When gaijin go doolally

Much has been made of and reported about the apparently annual gaijin Halloween train hijacking of last Saturday. In the event a bitchslap of reveling foreigners all board the Yamanote line train and have a mobile Halloween party, while other commuters try to simply use the train for its intended purpose.

This year’s reported highlights were a predictable backlash and death threats from racist Japanese forum dwellers, partial nudity and the vandalism by a foreign participant towards the train’s lighting system. Plenty of photos and videos to be found on sites like The Japan Probe and others.

I don’t really have a problem with the party itself. It’s not the kind of thing I enjoy, though; standing in a hot, crowded area, drinking lukewarm beer out of cans and shouting “WHOO!” until I’ve convinced myself I’m having fun. Also, the idea that commuters were inconvenienced is somewhat thrilling to me, as my misadventures on trains have been reported on previously. The train is a Hellish place, and as it’s the one location most Japanese forget about social obligation and act like territorial and aggressive berks, I find it a little rich that most of the backlash was about making the ride for non-partiers a rather harrowing affair.

One thing about this whole affair that does stick in my throat is the predictable reaction from the apologists’ corner. There is this widely held belief that any foreigner in Japan is only a “guest” and an ambassador for the entire non-Japanese population of the world. This is one thing I never read in the contract. I’m my own person and have no desire to represent all white-skinned people of the world. I get up for old or sick people on trains (in the unlikely event of me being able to snag a seat) and am always polite to shopkeepers. I try not to act too aggressively or arrogantly at work and in private, and that’s good enough for me. Also, I don’t expect others to be ambassadors either. So some drunken idiot got half naked in a train party; that has little bearing on me. And sure, some Japanese will use this as ammunition against the wider immigrant society as a whole, but those kinds of people will use any old excuse for their xenophobia. If it’s not a drunken train party, it’s the fact a foreigner was ahead of them in some queue, a foreigner buying that last onigiri or a foreigner taking up valuable train space (which I suppose is understandable, all things considered).

Most importantly, I am not a “guest” in Japan. I live here. And though the Japanese government does little to make me feel welcome, like not giving me citizenship papers or a family register, as well as forcing me to be branded a card-carrying foreigner wherever I go, I do pay my taxes, I pay citizenship moneys and pension, I contribute to Japanese products at work and help the Japanese economy by spending all my hard-earned and taxed wages on Japanese products. I own a home in Japan, pay mortgage, basically I have a life here, I live here. I am not a “guest”. Apologists who try to tell me that I am are simply adding fuel to the fire of misconception that unless you are born in a location you have no right to be there, a notion very popular amongst some Japanese.

This is why I am always confused on application forms where I have to fill in my “home country” or when I’m asked “what is your country?” The natural response, as a long-term citizen in Japan, is always “well, Japan, obviously”. When I travel abroad to meet family, coming back to Japan is always “coming home”. Just because I am not Japanese doesn’t mean I can’t live here. Sure, you’ll have to make some concessions to the native populace, in the form of language and customs, if only for your own sanity. It’s no good coming here and pretending you’re in America. I’m happy to note that most of the Japanese people I hang out with don’t necessarily disagree with me.

Just remember, when foreigners speak out against other foreigners in Japan and tell us that they represent all foreigners everywhere and we should behave, they are not speaking for me.

(with apologies to Danny Choo, who runs a kick-arse site and obviously isn’t one of those apologists I’m complaining about)

Japan 2.0

Game journalists and publishers alike are always on the look-out for the Next Big Thing, and apart from graphical prowess, storage capacity and digital delivery one thing that people talk about in hushed, excited tones is a thing hatefully called “games 2.0”, referring to the internet “revolution” called “web 2.0”.

As far as I can understand it, the “2.0” suffix is used to denote a move away from straight content delivery to creating a platform for a community where the users themselves provide the content that keeps it alive. In gaming terms it seems to boil down to “user created content”. In a real sense I suppose titles like Shadowrun could be called “2.0” as without other users on-line there is no game, it being multiplayer only, but the real great white hope for the idea seems to be in Media Molecule’s highly anticipated Little Big Planet for the PS3. In it players not only create their own characters but their own playfield, presumably sharing it with others.

The real question for me, though, is whether Japan is “2.0 compliant”. My first instinct is to say: no, probably not. I really don’t think the average Japanese player is that interested in taking control of the entire game and sharing their creations with others. I even have my doubts it is a big deal for your average Western player either, but at least there is a small hard-core who will love it. But in Japan I am really curious to see how well Little Big Planet will sell.

Obviously the game is saccharine cute, which is a good thing. It has a lot of character and just looks amazing. Don’t let’s focus on the install base of the PS3 but take the game on its own merits. Why might a Japanese player not “get” it? A lot of it comes down, again, to what I proffered before, in that they seem to prefer a more passive experience in Japan. They want to be told a story and be swept along in a finely crafted experience. They want to be the hero, but a designed, fleshed out hero, one with a back-story they can try and identify with. If you give them a sandbox and total freedom to do what they want, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were taken aback and possibly slightly dismayed. “I’ve paid good money for this game, and now I’m expected to make it myself?”

At this point it is all conjecture, of course. Little Big Planet seems to be one of the first in a new breed, so there is little to compare it to, other than maybe RPG Maker. The latter obviously only sold to a small hardcore interested in making their own RPG, and the title left little to the imagination.

Is there maybe a cultural issue involved too? In the West people are encouraged to reach for the sky, to think they are equal to or better than others and hence get this sense that they can do better than any game developers if only given the chance. In Japan there is more social rigidity and the idea a young turk could even think he could outdo a seasoned and older vet is, well, unimaginable. Possibly, though, this may be going one armchair psychology lesson too far.

The one true “2.0” software we have on consoles at the moment is probably Nintendo’s “Mii channel”, combined with “Everybody votes!” But even here it is slightly different. The Miis are obviously meant to be a recreation of your own image, with little extra to make mad fantasy characters. And even though these Miis crop up in a number of games, they don’t dictate how the games are played – they just offer you a little version of yourself to appear in otherwise fully designed experiences.

As for “Everybody Votes!”, a channel where you can create questionnaire questions and vote, locally or globally, on a variety of non-issues, is nothing less than an ingeniously designed marketing data gathering tool, and with that is the one true “web 2.0” application out there. Don’t let’s forget that “web 2.0” survives on databases that collate information and data, from Amazon ratings to eBay rankings that can be used for marketing and other census taking programs. “Web 2.0” isn’t really about user generated content as much as it is about how willingly we give the mega-corporations our personal data willingly and for free, and in that sense Everybody Votes! is ideal.

“Game 2.0” may be a possible future of our industry, but it may not be the best one. At least in Japan they have a natural protection to it: the reluctance to be involved in creating their own entertainment; games are passive experiences.

My mad Tetris summer

There is a sketch on the ever-excellent Mitchell & Webb Sound in which a man enters limbo and two angels take stock of his life. The total accumulation of his life’s work comes down to, as they say “372.651 out of a possible 4,804,560”. Slightly confused he is then informed that that is his score on Solitaire. He spent so much of his short life playing that it must have been his life’s work. “At first we thought you may get some religious ecstasy from the animation at the end, where all the cards fly off the screen, but then we found you usually skipped that part.”
I thank God and all His Angels in Heaven I am not religious because I fear similar rebukes in the afterlife. My particular vice would be Tetris. I shudder to think how much accumulated time I have wasted in my life on that digital drug.

My addiction commenced with the PC version of the Spectrum Holobyte game and reached its peak with the original Gameboy version. It caused not only “Tetris Dreams”, tossing and turning in bed as falling blocks littered my dreamscapes, but also all manner of circulatory problems as I’d take my Gameboy to the toilet and couldn’t stop until I cleared game B on level 9, regardless of what natural processes had brought me there hours previously. These days I fill my wasted hours, on trains, in front of brand shops, lunch times, playing G-mode’s Tetris Red on my mobile phone.

I have spent a small packet on trying various mobile games but they generally suck eggs. Tetris, however, is as perfect on the device as it was on the Gameboy and the single-thumb control works a treat, even with my sausage fingers. G-Mode’s version, one I spot regularly on other people’s phones too, does the job very well, offering two play modes and a local-only ranking table. It was in the hot mad month of August 2007 that I suddenly noticed the little timer on the side of the screen too, where the game kept tally of how long I had been playing that particular game. As I often just played a few minutes here and there and the game could be suspended whenever it was necessary, I often had no idea how long a game would take. When I first noticed it, the display read “3.15.00”, three hours and fifteen minutes. The addict in me was fired up immediately. Here is the report of my marathon session, one game which lasted the larger part of the month.

T 0
I start the game with no expectation. The first Tetris block, the straight row of 4 blocks, that appears is switched to my “hold box”.

T 3.00.00
A momentary lapse causes a Swiss-cheese field that goes right to the top. There is only one clear line between the upper-most row and the top of the field. Blocks that rotate still appear half off-screen. Lady Luck favours me and throws a few lucky pieces my way. Within minutes the field is all the way down again, ready to restart on the Tetrisses. That was too close!

T 5.50.00
I have broken my personal best time. A previous game ended around this time when I foolishly and halfheartedly continued a game whilst not in the mood. The field was fairly clear but I killed it within minutes. I pay extra attention so as not to crumble again this time, which I don’t.

T 6.30.00
I am in a Commuter Altercation, an old salaryman wants a fight with me, but I ignore him. He pushes me needlessly and aggressively tries to shove his face in mine. Again, I ignore him, though the idea of head butting him is both enticing and possible. He gets off the train and gives me a marked look. Despite my self-control my veins are brimful of adrenaline, so close was I to physical violence towards this homunculus. I foolishly try to play some of the game but the shaking in my legs and hands cause me to make some disastrous choices. The field is high and full of holes.

T 7.00.00
Nothing happens. I am in a kind of spiritual Zen state of play and everything goes smoothly. The field stays low, all lines cleared are Tetrisses.

T 7.30.00
I notice with a glance that I have cleared 9000 lines. I mentally set a new goal of reaching, at least, 10,000 lines, which should be possible during the 9th hour.
T 8.00.00
The first half of the ninth hour is pure frustration. The commute during which it took place wasn’t bad at all, so maybe I was just tired after a long day’s work, or maybe I was just unlucky. A half-filled field full of holes just refused to be cleaned up. Clearing a single line here, or a double line there was immediately countered with an implacable S block or a badly managed T block. By the end of the session the field is back to the bottom and I can start aiming at Tetrisses again, but very little progress was made. A real uphill struggle.

T 9.00.00
I notice that some time in the last half hour orso I seem to have passed the 10,000 lines cleared goal I had set myself. What next? Judging by the space in the score box there is room for another 5 or 6 digits, easily. I may be getting ahead of myself a little.

Paranoia sets in. Though recently it’s been fine, my phone has had the tendency to reset itself periodically for no reason. This would mean a loss of the suspended game and no way to prove my lengthy game. What if that happens now? All this hard and boring work gone. I make a mental note to at least make doubly sure I recharge the phone every day, as a flat battery has the same effect.

The commute isn’t so bad. There is plenty of space but maybe because I’m tired or maybe because I’m unlucky, or possibly even because I’m bored, the field fills up steadily with badly placed blocks, creating a maze of holes. I’m not worried though. During this mammoth session I have built up to the top countless times only to steadily break it back down again. Now, too, I find myself squeezing blocks right at the very top of the field, but the game isn’t providing me with what I need, so I switch to the Tetris block I have in my hold box when suddenly…

T 10.47.52
…GAME OVER… I am stunned. I actually find myself pulling a face! Apparently, and this is something I wasn’t aware of, when you switch a block from the hold box it doesn’t appear from off the top of the screen but on the first row of the field. Before I can slide it sideways and rotate it into a handy gap, before I can do anything really, the block is anchored and blocking the open gap through which new pieces appear. It’s an instant end to the game.

The next milestone would have been 12 hours, then 24 hours, and to be honest, that prospect didn’t entice me at all. I’m done with Tetris for a while now. It holds little mystery to me anymore.

Some lessons learnt:
- The simplified controls mean there is only one rotate button, which rotates clockwise. As such the pit you build for your Tetrisses should be on the right hand side of the screen. It’s much easier to rotate-flip a Tetris block down there, as a slight obstruction on the left hand side and the clockwise rotation would often snap it short of the hole.
- The highest speed of Tetris Red isn’t that fast. You don’t need to panic until you reach the top 6th of the play field.
- Though it makes you feel dirty, there is no shame in clearing 1, 2 or 3 rows on occasion. Once longevity is your goal, keeping a clear field is the most important thing to achieve, so if you have an unlucky run of blocks, don’t be afraid to use them to clear fewer lines at a go for a while.
- The “hold box” is a Godsend. It again feels like a dirty thing to do for any true Tetris fanatic, but I feel the compromised controls can allow for such a break in tradition. Obviously one keeps Tetris blocks there and you swap them out if the field gets up too high and no Tetris blocks are being offered, or an unlucky block threatens to cause gaps. Priority number one after swapping is to swap a new Tetris block in there as soon as is possible.
- The “hold box” is a curse, as it ended my game all too suddenly by releasing the held block on the first row, rather than from off the top of the screen.
- All clears are RARE! During this marathon game I achieved exactly: none. Occasionally I had just one or two blocks in an otherwise empty field, but an all clear remained elusive.
- Tetris Red has infinite spin. I usually park a 2x2 square in its place and keep rotating it so I have some time to check out the score, lines cleared and time, which require a fair amount of squinting from my part.

And there you go, the proudest achievement of my life. Though I am convinced of my own Tetris skills, or is that “skillz” these days, I know this record can easily be broken by anyone with enough patience. For me, though, it’s a personal milestone in my life of Tetris that any future obituary writer may want to take note of. Hemmingway wasn’t entirely complete in his to do list of manhood. I propose “Raise a child, write a book, fight a bull and play a 10 hour game of Tetris”. I’m a quarter way there already!

Good game designer! Have a Jammie Dodger!

I have been a long-time reader of Gamasutra’s feature articles as they often, a few articles on Japan notwithstanding, present the best, more professional side of industry writing. So, as a consequence, I have read most of Ernest Adams’ mouth-frothing rants against certain game design decisions. And though I can’t help but agree with a lot of the points he makes, it does come across as a bit of an easy rant, especially as it doesn’t address the reasons game designers make certain decisions (publisher or time pressure, new producer megalomania but only occasionally outright incompetence or impoverishment of the imagination). And I know, from bitter personal experience, it’s much easier to bash than to constructively criticize. So inspired by the “Good Ideas” series of posts on the Mainly About Games blog, I decided I too will actively try and look at some of the good design decisions that I wish more companies would pick up on (read: steal).

This is absolutely my favourite new “game design” element that precious few titles are picking up on, but I have already discussed it at length in a previous post, so will only give it a brief mention here.

Achievement Tracking
Eden’s Xbox360 MMOCarPG “Test Drive Unlimited” not only deserves a medal for making me, a staunch hater of racing games, enjoy a racing game, but also for its excellent and detailed achievement completion tracking. Whereas most games simply say things like “win 1000 consecutive games on-line” or “play 100 hours straight without accessing the pause menu” so far I’ve only seen Test Drive offer you a detailed overview of how far you’ve actually gone towards achieving these goals, though I am sure there are some other games that do this too. I, like many others, am much more inclined to reach for that achievement if I know I only have three out of forty more races to win, or that I’ve already bought all but one of the houses. It’s such a simple idea that really makes the achievement system work that it’s fairly obvious most other games just see it as an afterthought. It works so well, in fact, that I now demand it from all my future purchases!

Full-power Replays
I am still surprised how many games don’t allow this. With any game where the player receives upgrades or levels up, usually the enemies do so too and the sense of how powerful you’ve become is totally lost. When I played through Resident Evil 4 for the second time using all my previously bought weapons and the unlimited ammo Chicago Typewriter I had as much fun as I had had struggling through the game for the very first time. This time I knew what I was doing and those zombies that had caused me such stress the first time round were easily dispatched with a few machine gun blasts to the face. It was immensely satisfying and really brought home the feeling that I had grown as a character from the very first time I started up the game. Crackdown too, in a fashion, lets me replay the game at full power, giving me the opportunity to lob pick-up trucks at the face of a boss I had previously only dispatched with a puny machine gun. Why can’t I replay Bioshock with all my powers in tact? It’d be a lot easier, but it would probably still be a lot of fun and would make hunting for those last tonics and audio diaries a much more enjoyable achievement to try and get.

Few people set out to make a bad game, but fewer still have the talent, drive and, let’s be frank, funds to elevate their product above the rest and Valve is most assuredly one of the latter. One of the things that helped me get addicted to Valve’s more recent output was the genius inclusion of the commentary bubbles. I’m pretty sure they weren’t the first, but theirs are by far the most interesting. Unlike a DVD commentary developers don’t have to fill a set length of time with inane chatter but have the luxury to choose and pick the interesting aspects to discuss, show techniques used in real-time and allow the player to skip them. Game commentaries educate and inform the interested player, teaches other developers a few tricks, gives great replayability to a game as players like me go through it a second time just to hear them talk and gives a more personal feel to the developer player interaction. I have no idea what Mr. Miyamoto’s contact details are, but I now have Mr. Gabe Newell’s e-mail address and an open invitation to comment on the commentaries. I doubt he really cares that much, but at the moment I feel very special.
Sadly this is a feature most publishers won’t want to spend any time and money on, as they (mistakenly) believe it adds no extra value, but I wish all games could afford to include a commentary. Maybe they can spend the money usually reserved for boring “making of” featurettes and supposed but obviously orchestrated “behind the scenes” vox pops with the marketing department and instead spend it on actual developers telling the player things they might really be interested in.

Oh, and finally:

Nuff said.

The Art of Character

God, how we all love Japanese characters. That big-eyed, sexually ambiguous, under aged, spiky haired gaggle of personas that inhabit Japanese video games, animation and comics that so many Westerners are trying to copy, rip-off or homage in everything from hilariously bad Dragonball Z fan-art to supposedly professionally funded large development projects. You know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever opened up a game magazine with a letters page you’ll have seen some kid’s approximation of Link drawn in pencil, or if you’ve ever trawled the internet in a bored minute you will have come across some unintentionally hilarious web comic that is desperately trying to exude “manga”. And if you’ve seen enough of these examples you’ll probably agree with me that they are shit. So shit, in fact, that I’m trying to release a truism into the collective consciousness which I’ll selfishly call Barnett’s Second Law:

“Westerners can’t do manga.”

What brought on this chin-stroking session on the tribulations of Western developers trying to create game characters that appeal to the Japanese market was my surprise at the recent release of My Sims for the Nintendo Wii, published by EA, the mega-corporation and convenient pantomime villain to blame all our industry’s woes on.
It was released in Japan as “Boku to Sim no Machi” (“Me and Sims’ Town” roughly) on September 27th. I had previously read in an interview published somewhere on-line that the team was mostly comprised of people that love Japanese games (whatever that means) and that this was a concerted effort to appeal to Japanese gamers. Looking at the title it’s easy to see this was their goal, and though it’s a very good effort, and I feel a dick for saying this as it’s a very nice game, they just missed the target. This is partly due to a fairly complicated control scheme, despite its outwardly user-friendly appearance, but the real test lies with the characters. My Sims’ characters are just a tad too Western, or rather, they are a Western copy of Japanese style characters and as such they have made a few mistakes.

That isn’t to say they failed, they just didn’t completely succeed. Some of the interaction animations, for example, are spot on, with sudden jumps to mad-eyed faces and general cutesy silliness. But in other areas they are too smooth; the walk cycle is a little too bouncy, the interaction sections a little too smooth, the emotion FX a little too detailed. Though the character creation part is generally excellent, the clothes on offer aren’t quite those that appeal to a Japanese audience, the hairstyles a little too normal and the facial parts too detailed.

As a general rule, which isn’t at all foolproof, and I’m sure keen-eyed readers will be happy to point out the exceptions of which I’m sure there are many, there are three basic types of character: the realistic, the manga and the abstract. It’s interesting to note that the more abstract you go, the less detailing there is, until the characters are almost 2D, graphically designed Dick Bruna-esque icons. The My Sims characters, square-headed as they are with their tapering bodies, lean so far to the abstract of the graph that they really shouldn’t be so detailed in the texture area. If they had accentuated some of the sharp edges and removed some of the detail and shading in the textures, almost like more detailed versions of the Katamari Damacy humanoids, the game would probably* appeal more to the Japanese market.

Loco Roco, Dokodemo Issyo, Crystal Chronicles, Naruto, Dead or Alive, Final Fantasy 12, Biohazard 4, Onimusha 3

On the other end of the scale we see “realistic” characters. I’ve put it in quotes as they aren’t really realistic. They are usually, contrary to popular belief, fairly realistically proportioned, if maybe a little leaner or stretched. Facial features are fairly angular and usually don’t include the “big eyes” we all associate with Japanese manga and anime. Good examples are the Final Fantasy characters, or the Ghost In The Shell guys. Hands and feet are proportioned, noses and brows sharp, with roundness reserved for the young, the girls and the old geezer who usually fulfills the Falstaffian comedy role.

Somewhere, in a fairly narrow band in the middle, we find what we comfortably refer to as “manga”. Eyes are bigger, but usually don’t cover three-quarters of the face. Proportions are exaggerated (especially in the females, ahem) and heads slightly larger.

Characterizations too differ vastly in Japan. Whereas the West seems to want to play hard-bitten underdog single-army war machines with ludicrously hard names, like Trent Bullet or Cutter Hardarse, in Japan you see more effete teenagers with deep running hinterlands, a band of friends and ludicrously faux Western names. One of the biggest mistakes Western developers can make in aiming a title at the West is to copy Asian culture; this almost always fails. Be it a misplaced Japanese lantern in My Sims’ forest, a temple which is more China Town restaurant than Kamakura or a protagonist with a Japanese-sounding name, the only response you’ll elicit from Japanese players is “huh?” Unless you hit the nail absolutely on the head, which as a non-Japanese is almost impossible to do, the Japanese player will only notice the discrepancies, the mistakes and the misplaced. John Romero’s ludicrous “Daikatana”, for example, misreads the kanji, which should read “daitou”, like a bad tattoo. Heavenly Sword’s Nariko certainly has a Japanese name, but this doesn’t sit well with her rather un-Japanese exterior. Avoid hommaging or referring to Japanese culture unless you are 100% sure of what the Hell you’re doing!

It seems that Western game characters appeal to a sense of wish fulfillment of the middle-aged geeks that play them. In Japan it seems to hark back more to the players’ youths, or the young players’ wish fulfillment. After your teenage years you enter a life of hard servitude in Japan’s corporate world, so the teens are a Golden Age for many people. The young schoolboy out to save the world from Evil speaks more to Japanese players than the navy veteran stranded on an alien world. And, superficial as this culture is, like any other really, youth also means beauty. Young kids, all toned and free of beer guts, look better in armour than a middle aged man. They also like the “cool” in Japan, but it is a very different “cool” than, say, America’s. In America males try o look hard and wide and walk with aggressive gaits, exuding danger and unfuckwithability. In Japan it’s the well-groomed Metrosexual with impeccably combed and gelled hair, wearing sharp suits and pointy leather shoes that get the attention. Final Fantasy 7’s Cloud Strife’s haircut is not just for the cosplayers; you’ll actually see young salesmen sculpting their hair in spiky swirls like that. Aggressive people don’t fit well with the general culture, and that may be a small element that is putting Japanese players off Western games.

It is undeniable that character and story are the most important part of most Japanese games and the effort put into them during development reflects this. Why do the Japanese players prefer over-the-shoulder or 3rd person perspectives in games? It’s so they can see, and therefore relate, to the characters. This, amongst other reasons, is why first-person shooters never really made a dent in Japan.

For Western developers aiming for realistic characters to appeal to the Japanese the safest bet is to base them on an actor or singer currently popular in Japan. This can be a little tricky as fame is cheap over here and today’s David Beckham is tomorrow’s Bob Sapp. During the two years development usually takes the celebrity you’ve based your character on could very well be a Z-list panel show filler. Some celebrities endure, though, which is why Onimusha 3’s Jean Reno character was a pretty safe bet, even to this day. Don’t try to second guess, get a Japanese person to advise you on this.

As you can see it’s not easy. Even writing and researching this post I have though of many exceptions to the above, and there are no hard and fast rules. But these are all things worth considering if you’re Hell bent on tailoring your game to Japanese audiences. The best advice is, probably, don’t try. A bad copy is always inferior to a failed original, and I think you’ll find the Japanese market more receptacle to a quirky new high concept than a Western made JRPG or similar dross. If your goal is to make a Japanese game I’m afraid there is little chance of doing any better than the Japanese themselves. To be absolutely safe, or as safe as you an get in this wonky industry of ours, either hire a Japanese firm to design the characters for you, or license an established Japanese IP.
And then cross your fingers and pray.

* Maybe, but really, who the fuck knows?

The branding of JC

There comes a time in the life of most ex-pats with a Japanese significant other that he has to step up and prove his worth and his love for his partner by running the commercial gauntlet. I’m talking about the greatest expense of your life; not the wedding ring, not the first home but the brand item. A phrase to strike fear in the heart of any wage-earner and glee in the bosom of the bank manager; the brand item is any item you can think of, though usually an accessory of sorts, which somehow gets elevated from purchasable commodity to unaffordable luxury by the clever inclusion of a brand-specific pattern and a little metal dongle with the name of said brand on it. A wallet shouldn’t set you back a chunk of cash, a briefcase shouldn’t cost you more than a month’s salary, but if there is a little metal tag that says “Prada” or the colour is a kind of burgundy-brown with the letters LV interwoven, these rules fly out the window.

For me the time came around the birthday of my wife, and her increased frequency of hint-dropping that I had decided to bite the bullet and shell out for a nice birthday present, with the distinct hope it should put me in the pink for at least a decade. On a shopping trip I mentioned we may want to visit that Luis Vuitton shop so she could show me that purse (as in “wallet for girls”) she had been telling me about. Just before that I had sneakily gone to the ATM to extract a significant bundle of notes which I mistakenly hoped would cover the bill.

We found the nearest store and walked into a gold-lit Temple of Commerce with small, glass display cases along the walls and several shelves tastefully situated along the high walls showing a variety of supposedly every-day objects; suitcases, briefcases, handbags, umbrellas. A passer-by might have mistaken it for a museum of sorts, as the displays all exuded a sense of wondrous awe and immeasurable expense. A Luis Vuitton suitcase, for example, isn’t displayed as a “handy device for carrying luggage on trips” but as a “Luis Vuitton Suitcase”, with a capital S.

As to this day I have trouble deciphering Japanese values, what with them being quite large, running into the tens of thousands for fairly typical items, it took me a short stare to realize the cost of some of the items on display. From a distance 40,000 Yen looks not dissimilar to 400,000 Yen but the difference is very real in the monetary sense. Before I could utter a “Jesus Christ!” I notice the wife looking into a glass case and nearby sales women eyeing us like an ambush of tigers surveying a wounded gazelle.

Within seconds a demure woman with a little too much make-up sidles over and points her overbite at us. I hate to use the term “bucktoothed” as it is such an unpleasant and mostly inaccurate racial stereotype, but this woman could de-crust a slice of toast in a single bite. She quickly switches to hard-core salesperson mode. She shoots off a few questions at the wife and before you know it several display models are laying on top of the glass case and two or three catalogues are open and facing us. This woman is in for the kill.

In English my wife explains to me that this purse was the kind of thing she was thinking of. Not this one, of course, but something like this. Or maybe that one. The “that one” purse is expensive, but the “this one” is, if you pardon my French, fucking unaffordable. “Um, so that one,” I venture, “looks pretty good, doesn’t it?” My wife, not aware of my plans naively goes “hmm, but this one is larger, which is what I was looking for.” The sales woman tries to engage us personally, with the usual “what is your country” and all that. I am not falling for it. Once we have located the specimen the wife likes most I drop the bombshell and gallantly, but with a slight quiver in my voice say “we’ll buy it now!” My wife is pleasantly shocked, the saleswoman delighted. She makes some comments about what a nice guy I am but I give her a look that I hope conveys “give it a rest, deary. You’ve succeeded, okay?”

While I am trying to remove the dusty padlock from my wallet she slides over a small tray on which I am supposed to lay my money, or if I had had a better job, my credit card. This is the standard in Japan; you never hand over money but put it on the little tray provided. This immediately circumvents my natural muscular instincts and avoids the embarrassment of her having to pry the notes out of my death grip. She also slides over a calculator with the amount keyed in; another common symptom in Japanese consumerism when the cash register is out of view. This, again, goes against my natural instincts of saying “how much???” as all she’d have to do is point at the calculator and say “um, that much”. They sure take all the fun out of being tight-fisted.

She disappears with my precious money and tells us to look around a little more, under the pretence that she’ll pack up the purse for us. Obviously she is under the misapprehension we’ll buy more goods. “Oh, my dearest, I see you have your eye on that handbag too. Well, why not? It’s only more money than I make in a month!” Not bloody likely. After a heart-stopping jog around the rest of the store I park us near the counter and make deliberate “we’re waiting” stances. After a lengthy period she returns with an admittedly beautifully presented case and carry bag as well as my change, which I grab with ungentlemanly fervor. I rush us out of the store until we’re a safe distance away, at which point I start breathing again.

The money I had previously extracted from the ATM, together with some crumpled notes I still had in my wallet just barely covered the cost. I keep complaining how I am not going to buy a PS3 at that price but then find myself spending more than that on a frickin’ purse. At least this should put me in the clear for a while, and whenever the wife gives me grief for not cleaning up or coming home drunk I can just subtly remind her of my extreme sacrifice on this day.

Brand goods… I tell you. The scourge of any male with a Japanese woman to keep happy. But I’ve done my bit now. Never again. Good grief.

Genuinely Genial Game Gaijin Group Gabfest

In the wake of last month’s Tokyo Game Show was another opportunity to follow a variety of lectures and workshops at CEDEC and several symposia at DiGRA. One of these was a roundtable discussion about working as a foreign game developer in Japan, featuring a selection of gaijin from several corners of the world, all painstakingly building their careers in Japan. The line-up can be found on this page, the second section from the top. (Mr. Dylan Cuthbert was indisposed.)

On-line reports of this particular event, which I didn’t attend (or did I?)* are very sparse. Jason Della Rocca, head honcho of the IGDA, gives the whole DiGRA event a quick mention on his blog with a succinct:

DiGRA, on the other hand, was both wildly inspiring and numbingly boring.

Whereas the Japanese IGDA site only gives us a very brief blurb, turned into “hilaric” English thanks to the never boring Excite translation page:

It became shape that Mr. locker drew it out while questioning the panelist on the point that the researcher from foreign countries that gathered in this conference wanted to learn as a stance.

The two things we can learn from this all is that (a.) the organizers of DiGRA should, in future, record or transcribe these events for the benefit of the wider community, and yah-booh to them for not having done so this time, and (b.) the readers of this blog can see there are more game gaijin out there. Hopefully one of the attendees will write up the symposium on his own blog at some point in the future.

Let’s hope there will be more events like this, recorded for posterity with any luck. That way I might have something useful to post on the matter.

STOP PRESS: Literally not thirty seconds after posting this article I find this URL with an incomplete report of the discussion.

* No, I didn’t.

Pity poor Xbox

It’s hard to feel empathy for a huge, megalomaniacal corporation, especially one that has caused me personally so much heartache and wasted time in the home computing arena, but looking at the continued struggle Microsoft has in Japan with their Xbox360 console one can’t help but feel their frustration. And this time round they are really trying, bless their coal-black little hearts.

A lot of conjecture and guesswork surrounds their epic quest and I can’t claim to have any real answers, but I have on occasion thought at length about what they are doing, where they went wrong and how they could improve. None of these musings will help the current generation of the machine, but quite possibly could help their next iteration, whatever ridiculous, circular name it will have.

Firstly there is the age old question of why any Western company is so desperate to break the Japanese market. Listening to supposed “analysts”, whom shall remain nameless, it is all about the dream, the idea that Japan originated the current market and that to be successful over here is somehow a validation, a massive and expensive kudos farming exercise. If you need to be told how ridiculous this is then you have no job being paid to “analyse” markets. Japan, however much it is dwarfed by the West, is still a significant market and success over here means an extra few points on your financial year. No greedy corporation is content with a “good sized market” if there is an extra small percentage to be added to potential profits. And that is the end of it. People want to break the Japanese market because of money.

Now Microsoft may well be pushing the boundary between effort/cost and results. The amount of cash they are pouring into Japanese developed titles exclusively for their machine is bordering on the irresponsible. Even if they gain a marginal foothold in Japan, surely they’ll never sell enough units to justify the expenses and effort. Indeed, not this generation, but an Xbox360 being taken seriously in Japan will certainly help when the next version of the console is launched. I see Microsoft’s campaign as a massive advertising push for the brand to be collected on at a future date. And this is pretty clever.

What they are doing right:

The original Xbox was released, world-wide, with a global marketing campaign. This obviously didn’t work. In Japan the marketing push was just too “American”, it didn’t speak to the locals and couldn’t engage their interest. This time round they have a more local approach with Japanese adverts, localized marketing campaigns and generally paying more attention to the Japanese.
Similarly the design of the machine, though still bulky, is much more streamlined compared to the chunk of burnt plastic that was the original. These are not overriding factors, but in the long run they do have an effect.

The games on offer, though still mostly American games, by which I mean genres that appeal mostly to Western markets like first-person shooters, are now beginning to include the quirky madness one expects from Japanese games as well as some stalwarts of the local scene, most notably in the guise of story-heavy, turn-based RPGs, this time designed by famous Japanese names. I remember some laughable press event around the launch of the original Xbox in which we were told that Microsoft ended up hiring a Western developer to create their flagship RPG because they couldn’t find a Japanese company up to the task. The result was Sudeki. This time round they went straight to the source and allegedly piled tons of cash on some Japanese veterans to create true Japanese RPGs to appeal mainly to the Japanese player. A good move, if somewhat late.

Original Xbox games resolutely failed to win any shelf space in Japan’s crowded shops. Whether it is the increased library or Microsoft’s aggressive approach the Xbox360 suffers less from this, though is, as PSP and PS3 games still a slave to the zombie-like attributes of the ever-expanding DS shelf area. But wander into any shop and you’ll at least find some 360 titles, possibly even a demo pod.

What they are doing wrong:

The biggest hurdle is probably still the price tag. The core system clocks in at just under 40,000 Yen, which is a good 15,000 Yen more than a Wii. Japanese consumers may be spending, but they still have mouths to feed and bills to pay. If priority number one is to have hardware in the homes so they can make money of the software, as is de rigeur in console markets, a steep price-drop could certainly help.

Once people have the machine, though, there are some usability issues which should be sorted out for future iterations. Consoles are meant to be easy; you switch it on, pop in a game and play. In this generation we suddenly see interfaces and so far only Nintendo seems to have created a user-friendly one. Switch on your 360 and you’re greeted with sign-ins, several pages of options, menus that require several clicks to navigate through and some very strange logic regarding set-up. When I bought my Wii I plugged it in, connected it up and switched it on. In 5 minutes I was connected to my Wifi router and within another few seconds I was playing. Conversely when I bought my Xbox I had to tell the machine I wanted High Definition display and pull a tiny switch on the plug before it caught on, go through numerous pages of set-up information, create a log-in, buy a separate Wifi adapter for a staggering 8,000 Yen and then spend literally three days pissing about for it to work, eventually having to use my PC to delve into my router to manually open up some ports. When I want to play a game I have to go through several menus to get there. All in all, it could have been more user-friendly. Don’t forget that Japan isn’t really a PC country and that these things, simple to people like you and I (presumably), can be baffling and annoying to Joe Every-san. And let’s not talk about setting up a bridge between the console and PC – something I have long given up trying to achieve.

Ever since I’ve had my 360, the “featured downloads” tab on the Xbox Live Marketplace has been…empty. Some localized support for this feature would be welcomed. Similarly, the video marketplace is bereft of anything but a few trailers. Obviously they are having problems finding local suppliers of digital content to fill it up, but with this year’s software update and the consequent lock-out of any non-US I.P., it has turned into a useless feature. It’s still there, it just doesn’t do anything. For Live Arcade games one just might as well create a second, fake log-in, to access the American libraries, because otherwise that too is a bit of a wet disappointment. Every Xbox owner, gaijin or native, whom I know does this. It’s just an extra obstacle between the end-user and fun that is entirely unnecessary.

Finally, I think Microsoft has bought into the fallacy that Western games are seen as inferior in Japan. They are, but only by the minority hardcore player, you know the kind: loud, trolling troglodytes that they are. It’s a self-perpetuating folly where Japanese publishers buy up Western games cheaply but don’t pour too much money into marketing, because they hardly ever sell. And because there is so little marketing they hardly ever sell. Et cetera. Though I know the group comprised of “my colleagues and people I know personally” isn’t a representative one, but this group does play Xbox games, they do import US games before they are released in Japan, if ever, and do enjoy them tremendously.
But on the subject of engaging Japanese developers I think they are going wrong. Well, not exactly. A Mistwalker title could appeal to the average Japanese player, but established IP is much, much stronger. If, for example, Microsoft had paid a King’s ransom to have an Xbox exclusive Dragon Quest, however impossible that would probably be, they would certainly see a return on investment this generation.

In conclusion

The Xbox360 has, obviously, no chance in Hell to snag a large enough market-share in Japan to make all of Microsoft’s efforts worthwhile this generation. But if they continue the way they are it isn’t unthinkable that a future iteration of Xbox, if the price is good enough and the games exciting enough, could be a minor success and plant Microsoft finally and firmly into the Japanese game sphere. It’s a good console with a surprising amount of excellent games, as well as a slowly growing library of casual fare, and it is only the minor lack of “Japanesey” games, pricing and local support that really need to be sorted out.

Whenever supposedly enlightened journalists or analysts proclaim, with sarcastic guffaws, what a dire failure the Xbox360 is in Japan just sit back and wait. If Microsoft continues this feverish push the Xbox720 may very well not be. However hateful they are as a corporation, they are not stupid, and Bill Gates didn’t become the world’s richest man because of his winning smile and drop-dead gorgeous looks. I think Microsoft know what they are doing, and though we like to laugh at schadenfreude, they are, at least, not sitting still.