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Namco Bandai's Japanese Developers 'Shifting Their Focus' To Worldwide Audience
Namco Bandai's Japanese Developers 'Shifting Their Focus' To Worldwide Audience
June 5, 2009 | By Kris Graft

June 5, 2009 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, E3

Despite its biggest titles maintaining a distinct Japanese flair, Namco Bandai director of PR and marketing Todd Thorson told Gamasutra that the globalization of its Japan-based business remains a key focus going forward.

"We truly [want to] globalize the development of Western-focused games," he said in an interview at E3 this week. "It happens on two levels."

"Not only are the guys in Japan developing things there that are so well known and have a fantastic track record, they're really shifting their focus to a worldwide audience, making sure the products they make appeal globally."

Namco Bandai officially formed Namco Bandai Holdings U.S.A. following the merger of Namco and Bandai in 2005.

Namco Bandai's fighting game Tekken 6 is due later this year on U.S. consoles, along with Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny for PSP, the latter of which will feature Kratos, the star of one of the biggest U.S.-derived franchises, God of War.

The publisher is also enlisting Western developers to create its games, including U.K.-based Volatile Games, which is developing Dead to Rights: Retribution.

Namco's and other Japanese developers' Western development initiatives are an acknowledgment that the average Western gamer isn't as enamored with heavily Japanese-flavored games as they may have been 10 years ago.

"Yeah, I think that certainly there's always going to be cultural differences. Different territories always like different styles of gameplay," Thorson said.

In late 2008, Namco also launched its "Surge" label, whose purpose is to provide "cutting-edge, genre-defining games that are targeted at satiating the appetite of Western gamers."

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Matt Marquez
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No! I want to them to publish Idolm@ster for the U.S. and other countries, then they can focus on everything else.

Phil Ledru
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Andre, you definitely have a point. Being a gamer on both japanese consoles and PC for 20 years I perfectly understand what you mean in terms of high quality-factor. Japanese processes really produce the best designs, and has a far much better average than western products. I explain this mainly by the gap in education: Japan makes game designers since the 70s. Western higher education system attuned to video games during the 90s in america, late 00s in Europe. Another reason, probably linked to the first one, is that the average culture on video games, among the public, is far higher in Japan than in any other country - except South Korea maybe - so I have litle trouble saying that this makes their average game better, in terms of design quality.

On western implementation of Japanese companies, I think their main concern should be about content, content, content. What they really need is not a new office but to hire new staff: western people, culturally speaking. Blend westerners heavily into the game design: writers, artwork artists, music composers mainly. That should be just enough to make a "western" game. Huge successes may take some time to come, but the more they get their teams close to western content and culture, the more those teams will work well at designing games that western markets cherish. Japanese companies dedicate teams to specific, single IPs usually, so it shouldn't be much of a trouble creating "international", westernized teams.

Now relocation of studios in a western country is so irrelevant to me, I can't start listing why it has few to nothing to perhaps harm to do. The benefit of "local thinking" only applies fully to design and PR.

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I don't think Japanese games are of higher quality at all. I think there are more western games available and at a lot greater rate released so it seems that the few Japanese games we get are of higher quality than many western releases we see. So many western releases means we see a lot of flops in comparison.

To be fair you have to compare two elite games from each respective region and genre. You have to compare say a Final Fantasy XIII to a Fallout 3/Oblivion, a Resident Evil to a Dead Space, a Street Fighter/Guilty Gear to a Fight Night/UFC, an MGS to a Splinter Cell/Assassin's Creed, a FFXI/FFXIV to a WoW/Everquest. I mean it isn't so easy to just say Japanese or Western is better, they both make high quality high caliber games, and they both make flops and niche titles.

Now the story is specifically talking about Namco Bandai which is mainly Tekken, Soul Calibur, and the Tales of... RPGs. Fighting games and anime style RPGs, both of which are primarily Japanese flavor in and of themselves. I would just take this news to mean Namco Bandai is going to try a different genre.

Personally, I enjoy both Japanese and Western games, but I find myself spending more time and money on Japanese games. Just look at my catalog of games and you'll see: Metal Gear Solid 4, Street Fighter IV, Soul Calibur 4, Resident Evil 5, Valkyria Chronicles, and Fallout 3. One out of six is a western game.

Kumar Daryanani
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While it makes perfect sense to try to grow their market share by appealing to more people with games that are more to local tastes, I honestly hope it doesn't result in Japanese developers ceasing to develop games with traditional 'Japanese' values. There is definitely the danger of a homogenisation of game design if all games are made to cater to the western market.

What I do hope to see, however, is western and Japanese design, art, music, etc all getting mashed together to form a new hybrid culture of game design. Personally, I'd be disappointed if some traditionally Japanese design (turn-based strategy, JRPGs) and aesthetic (manga/anime-style and hyper-stylish art, cel shading) styles disappeared in favour of traditional western values (Real-time action, 'Realistic' art styles). In a sense, it would be a loss of cultural diversity.

I do think/hope that with a bit of luck someone somewhere will combine western and Japanese game design and end up with something awesome that is commercially viable.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

An Dang
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A lot of Japanese games have great stories. Square Enix (Squaresoft) alone boasts deeper storytelling in a time when games have virtually no story with Final Fantasy IV and then VI. Then they have other titles that can stand up to the best of modern narration including Chrono Trigger, FFVII, FFVIII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Cross, Xenogears, FFX, and Kingdom Hearts.

Then we have other RPGs by other developers like the Breath of Fire series (II and IV), Lufia (II), Alundra, Wild Arms (1 and 3), Suikoden (1, 2, 3, and 5), and more. Earthbound, Robotrek, and Azure Dreams also came out of Japan, and they have light-hearted, but very charming stories.

And maybe more notable today, because of the latest iteration in the series, is Metal Gear Solid. In my opinion, MGS3 is the absolute best of the series. MGS4 is very good, but people who have not played its predecessors judge it as a standalone in terms of story, which is not how it was meant to be. While the game takes some steps to explain what's happened in the past, MGS4 is truly meant to be played after playing the previous titles in the series.

As for Bioware, they've told some amazing stories. The best I've experienced from them being Knights of the Old Republic, hands down. None of the other Bioware titles (NWN, Jade Empire) come even close to KotoR. I have not played Mass Effect yet, so I can't comment on that. But if the best of American video game storytelling is Bioware, and the best of Bioware storytelling is KotoR, then I don't see how Japan falls short with Final Fantasy VII or Metal Gear Solid, both of which I believe hits many more emotional notes than KotoR; KotoR does not stray very far from the "oh, schnaps!" emotion.

Any theory about publishers not bothering to port bad Japanese games moot if all we do is compare the best of Western games and the best of Japan.

It's my understanding that Japanese developers work more painstakingly on smaller details. Look at Japanese game and compare it with a similarly-budgeted Western contemporary. The Japanese tend to be much more efficient with textures, so while the graphical intensity of the game is not that high (meaning if it were a PC game, it would not have particularly high system requirements) it still looks as if it should be. Consider FFXI, the system requirements are ridiculously low but the game looks amazing even compared to Western games that require higher system requirements.

With all that said, I don't think either Western or Japanese developers are "better." I have to say that I do believe Japanese games have lost some of their charm. But in my opinion, it's because they're trying too hard to appeal to the Western market and not sticking to what they're good at (making a game you assume Westerners would like is not the same as making a game you would like, though that's what focus groups, surveys, and etc. are for).

Matt Marquez
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@Tommy: You won't hear a counter-point from me since there are plenty of terrible games that Japanese game companies have been making for years till this day. It isn't a question of comparing quality between East and West, though, as a good game is a good game and a bad game is just bad.

I'm for all for companies expending into other territories, but as I mentioned earlier, you'd NEVER find a western company create a game like Idolm@ster (look it up and you'll see why). That's my main issue with this, as I can actually see it being prevented being made if two alien companies merged and catered to a "wider" audience. If consoles were not region locked I wouldn't see games not having too many problems being exposed for actual quality.

I can see great things happening, but also bad ones. The world is getting smaller, but I doubt it'll reach the point of ALL game companies entering an international market.

Just keep the region locks out of it.

Michael Rivera
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I'd like to point out that outside of the RPG genre I can't really see any evidence of Japanese developers losing ground to Western developers. Nintendo is still the undisputed king of platformers, and the most successful fighting games still come from Japanese franchises. Do people forget about these genres, or do they just not generate the sales that shooters/rpgs do?

@Andre Thomas: I never really understood the idea that Japanese games are of higher quality than Western games. If you look at similar titles from each region (say, Oblivion and FFXII) they have roughly the same amount of attention to detail, so I don't really see how people can say one is "better" than the other.

People always say that Western developers are too focused on bloody shooters to make something truly innovative. Well, substitute "linear RPG" for "bloody shooter" and you could say the same thing about Japanese developers. Look in any game shop here in Japan you'll find just as many asinine FFVII clones as you would brainless shooters in an American store. Japanese developers are just as complacent as Western developers. The only difference is that while Western developers pander to the Xbox masses, Japanese developers are only focused on the Akihabara crowd (note: this includes games like The Idolmaster, so I don't know how appealing it'd be to Western girls...).

Charles Forbin
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Well, one thing that has gotten old for me and many I know who play JRPDs is this:

Female Lead Character: "I love you and want to kiss you!"

Male Lead Character: "Augh! Run away! I fear intimacy!"

Female Lead Character: "Oh, man up already!"

Male Lead Character: "I am weak and tiny! Oh woe is me!"

(Female Lead bonks Male Lead on head with mithril bo staff)

I tease. ;-) But I know many would would have preferred that Balthier and Fran had been the primary FFXII characters.

Phil Ledru
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Oblivion IV versus, say, FF12. i can't comment on 13 yet.

I would never argue that both games aren't as good technically. Graphics, sound, etc, I'd go 100% for a tie, it's so subjective. But storytelling? Consistency of the gameplay? We all know Final Fantasy series never have a broken gameplay or broken class system. Actually, they usually work on excellent systems, world class quality that no one denies. FF VII's materia is still the best evolution system ever designed, for a lot of people, not only fans.

Oblivion has a lot of broken gameplay issue, we all know that too: the primary/secondary skills system is just a joke because choosing it "logically" makes the game hard as hell, while making a stupid character (in terms of storytelling) by choosing his most important skills as secondary ones makes the game easier, thus the smart choice is "think outside the game", and that kills immersion. "Let make my mage everything but a mage in its primary skills because that's smarter considering the game design" isn't exactly good storytelling. Now would you find that in FF?

Moreover, the spell creation system in oblivion is great, really. But then again, if well used, it kills the game, making it too easy. Basically in Oblivion, you just finish the guild stuff then go straight to the end of the scenario. In all FF, getting "better" is linked to the story, usually you have to get that spell or that other one to clear the scenario. Your evolution is the world's evolution. It doesn't seem disconnected as it too often does in Oblivion.

Storytelling, again: the scenario. Oblivion is "just" another fantasy thing. The King blablabla, well I'm sorry i've seen such designs, artwork and general ideas in one RPG out of two since i've been playing games. Final Fantasy(s) sets in weird, strange, different worlds, with more originality than any Bethesda-Blizzard-Ubisoft-Take2 scenario put together. If FFVII had the best system with materia, FFVI is a dramatic scenario that could make it to Cannes...

I've spent 100+ hours on both those games, and believe me, i love them both. But if I had to choose which one i'd like to sign, as a game designer, I choose FFXII anytime.

Another thing about storytelling: dunno why, but I sometimes feel deep emotions playing FF, like I do when watching a good movie or a good season finale. I hardly have those emotions when playing western RPGs. I do have them with FPS (99% of which are from western studios), Deus Ex or F.E.A.R, to me, are just the closest thing there is to a movie in the video game realm.

So I'd say it's about the genre, agreeing with a lot of you here apparently. FPS is a western thing, after all the ancester (Wolfenstein or Doom) is from western culture. RPG, on the other hand, and as good as it gets on PC, is a japanese thing. They just do it better.

Michael Rivera
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Phil Ledru: Funny, I always considered JRPGs to have really poor integration of story and game play. Too often I feel like I'm only grinding through enemies to get to the next cut-scene, whereas the "open-ness" of Western RPGs make me feel like I'm actually role-playing a character. True, JRPG stories are usually more complex and cinematic, but if I can get roughly the same effect from watching the cut-scenes on youtube then what's the point of playing the game?

Now, don't get me wrong. I know there are quite a few JRPGs that have found ways to integrate their linear stories into game play (Avalon Code, and The World Ends with You, for example). I just feel like those games are more the exception than the rule, particularly if you are talking about console games (as opposed to handhelds).

I do agree with much of what you had to say about Oblivion though, and for that reason I didn't enjoy it as much as other titles in the Elder Scrolls series.

Phil Ledru
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Michael Rivera: You're totally right when you say FF is the exception rather than the rule. And all the good stuff out there is more or less derived from FF and/or DragonQuest ever since they became milestones in the 90s.

But if we stick to comparing only the best stuff from east and west, I still find that JRPGs went "higher, better", just as western FPSs or RTSs did/do. Exceptions, as always, exist, namely Sakura Wars for instance.

Just as I find MSG consistent in storytelling and gameplay (i don't like the scenario much, but at least it's well-told) whereas Splinter Cell is a nightmare of linearity to the point where there's often one and one only solution to a scene. A failed attempt to copy Konami by Ubisoft if you ask me, though sales don't confirm my judgment! : ) And yes, MSG too is the exception, no other Japanese game rank as high in the genre, dominated heavily by the west.

Moreover, I actually understand pretty well what you mean by [the "open-ness" of Western RPGs make me feel like I'm actually role-playing a character.] I even consider that "open-ness" to be fundamental to the future of video games. I just find it, until today, to be too often riming with emptiness.

Don't get me wrong: the feeling is good, and if the game is well-designed (so far, I'd be very restrictive on that quality factor), it's just the greatest feeling ever. Oblivion does a good job at that, so do many MMOs. A whole world waiting to be yours. But a bit of linearity, at least in the main plot (not implying said plot doesn't subdivide in many branches), is essential. It's what MMOs often (always?) lack, due to design limitations obviously hard to overcome. Linearity, some of it, is a red line, common to all story-telling media: novels, movies, series, hence games. I find that JRPGs more often stick to old systems, proofed ones: doesn't kick ass in terms of originality, but anyhow it delivers. I'm thinking pretty much any "secondary" IP from SquareEnix.

But you made me realize something, so thanks for nuancing my point.

It seems R&D is headed to openness – MS and Sony's last interface projects reflect that freedom, in terms of move/gameplay, don't they? Surely choosing a menu (JRPGs) or even pushing a button live (typical action RPG) to perform an action seems very restrictive to the 2010 player. And no wonder western RPG will easily integrate such features (it looks like Diablo or Oblivion were born for that!), while JRPGs need almost total re-design of the combat system. Indeed FF is already changing, the old "wait" system is agonizing as of XIIIth. The upcoming years of game design will definitely be interesting : )