There are a few tenacious fallacies that are pretty hard to kill, like “working in games is great fun”, “Games are Art” or “JC, you such handsome gaijin”, but none moreso than “Japanese games are more original and creative than Western games” Though I can see where the sentiment comes from, it is not entirely true. There is more room for original games in Japan, yes, but to apply that to the entire industry is just madness.

What is often overlooked in arguments dealing with this issue is that the game industry is just a business, and a business needs to make money. Even in Japan noone sets out to satisfy their muse, to auteur an original game, without looking at or being reminded of the bottom line: will it turn a profit?

So how do original games get made? My guess is that people are just trying their hand at the “next big thing”; hit upon something new, if it sells make more of it. Witness Katamari Damacy. At first a frightfully original concept, and since it sold well enough, Namco wanted more versions, despite the protestations of Mr. Takahashi who never intended it to become a franchise. Only when the returns stopped justifying the expense did Namco pull the plug and dissolve the team. If you think about it Mr. Takahashi must have been very naïve to think Katamari Damacy, if successful, would be a one-off. Or witness the recent closure of Clover Studios, Viewtiful Joe and Ookami were both pretty original and quirky games, but in the end the sales apparently didn’t justify the costs and Capcom dropped the axe.
The history of Japanese development is littered with the corpses of companies trying their hand at originality, while those that “churn out”, as it were, the same old stuff over and over again, still roam the plains. Of course there are a few exceptions to this, but they can be counted on one hand. Even Nintendo wouldn’t chance originality if they hadn’t had the security of proven IP to ensure their solvency. According to reports Brain Training/Brain Age and the original Made in Wario/WarioWare were both initially developed on a shoestring budget in a matter of months. UGA ended up being hard to sustain despite the critical successes of Space Channel 5 and Rez. It’s good to see Mr. Mizuguchi learned his lesson and is using Q Entertainment to also create massively unexciting big-budget mass-appeal brawlers and building on the proven success of Lumines. I certainly hope he’ll create some new concepts too, but the number 1 issue is to remain in business, surely.

That is the motto of the industry; try something new, but do it quickly and cheaply. If it sells we’ll invest more in it, but in the meantime we’re developing RPG Saga XIV.

But what of the public? The Japanese public demands original games, right? Well, let’s have a look at the evidence.
According to the Magic Box the top selling games of 2005 rank amongst the first 10“Animal Crossing DS” (an almost literal remake of the GC version), “Gran Turismo 4”, “Winning Eleven 9”, “Shin Sangoku Musou 4” and “Kingdom Hearts 2”. More recently games like “Final Fantasy 3 DS” sold half a million units in its first four days of release and the new Pokemon DS titles triple that in the first week! Especially the latter is shocking; I asked a colleague who is playing it how it was. “Well, it’s Pokemon, ne…” was his answer. I will bet the farm that the top selling title for the Wii will be Zelda: the Twilight Princess, even though Zelda games haven’t substantially changed, in essence, from the original NES version (though I love them to bits, all the same). I’m going to guess some Evil character with a name starting with “Ganon” will kidnap a princess, and a green-clothed elf must rescue her. A trio of triangles will probably come into play too.
They are still churning out Gundam games because they still sell, despite their decreasing quality over the many years.

Original titles have a chance to sell, like Nintendo’s own efforts with Nintendogs, Brain Training or Talking Cookbook, but there are no guarantees, like the heavily marketed Loco Roco, which apparently shifted too few units.
But what of all those other crazy titles you sometimes hear about in the West? Well, they mostly disappear without a trace or get stacked sideways on crowded shelves for the truly otaku to sniff out. Just because a games website reports on some wacky, zany new Japanese game doesn’t mean the Japanese public is interested in the slightest.

It’s hard to predict if an original title will sell; it’s easy to predict if a previously successful IP will sell more in a sequel in Japan. The choice, for most publishers, is easy.
So why then is there more space for originality in the Japanese market anyway? My educated guess is: budgets. Whereas development budgets have soared over the last few hardware generations, in Japan they are still relatively low, especially compared to America. Trust me, this isn’t meant as a compliment; wages in Japan are much lower and schedules unrealistic, at the cost of the developers’ spare time and health, with “service zangyou” (unpaid overtime) a given in all but the most rare companies. If you try your hand at something new and it fails, well, it hurts in the wallet but it probably won’t bankrupt your company. Also there is more of a sense of the auteur in Japan with studio bosses or producers taking full control over every aspect of a game. Often this translates into “overbearing and destructive influence over a project” but sometimes it turns into an “inspired leadership that fosters the creativity of every team member and turns it into something special”.

Lastly it may also be the lack of undue influence the PR and sales team have over the project. In the west you still hear projects being redesigned because the marketing department fears they won’t be able to sell the original idea. Character design, art direction, game design can all be affected by a marketing department with too much power and too little interest in doing its job properly. Japan, however, more often than not seems to have the right balance. The sales and marketing team gets brought into the office when the game development has progressed far enough and gets shown what it will be like. Then the team will go out and try to sell/market that. This is how marketing should work, and often in Japan it does. So in the west a lazy marketing department may get shown a concept for an original title and demand changes, or they won’t guarantee good sales. In Japan the marketing department gets shown an almost finished product and told to go out and sell it. A lazy marketing team has no time or power to kill originality.

So in conclusion, yes, on the whole probably more original games get made in Japan than in the west, but only a few of them are any good and even fewer sell enough to make it worthwhile. Stop putting the Japanese industry on a pedestal because they come up with crazy titles occasionally. And have a little more pride in your homegrown efforts. Sim City and the Sims, Civilisation, GTA3, The Movies, Rollercoaster Tycoon, all very original games, all commercially successful, all made in the west and above all they’re great games. Just because they don’t feature a simian encased in a plastic bubble, or a 50 foot tall robot manned by a slip of a girl in a maid’s outfit armed with a machine gun set in ancient feudal Japan with a half-cat half-rabbit sidekick doesn’t mean they are any less worthy of your praise and attention.
And above all, go out and buy original games and make the prospect of investing in new ideas a financially attractive proposition for publishers, both in Japan and in the west!


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I love quirky and original games, whether western or japanese. Some of the best games are from the west! A match of Guitar Hero, anyone?

  2. The war for creative and original games is fought by game developers all over the world. You can call it World War G. ;P

    Every now and then, you get a doujin game in Japan or a mod in the US that is frightningly professional in quality and originality as well.

    Over here in the USA, Japan-wierd has that extra dash of being exotic on top of being wierd which may account for some of the extra appeal.

  3. The thing is that, to me, even RPG Saga XIV (or Ys 702 or FF 10e7) sounds more appealing than Madden XX90-a or *Tom Clancy.*... how many more WW2 shooters do we need?

  4. Enjoying Japanese games more than western ones is an entirely different and wholly legitemate issue. My point was merely that it's no use lamenting the lack of originality in western games as opposed to Japanese ones while conveniently ignoring the fact sequels and remakes sell more than any others even here.

  5. http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20061023/sheffield_01.shtml#

    Actually, Capcom only "dissolved" Clover to save face. Inaba and I believe a good deal of Clover left Capcom themselves; hopefully to start their own company. And I think another reason that Japan seems to have more creativity is that the amount of games that are available there almost eclipses the amount of games available in the west, especially if you include doujin circles; like French-Bread for instance. So if you look at the ratio of original games to rehashes in Japan and in the west, I wouldn't be surprised if either the ratios were the same or if Japan was worse than the west

  6. http://www.gamasutra.com/features/2

    Link got cut off.