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On The State Of The Japanese Industry
So, what of this alleged slump in the Japanese market? At any given moment in any territory, there are naysayers predicting doom and destruction for videogames in every territory, but it seems there are significant problems with the game market in Japan, in concert with their general, countrywide economic recession. With a recent survey revealing a large majority of Japanese game developers thought 2003 a "bad year", for the industry, Ricciardi echoes these perceived problems in his comments: "Well, sales have been down across the board for the last three or four years running, so in a sense, yes, but you can't blame it all on the recession. Consumers still have a fair amount of disposable income, but they're using it on other forms of entertainment, like DVDs, the internet, cell phones, and the like. Games are failing to captivate people the way they used to."
Interestingly, it seems that the Japanese market may be growing away from the very "mainstream" market that developers in the West are currently striving towards, according to Ricciardi's anecdotal evidence: "I don't know the exact demographics, but one thing that fascinates me is that the PS2 generation definitely skews older and mostly male, whereas PS1 was much broader, with lots of females and younger players. I think the decision to make PS2 look like a fancy stereo component had a lot to do with this, and it wound up costing Sony because they lost a very hard-to-reach demographic that they had complete control over in the PS1 era." And with Sony so dominant in Japan, the other hardware competitors are lagging and possibly niche-limited even more than they are in the West: "Xbox gamers in Japan are mostly super hardcore types, and GameCube owners are mostly kids--I hate to play into the stereotype, but it's really true."
As for other reasons for the Japanese slump, Ricciardi adds credence to the views of others involved in the Japanese games industry in showing concern for the sometimes formulaic nature of Japanese development: "I feel like we're seeing far more innovation from the West these days than Japan. Games like Tony Hawk, GTA III, and Halo really took things to a new level of immersion and fun. Personally, I'd love to see some more collaboration between Western developers and Japanese developers--somewhat like Metroid Prime, which turned out brilliantly, in my opinion."
This view raises the question of how Japanese developers differ from Western dev teams--Ricciardi notes: "My impression is that Japanese developers are highly organized and efficient, but a bit rigid in terms of being able to adapt to new practices. One thing that irks a lot of Western programmers who work in Japan is that generally, Japanese developers don't share code. They spend months building new engines for almost every game instead of using that time to refine an already existing engine and give more time to the actual game design and development. This has changed a bit recently now that software like Renderware has become more widespread, but for the most part, Japan is still way behind in this area."
He continues with another important difference--pay scale: "Another point that I'm sure many of my friends in development out here would love for me to point out: Japanese developers get paid like garbage compared to Western developers. Programmers and artists here, even high-level ones, make a fraction of what their counterparts make in the West. This can't possibly be good for morale, but at the same time it's kind of normal for Japan; employees here are expected to be loyal to their company and treat it like a second home, so most people don't complain about these kinds of issues as much as they probably should."
Finally, Ricciardi takes a little time to dispel some of the myths regarding Japanese gaming tastes, starting with the impression that the Japanese videogame market is all about the infamous dating-based videogames. He notes, "Dating games do exist in Japan, but they're not really popular anymore. They're mainly aimed at lonely guys and hardcore otaku, but I guess that market shrunk a bit over the last generation as PS2 has become more of a mainstream console. Personally, I don't see the attraction to these kinds of games."
He also takes issue with the claim that overly "cute," anime- or manga-inspired games have trouble reaching an appreciative audience in the West, suggesting: "The 'too cute' notion in regard to gaming is kind of unfair, in my opinion. Granted, it's not a regular part of our culture to have games and other forms of media that subscribe to that particular art style, but that doesn't mean we should prevent people from having the opportunity to check them out. In order for the medium to grow and mature, we need to be more open-minded about the kinds of games we bring over."
Overcoming Los Angeles From The East
Despite the possible Japanese downturn, there are still plenty of Western publishers fighting to pick up Japanese titles to round out their roster of Western-developed games. Ricciardi explains: "Japan has an awful lot of budget titles, which are ripe for licensing, as the fees are cheap and the localizations are usually inexpensive. These days most publishers aren't looking for huge hits from Japan, but rather solid, affordable A or B titles to pad their lineup. The licensing scene is pretty competitive here; big titles often get scooped up within days of being announced and it's very, very rare that a suitable game remains un-translated unless it fails concept approval for one reason or another."
So, you have a Japanese videogame that you want to localize and release in the West. What's the key to making the translation a good one? Ricciardi suggests that a major mistake occurs when third parties translate without being able to actively consult the original game creators: "The biggest issue is simply finding that delicate balance of staying accurate and true to the original while also making the text sound good and read properly in English. It's not as easy as it might sound, and often it can't be done to perfection without the translators having access to the development team to make sure their interpretations of the original text are accurate. This isn't always possible, but when it is it definitely makes for a better final product."
When translation is done with the ability for consultation, it leads to, well, jubilation: "The very best localizations are the ones that are done in-house, with the cooperation of the original developers. This is an approach Square Enix takes, and it works well. They have bilingual translators and editors literally working side-by-side with the developers in Japan, so that whenever there's a question or an uncertainty about the meaning of something being translated, they can go straight to the source to make sure they get it right. This is pretty important, which is something we've learned as a third-party translation house. Fortunately, the publishers we've worked with [at Interone] have been very good about giving us access to the developers, so we've been able to manage."
Another pitfall for eager Western publishers is the extended timeframe and cost of localization, but there are ways to ameliorate this: "The time it takes to do a game depends entirely on the amount of people involved and the size of the script. In the case of a major RPG, the translation alone can sometimes take up to two or three months, and that's not counting any editing or polishing. Then you have voice recording, which can take weeks, voice implementation, testing, debugging...it can be a pretty long process if the game is large enough. This is why we're seeing more and more simultaneous releases--it's easier for a developer to program in multiple languages at once, to cut down on the costs associated with localizing for each individual region. Of course this is a luxury most companies simply can't afford, so don't expect it to become the standard any time soon."
Grand Theft Auto III
But what of the question posed at the start of the article? Do "hackjob translations" from the Japanese negatively affect a game's popularity? Well, perhaps not--Ricciardi laments, "Sadly, poor translation and voice acting don't seem to affect game sales as much as I wish they would. I can't stand playing games that are littered with typos or nonsensical English, and for the most part, the quality of voice acting in videogames is just terrible. I'd like to think that a good translation affects sales in a positive way, but unfortunately I don't have any evidence of this. As mentioned, Square Enix seems to have the best overall track record for localizations at the moment, but is that why their games sell well? I really don't know."
Ricciardi ends his discussion of the translation business with a caveat for those hoping to skimp on translation costs and still get the substance of the game conveyed properly: "Just having native English speakers isn't enough--it's important that everyone involved is familiar with games, understands how they work, and in the case of a franchise property, has studied up on past games in the series. Far too many companies treat the localization of games as an afterthought, hiring any old cheap translators, regardless of their experience with games. That's one of the main reasons you see so many hackjob translations. If videogames are to be taken as seriously as movies, publishers are going to need to start taking localizations more seriously."