Let’s talk about Japan

japanpikmin

Why the decline of Japanese games development is an overstated myth

To hear people talk, you’d think that the Japanese don’t make games anymore. There’s a growing cynicism and sense of schadenfreude concerning Japan’s development scene as the medium diversifies into new markets and developers spring up all over the world. Japan has lost their stranglehold over the international market, and they seem to be losing the market entirely.

Tell me if you’ve heard these: Japanese games suck, they’re behind the times, irrelevant, stagnant. Players and journalists lament that Japan can’t return to its former glory, settling instead for endless rehashes and pathetic imitations of their Western peers. Japanese developers humbly admit their games are lacking, promising to mimic Western design so they might save themselves from obsolescence.

Western games are just better. They’re larger in scope, more cinematic, more relevant, more real. Western publishers are willing to invest more money, allowing developers to create expansive worlds rich in player agency and choice. On the other spectrum, a growing indie scene is crafting more creative games than even Japan’s most original teams, and doing so on a far smaller budget. There’s nothing left for Japan to do except stop making games entirely.

There’s only one problem: That’s all a bunch of garbage.

How the West has won

japandarksouls

Videogames have undergone a massive upheaval in the last ten years. Where Japan was once the undisputed mecca for gaming hardware and software development, Western companies have risen up to expand the medium’s cultural scope. The quantity and appeal of Western games is undeniable, forming as they do a large swath of the most successful titles of the last generation.

Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, Arkham Asylum — the list goes on and on. They’re massively successful, massively important franchises, not just for what they are but also for what they’ve inspired.

Consider, though, that each of those games was developed in a different country.

When critics frame this argument, they argue that Japan produces fewer quality games than the West as a whole. Western games tend to fall very neatly under a certain cultural aesthetic, while Japanese games tend to fall very neatly under a different aesthetic entirely. And so we lump all Western games together, with Japan the odd man out.

It’s an incredibly lopsided argument. Of course the combined output of every Western nation is going to rival or surpass Japan’s. But Japan losing its stranglehold on the worldwide market doesn’t mean they’ve failed. It just means they have competition.

If anything, this “West versus Japan” discourse highlights the continued appeal of Japan’s developers. If Japanese games weren’t critically or commercially successful, they’d already have faded away, never to be mentioned again. And Japan’s games certainly wouldn’t be compared to and contrasted with the combined output of North America and Europe — you don’t need to slant facts to beat a failure.

Upwardly mobile

japanpuzzle

In the US, we strictly define gamers as people who play increasingly technical games like Fallout, Halo, and Arkham Asylum. But instead of gamers, we should be talking about players. If a businessman plays Brain Age on the bus to work, he’s not considered a gamer, but a player. So is the stay-at-home mom who unwinds by air-striking green pigs in Angry Birds. And so is everyone else who plays games but doesn’t make games a part of their identity.

US gamers and journalists focus on PC and console releases. There’s only a small nod to handhelds and mobile, because that’s just not what we define as gaming. We look at Japan’s declining presence on consoles and complete lack of presence on PCs and think they must be slipping out of games development entirely. And when we think that, we miss the crucial fact that handheld and mobile games are king in Japan.

Japan dominates the handheld gaming market. There are two primary handhelds available, the 3DS and Vita, both Japanese products. Thinking of 3DS megahits from this generation, we can probably name a lot of Nintendo titles: Pokemon X and Y, Mario 3D Land, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Mario Kart 7. Other Japanese developers like Square-Enix, Capcom, and Atlus have also released massively successful titles on the system.

The Vita’s library feels more culturally diverse, but doesn’t have nearly as large of a presence as Nintendo’s handheld. Even so, Japanese hits like Persona 4 Golden and Gravity Rush sit snugly alongside the US-developed Uncharted: Golden Abyss and French-developed Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.

But where Japan’s really begun making bank is in the mobile games market, a sector long-dominated by the US. Japan recently overtook the US in mobile app revenue, meaning that Japanese mobile players are spending more than players in the US. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Japanese mobile games themselves are earning more than US games, but the surge in smartphone usage has resulted in Japan becoming a massive market.

Companies like GungHo and Line Corp have already become strong contenders in the mobile market with titles like Puzzle and Dragons and PokoPang, and the growing Japanese mobile scene could lead to a marked upswing in Japanese mobile development. The US may be enjoying an established lead, but Japan’s willingness to embrace in-app purchases and aggressive monetization strategies means their developers are in a strong position to market to a booming userbase.

Uncharted

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But Japanese console games are largely unsuccessful in the US, earning tepid review scores and selling a paltry number of copies. Meanwhile, games like The Last of Us, Gears of War, and Portal are met with massive critical acclaim and incredible sales, being cited as some of the most important games of our generation. Clearly there must be a gap that’s causing Japan to fall short with players and journalists.

There is a gap: It’s called the Pacific Ocean. While we can see for ourselves the massive success of the Xbox 360 in the United States, we fail to really appreciate how dismally it performed in Japan. It’s hard for Halo and Gears of War to dominate Japanese charts when nobody owns the system they’re played on.

When we notice how well our games are selling here, we naturally assume that’s how they’re selling worldwide. And yet, looking at Japanese sales charts, we can see that Japanese developers dominate. Try to spot the Western-developed title.

Since US games naturally conform to US tastes, we shouldn’t be at all shocked to see them review and sell better in the United States than Japanese-developed titles. And we shouldn’t be surprised to find Japanese games selling more poorly here. I agree that the incredible Japanese sales success of titles like My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute seems a little strange, but I’d imagine that the overwhelming prevalence of US games where you shoot other people in the face probably looks a little strange to Japan, too.

I wonder how Japanese players and journalists feel about their games as compared to other countries. Very probably, they feel the same way we do. There’s a larger exposure to games they’ve developed, and many of our games probably seem limited in appeal. And that’s only natural because, like the Japanese, we make our games primarily to our own tastes.

A winner is everyone

japangalaxy

Japan hasn’t lost their ability to make great games. What people are reacting to, I think, is Japan losing its utter dominance over the market. There’s a larger amount of great games being developed around the world, and Japan’s relevance has merely been diluted.

That emergence of other markets and developers is a good thing. It’s honestly great that there are so many options for every sort of player. But there’s a sort of gleeful misery that’s become endemic to videogame discussion, where everyone feels the need to bring others down in order to raise themselves up. Western players who prefer Western games take delight in the supposed downfall of Japanese development.

Let’s let go of all that. Don’t get too caught up in negativity and hyperbole to take stock of acclaimed Japanese titles from last gen, games like Super Mario Galaxy, Dark Souls, Bayonetta, Street Fighter IV, and Xenoblade. The Japanese have their own style, as does the United States, as does every other country.

Hopefully we can learn from each other, instead of always insisting that Japan learn from us.

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18 Responses to “Let’s talk about Japan”

  1. Strawberry Says:

    People say western games are better, but I’ve never played Halo or any other shooter game, really. Except for Golden Eye, and it didn’t really hold my attention for long. I honestly do not like shooter games. I would rather play Mario than a shooter game any day.

    • catstronaut Says:

      Thanks for commenting, Strawberry 😀

      There’s a lot more to Western games than just shooters. I’d say there are also a ton of action/adventure games and role-playing games, among other things.

      Sort of like how there are more Japanese games than just Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, but role-playing games are all people think of when they think complain about Japanese gaming. People tend to oversimplify things on either side.

      Instead, I think we should just enjoy games, regardless of which country they come from.

      • Strawberry Says:

        Anytime! 😀

        Yeah, I think we should all enjoy games for what they are, not for where they are from. I realized that my comment kinda made it seem like I was hating on western games, but that was not my intention. What I was trying to get at was that I would rather play a family-friendly game over an extremely violent let’s-go-shoot-people-in-the-face game. I’ve never really been one to put to much value in labels anyway, and video games are no exception. As long as it’s a good game with a nice storyline, I will like it, regardless of who or where it was made.

  2. alexislives Says:

    I’ve never been the biggest fan of western games. Even growing up, most of the games I played were from Japan. I play a lot of JRPG’s now and have for several years. I’ve given relatively few WRPG’s, but I can’t seem to get into them the same way. Japanese games have their own unique style and it appeals to me more. That being said, I do like some western games like Left 4 Dead.

    • catstronaut Says:

      @ alexislives: I used to really enjoy Western RPGs, but lately I find they’re too sprawling and time-consuming for me. Not that Japanese RPGs are any less time-consuming, but I feel like they’re at least more focused on the narrative. I could really care less about the “you are the hero!” stories of some Western RPGs, for example. And I think that Western RPGs peaked with Black Isle, even if their games feel too dated to replay today.

      @Strawberry: I’m all for violence in games, I just think a lot of more popular Western games are very stylistically bland. One thing that strikes me about violent Japanese games is that they seem much more likely to use some sort of monster, like zombies or robots or demons, instead of just shooting other humans. I think it gives the games a lot more variety, not just in terms of visuals and theme but also in terms of mechanics. I’m absolutely sick of facing sword guy / riot shield guy / machinegun guy / molotov guy / etc in modern Western adventure games, for example.

      Hopefully this post doesn’t sound too hypocritical after I’ve argued for open-mindedness about Japanese developers. I don’t want to imply that all Western devs are one way and all Japanese devs are another, or anything like that — there are great devs from all over the world. I guess more than anything I just don’t generally like the sorts of AAA, big-budget games that the United States and France and Britain produce. Smaller and middle-tier developers are cool beans though, as far as I’m concerned.

      But yeah, I also appreciate more family-friendly games. I think they lend themselves to a lot more color and engaging visual design.

      Thanks for reading and posting, guys ;D

      • Strawberry Says:

        I don’t think your post sounds hypocritical. I’m okay with violence too, after all, a video game without violence would be pretty boring. But there is a fine line between violent and gory, and most shooter games cross that line for me. A good example of a violent game that isn’t too over the top is the Legend of Zelda. I would probably feel pretty comfortable playing Zelda with a five-year-old (I was about five when I first played a LOZ game), but I would strongly disapprove of a kid the same age playing something like Halo. But if other people don’t have a problem with that, that’s okay, it’s their opinion. After all, if we all had the same opinion, we wouldn’t be able to have conversations like this.

        Do you know of any western games that aren’t shooters? I’d like to find one so I play a western game, I’m pretty sure the only types of games I’ve played are Japanese. Unless you count Star Fox: Adventures as a western game, then I have played one.

      • catstronaut Says:

        There are a lot of Western-developed games that aren’t first person or third person shooters. Sly Cooper, Journey, Might and Magic Clash of Heroes, Geometry Wars, Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed, Super Meat Boy, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Forza, Big Bang Mini, etc. It’d be almost impossible to make a comprehensive list, because there are so many different games out there.

  3. Mattsy Says:

    Reblogged this on Time Machine Games.

  4. Strawberry Says:

    Donkey Kong Country Returns, Sly Cooper, and Sonic All Stars Racing Transformed are western game?! I never knew that. I haven’t played any of those games, I haven’t even heard of some of them. I’ll have to try some of them out some time. Thanks for the info!

    • catstronaut Says:

      Yep, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Sly Cooper were developed by Retro and Sucker Punch respectively, both US developers. Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed was developed in the UK by Sumo Digital.

      And you’re welcome, Strawberry!

  5. omegathorion Says:

    I feel like a large part of the hate against Asian game development is their game design philosophies. Many Asian games boil down to number-based grindfests, where the amount of hours you dump into the game takes priority over actual skill or challenge. It’s actually a really big problem because the psychological techniques used in Asian game design are used to intentionally foster addiction: the American Psychiatric Association is considering making internet gaming disorder an official diagnosis based on “evidence from Asian countries” (http://www.dsm5.org/Documents/Internet%20Gaming%20Disorder%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf). Even though that might just be mild xenophobia like you describe (it’s the AMERICAN Psychiatric Association after all), Asian games still bear uncanny resemblances to Skinner boxes. Just as you mention how Puzzle & Dragons took over the mobile market, many designers are crying out against the malicious psychological techniques used to monetize P&D and other mobile games.

    In general, I feel that Asian game developers are very, very good at what they do, but what they do is a little questionable.

    • catstronaut Says:

      I feel the Japanese are responsible for the most mechanically-driven and skill-based games around, honestly, from simpler games like Super Mario Bros to more complex ones like Devil May Cry 3 and Demon’s Souls. If we’re talking about Asia as a whole and mobile games in particular, some of the monetization strategies are pretty seedy. But that seediness tends to be a problem with mobile games in general imo, rather than something localized to any one region.

      • omegathorion Says:

        There are plenty of Japanese games that are examples for both sides, yes. And sure, there will always be exceptions. American developers created Torchlight, Japanese developers created Dark Souls. But the big trends still exist, and they exist because of cultural differences. American culture is individualistic, whereas Asian culture focuses on the collective whole. Individualism leads to competition, and collectivism leads to cooperation. And again, that’s not to say that Asia is devoid of competition, or that America has no cooperation at all, but these trends aren’t just my personal experience and bias: they’re inherently rooted in the philosophy of these two cultures. Now, I’m a game designer, not an anthropologist, but maybe America’s individualistic mentality came about because the nation was created for a revolution? And maybe Asia’s collectivist mentality came from Confucian and Buddhist teachings? I don’t know, I’m not an anthropologist, but these two cultures definitely have different ways of thinking.

        Competition in games is done through one person displaying their greater skill level over another: Team Fortress 2, poker, boxing, you name it. However, if you try to have skill in cooperative games, it still turns into a matter of competition: think like Time Crisis, where you’re working together with a friend but in the end you still get scored separately, or like Castle Crashers where after fighting a bunch of enemies with your team you enter a free-for-all PvP battle. Now, it’s totally possible to have a cooperative skill-based game, like Journey. But Journey was thatgamecompany’s magnum opus (for now), and I don’t think a lot of companies in the world are capable of creating another Journey. Using linear stat-based growth is just an easier way to create cooperative experiences. If you meet someone who’s stronger than you, instead of thinking of that person as a direct head-to-head rival that you need to take down, you can just say that they’re a higher level than you, so they probably grinded longer, and you can reach their level if you grind more too.

        TLDR: America is individualistic, and individualism means skill-based games. Asia is collectivist, and collectivism means stat growth games.

      • Squire Grooktook Says:

        Almost every relevant fighting game, shmup, arcade game, and 90% of the action platformers of yesteryear has come from Japan. I call bullshit on omegathorion.

        Also kinda funny how he cites Team Fortress 2 as an example, since that game has essentially turned into a grinder for hats and weapons in order to keep players playing. And (last time I checked) considered extremely unbalanced.

  6. Strawberry Says:

    Hey, Catstronaut. I don’t know if you like Pokemon or not, but if you do like it, would you min looking at my Pokemon Emerald Nuzlocke story? Here is the link.

    http://strawberrytheglaceon.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/trainer-strawberry-chapter-1/

    • catstronaut Says:

      Can’t get enough of that Mudkip ;D

      I think you should take screenshots if you can, though. I know you’re doing this more as a writing exercise, but it adds flair. Just as long as you don’t go overboard with it!

      • Strawberry Says:

        Everybody loves the Mudkip. 😀

        Okay, I’ll keep that in mind. If I do add screenshots, though, it probably won’t be until after the 4th chapter.

  7. Strawberry Says:

    I have the second chapter of my Nuzlocke story up, if you’re interested. By the way, I should have a new chapter up every Thursday, unless something comes up, then it might be one or two days late. Here is the link:
    http://strawberrytheglaceon.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/trainer-strawberry-chapter-2/

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