[Game Developer magazine columnist and experienced mainstream (Halo, Call of Duty franchises) and indie developer Matthew Burns talked to Japanese creators and analyzes the hurdles facing the country's game development sector, offering observations on ways to improve things.]
There's a broad consensus in the Japanese game industry that large-scale game development in Japan -- by which I mean high-budget, "triple-A" titles for which sales must be good globally in order to recoup development costs -- is in a state of decline or "behind" that of the West. (For examples, see the sentiment as expressed by some of the industry's leaders, including Yoichi Wada, Keiji Inafune, and others.)
Furthermore, there's a strong sense of pessimism about the chances of changing the situation in the near future. The general feeling is that the factors responsible for this state of affairs are too great, too many, and too interlocked to solve in any meaningful way in the foreseeable future.
This profound sense of pessimism on the part of Japan's game creators may sound dramatic, but it is partially tied to the context of the country's thought about the future of its economy and global influence as a whole.
While the full scope of this topic is very much out of the range of a site like Gamasutra, any discussion of the Japanese game industry must acknowledge that many of its issues are connected to the complex social, cultural and geopolitical problems that grip the nation at large.
These include situations such as the country's shrinking population (which means that both the potential domestic audience for its games and the pool of future game developers is stagnant) and the rise of nearby economies that can compete on a technical and creative level but with lower operating costs.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that these challenges have produced uncertainty and gloominess about Japan's future in its own mind.
Faced with these headwinds, many Japanese developers have lately shifted focus towards reduced-scale, reduced-budget products. What would formerly be large-scale RPGs, for example, are increasingly appearing in smaller form on portable systems and mobile phones.
Franchises such as Dragon Quest and Valkyria Chronicles have switched to handheld systems for their main-numbered installments. And it is certainly no accident that the biggest exception to the rest of the industry is Nintendo, which has already ventured down the lower-budget path with its DS and Wii platform strategy, in contrast to the traditional "bigger is better" take on video game development.
Valkyria Chronicles II
But Japan's large-scale productions for home consoles have also taken a beating, not only in terms of economic viability but in their cultural relevancy to Western audiences too. As Sony Computer Entertainment President Kazuo Hirai said recently on these changing conditions, "If it's right for Japan, it's probably not right for the rest of the world."
This may be partially explained by pointing out that the domestic Japanese market for video games has shrunk while markets across the rest of the world have grown. But there is also a difficult-to-quantify but detectable sense of withdrawal and inwardness in the country's attitude -- a feeling so strong in the last decade or so that some cultural commentators have taken to calling the phenomenon a "new sakoku" (closed-country policy).
Addressing the Cultural Divide
The gap is illuminated by the state of cultural crossovers in each region. Right now, it's rare for titles designed to work within the popular culture of Japan to successfully penetrate mainstream Western markets, even when changes are made in an attempt to make the product more appealing (with the exception of Nintendo, which I will discuss later).
Many of Japan's most successful domestic titles, from Monster Hunter to Dragon Quest, have managed to attract only niche audiences here. Games based on anime tie-ins largely do not interest North American retailers, and the willingness of mainstream businesses to back any game that features strongly anime-styled artwork has dropped to an extremely low level.
There's even an entire genre of "dating" games such as Love Plus that are essentially un-exportable. In turn, Western games brought to Japan face their own bleak prospects: they have been estimated to make up only a tiny 5 percent of the local Japanese game market.
Japanese creators often mention their ability to understand Western tastes as a crucial aspect of meeting with success in its market. Unfortunately, attempts on the part of Japanese designers to make games specifically for Western hearts and minds can often come across as stilted and strange.
The numerous pitfalls faced by these teams might be evoked by recalling an American film that is set in historical Japan, such as The Last Samurai or Memoirs of a Geisha; these films seem to portray a fantasy land starkly different from how the people who live there see their own history and culture, thus evoking the feeling of something being "off" or not exactly right. In the same way, Japanese games made "for Americans" will often contain this disconnect in the opposite direction.
There is no title that emblematizes the problem with this approach better than Tecmo's recently released Quantum Theory. As journalist Chris Kohler wrote of this effort, "the thrust of the criticism around the game thus far seems to be that it apes the outward form of the popular shooter, but not its intrinsic appeal."
Players found that while the game operated mechanically in a manner very similar to Gears of War, the specific design elements that make Gears of War a fun and polished shooter experience were largely absent in Quantum Theory. Some reviewers have suggested that this game is an argument for Japanese developers to "focus on what they do best" by continuing to make traditional platformers, role-playing games, or third-person action games, instead of trying to branch out into the genres in which they have traditionally been less active.