Big in the West: Swery, Igarashi, and others discuss the Japanese game industry
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
At the Reboot Develop conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, something unusual happened. Koji Igarashi (Castlevania series, Bloodstained), Hidetaka Suehiro, AKA Swery (Last Blade, Deadly Premonition, D4), and game journalist Masatoshi Tokuoka (4gamer) were able to sit in the same room and discuss the state of their industry. The two developers largely look outside Japan for their audience, but Tokuoka’s market is decidedly domestic.
Necrosoft Games’ Brandon Sheffield (hey, that’s me) was on hand to facilitate a discussion between the three, in a small, sweltering hot, un-air conditioned or ventilated room. Our discussion, as a result, got a bit hot (ha ha). Swery was streaming the event via his phone to Nico Nico Douga, Japan’s Twitch-like platform, so kept his answered measured. Sometimes.
This is a transcript of that discussion, with thanks to Dan Luffey for translating.
BRANDON: Let’s start off with something vague. What do you think about the current state of the Japanese market?
SWERY: Here's what I said last year when I spoke here. People in Europe don't really know what's going on in the Japanese market, but basically here's how things are going. There's no guarantee that any game will sell, even in the domestic market, or you'll only be able to sell a predetermined amount. People make budgets based off that, and then make the game based on that budget. That's the age we're in now. So there are some creators who merely aim to hit those numbers, while there are other creators who try to use things like Steam and aim for something worldwide. I don't know how things will change from here on out. All I can do is hope that there will be people out there to buy what I make, and then make it for them. There are other games that I make so that I can keep feeding myself, and for producer salaries.
BRANDON: From the perspective of a media person who's been observing this for a long time, how do you feel, Tokuoka?
TOKUOKA: I think the rising age of Japanese society is the thing we need to think most about. People who played a ton of Famicom games in their youth are now in their 50s. The older people get, the less they enjoy fighting with other people. So I think we'll be seeing a lot more games where you gather materials and create things, and I also think the average size of text in games will get larger.
SWERY: At my panel yesterday I mentioned that two weeks ago, I instantly became farsighted on my birthday. I can't see things that are up close, so either I need to enlarge the text, or I need to invent a supplement for farsighted gamers.
IGA: I'm not sure if this is connected to our aging society, but as time goes on, the amount of content in games is increasing. I think that in terms of gathering things, that hasn't really changed that much, and games that have a lot of things to collect end up being good games.
BRANDON: When I spoke to Yasuhara-san from SEGA, Sonic designer, I asked him what he thought was the difference between American and Japanese players. And he said he thought the biggest difference was in order to solve one problem, American players want to erase everything in the area to solve the problem, and Japanese players want to gather everything and everyone in the area to go solve a problem together. But Americans want to do it by themselves. I'm interested in your current idea about the difference between Japanese and American players.
SWERY: I don't know if this is the standard in Japan, but based on what I've experience in companies so far, due things like budget constraints, and the release date, which is still important even now, developers might not be able to let players destroy everything. Christmas is important of course, so you want to get a game out before then, but a lot of people are strongly focused on things like: "This is what we set the date as, so we need to put it out by then!" That's something I see in the Japanese market. With Steam, you can just keep selling things on Steam, so you're able to slip things in there, but that kind of thinking is still rare in Japan.
Deadly Premonition was much more popular in the West than in Japan.
IGA: I feel like foreign markets are stricter when it comes to release dates. Before anything begins they start with marketing strategies, and put elements into the game based on those strategies - then the project finally begins. That sort of thing happens a lot. Japan isn't really like that. With America, Thanksgiving is especially important. Right now I'm working with an American company, and they often say very strict things.
SWERY: Last year when I made D4 with Microsoft, we announced the release date at TGS one day before the game was going to be released. I wanted to do it like Steve Jobs.
TOKUOKA: Back to the type of player topic, I think it also depends on the time period. If we're talking about recent Japan, I think that Japanese players have no aversion to destroying things. Recently in Japan, people who previously never played games have been starting to play games, and for a period during that influx, Travian-esque games became very popular. You know, the sort of games where everyone goes and burns down everyone else's villages, killing everyone. Certain gamers really stuck with those games and started pouring thousands of dollars into them, so I don't believe that Japanese players mainly like to gather things and don't like destruction. As a result of this boom, lots of modern gamers felt the pain of losing things in-game, since after they burned down someone else's village, they'd get theirs burned down too. So it's now become a trend where people like to earn things, but are afraid of losing them. Therefore, I feel that games where you can earn things and never have to worry about losing them have taken the stage lately.
BRANDON: It's interesting to think about this change. As you mentioned, there are some American games also moving in that direction to some extent. Like with Skyrim or Fallout, although it's ostensibly about killing, you could say it's also about gathering, since all these open world games are just about getting more things, or rolling a million cheese rolls down the hill. How would you describe the gap between creators making games for Japan and creators making games for outside of Japan?
SWERY: I've never made a game for Japan... Sorry. I have been ordered to make a certain game and make it that way, but I've never made one for Japan on my own. So I don't know.
IGA: I have a lot of fans overseas, especially in America, but I've never made a game "for" outside of Japan. We always work hard in the hope that Japanese people will enjoy our games, but for some reason the Americans end up liking it more.
Iga's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was a massive Western hit.
BRANDON: Is it difficult when you're working in a big company in Japan and your games are mostly popular overseas and not in your home country? Does that create any difficulties for you in the company?
IGA: I don't really know. We just make what we think is fun and send that out. I think it just happens that those ended up being more accepted by Americans.
SWERY: Within the company, did anyone ever say "We should try to sell more games to Japanese people?"
IGA: America has a bigger market, so there was nothing like that, and in the end, all they really care about is whether it's making a profit. I wanted to try and get more Japanese fans, but since the games sell in America, they wanted to use the budget for American marketing.
BRANDON: And none of you make free to play games, really, but what do you think about game pricing in Japan going forward? Igarashi-san's DS games were sold for less and less money every year that they came and out, and iOS and Steam games are cheaper and cheaper, and most of them are free.
IGA: Honestly, it's scary. If we can sell more by making it cheaper, that'd be good, but with old-style games, as well as mobile and free to play games, the quality just keeps increasing, which requires more and more money. So it's very important to try and figure out how to make all that money back.
BRANDON: It seems that most of you prefer to sell games at a premium as well, so how do you deal with the competition from free to play?
SWERY: We ask for a higher sale price, so we need to add a proper amount of value to our games, whether it's through graphics, music, or the story. It's a simple answer, I guess. Personally, I try to put value in the SWERYISM within my games.
Swery's D4 has a lot of Sweryism.
IGA: Smartphone games require use of the touch screen, which limits what sorts of games can be played. Traditional console gamers want more console games, so I think the best thing for us to do is focus on that core group and deliver something that will merit a full price to them.
TOKUOKA: F2P games aren't exactly free, and we have gotten to addicted to them. A certain number of people have figured out that paying a set amount up front gives them more enjoyment in the end, and I think this number is increasing. Eventually, I think we'll see an equilibrium.
BRANDON: I feel like I see more media coverage of F2P in Japan than I do in the West, because Western audiences feel even angrier about F2P than Japan. So in the West, it's actually very difficult to get media to talk about many modern games. Because of that, media has become less important for games that actually sell in a big way. I'm curious as to how you feel about that in Japan.
TOKUOKA: In Japan, F2P games aren't selling through the media, they're selling through TV commercials. In order to make a profit on a F2P game released in Japan, you need to buy a TV commercial spot, or else you won't even have a chance. One spot costs about 2 or 3 hundred million yen. Only companies who can pay that amount are the ones who survive in the current F2P market in Japan.
SWERY: That's a 100 point answer.
BRANDON: Here's perhaps a sensitive question about Japanese company culture. What do you do when you are more famous than your boss in the outside world? Both of you [Swery and Igarashi] have left your companies so it may be possible to say... I've heard about this actually being quite a problem, where if you start to gain popularity, people above you will be like "Who's this cheeky guy?" The hierarchy is quite firm.
SWERY: I'm streaming, so…. [Swery points at the his phone which is live-streaming the event]
IGA: This is hard to answer.
SWERY: Maybe I should stop my stream. I know, I'll talk about my friend. I did hear that my friend was once called into a meeting room and told something like that. They said they wanted him to change his photo, which was on the official website's blog, to their photo. But this is just my friend.
IGA: Right when I began work in the game industry, they pushed producers right out to the front like PR machines. Some people naturally became famous that way, but the company I'm talking about actually did that on purpose, as a strategy. At that time, the leader of the company branch was more of a businessman, not a gamer, and thought of things in a very calculating way, such as, "If we do this, we'll get more chances to advertise." There were others who thought that "If we we send him out, we can get him to take all the flak for the game instead of us!" They didn't say it in those exact words, but that was the general idea. That was a period in which people kept going to the forefront and becoming famous, such as Akira Yamaoka.
Iga's new game, Bloodstained.
TOKUOKA: In the Japanese journalism area, most people aren't looking at articles and saying, "Oh, this was written by THAT guy, so it must be good!" Honestly, most people think that it doesn't really matter who writes the articles. But for example, in terms of productivity, if the vocalist for Nine inch Nails were to do coverage on Reboot instead of some no-name person like me, that would draw worldwide attention. So personally I do feel that in terms of effectiveness, it's better to have stars say things.
SWERY: I wish you had been my friend's boss.
BRANDON: How do we deal with this kind of salaryman boss problem that Igarashi hinted at?
SWERY: You're still going with this?
BRANDON: Well, yeah. You don't work at these companies anymore, so... Anyway, I’m talking about the problem where there are people at the top of the company making big decisions who don't play games at all and don't care about games. Not only this problem, but people who do create games and care about them getting pushed into positions where they can't affect games and just become businessmen. So what is the solution to this problem, which seems like a critical problem for large Japanese games?
IGA: First, I think it's good if my superiors don't play games and aren't interested in them. I won't go into a long explanation about the difference between a manager and a creator/developer, but basically people who don't understand games but have to make money off them have no way of guiding people, so they have no choice but to trust in the people who do play games. That's how it was for me. So when I went up and said I'd be able to make games that sell, they were happy to trust me as long as I shouldered some of the risk. On the other hand, there are a lot of managers who say stupid things like "Hey, this is really popular right now, so you should put this in the game." Compared to that, I think it's better if they know absolutely nothing.
BRANDON: But of course that relies on them actually trusting you.
SWERY: The people who say those sorts of things actually don't understand games, do they?
IGA: Most of them only "think" they understand games, and they don't really play games seriously, either. That's why it's better if they have zero knowledge.
SWERY: Zero is better.
IGA: Zero is better. Every time someone tells me "you should do this," I think, "Well then, why don't YOU just do it?"
Necrosoft Games' Oh, Deer! Beta.
BRANDON: These companies are getting quite old, and it feels as though in terms of famous creators, we aren't getting very many new ones. New people are not able to rise to the top, pretty much all around the world, in terms of being a name that you can use to sell a video game. But especially in Japan. SWERY, I think you're like one of the last ones who made it past that line. Nobody kind of younger has gotten in there. Do you think this is OK, or a problem? It's also kind of related to the media not being able to push these people out.
SWERY: We have Moppin. He'll work hard for us. He made Downwell. I hope he'll save the industry.
TOKUOKA: We can't really rely on this, but in Japan, there's this terrible site called Nico Nico Douga...
SWERY: Hey, I'm streaming! [On Nico Nico Douga]
TOKUOKA: Oh no! Well anyway, they're working to put some young new game creators in the limelight. So I'm trying to rely on them.
BRANDON: Well, we have 3 minutes left, so let's each give our hopes for the future of the Japanese industry. What would you like it to become?
TOKUOKA: I hope we can lower the barriers of localization. There are a lot of people who can translate Japanese into English, so games coming from the outside are OK. Anyone who can write and read the comments on a Steam page can pretty much localize up to a certain extent. There are a lot of Japanese people who can translate English into Japanese. But there are hardly any Japanese people who can translate Japanese into English. In the end, I think we have to rely on people like Dan [who translated this panel]. So I hope the localization area can get improved, so we can send more games like Moppin's out to the world. Or Google Translate will do it.
IGA: I'm not really interested in the Japanese market. I'm 49, almost 50, so I'm really only focused on how many more games I'll be able to make before I die. That's about it for me.
SWERY: Can I say it?
BRANDON: Please don't!
SWERY: “Make Japanese game industry great again.”
SWERY: I'm glad I said that.
BRANDON: Well, I'm afraid that's the end.