The Japanese Video Game Industry as Viewed from Japan, via 1UP.com

Since 1UP.com is shutting down, it does seem a bit cruel to critique one of their last articles here.  So I’ll largely stick to just quoting from it.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Japan

Although I have no idea where it started, apparently the entire English language gaming press has for some time been promoting the idea that Japanese video games are boring, repetitive, and no longer relevant and that the West has defeated Japan in this arena at least.  Unsurprisingly Western gamers and developers seem to have taken to this idea easily, and it now seems to be an accepted fact among English speakers on in the internet.

1UP, to their credit, decided to try a novel thing (probably why they’re closing down) and actually interview some Japanese developers about this.  Well, actually, they basically wanted to ask them if there was any hope left for Japan’s video game industry, taking for granted that Japanese people think Japanese developers are down in the dumps, but the interviewees answers revealed that this is often the first they ever heard about it.  So, let’s look at some excerpts.  I’ve included the thoughts on the topic of every Japanese person 1UP interviewed for this piece.

First, Tsutomu Kouno of LocoRoco fame.

1UP: Do you think Western development has surpassed Japanese game development?
TK: I don’t necessarily feel like we’ve been surpassed by Western development, but do I think America has a “Hollywood tradition,” so to speak. So you see a lot of games that have large-scale production, a large-scale experience, and we’re seeing multiple products being developed at the same time that offer these kinds of blockbuster visuals. I think that even more recently, with the current generation of hardware, we’re seeing an even bigger gap there between those types of experiences and what we do in Japan. One other thing is that in the West, you see a lot of people who do storyboards and concept art for films joining the gaming industry. I think it’s really impressive how they’re able to leverage those resources with games as well.

…[1UP asks their next question at this point]
I just want to add a little bit on to the previous question, which is getting back to where Western developers have a slight advantage. The majority of new graphics technology and programming techniques all come out of the English-speaking community. So you go to conferences like CIGRE [International Council for Large Electric Systems], and all the presentations are in English — same with GDC [Game Deveoper?s Conference]. So, if you’re an English speaker in the West and you want to go to those conferences, you can immediately take that knowledge and feed it back directly into your game. So I do think that’s a scenario where Western developers have a slight advantage. That being said, here in Japan, we try to do the same thing, of course. We try to take all that knowledge the best that we can in whatever way possible and reflect it back into the games.

Next, Hiroyuki Kotani of Patapon fame.

1UP: What do you think of the current state of Japanese videogame development?
Hiroyuki Kotani: Keep in mind that I’m just a single game designer, so I’m going to speak from that viewpoint — but I think that, talking more about the market rather than the development situation right now, I think it’s the market that has the biggest issue. Since the PlayStation was the main driving force back in the late ’90s, we’ve been seeing a shift in the market in terms of what people are looking for, and Japan has done a great job of having a bunch of creative people who are constantly coming up with new ideas and pushing the envelope in terms of both technology and game concepts themselves. I think we’ve reached a point right now where we’re a little bit unclear about what the market’s looking for because of all these changes, so I think the biggest challenge for us right now is to look and see what the consumer wants and try to fulfill that need.
1UP: How do you think Western development, if at all, has surpassed Japanese game development?
HK: I’m really impressed always by Western developers’ ability to create large-scale experiences. The kind of games that I tend to prefer are ones where I have complete control and complete knowledge of everything that’s going on, and I can kind of micromanage everything. But then I look at a lot of these Western games, and it’s like you have an entire city as a location for your game — and I think that that really goes back to where people were raised, and the fact that living in that environment has kind of created a desire to play games in that sort of setting.
1UP: What don’t you like about Western development?
HK: I think it’s similar to cuisine in some respects. It’s all about what you want to eat, right? I understand that Western tastes may not have a lot of delicate flavors, but that’s what people want to eat there. At the same time, I understand that a lot of Japanese games have very detailed, complicated stories that may not necessarily appeal to everybody. So it’s not that one’s good and one’s bad — it’s what kind of flavor do you prefer; what do you like to eat? At the same time, it’s important to note that you can learn a lot from looking at other people’s games — and this goes beyond saying, “OK, this is a Japanese game,” or “This is a Western game.” There are certainly a lot of games I look at and say, “Wow, that’s cool!”
You’ve got to take those elements and try to work them in as well. But, then again, I’ve got parts of what I’ve made that I’m really proud of, and I hope that people would look at it and take into account when creating new experiences as well, so I think it’s just important that we try to experience as much of each other’s creations as possible. It’s sad, because I used to be the kind of guy that would play every game that came out. I’d be the guy who said, “Yeah, I played that. I played that.” But nowadays, there are so many games out there and so little time to play them that I’m really behind — even if I were to play games for the rest of my life, I probably couldn’t finish them all! But I think it’s a testament to the growth of our industry that something that’s only 20 years old has been able to get big enough that it reaches this many people.

Next, Keiji Inafune, co-creator of Mega Man.

1UP: How do you think Western development, if at all, has surpassed Japanese game development?
KI: Western development’s definitely surpassed Japan. I believe that a single major difference between Japanese and Western development has played a huge role in this: In Japan, many game developers coexist within publishers as a single company, while many U.S. software groups are independent — they have the aspiration of making the “American dream” a reality.
On the other hand, Japan mostly has developers controlled by publishers. The developers’ aspirations and innovations first have to be evaluated by the publishers. Unless the publishers accept the developers’ ideas, they’ll never have access to the players. In the U.S., there are free competitions between developers. These competitions result in better products, and publishers will buy them, invest in their promotion and marketing, and help drive sales. The development process involves endless possibilities and dreams of making a hit title.
That’s not the case in Japan; the system doesn’t create an environment to inspire such dreams among developers. Naturally, they don’t try to explore or challenge themselves with new technologies or possibilities. They also indulge themselves in safe environments where the publishers protect them, and this also further whittles their aspirations away. The Japanese game industry developed around arcade games, and that still remains a norm — not allowing the developers to be independent. It’s a residue of the legacy of Japanese videogame development itself.
1UP: What, in your opinion, is the most difficult part in designing a game for the Western markets? How much of a difference is there between the markets, and what kind of observations have you made about non-Japanese gamers tastes?
KI: I believe that what people find interesting is fundamentally the same. At the same time, there are certainly differences in taste. Aesthetic beauty is a good example. What Westerners find beautiful and what the Japanese find beautiful often do not correspond. What’s important here is to try to see it from their point of view. When applied to gamemaking, we have to make an effort to accept other viewpoints and try to see why they find it interesting. It may not be clear-cut, but we have to keep at it. For instance, the Japanese game industry neglects first-person shooters. A majority of Japanese gamers don’t even try to play them. I think if you play with a little more patience, you will soon find them fun. Without an effort to be open-minded, it’s impossible to create a game that can appeal to Western gamers. “Why is sushi in the U.S. oddly shaped?” “Why do Americans use a mountain of wasabi?” These are questions for which the Japanese can never find answers. Yet, instead of easily dismissing differences as “non-Japanese,” we should try to accept them and see things from their perspective. That attitude is the only key to fully grasping the Western ways of thinking. Otherwise, Japan can never create a hit for the West.

Jun Takeuchi of Capcom, with most of his experience in the Biohazard/Resident Evil franchise.

1UP: What do you think of the Japanese game market these days? People seem to ignore innovation and progressive games, and stick to the usual stuff. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Pokemon, Sangoku Musou, and Monster Hunter are among the handful of reliable franchises in terms of sales.
JT: This question presents a very interesting view. From our point of view, the US market also focuses on a certain genre and titles, such as C.O.D., Halo, and G.T.A. It seems quite natural for titles popular in a particular region to sell. The Japanese game market is much smaller than the West, which makes million-seller games very unusual within our country. That said, titles popular in the US and Europe do have a possibility to also become popular in Japan.

Katsuaki Kato, Matsui Munetatsu, and Kouji Aizawa; editors for Famitsu (the biggest video game news source in Japan) who were all interviewed together.

1UP: How do you think that the Japanese videogame-development scene has transformed over the years and evolved? As arcades dwindled, so did Japanese dominance. It was kind of this middle ground in the 32-bit era, but once the Xbox hit, Western development really went on the rise because PC developers were crossing over to consoles.

Kouji Aizawa: First of all, I would like to say that the market here in Japan is still continuing to grow at a slow pace. The problem is that it’s nowhere near the pace of growth that we see in the market overseas and in the world as a whole. In the past, you might have seen Japan as a third of the world market in terms of sales. And now, even though the market within Japan has grown slightly, it’s only a sixth or a seventh of the total world market. So that is certainly something that the developers have to take into account.

1UP: How do you think that Western development, if at all, has surpassed Japanese game development?
KK: One advantage that we see with Western games is the very realistic graphics. From a technological standpoint, games like Gears of War and other first-person shooters really try to shoot for extreme realism in graphics. And it’s not just the realism, but it’s also the massive amount of art assets — it’s really quite an accomplishment. We don’t really have that much of a tradition of liking guns, using guns, knowing about war, and things like that here in Japan, so I think it’s difficult for us to create the same kind of experience. We do have games like Metal Gear, which is almost like one man’s artistic vision taken to an extreme — almost like a movie director taking his vision to the extreme — and we certainly do have things like that, but not quite to the extent that they do in the West. And I think that’s certainly one big advantage that Western games have. Also, in the online arena, I think I see a parallel with the fighting games in Japan. We saw new graphics and new techniques and new technologies in the 1-on-1 fighting-game arena here in Japan for a long time, and I see kind of a parallel with first-person shooters and online features.
1UP: What do you think of the Japanese consumer these days? People seem to ignore innovation and more progressive games and stick to the typical stuff — Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Dynasty Warriors. All those seem to do well. But then a game like Okami comes out, which gets incredible reviews but sells very little. It must be discouraging for Japanese developers who want to break out and want to innovate and want to push the envelope when they can’t even rely on their home market to support that kind of experimentation.
KK: At first, I think it’s important to ask: What is innovation? That definition can change from person to person. I do think that a lot of what you say is correct. We also found Okami to be an amazing title. We gave it some of the highest praises of any title that year. We also have the Famitsu Awards, which are decided by votes from the readers, and Okami got a lot of votes and won awards there. But it didn’t translate into huge sales. Back to the point, though — is there truly no innovation? I mean, obviously, it depends on the individual, but I think something like Wii Fit is very innovative in a completely new way. And the question is: Is this innovation that core game fans are going to be happy with? And I think that we’re seeing that the Japanese games market is evolving and is innovating, but in a different direction. It’s not in the hardcore gaming market — it’s in a different direction that has to do with what Nintendo’s doing and what the market, in general, is looking for. But I do think that Japanese gamers, now more than ever, are looking for new and innovative experiences. You look at a title like Yakuza — which, two and a half or three years ago, when the first one came out on the PS2, was the biggest-selling title of that year in Japan. That was a brand-new franchise, right? So I just think that goes to show that people are open to new experiences if they enjoy them and if they’re done well. So now I think what we have to focus on is that there haven’t been a whole lot of experiences like that on the next-generation platforms like PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. So I would hope as we look at the market that we’re going to see [that] these titles are both innovative and great sellers on these platforms.
1UP: Western gamers seem to enjoy a certain level of customization much more than Japanese gamers. One exception would be something like Final Fantasy XI, which has a very large Japanese fan base. Western gamers like to tweak their characters and dress them up and customize them to reflect their accomplishment within a game, while Japanese gamers seem to be content playing the role of one specific, unchanging character. Do you think Japanese gamers will start to see the appeal in customizing yourself? That’s obviously one of the big things about the success of Monster Hunter. I don’t think it’s necessarily the control — I think it’s that you have all of these things to outfit yourself with. Where do you see that going?
MM: While you make some good points, it’s not as though there haven’t been any games in Japan where you can customize your character; I think those have existed for a long time. In the case of Final Fantasy, like you mention, I think it’s very much the case that Japanese gamers want to experience the game and story through the eyes of that character — that they’re emotionally invested in that character, and they don’t want to see them change. They don’t want to change them because that character is an individual that they then project themselves onto. Look at racing games: I think that Japanese racing games are some of the first where you could actually go in and change your car and things like that. And even older RPGs allowed you to pick a party and things like that, allowing you to adjust your characters. So I certainly think that both of those two paradigms will continue to exist.
Aizawa: I think that the main reason why the characters’ visuals were not customizable in Final Fantasy X was because one of the big selling points of that type of game is the prerendered CG cut-scenes. In Metal Gear Solid 4, when everything’s rendered in real time, you can change stuff and it’ll show up in cut-scenes. But when you’re dealing with prerendered cut-scenes, you can’t change your characters’ appearances, and I certainly think that has a lot to do with it as well.

And finally, Ryozo Tsujimoto of Monster Hunter fame.

1UP: What do you think of the Japanese game market these days? People seem to ignore innovation and progressive games and stick to the usual stuff. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Pokémon, Dynasty Warriors, and Monster Hunter are among the handful of reliable franchises in terms of sales.
RT: Strong sales performance of game franchises is not a new trend. We often design a new intellectual property with the hope that it’ll become a big franchise that will long be cherished by our fans. In other words, the success that comes from establishing a franchise series is the result of taking a risk in the first place.
However, I have to admit that lately, many new intellectual properties haven’t made huge breakthroughs. Though the trend has been described as users moving away from videogames, I think it may be an indication of players becoming wiser consumers. They’re more selective about buying a game because they have so many other entertainment goods that are being offered. Thus, it’s even more important to create excitement in a game, even with a new franchise title. That effort can grab the user’s attention and draw it back to videogames and eventually lead them to explore a new intellectual property.

I have very little to add.  Despite 1UP’s incredibly loaded questions, only Keiji Inafune would agree with them at all, and even he rather qualified it.  To conclude, I’ll add here the similarly loaded questions and similar denials given by the recently departed Kenji Eno, of D and D2 fame (this from a different 1UP article).

1UP: How do you feel about the current state of Japanese game development, because the last time you were actively involved in the game industry, arcades were still…well, they were relevant, but they were getting less important. But Sega was still doing arcade hardware, and that was where the cutting-edge graphics were. But now everything’s changed; Western development’s caught up with and passed Japanese development in many ways, so what are your opinions of the current state of Japanese game development?
KE: In Japan, we don’t really have a big PC market, so Japan wasn’t used to creating games that are up to date with the current technology. But in America, the high-end games are created on the PC, so American developers are used to creating the current type of games, like using full 3D, using A.I., and all that. So the jump up from the PlayStation to Xbox and the next-generation platforms was kind of difficult on Japanese developers because we weren’t used to these kinds of systems, and we weren’t used to creating these kinds of games. But Western developers buy their engines or their rendering tools from labs, from companies that specifically create those technologies. You guys like to buy those technologies and use them in developing games. But Japanese dev teams don’t do that that much, so that’s another thing that’s probably making the difference in the current game scene, like making the difference between the various territories.
So Japanese developers are probably at a point where they’re wondering what they should do. Like, they’re in a spot where they don’t know what to do. But then, the Wii and the DS are a huge success in Japan; so many developers are all currently working on DS and mobile games, where you don’t have to have the most cutting-edge visuals for the games. So a lot of developers are creating games for the DS. And right now, that’s probably OK, but we’re not trying really hard to keep up with the high-end platforms because we have something to survive on. That might not be a good thing, but then there are developers like Kojima Productions that are very good at creating high-quality games. That’s interesting, and it’s a good point in Japanese game development. However, I think that Japan is a country of ideas, and Japan is not a country where first-person shooters will sell well. Japanese people look more for ideas instead of just action. So, you know, I’m seeing the character of every area, every country, getting stronger. Like, Japan is a country of ideas; America is a country of 3D and high-end technology. I view it as an interesting step.
What I think is that Japanese developers should think up the ideas, and then have U.S. development houses actually do the development. Then keep the online servers in Korea, and have the Italian companies cook! Because different people taking parts in the work, doing what they’re good at, is probably something we should be doing in the future.
1UP: Do you think, as a game creator, that it’s frustrating creating games in a country where innovation doesn’t seem to be rewarded as much? I mean, of course, there are always exceptions, like Brain Age. But most gamers in Japan seem to save their money for the big sequels, like sequels to Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest or Monster Hunter. A game like Okami is beautiful, gets amazing reviews, sells like 4,000 copies. People aren’t spending a lot of money on a lot of new intellectual properties. Do you find that frustrating?
KE: I don’t feel frustration, because I truly think that the reason a game doesn’t sell is because it doesn’t have the ability to sell. And I also think that development people are very poor in marketing — like, you know, we don’t have good marketing skills, so that’s another reason that good games don’t sell. It’s like a guy saying, “I’m a very good person,” but he doesn’t have the ability to talk to girls, or communicate with people, or he doesn’t have a clear vision of what he wants to do. Like, does he want to marry this girl, or what? So, because of that, he’s not getting the right girl, and he’s not getting what he wants. So that’s exactly how it is.
OK, let’s say you have some ability that can catch somebody’s eye. But if you don’t know how to present it, then, you know, it’s not going to reach anybody. I think that’s what people should be working on a little more. And the creators — like, Japanese creators — most of them aren’t involved in management and don’t know about management at all. And a lot of creators think that they just have to sit there and create games, and then they complain afterward that their game didn’t sell because marketing didn’t take good care of it. But that’s not really the point, because the creators have to have the ability to market their product or at least deliver their product to the marketing, and control things in a way that the marketing will succeed. But looking at the current game scene, it seems like that’s not happening at all, so that’s probably one of the reasons that good games don’t sell. It’s so childish.

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