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TGS: Square Enix's Wada: Japanese Industry Has 'Lost Its Position'
TGS: Square Enix's Wada: Japanese Industry Has 'Lost Its Position' Exclusive
October 9, 2008 | By Simon Carless, Tokyo

October 9, 2008 | By Simon Carless, Tokyo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

At his Gamasutra-attended keynote at Tokyo Game Show on Thursday, CESA chairman and Square Enix president Yoichi Wada presented a passionate keynote that addressed the problems of the Japanese game industry head-on.

The executive suggested, in particular, that the country's game biz has "lost its position" as the leader in the global marketplace, and offered some possible solutions for all developers.

In terms incredibly blunt for the director of a Japanese industry association, Wada explained of the local game industry, "We do have issues that we are confronted with. ...We have not been tackling these issues into a straightforward manner."

(He noted that his abstract talk would be difficult for the Japanese-to-English interpreter -- which indeed it was -- but managed to explain adeptly why Japan needs a public "knowledge foundation" to really move forward.)

"We have not ignored these issues," Wada noted, but opined that the American and European markets "have developed very quickly" in recent years, and the Japanese market has not kept up. Game companies are in good shape financially in Japan, but not as successful overseas, apart from select titles.

Wada acknowledged that the "cost has become very high" to develop next-gen titles, but that being a worldwide concern, it is not necessarily the problem. Rather, it's the lack of "hubs" and open communities in Japan that is preventing the industry from moving forward. The CESA chairman believes that, with work, "we can catch up once again."

"Why has the Japanese industry lost its position?" he asked, adding, "I as chairman of CESA shouldn't be saying this, but it's true."

He explained that historically, most of the game console manufacturers were Japanese, and hardware/software alliances were strong. So originally, the "hub" was the Japanese hardware producer such as Nintendo or Sony, and all the game creators interacted through that hub.

Nowadays, not only is Microsoft an exception in terms of hardware creation, but there are many other hubs and communities that have been created.

For example, Wada pointed out that the PC industry has many communities, including the mod community, which helped to create Counter-Strike by having an open exchange of tools and ideas. He noted that such a mod scene doesn't exist in the same form in Japan.

In addition, Western conferences such as GDC are important in allowing creators to communicate with each other directly and in person, Wada said. The CEDEC developer conference is trying to do much more, but "we in Japan are not very adept at making good use of these conferences."

He also pinpointed cross-media collaboration with the film industry and working with universities to educate game developers, as well as middleware and tools companies, as further hubs and communities that users can learn from and be clustered around. Again, he stated that the game business in Japan is "a very closed industry," and having more open networks is key to moving forward.

Wada pointed out that this problem is "not limited to the game industry," but rather structurally to the entire Japanese nation. He went on to look at possible solutions -- mainly an opening up of attitudes.

He specifically referenced the potential "psychological resistance" of the Japanese developer to achievement based on "standing on the shoulders of giants," -- that is to say, using external tools and building on top of them.

The CESA chairman attempted to psychologically define and split out the technical and creative parts of game development, and a key point was to be that overly rigid definitions of roles and a lack of willingness to use outside technology are hobbling Japanese companies.

He referred to "creative engineers" as the idea people might be aiming for, and said once again that "inconsistency in terms of systems" is what is holding the industry back in Japan.

The Japanese development industry tends to want to reinvent technology every time it develops a game. That's a major flaw, Wada claims, noting the belief of Japanese developers that "standardization of the interface can be seen as standardization of content." That's just not true, he argued.

In conclusion, Wada recommended that more translation of relevant content is needed, and that both the Japanese industry and government need to take active steps to further promote communities and hubs based in Japan, with further open collaboration and technology sharing needed.

"Unless we change ourselves within the next few years, maybe there will be no expectations for the [output of the] Japanese gaming industry," he warned. But he was also hopeful, adding, "We still have sufficient time to recapture this leadership."

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Sjors Jansen
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I am slightly disappointed by this stance. IMO Shadow of the Colossus and Killer 7 have not yet been surpassed by games with more modern/advanced technology. I think the 'japanese way' of creating games should not be written off that easily. Especially not now that we are seeing more acceptance for technologically less impressive games like megaman 9 and the wii platform.

I'm not saying we should go totally retro. I'm saying new technology in games is overrated as the audience for wii, indie and retro games is growing. And that if "we change ourselves" it is possible to lose the uniqueness of the 'japanese way' of game making.

But by all means steal and share when it suits.

Geoffrey Mackey
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I still have a hard time believing it because every Japanese developer seems to love putting themselves down. This sounds like cultural issue and being an outsider I guess I could never truly understand. But too many are saying the same things. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

Shadow of Colossus is great. I know everyone loved Killer 7, but aside from the style I didn't personally. Wada talked about the select games do great, but is he saying that the majority of developers just aren't pumping out great games? Graphics wise I can't tell a difference. Or are they just talking about the profitability and time scale with large teams of new systems?

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I think he's talking more about the financial side of things then the artistic side. Titles like Halo and GTA are probably making the case for this kind of envy.

David Tarris
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Akira Yamaoka's interview in Game Developer magazine about this very issue was particularly poignant to me. The business practices of software developers in Japan just don't seem to have the coordination and resources that western companies have developed over the years, and it's hurting them in a world of increasingly large budgets, risks, and competitors. This is of course coming from an outsider looking in, but this is how I've come to understand it from people like Mr. Yamaoka and Mr. Wada.

But I think a history of software engineering plays a major role in all this. Afterall, western software companies have struggled with creating a list of "best practices" for decades now, and a lot of the progress has carried into the spin-off industry of entertainment software. I don't know how large or venerable the software business in Japan is, but I would hazard to guess it isn't on the same scale as its western equivalent, and again, I would also guess that it has caused them to stagger as big game projects become more like big application software projects.

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As a simple developer who is inside the Japanese Game Industry, and not a top class director or company president or anything like that, I can say that, the issue is that a Japanese Team is normally anywhere from 5 to 10 times larger than their western equivalents working on a title of the same scale. The main reason is because since we mostly reinvent everything, even really simple components, and even the workflows for each title in the same studio, so you simply need that kind of man power.

Now image that the Japanese Industry could reach a similar developer productivity ratio to that of the west. That would mean we'd have probably twice as many games, twice as creative or twice the fun (and that's not a crazy statement if you have 10 times more developers).

We have a word in Japanese "Mottainai" that translates into something like a "shameful waste of resources", and that's the problem right now...

Geoffrey Mackey
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Thanks for the insight. I finally feel like I have a grasp of the issue that everyone is always talking about.

Tawna Evans
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I felt that Square Enix reinvented the wheel with the way the company developed the Final Fantasy VII shooter spin-off. The company created their own engine instead of using existing engines for shooters... The game would have probably been a better shooter game if the company had used an existing game for that type of genre.

Tawna Evans
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Oops! The game would have probably been a better shooter game if the company had used an existing game engine for that type of genre.