Can Japan Hope to Compete Globally?

It seems like every time someone talks to the Capcom ex-patriots or several other Japanese game creators they go on about how Japan needs to change and convert. I’m starting to get worried that they’re entering a battle they can’t really win.

The latest talking point has been a statement from Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami. “Japan needs to make games like Hollywood makes movies. I think Capcom and Hideo Kojima’s team are trying hard on that front.”  He goes on about how most of the games he’s interested in now are of western origin. Kojima and Mega Man designer Keiji Inafune have been talking along the same lines, specifically about wanting to make games that compete globally.

Can they really do that though? How can Japanese media compete directly with popular American and European media? It’s an extremely uncommon thing if you look into the past.

Part of Mikami’s argument is that Japanese games recently have only appealed to the Japanese. “So many are based on anime or fantasy – games that only appeal to Japanese people. Most gamers overseas aren’t interested in anime.” Kojima has been on record saying basically the same thing, and others have remarked at how even Japanese movies rarely have appeal outside of Japan. When most of Japanese media has never tried to compete for foreign hearts and minds, how can their games expect to?

There are lots of gamers outside of Japan who do love Japanese games, anime, etc. A sizable portion of the core audience probably grew up on that stuff, but I don’t think they realize how much of a niche they are compared to the Halo and Call of Duty crowd. I think they need to accept the fact that most consumers of games today probably never were interested in most JRPGs, fighting games, and anime shows. Unfortunately that’s the market that big Japanese publishers like Capcom and Konami are trying to crack.

Personally I think Mikami’s suggestion to emulate the Hollywood model is a very dangerous one. For starters, it’s not even really working out for western publishers. The AAA Hollywood model is only working for the top handful of games like Call of Duty and Gears while the rest are falling to the wayside. Too many games that followed after COD are dooming their developers when they sell less than 5 million copies. If most western developers can’t hack it in that space, I don’t expect Japan to do any better.

In that respect, Japan is kind of already doing better than the west. I haven’t heard of as many Japanese developers closing shop because their games didn’t sell an astronomical number of copies. Most of them haven’t exploded their development budgets and have kept their sales expectations reasonable, but Mikami and Kojima have deemed this an admission of defeat and a retreat into the Japanese market. They want to reclaim the western console market they used to have.

If you ask me I haven’t seen any evidence that they understand why they had the western console market in the first place. Japanese console games were popular everywhere consoles were sold because for decades they were almost the only games available on consoles. Most western developers didn’t bother with them until the Xbox came along. When western console games started appealing to western console gamers, they realized how foreign Japanese games really were. Japan didn’t change or lose its quality at all, the west just finally started caring.

In competing with that, I think we know now that Japan shouldn’t really try to make its own western games too. The guys at Tecmo put it best when they called Ninja Gaiden 3 “a Japanese Hamburger”. The game traded most of what made the franchise appealing in a bid to basically become a sorry Call of Duty clone with a sword.

Japanese developers are facing a fundamental question of how to appeal to foreign markets. I think that instead of trying to copy what they like outright, they need to look at what they’ve made in the past that appeals to foreign markets. Instead of trying to sell a Japanese hamburger, they need to figure out how to make Sushi appealing to Americans and Europeans.

To take the food analogy further, look at Chinese food. It’s pretty much a staple of the American takeout diet despite being unquestionably foreign. Chinese chefs however had to change that food and tailor it specifically to western audiences. The Chinese food most Americans eat is actually pretty different from what Chinese people themselves eat. It’s sort of an amalgamation of tastes.

Japanese media has accomplished this before to varying levels of success. Firstly I should note Nintendo – probably the sole Japanese publisher that has maintained mass appeal the world over in these times, mainly because their games speak to the most fundamental values of play. They’re the Disney/Pixar of the industry, but everyone can’t be that.

I think other Japanese companies need to look back and ask themselves what games, movies, anime, etc. have appealed to overseas audiences. They need to figure out what about those properties were appealing to westerners. They need to find a way to appeal globally in a way that only Japan can do.


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