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Japanese Game Development: The Path Forward


November 23, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

But I disagree with the notion that the first- or third-person shooter is a kind of game that by definition eludes the Japanese game developer. The secret behind the high quality of Gears of War is not an innate difference between the brains of people who live in different parts of the world, but a difference in development methodologies.

Consider that in addition to an obvious disparity in available budgets for each game, Gears of War is built upon Epic's own Unreal Engine, the result of more than a decade's worth of continuous development, with well-understood asset pipelines and editing tools that have been in use for many years by dozens of studios. Quantum Theory, in contrast, was programmed entirely from scratch by its team. No matter how technically brilliant that team might be, it simply isn't possible to easily reproduce the many years of shooter development experience that lives on in the team at Epic or in the design of a system such as the Unreal Engine.

Therefore, even though Quantum Theory and Gears of War feature a similar number of various weapons for the player to use, only the Gears of War development tools could afford its designers the opportunity to spend days, weeks or even months finely tuning each setting on each type of gun -- the firing rate, the spread, the recoil, the reload time, and so on -- over and over again until they felt just right.

Only the Gears of War team could use UnrealEd to quickly block out levels and assess their flow instantly by playing them on their PC, then saying "how would this encounter play out if we took out that wall?" and trying it again 30 seconds later.

The attempt to reproduce the outward appearance of Gears of War without considering the system by which Gears of War came into being is what leads to a game like Quantum Theory.

With this in mind, the general form of my suggestion for Japanese creators wishing to make inroads into Western markets would be to avoid approaching the cultural divide problem as the question of "what is the sort of game that Westerners like?" and to think more along the lines of, "what is the development process used by Western developers to create these games?"


Quantum Theory

Making Use of Playtesting and Metrics

When I decided to research Japanese game development methods, the relative absence of a formal playtesting process was one of the first major differences I noticed. My own experience in the industry has led me to believe that this function is extremely important to the creation of a successful game.

For example, during the production phase, Bungie performs a formal playtest every two weeks, and Valve every single week. The playtest not only determines which parts of the game are too easy or too hard, how long it takes for people to understand the mechanics of the game, and so on, but it can also take a reading of the audience's reaction to the characters, story events, and their perception of the quality of the title.

As I've mentioned, Nintendo has emerged as an exception to the rule regarding the Japanese industry. Why is that? The recent book Nintendo Magic offers one clue, in a passage about Shigeru Miyamoto's technique "a look over the shoulder":

When creating a game, Miyamoto will occasionally find employees from, say, general affairs who aren't gamers and put a controller in their hands, looking over their shoulder and watching them play without saying anything. By doing so, he can identify places to improve. "That part's too difficult." "They don't seem to be noticing that mechanism," and so on.

Here, reporter Osamu Inoue describes what is essentially a casual way of performing playtesting. Nintendo, of course, has ample working capital to fund long development times, but game creators of any budget can get the same benefit by planning to do regular playtests from the beginning of a project and scheduling in advance a certain amount of time to make future adjustments to the game based upon the playtest feedback.

Furthermore, it is not just non-gamers who can provide valuable insight into how the game might be improved. Hardcore players are often genuinely excited about the opportunity to provide feedback to developers, especially if they understand that the software is in an early state and their suggestions have the chance to be addressed in the game before it is too late. International playtests can also serve to highlight cultural problems with character designs or dialogue that a purely domestic team may not have anticipated.

The objection that usually comes up with regard to these design methods is that they erode the role of the creative director by preempting his or her vision for that of a confused mass of opinions from many different people.

When implemented properly, however, playtests don't do that at all: the point of the playtest is not to change the meaning or the purpose underlying the game, but to allow the true character of the game to come forward. Many games with solid technical and artistic underpinnings have earned poor ratings because players were not able to connect with the game's intentions.

Finally, in order to truly be successful, the results of the playtest must be acted upon. Sometimes this can be a problem if, say, a famous character designer contributed a design that the company is obliged to use even if the design is not well-liked. I believe the path to breaking down these kinds of political obstructions lies in fostering a development environment in which back-and-forth communication and feedback between all departments is not only encouraged, but routine.


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