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Postcard from GDC 2004: A Peek Behind the Shoji: Japan's Videogame Market Today


March 25, 2004
 
Ryoichi Hasegawa

At Thursday morning's "A Peek Behind the Shoji: Japan's Videogame Market Today," Ryoichi Hasegawa, Associate Producer at Sony Computer Entertainment, spoke about the state of the Japanese videogame industry, and presented some considerations for Western developers to take into account when porting their games to the Japanese market.

A Difficult Market to Penetrate

Displaying lists of the top videogames in Japan over recent years, Hasegawa pointed out that the vast majority of Japan's money-makers are produced and developed in Japan, and usually belong to a pre-existing franchise. (Titles in the Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Pokemon, and Onimushua series consistently topped the lists.) Hasegawa also noted that while the relative popularity of Western games (or "Yo-Ge") are finally overcoming the common stigma of being difficult to play and poorly developed, Japan's overall interest in videogames in has been underoing a steady decline.

Hasegawa suggested a number of factors that may be contributing to the situation. For one, a large number of gamers are moving over from console play to the cheaper, simpler, and more social mobile games. And at the same time, the number of new young games entering the market has dropped, while adult gamers continue to get older and find less time for game playing as family and work become predominant.

Videogames have also received some negative press in Japan in recent years, with concerns arising that game players were at risk of developing what one book termed "game brain." Of course, young Japanese boys still place "video game maker" at the top of list of potential careers to go into -- but many Japanese gamers agree that Japanese market has become so saturated with videogames that it is very easy to become overwhelmed and look for a simpler pasttime.

Yet in spite of the difficulty of the Japanese market, said Hasegawa, there is still potential for western titles to succeed in Tokyo. He pointed to Grand Theft Auto 3, Medal of Honor, and the Ratchet and Clank games as titles that have successful penetrated the Japanese market, and made some suggestions as to what Western developers can do to attract the Japanese market.

  • Development of In-Game Characters. Perhaps the most important characteristic of Japanese games, said Hasegawa, is that they feature believable characters that the audience can identify with. Japanese gamers are not looking to play for perfect superheros -- they like characters with background and depth, who draw them in as much as the gameplay itself.
  • Maturity of Content.
  • Difficulty adjustment. Another factor that would help Western gamers in the Japanese market is the ability to control a game's difficulty settings. This feature is becoming increasingly common in Western games, but Hasegawa expressed hope that this feature will one day become universal.
  • Navigation systems. According Hasegawa, Japanese people are not big on exploration. Systems that guide players as to what they can or should do next go over well with the Japanese audience.
  • Fine-tuned camera. One of the biggest issues for Japanese gamers is motion sickness, something Hasegawa attributed to poorly tuned camera systems. Many of the most popular Japanese games feature constrained cameras that minimize the potential for motion sickness -- something that Hasegawa believes would behood Western titles.

The most important factor in developing a game cross-culturally, though, said Hasegawa is a close relationship between the Western developers and their Japanese counterparts. Western games can succeed in Japan, Hasegawa said; it's just a matter of understanding the Japanese market and coming up with innovative ways to appeal to their interests.


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