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Is there a way to “fix” Japanese games?

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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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47 comments

  • keltar93 - September 18, 2012 2:10 p.m.

    It's partially due to a lack of significant innovation, though that's a problem in Western game development- both are sticking too much to safe design choices. However this play it safe approach is coupled with the distinct cultural flavor of Japanese games (far more noticeable nowadays than in the 80's when Japan made almost all console games). Thus, they are not only frequently derivative of their predecessors, they also lack the international appeal that more Western games have.
  • FoxdenRacing - September 18, 2012 2:23 p.m.

    The past 10 years or so has also seen a very sharp demographic shift at roughly the same time; gaming in the west stopped being purely a nerd's pursuit midway through the 6th generation [PS2 era]. With that shift in perception came millions upon millions of new gamers whom only buy things that play to their insecurities, that allow them to live out testosterone-fueled fantasies. Western developers, especially those working under the umbrellas of EA and Activision, were more than happy to cater to these new customers...often at the expense of long-time customers. The Japanese companies, and to some extent European companies, continued doing what they were doing. Personally, I think another demographic shift is coming. Mega-budget games are drying up...as budgets spiral out of control, it's getting harder to turn a profit...and doubly damaging for US-based publishers, harder to show 'growth'. I have no doubts that as the CoDs and the like dry up, so will the interest of those with very narrow horizons about their games...and with it, the markets will shift again. That said, I would like to see Japanese publishers go outside their comfort zone a little more, especially when it comes to art style. Enough Toriyama clones already, and many UIs are getting beyond dated.
  • CrashmanX - September 18, 2012 4:41 p.m.

    Pretty much this. When the PS2/GameCube/Xbox Era hit, look at what sold in the West. The Xbox and it's Run n Gun or Sports games. Granted the PS2 was a solid contender (and technical winner) some of it's best sellers in the west weren't as popular in the east. It's a divide that has been getting greater because it went from gaming was for nerds/geeks and such to gaming is for everybody, and that's what the west is REALLY trying to cash in on. While the east is sticking to what it's been doing and isn't trying to cater to everyone, just their core audience. Which is what the west should've been doing. Instead they keep pissing off a lot of their core fans when they change things to make it more accessible and for everyone.
  • Aarononymous - September 18, 2012 5:20 p.m.

    Isn't appealing to a broad audience a good thing? The West is able to publish games that achieve international commercial successes AND critical acclaim. Who are these core fans and why is their opinion so much more important?
  • FoxdenRacing - September 19, 2012 7:33 a.m.

    It depends on how fickle said broad audience is. In the case of 'new western gamers'...While there is a new generation of diehards there I really doubt the majority of them are gamers for life, and will find something else to do with their time once the games they enjoy dry up...or said games suffer from "Brand Burnout", the same thing Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero have fallen prey to, and CoD is starting to. In the short term, welcoming their open wallets with open arms is highly profitable. In the long term...if the fickle fans bail, and the long-time fans are left feeling burned, who's going to buy that company's games? But then again, that describes all business in the west these past 15 years or so: "Who cares if it costs me $50 tomorrow, do whatever I have to do to get $1 today!"...completely disregarding the long-term to obsess over the short. With THQ hemorrhaging cash, Ubi in a slow decline, EA quietly putting itself up for sale, and Vivendi publicly grumbling about taking their Blizz and going home [undoing the Activision/Blizzard merger]...it's not working out well for them, no matter how much they try to lie through their teeth about how good things are.
  • Cyberninja - September 18, 2012 2:43 p.m.

    I honestly don't think there is a problem with the games themselves and its the market is the problem. The people buying most games want shooters or sports games while others want the experiences Japanese games can bring, I honestly don't the sales numbers have changed that much through the years and that because the market for games has greatly expanded to basically everyone it looked like the sales dropped because it wasn't proportional to the market grow.
  • Bloodstorm - September 18, 2012 2:59 p.m.

    The problem I see with Japanese games is 1) increasingly overcomplicated narratives that make no sense 2) Old and tired game mechanics that felt outdated in the early 2000s 3) Often unintuitive controls and UI make for a frustrating user experience. Couple that with the tendency for long winded cut scenes, and opening sequences that can become longer than most standard western games. But, I guess it comes down to cultures. They seem to eat it up in Japan, but for me, its just not working.
  • DualWieldingIsNotFeasible - September 18, 2012 3:32 p.m.

    I feel like tastes of Western and Japanese audiences have diverged so far that it's basically impossible to make a game that will be a blockbuster in both regions...unless you're Nintendo or a Capcom fighter. BioWare and Bethesda have usurped the RPG market in the West, and WayForward has been carrying the side-scroller torch for years, now. However, I think Japanese devs could do a few simple things to really boost their sales. 1. Stop with the exclusivity. I don't own a PS3 (for budgetary reasons) and almost every Japan-developed game I've been interested in lately has been a PS3 exclusive. 2. Hire better localizers/Western voice talent. Engrish and amateurish VO was funny 20 years ago. Now? Not so much. 3. Give us what we want. Where's our 3D Pokemon MMO, or our console Mega Man game? I read all these stories about how Japan is trying to appeal to the West, but it seems like they're trying to glean information from what they see in our culture, instead of just asking. Anyway, just my 2 cents. Oh, and Grasshopper and Platinum are awesome.
  • gopikmin - September 18, 2012 5:23 p.m.

    1. They want sales. They know that the opportunity cost of developing for xbox 360 is greater than the potential sales. There's like a million xbox users in Japan and they mostly bought for Western games. PS3 is much more popular everywhere aside from America. The potential audience in xbox 360 for JRPG is really small as majority of xbox users are predominately absorbed in Western games and would take one hell of a marketing campaign to get them interested. 2. The profits to be gain on Western gamers on niche JRPG are fairly smaller than Japanese so they cut corners in some places. As you said, they are somewhat funny so, they might gain some profit. It's no excuse for big ones like FF, KH and such as they are just being lazy and degrades them a bit. 3. Well those two are Nintendo and Capcom who do not desperately need to appeal to the West. Their games sell naturally on their own. Smaller companies cannot appeal with famous games. Really people would buy a Pokemon MMO even if it was basically Battle Revolution. Also, sometimes using the public can gauge wrong results with too many being quiet. See Megaman Legends 3 and Bayonetta 2 outcry.
  • DualWieldingIsNotFeasible - September 18, 2012 10:05 p.m.

    I agree that the market for 360 games in Japan is basically nonexistent. However, that's the point. There's a HUGE 360 market in the West, where they might want to sell games. And the 360 is incredibly easy to port to, because it runs on a basic PC operating system, so extra expense would be minimal. And we have no idea what the market is actually like, because the 360 almost never gets JRPG ports, so there are no numbers to gauge from. I think that they'd be rather good, especially if NIS got in on it. Also, Legends 3 was a business decision, because Capcom didn't project enough profit to warrant finishing the game, or even releasing the Beta version, despite fan outcry. And a WiiU exclusive Bayonetta is the exact opposite of what fans wanted, because Sega has the stupidest management in the industry and was dragging their heels on greenlighting a sequel to one of their most popular recent games. A problem that Nintendo clearly does not have.
  • boondocks50 - September 18, 2012 7:30 p.m.

    I second the 3D Pokemon MMO
  • Octaviux - September 18, 2012 3:58 p.m.

    I don't recall any point where Japanese developers led the RTS, FPS or MMO genres. I think the art style of most Japanese games are a major deterrent to the sales of their games in the west. If they're going to keep their art style then they'll be better off trying to develop larger markets in China and South Korea.
  • Slayer11496 - September 18, 2012 4:06 p.m.

    Dark Souls struck a note in the west.
  • ParagonT - September 18, 2012 4:31 p.m.

    I think that its just a difference in tastes. Brutality vs. accessibility. Dragon's Dogma and a few like Star Ocean, Infinite, Phantasy Star, is some of the ones I liked, but they were pretty brutal when it came to messing up (including the examples). I liked them, but at the same time, I personally like a more streamlined game that doesn't make you revisit locations hundreds of times and makes the games pace pick up when I feel like my time is being wasted. Which is what I notice about many Japanese games. There is a good mixture of elements that I find in many Western and Japanese games that I like, but they never seem to mesh together the right way. I can't wait until Dragons Dogma comes out, but if they don't add some "western elements" into it, It's a no go for me. That game was so fun, but such a grind at times.
  • BladedFalcon - September 18, 2012 10:26 p.m.

    Um... Allow me to disagree there. Specially with the example of Dragon's Dogma. Sure, the game isn't easy, and if you try to fight certain kinds of enemies without knowing what you're doing, you're going to get your ass kicked, but actually, the game offers a LOT of accessibility and ways to make that far less frustrating. For one, as long as you're not in the middle of a fight, it allows you to save anywhere, any time, so if you know you have a big encounter coming, you can always save beforehand, and barely have to do any backtracking in order to try again in case you get killed. It's essentially the same save system Skyrim uses. Also another thing similar to skyrim, healing items. Yes, you have to mind your encumbrance, but the game allows you to pause at any time and heal yourself with plenty of options, and on that topics, you don't even have to worry if pawns get killed, because you can always revive them and they get back to half of their health, so it's not even like you have to baby sit. The game also allows you to change between vocations fairly early into the game, ensuring that if you didn't like or enjoy one vocation, you can experiment until you can find the one you want/need. A lot of RPGs don't allow for such kind of flexibility, if you chose a wrong class, you're usually screwed, EVEN in games such as Mass Effect, that otherwise allow you to re-spec your points, but not swap classes. Lastly, the game EVEN has an easy mode and offers it to you every time you die in case you simply can't get past a certain enemy. So yeah... No penalties for dying, save anywhere, heal anytime you're in a bind, change classes and start over whenever you need. How exactly is the game brutal? And honestly, I say all this... Because honestly, DD is seriously not a hard game, specially not if you compare it to the truly hardcore experiences like dark souls. And the fact that people complain about stuff like this, is why nowadays we have a lot of hand-holding, neutering game mechanics that pretty much removes any real challenge from them. Automatic regenerating health comes to mind. I'm not saying all games should be punishing or brutal, but one could actually argue that one of the main problems with gaming noways is that they've made it TOO easy, too streamlined, too neutered. And well... when people equate that with accessibility... Then yeah, publishers and developers would rather go the safe route of hand holding and accessibility instead of taking risks. And the fact that a lot of people nowadays don't even want to bother with a real challenge is rather worrying.
  • ParagonT - September 19, 2012 5:42 a.m.

    I've played through Dragons Dogma, and the traveling system "on foot" is ridiculous. I've had to fight the same enemies multiple times just to spend ten to fifteen minutes on foot to get to the spot that I wanted/needed to go to for a quest. Let alone don't get me started on the running system. Fairy-stones are a joke that really only helps late in the game, same with the (forgot it's name) crystal that allows you to set it down anywhere. One save-slot. I could go on, but I think Joe here notes them quite nicely. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGlgpncvNps When a game becomes a chore for a person to play, that's when I worry. I don't have time to sit down, travel for fifteen minutes fighting the same enemies I have before just to get to the next plot-line in a quest that most likely will send me to another area. You may have time for that, but I don't. I barely drudged through it over the summer and only because my friend and I set up LCD's next to one another cheering each other on which gave me competition to keep progressing. I love the game, don't get me wrong, but when people want something that takes too much time as if they have nothing else to do in life is worrying to me. I want to sit down, play a game, and chill out until my next class or work a have to do personally. This game is a marathon, a great game, but still a marathon. It's really up to personal opinion. Games don't have to offer a "real" challenge to be a good game. It has to entertain the audience with narrative, creativity, and more. If challenge is something you like, then that's good for you, more power to you that's why there's difficulties, but to say that all games need "challenge" or more of it is just your personal preference being painted across the board when there's much more fundamental things that need addressed which is what I'm referring to. I disagree with your disagreement.
  • BladedFalcon - September 19, 2012 7:29 a.m.

    Well, first of all, I think I misunderstood what you meant when you said grinding, and also of your use of the word "Brutal". Which made me think at first that your complaint was that the game was "Too difficult" and that's what I found to be kinda preposterous. But I see that wasn't the case, and yeah, I do agree that the traveling system can be a bother because, yes, the game doesn't really give you an option to fast travel until later, and even then it's pretty limited. Even Dark Souls was a little better in that regard. I mean, personally, i DID enjoy that at first, because it encouraged exploration and traveling trough different routes or daytimes, but yeah, after a while, it can get annoying. Also, I think my point about challenge was misunderstood. (Or more likely, I worded it poorly.) I never meant that challenge was necessary for every game, or that a real challenge was necessary to make a game good. I absolutely agree that this depends on the game and the focus it has. I mean, i absolutely love games like "To The moon" and "Journey" even though the "Challenge" in those games is pretty much non-existant. Same thing with Bioshock, which is a game that DID have good gameplay, but what stood out for me and what counts in that game for me is really the story and the setting. But my point was directed more about the overall direction of games as of late, that most games, even those who are supposed to be more about game-play and actual challenge than story or anything else, are taking the "safe" approach of linear exploration, hand-holding, and giving as little things for the player to worry about as possible. I Wouldn't mind the current state of say, FPS if there was just one or two that had the current. "walk trough this corridor, shoot dudes int he room, move on, and don't even worry to look for health packs or ammo because we have that covered for you." But my problem is that pretty much all modern shooters have taken that approach as of late, and THAT is what bothers me. Just for a last note, i will agree that "artificial" challenge is very bad, mainly the kind that doesn't require skill so much as it requires griding, repetition or pattern memorization. And yeah, some Japanese games are very guilty of that. (Disgaea in particular, comes to mind...)but then, I've also found that the most satisfying games that I've recently played in terms or real challenge have also been Japanese.
  • ParagonT - September 19, 2012 7:36 a.m.

    I'm just posting to said that I read your post, I'll type a response later in the day, I have to study for an Astrology Exam. Drink well my friend.
  • BladedFalcon - September 19, 2012 8:19 a.m.

    Er... I don't drink, but thanks, I guess? XD Also good luck with the... Astrology? I think you meant astronomy >> (Astronomy is the actual science, is what I mean.) ...Unless you ARE studying for astology... which then I'd find weird, but well, good luck nonetheless XD
  • ParagonT - September 19, 2012 10:16 a.m.

    I think I had a ton of misspelling in that last response in my rush. But yeah, its Astronomy and "say".

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