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Is there a way to “fix” Japanese games?

Tokyo Game Show begins this week, shifting the global gaming attention to Japan. Unfortunately for fans of Japanese games, events like TGS also throw into sharp relief the problems that are plaguing Japanese development. The country that once led innovation in virtually every genre has had serious trouble connecting with gamers outside Japan, and clearly the divide between the markets is growing.

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, games from Japan dominated the market in the West. While companies like Konami, Capcom, and Squaresoft were making their name with lasting franchises like Metal Gear, Street Fighter, and Final Fantasy, Western developers were busying themselves during these years with...*crickets*.

Today the charts are ruled by titles from the West: Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed,  Halo, and Elder Scrolls. Comparatively, during the last decade, many Japanese-developed franchises have floundered with the rest of the world. Already in 2012, games like Ninja Gaiden 3, Armored Core V, and Steel Battalion have been met with lackluster reviews and low sales.

Some companies, like Square Enix and Capcom, have been able to maintain strong international sales, but in most cases that’s due to an increased Western influence. Square Enix purchased Eidos, acquiring in the process top Western franchises like Tomb Raider and Hitman. Meanwhile, Capcom is consistently relying on non-Japanese developers to make new games in established series like Devil May Cry (Ninja Theory), Lost Planet (Spark Unlimited), and Dead Rising (Blue Castle).

That’s not to say Japanese developers don’t know how to sell to Japanese gamers. Franchises like Monster Hunter, Dragon Quest, Yakuza, Dynasty Warriors, and the Tales of… games are consistently found at the top of the Japanese sales charts, but those successes are increasingly becoming another sign of the problem. While those series sell in the millions in Japan, they barely make an impact overseas--if they’re even localized at all, something publishers are becoming increasingly wary of doing. Most of those series’ gameplay rules are so well established that the devs aren’t in any rush to make them more user-friendly to westerners. And it’s that disconnect that’s only making things worse.

While all those franchises certainly have fans outside of Japan, when publishers take a chance and bring them to the West, they rarely accrue the global sales they seemingly should thanks to the divide in player tastes. And that situation is leaving Japanese developers with some very tough choices. Do they make changes to the fundamental designs of their big Japanese franchises and risk alienating their core audience, or do they continue to cater to this increasingly niche segment of gamers? Bomberman: Act Zero highlights perfectly the inherent risk in this equation.

Still, there are some Japanese developers breaking the mold entirely. Grasshopper Manufacture, for one, develops unique, distinctively Japanese-weird games, such as No More Heroes or Shadows of the Damned, that have won over critics in the West and the East. Likewise, the collective of former Capcom creators known as Platinum Games makes the kind of risky, innovative, and, above all else, fun action games people once expected from Japan.

Sadly, Platinum and Grasshopper's innovative strides haven't translated into big sales in either America or Japan. Even the best sellers of those companies, like Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw, end up with a fraction of the sales of games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mass Effect 3.

Though the sales figures have not yet born it out, the types of new, innovative, and distinctive games that Platinum and Grasshopper create are the key to Japan’s future. And the good news is that these companies are still being given the chance to find their place in the world. Earlier this week, Nintendo confirmed that it would be bringing Platinum’s Bayonetta 2 exclusively to the Wii U. Here’s hoping that kind of big-time support will give the franchise the boost it needs to make its lasting mark on the industry.

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41 comments

  • cloud_and_aerith - November 26, 2012 8:13 p.m.

    Very good article!! This is actually what I'm researching at the moment. I want to know what kind of impact Japanese games have on the non-Japanese players and how interested are the players in the Japanese games and culture!! If anyone is interested in this topic, please fill out my survey! I am very curious what everybody thinks about Japanese games!! https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dDFMUlNCblFDRERFelBIdENFbnZUWUE6MQ
  • Sjoeki - September 20, 2012 11:05 a.m.

    IMO Japanese games haven't really changed that much, except for the graphics. While I still enjoy JRPG's and games like metal gear I can see why some people had enough of those games. And might it have something to do with how big gaming has gotten? Everybody and their mother are gaming nowadays and I think a lot of people want instant satisfaction. Especially JRPG's are games that you have to put a lot of time in to get some results. Don't really think it needs to be fixed, they just should do their own thing without looking to much to the west.
  • zombi3grim - September 20, 2012 5:32 a.m.

    The problem with japanese games are two fold. Either they have no variety or their WAY too damn weird. You got games that feature the Japanese perversion of underage school girls. At the same time, Japanese game series dont tend to stray too much from title to title. They stick with what works and Japanese gamers eat that shit up.
  • buttfaceninja - September 19, 2012 4:48 p.m.

    My only problem with most Japanese games nowadays is the the writing and the voice acting. For instance I would really like to play the newest Star Ocean for the 360, but HOLY SHIT that voice acting. Voice acting that bad with a script that bad makes playing through a story centric game like this almost unbearable.
  • n00b - September 19, 2012 1:42 p.m.

    dark souls anyone?
  • bobbystrange - September 19, 2012 12:06 p.m.

    i know how to "fix" jap games, stop putting mario in them and stop trying to make every other game so cute and fluffy. these games now r ok for little kids but im the one who pays $60 a pop.
  • Mooshon - September 19, 2012 3:57 a.m.

    For my mind the general problem with Japanese development is that they've made their games too specific for their market. I'm mainly referring to the asian preference for repetitive/grind or statistic driven mechanics that they seem to favour. Where western devs followed the hollywood route of grand, exciting, accessible projects for the mass audience - japanese developers seemed to invert and rinse and repeat existing tropes for the home crowd. I feel a bit of a comeback though. Upcoming games like Ni No Kuni really highlight the dev magic that's slowly being lost amongst the COD fodder.
  • wheresmymonkey - September 19, 2012 3:24 a.m.

    The main difference i'd say between japanese and western games is simple. Japanese games outside of japan aren't given the same kind of marketing push that the likes of Elder scrolls and mass effect have, Everyone knows months in advance when a new bethesda game is coming out because we're told about it constantly. People that don't usually play games as a hobby know about them. So they sell shedloads. There's no problem with japanese games themselves apart from when they attempt to copy the west. It's safe to assume we don't want immitators and that's where the likes of Platinum and Grasshopper have made strides. By bothering to talk to westerners and ask them what we like about japanese games instead of making assumptions they've found out that we like japanese games, because they're different. I love japanese games because they are culturally different to Western games and i think that more western devs could learn a lot from that. The fact that we all get lumped together as western says a lot about how by and large our own cultural leanings are lacking from our games. They're there. Deep down but often western games end up all feeling a little like an attempt at trying to be american in many ways, with only a few notable exceptions like fable and Overlord which are at least in their humour incredibly british. Anyway i'm rambling now. Biggesst problem as always is a misconception born out of mutterings on the internet it seems.
  • profile0000 - September 19, 2012 6:43 p.m.

    Well damn, that was a good point. I think I agree with you there.
  • BladedFalcon - September 18, 2012 10:31 p.m.

    I'd actually say that the ones that need "fixing" are the customers in general, and not so much the games themselves. I believe Japanese games actually shine their best when they focus on doing their own stuff, instead of trying to cater to the west... As long as they actually put some actual effort in creating their games, but of course, this applies to any developer, anywhere.
  • FoxdenRacing - September 19, 2012 7:41 a.m.

    Amen to that, dude. I greatly enjoy the Japanese games on my shelf...but then again, I put gameplay over graphics, and good design over 'Bro that was AWESOME' set-pieces. I'll also be a gamer long after CoD and its ilk are relegated to the 'dead horse' bin along with Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero; what will drive me away is customer-unfriendly business practices, not whether a specific franchise panders to me.
  • Viron - September 18, 2012 8:59 p.m.

    Eh, I doubt that American games sell that well over there. Different strokes for different folks.
  • bigwill1221 - September 18, 2012 6:38 p.m.

    Is there a way to have your own ideas with out being criticized?
  • Viron - September 18, 2012 8:57 p.m.

    No
  • Redeater - September 18, 2012 6:04 p.m.

    If they would just fix some of their awfull character designs I would be happy. Seriously, Kaim from Lost Odyssey was one of the worst designed heroes I have ever seen. A few strands of hair running down his face the entire game and armour that showed off his bare tramp stamp area......... And don't even get me started on that Poison reject from Ff13-2.
  • bobbystrange - September 19, 2012 1:08 p.m.

    just the character design? Lost Odyssey that whole game was crap! but that is a kick ass crow icon u got there!
  • shawksta - September 18, 2012 5:18 p.m.

    Platinum likes creativity and despite sales, they cares about the sales themselves, which was one of the special cases with Bayonetta, they didnt want it to die. Unique games like these, The Wonderful 101, Ace Attorney, Layton, The Trauma Center games and more need more credit, its a shame they dont sell well but the fans and support are there because they care and they dont want these unique titles to be covered by the highly selling big names.
  • taokaka - September 18, 2012 4:37 p.m.

    My opinion is that one of the real problems is the budget that most Japanese games have. First reason for this is lots of Japanese devs are lacking in the tech to make games whose graphics on a technical scale are comparable to western games, even if they do make up for it with the art direction. The problem this creates is many casual gamers buy games for graphics and usually their opinion on a good looking game is one that looks as close to reality as possible over a game with a colourful cartoonish art style. Another problem is of course marketing, when was the last time you saw an ad for a jrpg which you didn't intentionally seek out? while on the other hand a couple of months ago all the busses in my area had a huge max payne 3 ad on the side. My final reason for budget being an issue is the platform Japanese games are released on, most are on portable consoles instead of on home consoles. Other reasons Japanese games might not be doing so well is the voice acting. However the biggest reason in my opinion is the mentality of it, most casual/medium gamers want to play whatever their friends are playing because they know those games are good that way and just like a child with vegetables the casual gamer won't even try other games. And this creates a problem because the more people that play the popular franchises like COD, Assassins creed and battlefield then the faster they'll grow as opposed to less popular series.
  • J-Fid - September 18, 2012 9:13 p.m.

    Your last point is your best, I agree 100%.

Showing 1-20 of 41 comments

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