant success, today, not so much. Certain games will do gangbusters like Dragon Quest and Monster Hunter and obviously they have their own unique tastes that will sell well, but if we look at the Japanese market today and compare it with the timeframe you list off when talking about some of those classic games, the market is about 15 times smaller. That shows they’re in troubled times right now, as in a market for selling games. Now let’s switch to the international scene.

    In terms of the past there’s clearly no point in arguing, but the story is a little more complex. Gaming started in North America. The late 60s and 70s belong to the North American market. People tend to forget just how many systems there were back then from stand alone arcade units to home consoles that eventually lead to Atari. After that period the market became oversaturated and it bombed BAD.

    We know what happened when Nintendo took what they had seen being done in North America and created the Family Computer, and then the NES for the international market. I’d say from the NES until the end of the original PlayStation the entire market was dominated by Japanese developers and their software. Who would have thought RPGs would sell in North America? No one did until FF VII proved it could be done. Beginning around the mid-point to the end of the PS2 lifecycle there was this change that started to happen. About the time GTA III come out, suddenly there was this game that wasn’t made by a Japanese studio that set the whole planet on fire. From then on North American developers have had a string of international hits. It’s important to realize that, most of these games aren’t just big in North America, but internationally, just like the majority of the games you listed made by Japanese developers.

    One of the biggest problems with the Japanese studios today is the way they work with technology. They aren’t PC-oriented like typical NA and European developers are. What does this mean, well most modern developers will create game engines that can be recycled very quickly for use in other games, and I’m not talking about only the Unreal Engine. I’m saying any engine will typically be used in at least 3 or 4 different titles a developer works on, sometimes way more. For example Naughty Dog will use a modified version of the Uncharted engine for The Last of Us. Japanese studios are finally catching up like with the new Fox engine over at Kojima Productions, etc. This is one of the major reasons why Japanese studios haven’t pumped out nearly as many international blockbusters, or quite simply the same amount games as their worldwide counterparts have. I’m certain that will change once they get their multi-purpose engines off the ground, but they’re now a good ten years behind. It’s going to take some serious time to catch up. For too many years Japanese studios would build an entirely new engine from the ground up for each and every game, and in the technology world of today, that’s just not a wise way of making videogames anymore.

    So where does that leave us now. Well I’d say strictly talking about the quantity and overall quality of games being released right now that the market has shifted back to North America, as it was many years ago. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is ignorant to say Japan is no longer relevant, because almost all of our foundation is build on what those early 80s developers created. That said, in terms of sheer innovation and risk taking, I’d say that the North American and European developers are pushing the boundaries more so than their Japanese counterparts, personal tastes aside. That’s something important people need to distinguish, cultural differences are always going to play a role.

    That all said, let’s look at this current generation. The top selling games are almost all from Nintendo, in terms of Wii this and Wii that. Then you’ll have your 2D Mario games, Pokémon games, etc. These are the games that surpass ten million sales with ease, but are all from one Japanese publisher. It’s not all about sales though, as we all know. These are just a small sample of games that frequently pop up when this topic comes up.

    Heavy Rain
    Mass Effect
    Gears of War
    Mirror’s Edge
    Geometry Wars

    Each title is said to be highly innovative or risky in their own way. Each is also a brand new intellectual property. So what brand new Japanese IPs have come out this generation that have reached the same worldwide acclaim? Let’s not talk sales, just games that had worldwide appeal and are regarded as such, or for trying something really different. I’ll leave that to you guys to figure out, because it’s not quite so easy. For the top selling games, Wii Sports is the sole title that really mixed things up, but almost every other huge Japanese game has either been a sequel or spin-off. Street Fighter IV is one I’ll give people, even though it is a sequel, simply because it reintroduced the world to fighting games after they became somewhat stagnant last generation.

    Take note that I didn’t even mention all the huge games developed in North America or Europe, just a few that really pushed the bar in one way or another. So I’m curious if you guys can come up with ten non-sequels that are considered to do the same, and had the same international recognition. There’s Mad World and titles like that, but these failed to reach the international appeal they were intended to, but I suppose one could say the same for Mirror’s Edge. Again, you guys come up with the list and we’ll see what’s what.

    To wrap this novel up, I’m a believer that the game industry goes in cycles and that right now we’re in a stage where North American and European developers are simply “getting it” right now. They’re focusing on trying new things with the online space, creating new IPs, while simultaneously pumping out sequels galore, basically what Japanese developers have been doing for the past 20 years. Who knows what the future will bring, but I think once the Japanese developers get their technology mojo going, they’ll be able to create new and interesting games that appeal to the world market. Their RPGs have been given a lot of hate only because they tread a little safe, and there just haven’t been that many of them that have been released on the global market that have been given their fair share of marketing.

    Ok that’s it for now; read all that, let it digest and reply back guys. I’d like to keep this conversation going if at all possible.

    1. If I had to pump out a list of Japanese games, non-sequels that have come out in the past ten years or so (I’ll list ones since 2000 I can think of) that have critical acclaim, but not necessarily mainstream popularity, here are ones I can think of right off the top of my head:

      Pikmin series
      Professor Layton series
      Devil May Cry series
      Zone of the Enders series
      Shadows of the Damned
      Killer 7
      No More Heroes series
      Phoenix Wright series
      Monster Hunter series
      BlazBlue series
      Valkyria Chronicles series
      Lost Odyssey
      Eternal Sonata
      Skies of Arcadia
      Demon Souls/Dark Souls
      Shadow of the Colossus
      Kingdom Hearts series
      Katamari Damacy series
      Okami series
      Viewtiful Joe series
      Shenmue series
      Dead Rising series
      Yakuza series
      Jet Grind Radio series
      Phantasy Star Online series
      Cave Story
      Ghost Trick
      Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure

      Certainly not a bad list of games, right? I’d even say many of these are hallmarks of excellence. Bayonetta is one of the greatest action games of this generation. And who doesn’t have good things to say about Ikaruga? Heck, I’d even argue that dramatic reinventions, like the Paper Mario, Wario Ware, or newer Persona series would count as a “new” series because of how incredibly different they are. Besides, I think that Western devs are just as guilty of draining new IPs quickly–how many Assassin’s Creed games are out there now?

      Like I said before, Japan has not retained “dominace” in the game market at all. And that’s fine. I just say that a decline in total control doesn’t mean they’ve become irrelevant to modern gaming. We’re in a time when gaming tastes are broader than ever and every game developer, regardless of country of origin, can deliver great content and get it out there. And while I think many JRPGs have lost their way (FFXIII, Star Ocean 4, Resonance of Fate, a lot of Gust or Idea Factory RPGs), I think there still are many released over the last generation that show they do know how to make things better. It’s because they have that working knowledge base that we are actually seeing games come out in that genre like Xenoblade and Last Story, and why I believe we will continue to see new things. Over this generation, we still had amazing RPG experiences from Japan: Valkyria Chronicles is easily one of my favorite games for the PS3 and it’s an amazing hybrid of game design elements, Lost Odyssey is a nostalgic throwback to classic turn-based combat, and games like Dark Souls bring to mind classic dungeon crawlers but with several modern twists. We can’t forget the great number of excellent handheld adventures, either.

      I most definitely agree that one of the primary reasons Western devs are succeeding so much lately is because they are taking more risks. A lot of Japanese companies rested on their laurels for several releases (like Capcom did with RE5) while Western devs went ahead and upped the ante (like Dead Space). The interesting part now we get to see Japanese developers respond to it now that they’ve had some more time to grow, have experience in this generation of consoles, and have experienced increased competition in a market. I think upcoming games like Dragon’s Dogma and RE6 show that Capcom is taking serious notes from Western devs. I also think other companies are looking at what Western developers have done — a lot of Japanese gaming was built on foundations they had from Western devs, after all. It’s a series of give and take.

  3. Well to be fair, you didn’t do as I asked. I said in my post that from the mid to end of the PS2 lifecycle things started to change. The vast majority of that list is from before that time period or during it. I wanted ten original IPs from this generation (Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360) that fundamentally changed things. I didn’t mention it, but I’m excluding portables because we’re strictly talking about consoles, or at least I was for now considering this is what people talk about when they bring up this whole Japanese market topic. The handheld market is still completely dominated by Japanese developers.

    So this is what your list now looks like.

    Shadows of the Damned
    No More Heroes series
    BlazBlue series
    Valkyria Chronicles series
    Lost Odyssey
    Eternal Sonata
    Demon Souls/Dark Souls
    Dead Rising series
    Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure

    That’s far less impressive in terms of arguing the point I’m trying to make. If anything you just highlighted it. The biggest games on that list in terms of the context we’re using, changing a genre, pushing the industry by leaps and bounds, etc., would certainly be Catherine, and Demon Souls. Others are great games, but I don’t think I would classify them exactly the same. BlazBlue started as GuiltyGear, until circumstances forced them to change things up, for example. The rest have been original IPs, but I wouldn’t really say they completely changed the way we now look at the genre, in the sense of something like Uncharted. The whole action adventure genre changed after that game was released, again as just as a small example. Remember that I’m not looking for quantity here; everything should easily be able to be backed up. I could list off probably 80 original IPs created by North American and European developers that were alright to good games, but didn’t do what I’m talking about here. One could say that Lost Odyssey mixed things up, which I can agree with, but again, let’s flesh this out further. There’s a reason this topic is such a hotly debated one, even among developers.

    As good as Bayonetta was, has the entire genre been changed because of it? Virtually every new action game uses elements introduced from that game? That’s what I’m looking for with the titles I mentioned; these games changed almost the entire genre. People could argue how did Gears of War change anything, well up to that point only Full Spectrum Warrior used a cover system anywhere near as deep, few games employed such a rich and deep online system, etc. Today virtually every other game uses mechanics first introduced and/or popularized by that game. Our personal tastes aside, this is primarily where I’m trying to go because it’s easy to see why people’s perceptions are as they are.

    Your case in point about RPGs is an interesting one because that directly relates to what I was saying above about game engines. We’ve yet to really see too much innovation from the traditional RPG makers only because they’re playing so much catch-up in terms of technology. So for every Xenoblade, The Last Story, etc., we’re getting two Elder Scrolls, three Mass Effects, two Fallouts, etc. It isn’t sales that’s limited sequels over in Japan, it’s the fact the Japanese developers simply aren’t at the same level in terms of engine development, but that will change before too long. It’s just a shame they couldn’t have played catch up sooner. I mean it’s hard to believe but this will be the first generation where we do not have three distinct Final Fantasy games. Insane, no?

    So my overall point in all of this is that I believe Japanese developers need to buckle down, get their technology in order for next generation so the same exact thing doesn’t happen again. Taking chances are only one aspect, but they must be able to quickly pump out quality titles without taking three years to do so. I should also mention that it will be very interesting to see what happens with Nintendo in this next generation. Making HD games is an extremely costly business and I can’t imagine they’ll be able to pump out nearly as many internally developed titles. This means they’ll have to either refocus on Wii Sports type of games or release fewer AAA high-budget titles.

    Don’t take what I’m saying as perceived ignorance or personal displeasure in the Japanese market. I actually love tons of Japanese games, but it has been plainly obviously to me that a real mix up needs to happen in Japan in order to help their market flourish. I don’t want them to copy the rest of the world, but they have to do something because their home market is drying up faster than anywhere in the world and if it continues at this rate, they will become an irrelevant marketplace and that would completely suck. Their development studios will always be relevant but game companies like Capcom, Konami, Namco Bandai, etc. will simply ignore their home market completely if they can only muster a few hundred thousand sales instead of the multi millions available worldwide.

    Keep the conversation going! I love talking about this stuff.

    1. That’s a fair statement. I probably answered too quickly without thinking too much on your point, but yeah, I can see where you’re coming from: fewer Japanese IPs have had a dramatic change on the genre during this past few years, unlike in the past decade where we’ve seen Resident Evil 4, Shadow of the Colossus, etc. And we haven’t seen a franchise come out with the same immediate worldwide response as Poke’mon in quite some time. I would never assume you’re making criticisms out of ignorance or dislike for the games, lol. I can see the points you have behind them.

      I think the only new Japanese IPs I can think of that have gained significant mainstream appeal are: the Wii sports series (responsible for the Wii’s success), the Demon’s/Dark Souls series. No More Heroes is debatable, but I would say it was a success by my defition–it was a new IP, sold well enough to warrant a sequel and remake, and the game has embedded itself in general gamer culture pretty well. The entire fighting game genre owes a huge debt to Japanese game industries, because outside of Mortal Kombat and Killer Instict, almost every other fighter I can think of is Japanese. And while SFIV and BlazBlue aren’t exactly new (they built on a foundation that was there), it was the manner in which they introduced themselves and were positioned that made such a big splash. The current fighting game market was energized by that and has since become incredibly saturated.

      A lot of the highly relevenat Japanese IPs are legacy franchises though, I’ll give you that: Pokemon, Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda, etc. I just have to say that even though these franchises are old, they’ve become such a huge part of gaming culture that they’ve almost forced Japanese gaming to stay relevant. That’s pretty impressive and I believe it’s what has carried Japanese gaming over its rough spot these past few years.

      I still assert that there are fantastic games produced there though and that the reasons behind the certain IPs that have become the faces of their current genre are multifaceted. It’s not necessarily that Uncharted was dramatically different than stuff before it–it’s essentially a glorified Tomb Raider. It’s just that the game integrated elements exceptionally well, it positioned itself well in the game market (with an excellent marketing push), and it was just such a fine game that it was able to put itself into a position where it was seen as a revolution though you could argue it wasn’t really a reinvention of the adventure game. The same could be said for God of War. For all intents and purposes, God of War was hardly new. Third-person action adventure games existed well before, in the form of games like Devil May Cry. Even context-sensitive controls and quick time events were done before, in games like Shenmue. God of War just happened to integrate these elements well and positioned itself to be a hit (and of course, being a great game always helps). Now, almost all third-person action games are compared to God of War, whether we like it or not! I remember when Castlevania Lords of Shadow came out, and the common complaint was that “it’s a God of War clone,” despite the fact that Lament of Innocence, another third-person action game, came out prior to God of War.

      I think many Japanese games this generation HAVE done a lot of new things, and have done them exceptionally well. Valkryia Chronicles excelled at telling the stroy in a fantastic way (it’s probably my favorite war story game to date), and it combined elements from various games: turn-based strategy, character building, third-person shooting, real time action, etc. It just wasn’t positioned in a way to be a hit like classic Japanese RPGs of old. I see a problem for Japanese developers this generation to be that they haven’t been able to prime their games for acclaim like Western developers can, whether that means a suitable marketing push. And because Western developers seemingly have superior resources (probably because of a headstart during this generation), Japanese development teams are struggling to catch up.

      What I say they need to do is refocus their efforts on developing quality titles to build their mainstream appeal and apply revenue gained into investing themselves more in the current market. They also need to establish their own genres more and work on what makes their games special, because they need to retain the qualities that they have. I don’t want Persona to be Elder Scrolls. I don’t want BlazBlue to be Mortal Kombat. I think their own market is certainly having trouble, but with their legacies being so heavily invested in current gamer culture, (I hate to use this) but I see it as something that’s “too big to fail” in a way. I think that there will always be a place for Japanese gaming, even if it doesn’t retake dominance in the market, the desire there will always push those companies to come around. I’m confident that in the coming years, we’ll see these companies respond well to the changing market.

      1. Like I said I don’t want that either, for all their series to become like the Western series, that’d be incredibly foolish on their part. The same can be said for Western developers too. We don’t want all our games to suddenly be like Uncharted and Mass Effect regardless of how good those games are. The second everything becomes the same, we lose it all. That’s one of the big problem Japanese developers ran into last gen and the one before that. At that time Western development was virtually non-existant, but too many Japanese developers simply copied one another to make a quick buck. That’s happening now too, just look at the App Store and the countless clones that are on there.

        I still say Japan’s #1 focus right now should be doing whatever it takes in order to get their market back, while at the same time continuing to catch up in the technology race. As much as gaming is part of Japan’s culture, the numbers speak for themselves. Their market has been seeing less and less money over the past 15 years. They need to turn that around by any means necessary.

        I think a combination of everything we’ve said here is why people perceive Japanese games to be dated, dying, or dead. They’ll never truly die, and part of their big problem was the technology gap that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. They’re catching up though and by next gen we should start to see more frequent updates to existing franchises. As for new IPs, well that’s the ultimate question around the board. I’m not so sure how many new IPs we’re going to see from anyone if the development costs continue to rise as they’ve been doing. At the end of the day the only games that will be made are sure fire hits, and that’s a day I’m truly not looking forward to.

        As for new games building upon existing games, you’re exactly right. The same can even be said for Super Mario Bros., but we never do that. Basically there are always the standouts. The games that may only do one or two things different or unique, or maybe not even, but they raise the bar. They make us believe what we’re playing is “the next big thing” and it’s those games that Japanese developers need to rekindle. They hold so many records over the years for these types of games that I think it’s good we’re having a nice change of pace now. I’m certain in time they’ll close the technology gap and we’ll see more standout games.

  4. Nicely written article as usual Tim. While I do agree with the general notion you’re trying to come across, it can easily get tipped off to the other end of the argument. As Jarrod has nicely laid out in his comments, the only reason why people are claiming Japanese gaming is dead is because the sudden rise of Western development in comparision to Japanese dominance long ago. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t really want to get into an East vs. West debate because both are equally good and have an equal amount of faults within them. As soon as you start comparing what the Japanese market was and what it is now…that’s when people start saying that it ain’t what it used to be, and rightfully so. I think the ‘it factor’ which bought Western development into the mainstream is when Microsoft entered the market with Xbox. As Jarrod conveyed in his post and what I’d like to elaborate on, western game development was and has always been strong, but it remained hidden from the public eye because the majorly of western games back in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s has been on PC, a platform which wasn’t exactly as mainstream as the console back in those days. As soon as the Xbox and 360 rolled in, that opened doors for easy cross-platform development, i.e. popular PC games and franchises being ported to console. This wasn’t a usual practice early on, but Microsoft is the one who pushed for it…and in turn a lot of western developers jumped the bandwagon. That’s why we see series such as Elder Scrolls and Fallout on console in this day and age. That subsequently encouraged Western developers to actually make games on console, too…a practice which Sony secured early on with a lot of their PS2 franchises.

    So yeah, PC gaming has always been dominated by western developers and they’ve always had a presence since the early days..as soon as Microsoft opened the doors for their games to be released on console, that in my opinion shook the industry up, shifting eyes and focus to Western developers as opposed to Japanese. In the same time though, I really want that wall between East and West to be broken. There shouldn’t be debates about who is better. Instead, both should continue to collaborate on games and titles. The Japanese are guilty of being a bit meat-headed in letting Western development in. Sony strikes the right balance, while Nintendo has only started to embrace it. Microsoft sometimes does the opposite; as a Western developer, they mistreat Japanese games and developers which is why their console is failing in Japan. I’d love to see more collaborations like Shadows of the Damned, lollipop Chainsaw, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Mario Kart 7, etc. One franchise which should embrace western collaberation is Zelda…it’s been a point of debate many times. But Nintendo holds on to that too tightly, afraid to be upstaged by a western developer in their on series. People shouldn’t really think of it that way.

  5. The comment you bring up about how the PC market is dominated by North American developers actually directly ties into what I was saying above about game engine technology. It’s why the Japanese studios have had such a hard time this generation.

    One thing I also wanted to quickly reiterate is that while Japanese gaming doesn’t need saving, they just need to catch up in terms of being able to product big budget releases and make a few changes moving forward, what does need saving is the Japanese gaming market. I’ve mention it quite a lot here, but it can’t be stated enough. The Japanese gaming market has been in a decline for over the past decade and that need saving ASAP.

  6. Yeah, it sure does. This generation is the closest when it comes to consoles matching and mimicking the PC architexture, hence why western development has the advantage. They’ve been used to PC development for so long it’s practically in their blood…and that raw talent just bled into console development while most Japanese developers held to the ways of the old by restarting each game practically from ground zero with no framework to build upon from past games. It’s true when you say developing actual engines to run across all platforms is the way of the future. Konami and Square Enix caught on just recently, although it is sort of late compared to western development.

    1. You guys definitely raise excellent points! Great to contribute to the discussion. Glad to hear you liked the article too, Ahmed!

      One of my primary reasons for writing it is because, well, I’ve noticed trends more so in disparaging certain game elements in game media (this can probably be attributed to me reading into it more so BECAUSE I am a super fan, but that’a another story). I’m talking about certain game design elements that are contextualized in a negative view or dismissed outright without proper analysis. For example, whenever you read “turn-based battle system” in a review, I’m betting you will read comments on how the system is “old,” “oudated,” or “not fun.” I take issue with that, because I find that to be an issue of projecting bias onto an element that really has nothing to fault or praise on its own. It just seems that a lot of elements inherent of Japanese games particularly (anime tropes, for example) are more frequently called upon.

      I suppose one would definitely be combat systems, or particularly more menu-based systems. It seems modern fans are more willing to say that games like Mass Effect or Fallout are “superior” simply for having shooting elements as their basis, rather than saying they are “superior” because the elements are integrated well and draw a player in because of how the game works to engage the player. I’d argue that Shin Megami Tensei Persona 4 would not be any better if the battle system were designed differently; if it was a third-person hack and slash game or a first-person perspective would not be an improvement in my eyes, because the game is so expertly designed around using the turn-based system so that it just “feels” right, as nebulous as that sounds. It would simply be a different approach to an already great game.

      1. Which is why I really appreciated the points you’ve raised in the article, Tim. People blow this issue out way out of proportion, even Japanese developers such as Keiji Inafune…who is constantly firing jabs at the lack of innovation and design philosophy of Japanese games because of his bitterness towards Capcom. Some issues that he pointed out exist in Western development, too…particularly stuff like sequelitis and rehashing content, design, and ideas. So yeah, each side has its pros and cons. There’s just something about Japanese games which continue to charm me, even if some of them are adhering to a certain formula. DQIX is the longest game I’ve ever played as I’ve constantly loved every single minute of my 111 hours of playtime…and this game has a lot of ideas which go back to the 80s.

        Hardware and actual development are why Japanese gaming has fallen from grace compared to the golden years, not ideas and innovation. Once the Japanese catch up with the trends and embrace western-style development, we’re going to be in one heck of a ride. Which is why I love more collaboration projects to come about.

        1. You’ll notice that I purposely didn’t talk about those types of elements because that’s something else entirely. I love the traditional RPG genre, but do agree random encounters need to be done away with, or handled like FF XIII-2. I really enjoyed that. Anyways, that’s a whole other subject, but really enjoyed the back and forth about the different regions and whatnot. Hopefully we can keep this going :)

  7. That’s why it’s going to take a while for them to catch up in terms of technology. I’m dying to see what Nintendo does for their new HD console because they have zero experience in HD game engines. Should be very interesting.

  8. Thanks for the good read, Tim. It’s sparked a great discussion. I’ve got a few things to add myself.

    Firstly, I would give weight to the notion that lot of this design conundrum stems from the conservative nature of Japanese culture itself. People don’t respond to rapid change or outside ideas well over here, as evident not just in games but in politics, corporate structure, gender roles, and general attitudes in society, so it only makes sense that this kind of sentiment would leak into game design philosophy. I mean, really, the average person here still goes saucer-eyed when I use chopsticks despite the fact that we live in a highly internationalized world and the average person in my home country can use chopsticks without a problem, regardless of their ethnicity (to clarify, this is the case where I live, not so much in Tokyo where there are more foreigners). Japan is very isolated from the outside world in many ways and this was bound to catch up with them in terms of game development since they don’t interact with foreign developers enough to draw in and integrate new ideas.

    Recently I’ve been playing through various Japanese PS1 games of the mid to late nineties. Right now I’m working on Xenogears, and I think it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. At the same time, I think of more recent JRPGs I’ve played and can’t help but think “wow, this feels very similar and looks very similar to old JRPGS like Xenogears in terms of game mechanics”. Apart from aesthetic upgrades and the introduction of voice acting and a few other features, what true evolution has there really been in this genre in the past ten years? Sure there have been some quality games, but they haven’t done much that’s been truly new or innovative. On the other hand, you look at something like Diablo, Baldur’s Gate, or other nineties Western RPGs and then you take a look at today’s Skyrim or Fallout 3 and you realize that the entire Western role-playing genre has been turned on its head since the days when Xenogears, Final Fantasy VII, and Grandia dominated the small number of Western RPGs that were available on consoles. You can say that cultural tastes that are holding Japanese game development back, but as the Japanese market for full price retail games shrinks it becomes clear that purely satisfying domestic preferences is not the key to success in the future. They need to expand their development strategies and tech to create games that appeal not only to Japanese gamers but to international markets as well. They’ve done it before and can do it again.

    I also think the comments of Keiji Inafune, Yoichi Wada and others are well-founded, because you look at big Japanese software giants like Capcom, Sega, Square-Enix, etc. and you can only ask “what the hell are these guys doing?” For every Bayonetta or Catherine that comes along from the smaller, younger groups like Platinum Games, you’re getting a trash Sonic title, a rehash, a Final Fantasy XIII that is “meh” or a Final Fantasy XIV that is utter garbage. The development environment, especially in the bigger studios I would say, is so isolated and borderline xenophobic that they really have lagged behind the West tremendously in the past decade or so as a result of the conservative, grey-haired gentlemen in executive positions within these companies who suppress change and youthful thinking as in so many other established Japanese companies. Look at some of the faces heading the Western game industry: Todd Howard, David Jaffe, Ray Muzyka, Jade Raymond — these people are all in their 30s and 40s. I would put forth the idea that maybe there are more young people and thus more fresh ideas floating around in the upper levels of Western game companies. Call me out if you think I’m off the mark and have some proof to suggest otherwise, but when I watch current Japanese game development documentaries I’m generally seeing a bunch of dudes in their 50s, who are brilliant men, don’t get me wrong, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine they’re becoming a bit more set in their ways as time marches on. The Japanese legends who dominated the 80s and 90s aren’t spring chickens anymore, and the country’s social structure relies so much on seniority that it doesn’t let the aspiring young guys who are full of ideas rise to the top easily whether it’s the game industry, automotive industry (in which a lot of my friends work), or retail chains. Furthermore, Western developers have got the computer guys and even Hollywood onboard, and have access to the cutting edge technology whether it’s motion capture or new game engines. There’s quality stuff on the Japanese market too, but when I head to Tsutaya on the weekend to look at games I feel like I’m a junior high student again walking into Rogers Video to rent out Tales of Symphonia or Dynasty Warriors 3. There really hasn’t been substantial forward movement in the past decade.

    I’m not trying to trash the Japanese game scene, because I do love my DQs, Harvest Moons, and I’m an anomaly in that I’ve enjoyed even the crappiest of the slew of crap Sonic titles we’ve had to endure in the past few years (though things are looking up with Sonic Generations), but really, something’s gotta give or the market’s going to continue to shrink in Japan and their international successes will also continue to decline. Hideo Kojima and other big names have voiced their concerns about these trends and are seeking to work with Western developers to play catch-up, and it’s obvious that Japanese developers are beginning to realize that they’ve let something slip through their fingers.

    Another issue is that it’s not just Japanese developers who are overt to outside ideas, but Japanese gamers as well. Foreign critics scoff at franchises like Pokemon or Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing for their lack of progression over the years, but people here seem to be okay with that. Even if you look at the Monster Hunter series, which enjoys a crazy amount of popularity in Japan, the formula has not evolved much from one game to the next, but every new release sells like hot cakes, as do the ports that get umpteen releases. Another recent game that all the kids are talking about is Sengoku Basara 3. Essentially, it’s Dynasty Warriors rehashed, or by extension, a spinoff of Koei’s Samurai Warriors series. Why take games to the next level if people are happy with what you offer time and time again? What if they even resist the change? People screamed and wailed when DQIX was planned to be an action RPG, which I personally thought would have been an excellent direction for the series to explore. The time-tested game formulas seem to resonate with people and the general gaming community seems content to enjoy them as-is. So is it the chicken or the egg? Japanese gamers, or developers, or both? Yes, there is an obvious difference in taste as well as attitudes towards progress between the Western and Japanese gaming communities, but when the Japanese game industry owns 50% of the global market share in 2002 and now owns less than 10%, there’s absolutely no denying the need for rapid evolution and integration of outside ideas and technology.

    You can also look at something like the Xbox and its failure to catch on compared to Sony or Nintendo branded products and it’s evident that Japanese people generally want to buy products that are Japanese, as per usual. You look at the games and series names that hit the top of sales charts time and time again, and you realize that people have yet to buy into Western games, with a few notable exceptions. This is starting to change with the release of hits like Skyrim that were marketed well and struck a chord with Japanese gamers. The game got excellent reviews, shops around my area had tons of pre-orders, and, the game performed well at retail nationwide. It’s a very Western-style RPG and maybe if more of these games achieve acclaim over here, it will be a catalyst for change.

    To extend the context for this argument a bit, I think that all these problems are compounded by the fact that more and more people are buying smart phones these days, eating up free time that was once invested in gaming on portable devices like the DS or PSP. This issue is a big one in the West as well, as we all know, but the Japanese market is more so hinged on portables than the Western market. When I first came to Japan, the only phone company to have just started carrying the iPhone was Softbank, but now that AU and Docomo have also began to support it, I’m seeing iPhones cropping up all over the place, and it seems like everyone on the bus or train is on their iPhone, checking out new hamburger deals with the Mcdonalds Japan app, fooling around with other applications, or playing cheap/free games. This really hurts in a place where you’ve typically seen tons of people on their PSPs and DSes playing $40 retail games during their daily commute. Naturally, with this change in market dynamics, a lot of the young and innovative talent out there is going to gravitate towards the mobile market where they can make the games they want at less of an initial investment and still experience financial success in a growing sector. And so I think that what we have is a bunch of guys with greying hair in the dedicated console and handheld businesses, realizing they desperately need to get things together and figure something out to ensure that the future of the Japanese game industry is a bright one.

    Make no mistake: I do believe there is indeed serious talent over here, I do love the Monster Hunter games, I’m excited for Pokemon Black & White 2, and there are lots of other great IPs coming out of Japan. But that doesn’t crutch the fact that things are in serious need of change if Japanese developers want to reclaim domestic and global marketshare. Anyways, that’s my two cents. Thanks again for the good read!

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