The difference

Apparently there is a law that states anyone with a blog that deals with games must, pro bono publico, write an editorial on his or her perception of the differences between Japanese and western games. To fulfill this remit I will reluctantly have a go today, but keep in mind that this is highly subjective and possibly wrong; many people have tried and failed to nail it down. If you think me ignorant as a kish of brogues or have your own opinion which isn’t covered here, feel free to leave a comment.
Let’s get this over with.

Story vs. Gameplay
One of the most glaring differences, visible not only in the charts but fairly obvious when speaking to Japanese game players is the fact most Japanese prefer to be told or led along by a story. So much emphasis goes on story, in fact, that I have witnessed initial pitch meetings where nothing but story was discussed – not even game mechanics. Even brawlers and fighting games have a story that, despite their usual pulpy and simplistic nature, probably had more time spent on them during development than you may think.
When I asked a colleague about this he spun me rather with an unarguable reply; “well, we like story in films and books, don’t you? Why not in games?” I couldn’t really answer that. “What about the interactivity inherent in the medium?” I asked. He brushed it off with what is probably the Japanese equivalent of “medium schmedium” (the idea of a Yiddish Japanese person intrigues me, were it not an impossibility).

3rd person vs. 1st person
Following on from the above, it explains the love for 3rd person perspectives in Japanese games. A lot of tosh has been argued about possible genetic differences and the Japanese inability to deal with 1st person perspective, which is all poppycock. If the Japanese generally suck at FPS games it is probably because they’re simply not used to them, what with most of the popular games here taking a different view. Have your mother play Halo, she will probably not be very good at it; is that because she is genetically incapable? No, of course not.
The difference here is again to do with storytelling. The western public wants to be immersed, to become the character in the game and make decisions and actions that have an effect on the game world. The Japanese want to follow the story and see what is happening.

Character vs. Customisation
Following on yet further, it also explains the general lack of customisation in Japanese games. More and more often do we see character creation in games in the west; apart of course from FPS games where it isn’t really necessary, but certainly in RPGs. The player wants to decide who to become, in his own time, his own actions, his own trousers. The idea doesn’t really seem to attract the Japanese. At the very best they’ll make do with costume changes, but when you follow a story you don’t want to have to make your own characters. It’s a bit like watching a film with the main character blacked out so you can imagine what he’d be like yourself.

Androgynous and troubled loner vs. butch macho bullyboy
Character design is a major issue in Japan. Famous character designers get followed around, have books published, sell units, whereas in the west this task is usually done by the concept artists with mandated changes by the publishers, who may or may not know what they are talking about. This is probably why pretty much all western game characters are two dimensional and interchangeable, with few notable exceptions. It doesn’t explain, however, why all Japanese characters look decidedly androgynous and ageless. It is incredibly hard for westerners to grasp what characters will be successful in Japan. I’ve been through a few character designs with colleagues and though to me some looked identical, my colleagues were quick to point out the cool from the crap.
One thing that never works is when westerners try to ape Japanese characters. Look at games like Sudeki, which has terrible character designs; neither western nor Japanese, though obviously trying to be the latter it fails miserably. Why? Shape of the hands, general form of the face, overall design; it’s difficult to pin down. The lesson here is that if you plan to create characters specifically for the Japanese market, swallow your pride and just get in some Japanese artists. They know what they’re doing.

IP vs. IP
Though Z-grade quick-buck licensed games are a dime a dozen in the west, they do also appear in Japan. IP is important and sells units. There has, for example, not been a decent Gundam game for ages, yet they still make them, they still sell them. Usually a few of my colleagues end up buying the latest game and without fail will complain about how awful it is, “like the previous one”. Yet they still go out and get it, because Japan loves Gundam. Characters like Kitty-chan (Hello Kitty) get crowbarred into puzzle game formats, and on rare occasions the massively popular talento or drama actor may find himself inserted in a game in the hope to shift more units.
In essence the ideas are the same; you don’t need to spend a lot of money and manpower on making something good, the IP will sell it, but the subjects are obviously very different. Japan has its own reservoir of beloved characters; western film licenses do get a look in but can’t compete with Japan’s own usually.
Obviously Japan has a better track record of exporting game IPs to other media than the west has. Pokemon is the obvious example, from game to anime to film to merchandise. Even the west’s examples of game-inspired films have mostly been based on Japanese games. The who, what or why of this is a bit of a mystery to me, though it may go back to the whole idea of story. It’s easier to translate a game with a story to the big screen than an FPS with open-ended gameplay. How Pokemon fits in this is anybody’s guess.

Train driver vs. Space Marine of Death and Blood
Often weird little games like Tokyo Bus Driver or Densha de Go appear in Japan and are looked upon as examples of whacky creativity. They’re not, though; they’re simple wish fulfillment games. Becoming a train driver is still regarded as a dream job by many children (and fathers with unfulfilled dreams). The Japanese don’t dream of becoming a “gangsta niggah” and killing wave after wave of innocent pedestrians with a variety of automatic weaponry. As games are escapist toys it naturally means that each country has its own particular fantasies it wants to live out digitally; in the west it’s the tough loner with a ridiculous name who saves the world from invading outsiders through ultra-violence, in Japan it’s the quiet loner, still waters that run deep, who saves the world from an ancient awakening evil through magic and being cool. Oh, and the ability to do the job they would really like do be doing in real life, from bus driver to airplane pilot, from baseball star to sexually deviant mahjongg master.

Saturation vs. brown (now blue)
It is true that artistic sensibilities are very different, even if you ignore general settings and character design. Brighter colours are good, whereas in the US they can be considered “gay” for some strange and obviously homophobic reason. Though there are kids’ and adults’ games, they are not divided by saturation. The inability to grasp the Japanese way of art by westerners is mutual. Many Japanese don’t really get the “gritty realism” of western games, which often translates to desaturated brown, and recently scifi blue hues. I was even told once that westerners have more sensitive eyes (not being brown in colour) which is why Japanese games must be desaturated a little during localization. It took this colleague a lot of convincing to make him see this was utter bullshit, and in the end I don’t think I really succeeded. A Japanese person can appreciate the beauty of western games, the exquisite craftsmanship, but that doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy playing with it so much. Similarly, just upping the saturation in your games won’t automatically make them attractive to the Japanese. They have a very culturally distinct taste and appreciation of colours that goes far beyond the differences in meaning (red = good, blue = bad, for example). Certain colour schemes speak more to the Japanese than others, and even after my half a decade in Japan I am sometimes still baffled by this; though I do occasionally get it right, more by luck than my design.

What a rambling mess, my apologies for that. In conclusion I’d say that as a developer you can and should put in certain elements to attract other markets but if you plan to make a fully Japanese game it will be difficult, though not impossible. Work closely with your Japanese publisher and listen to their feedback. Hire in a few Japanese designers or artists to tackle the big issues. And keep your fingers crossed.

But it’s done now; I need never dwell on it again.

12 comments:

  1. Good reading, most of the points seem like common sense but are often overlooked. But you made no mention of simulation versus arcade style gameplay? :O Perhaps I'm wrong but my opinion is what western games (specifically sport and racing titles) strive for realism. Of course I see such things exist in Japan too (what with GT and Baseball Heroes), but you tend to not see the likes of Auto Modellista and Power Pro (unless it has Mario in it). I guess this may be due to the idea that it can be more fun (or rather, a different kind of fun) if the genre is somewhat warped?

    Slightly off topic, but it seems there aren't many/any western arcade cabinet games (aside from the recent Half-life 2 Arcade). Admittedly the scene has died over the last 10 years (at least in Europe) but I imagine it will continue to decline with the west continually ignoring it. As a former arcade lover, it seems insane that Capcom hasn't made/announced a Street Fighter 4 game (surely its a profitable series?)... whats with all the SF2 rereleases?!

    You mention the public wish to follow a characters story rather than be the character (and I agree on this), but how does this explain the popularity of MMOs in Japan?

    - Just some random thoughts. Keep up the good work :)

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  2. MMOs are not popular in Japan, at all. Partly due to the lack of a PC culture here, I think.

    You gave me a good idea for a post on the decline of arcades, which is happening in Japan too! Must make a note of that for future reference!

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  3. I was under the impression FFXI and Ragnarok Online were fairly popular there, but i stand corrected.

    As for arcades, the Sega/Nintendo/Namco collaberation in the "Triforce" arcade hardware was a underused opportunity imo. I guess SegaSammy, Namco, Konami and Playmore are the only big names in arcades these days? Death to Slot and Pachinko Machines I say ;)

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  4. This and the guide to Japanese comedy are my two favorite things you've posted. I have to say, your blog is a pleasure to read!

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  5. you pointed out most of the reasons why I prefer Japanese games over American/European ones... you win!

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  6. Again, good post. I've been following your blog ever since I saw your singular post on Idle Thumbs. Regardless, I don't have a whole lot of opinions on Japanese games, other than that I feel that there's a strange dichotomy in Japanese gaming culture.

    On one side, they always make the most exquisite experimental games (Loco Roco, Katamari Damacy, even Ico could be so considered), making it seem they love originality. But on the other side, when you look at their preferences, it would seem all they play is generic cookie-cutter RPG's all day (the Famitsu top 100 list comes to mind). Am I wrong to think that the Western audience has a more diverse palate? Especially when you consider that we also cherish the best of what the Japanese have to offer, something that does not generally go two ways?

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  7. I have often thought about the wierd color disparity that you brought up in this post. But its not really about saturation, alot of Western games are super saturated--very often to the point of excess--it's just that their color palettes are dominated by browns (like you mentioned) whereas the japanese go for different colors. In fact alot of Japanese games are refreshingly desaturated- ICO and Shadow of the Colossus spring to mind, also the last 2 levels of Rez.

    Either way I think this culture color preference is mind boggling, it really bothers me how often Western developers stick to the brown-precedent set by Quake 1.

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  8. Thanks for the props, guys!

    I am planning an article on "creativity/originality" but that is quite hard to write; I started over three times already. One day I'll finish it though.

    As for MMOs, until recently PCs were still quite rare in the Japanese home, much less broadband. It is changing now, but all MMO activity had to come from consoles. Even today if a PC game sells 10,000 units, it is considered a hit.
    MMO may have quite a few Japanese players but it is still very much part of the hardcore crowd, not the general gaming public.

    I think Roderick is right about tastes though. Westerners are far happier to consume both western and Japanese games, whereas the Japanese pretty much stick with their own, with a few exceptions. Part of that is taste, part of it is publisher prudence. Western games don't sell here, so if you publish one you need to spend a LOT in PR, but few companies do that, so western games don't sell here, so if you publish one you need to spend a LOT in PR, but etc.

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  9. In Korea, land of the MMO, most MMO players still play at Net Cafes as opposed to their own personal PCs. I'm not sure how popular internet cafes are in Japan, but it could happen.

    I don't think an MMO boom is impossible in Japan, especially given the power of their freakin' cell phones! I just doubt it would happen like World of Warcraft sweeping the west.

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  10. I'm not sure how this fits in with your post, but one of my colleagues is a big fan of Gran Turismo but also enjoys the more hardcore PC racing games like GTR. I told him that one of the things I hate about Gran Turismo is that it looks real enough, but if you clip another car or hit a barrier, the illusion is shattered because the collision physics is non-existant and there is no damage model - I had the same problem with F355 on the Dreamcast.

    He told me that the idea in a racing game is not to hit the other cars (no shit) and that collisions don't matter, because you are supposed to avoid colliding with the other cars. That's fair enough, but if I crash into a barrier, I'd rather be punished yet kind of rewarded by some destruction, which is what I would get in a game with decent collision physics. In Gran Turismo you get an unsatisfying twang as you hit a tape barrier and just know that you might as well restart. WHERE IS THE FUN IN THAT?

    God, even Indianapolis 500 on the pc back in the 90s had spectacular crashes if you chose to drive the wrong way around the track.

    By the way, I'd like to hear your thoughts on progressiveness in the Japanese games industry. Why do people still seem to enjoy random battles every 5 seconds (literally) in Final Fantasy games, and the inability to save their game of resident evil (or whatever) without finding item X and inserting it into scene object Y.

    ymll

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  11. As for damage models, that is a licensing problem. If you have real cars in your game you'd be surprised at the restrictions imposed by the license holders.

    The "the idea is not to hit the barrier" comment is hilarious though. :)

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