This year’s Game Developer’s Conference has brought with it more doom and gloom for Japanese games. Everyone seems to have different opinions on what has become a complex matter that probably can’t be answered all at once.
The most inflammatory development has been the comments from director of Fez stating that modern Japanese games just plain suck. On the other side you’ve got Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune once again standing up talking about how they’ve lost – probably trying to admonish Japanese developers into regrouping. Game Informer’s Phil Kollar (formerly of 1up) followed up with a rather popular article defending Japanese games.
Firstly let’s look at what’s actually happened outside of the opinions about which games suck. Japan’s market share in the global video game industry has definitely shrunken over the last several years. Console sales are dropping in Japan, and developers over there are releasing fewer and fewer console games. Their big franchises are also no longer as influential as recent western ones. This much I think people can agree on, even if no one really agrees as to why.
Before I say anything else, I would like to point out that I believe the only area in which Japan is “failing” is on consoles. Microsoft and a bunch of PC developers effectively stole the console market from Japan with the Xbox 360, so Japan retreated to handhelds, which is where you’ll still find their A-grade work. I think the DS and PSP output from Square Enix, Level-5, Nintendo, and Atlus has been excellent. The DS probably has my single favorite library of exclusives of any platform this generation. Western markets just stopped caring about dedicated handhelds.
Now, I would like to bring up what I think has been one pretty broad factor in the difference between how Japan makes games and how everyone else makes games. That would be the process of iteration, or the lack thereof in Japan’s case.
We like to complain about Japanese RPGs because in many ways they haven’t changed much at all compared to 20 years ago, along with many other Japanese games that seem to cling to things we think are outdated. I think a central reason behind that – and I’ve probably noted this before, is that Japanese developers don’t borrow from one another as often as western companies do. I think this has been a huge double-edged sword for Japan in video games.
If shooter introduces something really useful like a cover system or experience point-based multiplayer, pretty soon every shooter will start doing it. This has allowed the genre to make several huge advances over the last couple decades. Modern Warfare is in a totally different world from Wolfenstein 3D.
On the flipside, I played Chrono Trigger for the first time a couple years ago and was shocked at how it did a lot of things better than most JRPGs made in the 17 years since. It’s almost as if when a Japanese team makes a new game, they develop it in a vacuum, disregarding the advances of their peers. You might see a lot of iteration from Japan within each franchise, but few games mechanically influence whole genres. The only modern example I can think of is Monster Hunter. If JRPGs had collectively learned from Chrono Trigger back then, or more recently Final Fantasy XII, I don’t think we’d be complaining about them as much.
At the same time, we’d probably be complaining about how similarly JRPGs would play, like how we complain about homogenous shooters today. If there’s one thing you gotta hand to the Japanese its variety. Nowhere else do you really get a genre like adventure games that varies from Ace Attorney to Resident Evil (the older ones anyway) to 999. On top of that, Japanese game franchises are usually a bit more willing to switch things up between entries, like the difference between each Final Fantasy game. I’ll even go ahead and say that this might be how many Japanese games escaped this console generation’s most annoying trends like all the needless hand-holding and useless multipalyer.
I think this whole iteration thing applies to the tech side of too. The west is ahead in terms of production on consoles right now because they constantly push ahead with iterative middleware. Japanese teams on the other hand are used to building a fresh new engine almost every time they make a new game, and aren’t as obsessed with powerful hardware. That’s taking them forever with today’s technology, but a lot of people will probably tell you Japanese games still manage to look more distinct from one another compared to Unreal Engine games.
I guess the key is probably finding some kind of balance between evoking necessary advances and maintaining each game’s identity. Japan has probably gone too far in one direction and the west too far in the other in most cases.
If you asked me for an example where I think that balance plays out well, I’d probably say something like the game Dark Souls. People have been constantly lauding the game and its predecessor as rare examples of great modern Japanese gaming, and I’m inclined to agree. Demon’s Souls has a UI, control setup, and gameplay system that feels fluid, modern, and streamlined like western gamers have come to expect. And yet, the game’s central approach and mentality are totally different from what most western publishers are willing to attempt with console games.
On the tech side of things you could say that Japan is already stepping up with its own solution to the problem of graphics engines. A lot of Japanese developers are working with Unreal, but a lot of them have also started developing their own internal engines instead of using middleware: Konami with the FOX engine, Square Enix with Luminous, Platinum Games with the Baynoetta engine, and Capcom with MT Framework. If that actually works, it could end up giving each game a unique look based on the developer.
Ultimately though, I have a feeling Japan is gonna have to leverage its differences from the west more than try to be like them. One thing they can’t compete with is the money big companies like EA and Activision have. It’s like the Japanese film industry trying to compete on the same level as Hollywood. A little bit before GDC I think Gamasutra quoted one man at an event in London saying that Japan should focus on making unusual games that westerners would never think of, because that’s probably what they do best.
- Sega announcing a Vita version of Phantasy Star Online 2 with cross-play with the PC version is exactly the kind of thing I want from that platform – if the game ever comes out in English.
- I could see there being at least one SKU of the next Xbox without a disc drive, but I don’t know about going all digital or even with cards. Games are getting to be over 10GB, and I don’t know how you inexpensively make game cards that size. Microsoft would also need to get their digital pricing in gear, because retail still beats the crap out of it, not to mention Steam.
- The director of what of my favorite anime shows – Michiko to Hatchin, is back with a new Lupin III show staring Fujiko. Better yet, the guy who did RedLine is art director.