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Japanese Game Development: The Path Forward

November 23, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[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.

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Robert Ericksen
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While I have read a bunch of articles/interviews in the past year or so about the state of Japanese game development, this article really connected the dots for me with some good examples and insights/comparisons. Thanks.

Andre Gagne
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I fully agree with everything! Great article!

David Hughes
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I'd be interested to see how you think something like Vanquish fits in here. I haven't had the chance to play it yet, but I've heard that it captures the shooter vibe very well--doubly so for a Japanese title.

Matthew Burns
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I played and enjoyed Vanquish quite a bit. I thought it was a solid title from a pure game standpoint, but I also felt the story and characters might be a bit distant-feeling to a mainstream Western (and more specifically, American) audience. So I would put Vanquish in the category of titles that show great talent is clearly at work in Japan's studios, but that may have difficulty rising up and out of a certain niche inside the larger marketplace.

Dennis Hahn
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I have already finished Vanquish two times so far, so you can figure out I liked it a lot. Nonetheless there are some aspects of it that are absolutely in tone with this article. For instance you can tell they tried to appeal western audiences since the script was created by a non-japanese writer and as all the reviews say it is not a good engaging story, but at least it's not your usual japanese story as, for instance, bayonetta. What is also worth mentioning is that it actually does capture the 3rd person shooter vibe, but still you can notice it was not developed by western standards... it looks and feels like gears of war + bayonetta in a lot of ways, especially gameplay.

Mark Venturelli
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I just disagree about the Quantum Theory... ehr, theory. They would not benefit from using an engine like UE3. Their problem was a complete lack of knowledge about how shooters work. Also, I don't think that these devs are representative of the asian industry.

Bryson Whiteman
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I just watched a trailer for Quantam Theory and thought it looked laughably bad. It make me think of how I imagine bad American games get made -- starting the project with purely business driven goals. Designed in a conference room full of bad ideas and cliches and setting it in production with that as a starting point.

A YouTube comment says it all.

"Gears Of War , set in Fallout 3's wasteland also featuring Half Life 2's spire. hmmmmmmmm ORIGINAL!"

The international playtesting early on solution could definitely help address these issues earlier.

My understanding of the issues of Japanese development seems that companies were sort of resistant or weren't taking advantage of sharing technologies, even within the same company. I remember reading interviews with Inafune working to rectify that problem within Capcom with the development of the MT Framework. It seems like many of these companies are still developing their own version of the "Unreal Engine".

Quantam Theory may be a shitty game but at least they've got a lot of groundwork out the way, and a ton of experience in the process. When more Japanese companies get their technological hurdles worked out, shouldn't we start to see more of the creative and innovative games Japan is known for?

Joe McGinn
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Nice article, very interesting read!

Dave Endresak
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There are some good points in this article. On the other hand, I think that there are some omissions, or perhaps misleading observations, too.

For example, portable entertainment devices have been a major force in Japan for decades, and there are various reasons for this within the culture of the country. One of the major reasons for Japanese development shifting to portable devices is simply due to the fact that these devices vastly outsell the at-home options. Of course, this simple decision to go with the largest installed user market is also supported by the very poor economic conditions that have been persistent in Japan for two decades. Still, it's important to realize the reality of why development would be on portable systems and that such a move is not simply a cost-saving measure, or even primarily a cost-saving measure, but rather simply following the consumers and what they prefer (in Japan, that is).

Likewise, there are numerous cultural reasons for the workplace structure that exists. As Matt points out at the beginning of the article, there's no way for an article such as this one to begin to cover the enormous complex, interwoven influences that create the environment that exists for game development, or for other areas of any society. For example, many of the topics raised in the article can be discussed for Western development as well, but from a Western cultural perspective. It is not true that Western norms are somehow "superior" or "better" and it pains me greatly to see anyone trying to emulate another culture rather than simply appreciate their own. There is no way for an entire culture to change to match another culture's norms. For example, in Japan, there is a great deal of work done during "casual times" such as socializing after work or during company trips. It isn't that workers do not have time away from a computer screen, but rather the general psychology associated with work and the feeling that it must always be the focus, even when it is apparently not supposed to be. It might be worth noting that this is particularly true for the male employees in the traditional structure, but it is generally true for everyone with respect to conforming to social roles in order to maintain social harmony.

This train of thought raises the simple point that Japanese pop culture has a large audience all over the world. The biggest problem that Japanese game developers have is being locked in the outdated ideas of making a product and then licensing it for sale elsewhere. This happens with Western companies, too, as Matt observed. Companies need to realize that they are making products with global scope and market appeal, not local or national, and take steps to offer the products globally to all customers who wish to buy them and enjoy them.

I found it interesting that Matt refers to environments that drive animators out of the Japanese industry, yet more anime shows are being made today than at any time in Japan's history. This has also been well-document from within Japan by Japanese creators, and in fact was stated as a huge issue about a decade or so ago because the demand for Japanese shows was too great for Japan herself to provide. This has led to development being subcontracted to other artists from Korea and to shops set up in China, to name just a couple countries involved today. It would be interesting to do an academic study of the situation (not a report by a Western newspaper, even a well-respected one such as Wall Street Journal).

I think it would be a good idea not to discount the importance of perspective of people within Japan, including employees in game development and consumers of game products. There has been a long-running feeling of apathy and hopelessness, largely due to the poor economy, or perhaps more precisely due to the "economic miracle" bursting and the subsequent long-standing economic malaise. In other words, I would argue that it isn't just that Japan's economy has seen a downturn over the past two decades, but that it seems worse than it actually is because it is compared with the prior decades of extreme economic success after the rebuilding during post-WW II. The comparison exacerbates the low perception. Global financial analysis firms such ass PricewaterhouseCoopers have pointed this out in reports (i.e., that Japan may be seeing a downturn but that this seems worse than it really is due to the prior high level of success). The problem seems to be one of adjustment to a generally sustainable "middle ground" rather than the seemingly hopeless (or superior, in the past) perception that the population has (or had).

Finally, if we really want to support diversity, we should discourage efforts to shelve projects that are culture-specific and instead promote works that are imbued with many unique aspects of the various cultures from all areas of humanity, or even from purely fictional worlds. Gears of War is mentioned several times in the article, but my frank appraisal of Gears of War is that it was not a very good game, particularly for the enormous hype put behind it. It was a good tech demo, but not a good game product. The Unreal Engine has numerous issues that have been noted in games that use it, too, including games such as Bioshock. In contrast, I found games such as Star Ocean: The Last Hope and Tales of Vesperia to be far superior and much better products overall even though they are very different RPGs. Both of the latter games offer engaging characters, worlds, and stories, as well as technically polished game systems with more than enough value for the price of the product. In contrast, Gears of War offered perhaps 10 hours of value, at most, and this is why I have said it is a good tech demo but not a good game product. If anyone wants to point at multiplayer online options, I would respond that marketing and development needs to just cut out the attempt to make the product single player at all and state that it is a "2 or more" player game from the beginning. I analyze games based on how they are presented in order to get the consumer to buy them. Valve is an example of a company that offers sufficient value in their games and does not attempt to market them as something they are not (at least, Valve has a history of doing this... hopefully they will maintain this history).

Rosso Mak
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Great article with comprehensive observation of Japanese game industry.

Rodolfo Romero
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Great article! It even helps with some useful tips not related to Japanese companies. :)