How Microsoft stole Christmas

The following is, regrettably, a true story.

I was quite late to the next-gen party, owning a Wii long before I finally took the plunge and bought an Xbox 360. One thing that had put me off buying one earlier was the reported built-in obsolescence, which comes with most things these days like, as Andy Zaltsman once put it “Japanese televisions, milk and women”. The main problem was that Microsoft’s console appeared to be reaching for its suicide button a bit too early a bit too often, a phenomenon now fondly immortalized as “the Red Ring of Death”. But nevertheless I bought one and, sure enough, a mere five months later I can count myself as one of its victims.

Sods Law was adhered to with frightening punctiliousness. I was eagerly awaiting the delivery of a game, somehow delayed by Play-Asia, and it was when it finally arrived I was greeted by that hateful red wink. Moreover that very weekend the wife had planned a short trip with her girlfriends, offering the delights of an old-fashioned marathon gaming session with bad food and little sleep. Even further, it was the beginning of December, with Christmas and the New Year break on the horizon.

Having heard the troubles of other ex-pats and Xbox victims, Japanese support can be strict, demanding all kinds of information and trying to walk you through endless reams of unhelpful helpdesk motions. “Have you tried switching it off and back on again?” That kind of thing. So on the very Thursday night my Xbox committed suicide I emailed support, gave them my details, address and telephone number, the serial number of the machine and the date on which I had bought it. I assured them I had followed their on-line instructions to no avail and asked them if they could see to the problem at their earliest convenience.

What follows is an example of streamlined, customer-focused service of the kind Japan is rightfully famous for.

The very next morning, the Friday, I was contacted by telephone by a friendly, Japanese speaking support person who helpfully told me it was “probably a hardware problem”. In England this would have been a cue to launch into sarcasm on my part, but I played it safe. Together we set a date for the pick-up, the very next day, the Saturday, early in the afternoon. Indeed, at the appointed time a keen, young courier arrived to whom I handed my console. He folded out a sheet of bubble-wrap and carefully wrapped it up, gave me a receipt and rushed off again. I started the two week wait I was told to expect. However, the very next weekend, on Sunday, the doorbell rang and I was greeted by a chirpy delivery boy who handed me a big box, asked for my stamp and told me it was my Xbox, which actually took me by surprise. I unwrapped it, saw the invoice of “0 yen” for a new motherboard and a letter of apology with a free month’s subscription card for Xbox Live attached.

At this point in the narrative I must congratulate Microsoft support for its timely and excellent service. I set up the console, started it up without problems, reset my network connection and started playing my game. Life has a funny way of sorting itself out.

Approximately an hour later I am struck by the bold use of graphical effects the game’s developers are throwing at me. It appears they have put some kind of filter over the image, a little like reducing the number of colours on-screen dramatically. After a short while I consider the possibility this was not intended. I bring up the dashboard and see that that too is displayed in approximately 100 colours, showing a lot of flickering and banding. I quit the game to be certain but the problem persists. I decide to restart the Xbox. At this point the audio chirps out its overly dramatic orchestral hit, the familiar start-up sound, but no image appears on screen. The green eye on the front doesn’t turn red which means the console is on.

I piddle about with the cable. I switch the resolution switch on the plug a few times. I change the input on the television to several different ones and, of course, restart the console a number of times, but no image greets me. Christmas is now right around the corner and the New Year break is so close I can taste it, which, together with the fact this machine had just been “fixed” and one could imagine the stream of expletives that I spew forth. I am not a patient man, you see, and sometimes enough is enough. Immediately I compose a new e-mail and send it off to Microsoft support, detailing the problem, adding my suggestion something was dislodged when they replaced the motherboard, listing, again, my details, serial numbers and previous customer support ticket number. But this time I am upset so I add the request for a new console to replace this botched Devilchild, or, failing that, a complete refund.

Now Japanmanship commenters, fellow ex-pats and myself have often observed the fact that Japanese service is only excellent as long as the customer’s requests stay within predetermined parameters and the support company’s rulebook. Anything extra beyond and above the usual is a little like watching an irresistible force meet an unmovable object. Ask for a pizza without the cheese, please, and you might as well ask the clerk the square root of a negative imaginary number, or whether it is acceptable for you to feast on the flesh of his firstborn. These kinds of things simply don’t and cannot happen.

What follows is an exercise in Japanese-foreign miscommunication and culture clash.

Whether support was busy or my email too scary, I hear nothing in the 24 hours I was promised an answer. The next day I try their toll-free number, which doesn’t work on my mobile phone, so I try their fall-back number, which appears to be engaged all day. The day after that I try again, steal a company phone and call their toll-free number, which puts me through, eventually, to a real person. I tell them I have had no reply to my email of three days ago. The man checks and tells me they sent me an email two days ago. Seeing as I regularly check my email and spam folder just in case this is obviously not true so I tell him I, somehow, hadn’t received it. I give him my customer ticket number and he tells me he’d call back.

The time is approaching 6 in the evening, close to their closing time and four hours after my initial contact, so I phone again. Again I am told they’ll call back, which I begrudgingly accept. This time, a mere fifteen minutes later I am actually contacted by a man who speaks very little, and I mean very little, English. We speak in Japanese, but my patience has already run out.

“We have sent your…” he begins, and I cut him off.
“I know, I have it. Have you seen the email? I got it back and within an hour…”
“Have you tried the cable’s switch at the back of…”
“Yes, I’ve tried that several times, as well as disconnecting the power supply, trying several different inputs and restarting numerous times.”
“It may be a hardware problem.”
No shit, Sherlock. “Indeed.”
“I’m just reading your mail now. Um, you want a…refund?”
“Well, I say, I want a new console or failing that a complete refund. You know, to buy a Playstation 3 or something.”
This rehearsed barb strikes me immediately as futile. What is some underpaid desk clerk going to give a toss about losing a customer for Microsoft? Probably nothing. However, he strenuously tells me this is an absolute impossibility. “0%,” he says, “That’s how much you can get back. Zero.” Gee, thanks.
“So a new console then,” I reply.
“No, no, we fix your machine twice. No new console. If same problem, then new console, but different problem.”
I tell him the problem came about obviously due to their repairs. I tell him several times this simply just isn’t good enough. For 40,000 Yen I expect a piece of kit that works, at least for longer than five months. A new console would seem the only way to go.
“Not just you,” he states, “everyone. Other customers, all. First two repairs, No new console.”
Ah, the old Shared and Tolerated Grief gambit, a classic in Japanese society. Whenever a difficult person needs to be shot down, simply pointing to the fact this is what others have to contend with too is enough to shut most people up. Society is run on the caveat that problems are silently endured en masse. Also, the “two repairs” clause sounds a little too self-serving.
“But I am not other customers,” is the old come-back to this. I am unique, damn you, hear me roar, I am not a number, I am foreign!
This phases him somewhat, but he is not about to give in.
We haggle a little more as I keep restating how unacceptable this whole situation is. On the issue of the refund I wonder silently if there is such a thing as a small claims court in Japan, but quickly discard the idea thanks to the realization I am a foreign schlemmel with not a single human right in Japan.
He asks me to wait a little, to please hang on.
This is the moment of Truth. He is either asking his balding, tyrant boss what to do about this troublesome foreigner who won’t take “no” for an answer or asking his colleagues for help on the matter. A few minutes later he returns.
“Can I email you?”
“Um, why?” I ask.
“Something language, difficulty, English,” he goes on.
I make an extra effort to speak as close to perfect Japanese as I can muster. “Don’t you understand my predicament then?”
“Yes, but…”
“My console broke. You fixed it. Your repairs broke something else. I want a new console or, failing that, a complete refund.”
I know he just wants me off the line and conduct his unhelpfulness via email, which is a whole lot less stressful and much easier to ignore. But I won’t let him. “How now?” I proffer. What do we do now?
The conversation cycles round a few more times, covering the same old ground. I know I am not winning, as after the short break in which he spoke to his boss or colleagues, the answer was still “no”. After that there really is no hope and I was merely being a dick to him because I was upset and not willing to let him off the hook that easily. I wanted him to sweat and I really believe he did.

“Okay then, bloody pick it up the day after tomorrow around noon.”
He is suddenly silenced by confusion.
“You will email tomorrow?”
“No, pick the damn thing up the day after tomorrow. Saturday.”
“We call Saturday?”
“Listen, mush. You come to my house. You pick up the console. You fix the damn thing. You send it back.”
Second repair?!?” he asks, delighted and with an audible sense of utter relief. This pretty much confirmed my tyrant boss theory. He was obviously told not to give in or else, and was stuck in between a rock and another, foreign rock. I feel a little sorry for him, but that doesn’t stop me being annoyed.
“Well, I don’t have a fu…a choice, do I?”
Happily, relieved he confirms the new pick up date and time.
We break the connection, he with a thankful but obviously rehearsed apology, I with a grunt of dissatisfaction.

So now my console is back at the shop. While I await its return the New Year holiday is slowly ticking to an inevitable close. God only knows what happens if they muck it up again this time. I have the man’s name, so he had better have holiday plans come early January.

If there are still any undecided consumers out there, my advice is, in all honesty, not to buy an Xbox 360. The hardware is deeply flawed in design and the chances you are greeted by the Red Ring of Death are very real. All the support and warranty extensions and free months to Xbox Live can’t make up for the fact it’s a substandard product. There are a lot of great games on it, but that is pretty academic if the machine doesn’t work. Also, never try to get something extra out of Japanese service, no matter how entitled you are to it. Be it extra mayonnaise, a refund for a broken item, an exchange for the same product but in a different colour, a reduction in price for a display model, just don’t even try. It is impossible

Of course this all doesn't help Microsoft's epic struggle in Japan. The only market for the Xbox 360 here is the hardcore, and thus informed gamer, and the Red Ring saga is well known to potential customers. Indeed, of all my colleagues who have one only one has escaped this ignominious hardware failure but only by virtue of having bought his a mere two months ago. These kinds of wide-spread faults in Japan are usually met with tearful, public apologies and a total recall to salvage the respectability and believability of the company. Microsoft, as is their right, decided to leave things as they are and just focus on resolving the issues as they come up, basically letting people experience the fault and then hoping a free month's subscription to Xbox Live would smooth things over. But I don't think Japan works that way. Why would anyone willingly lay down a bundle of cash for a piece of kit that has a very high failure rate and presents the very real probability that it will fail on you?

Or, as my wife succinctly put it, "Why the Hell did you buy a Microsoft product anyway? It's your own fault, you fucking idiot." To which my only reply is and could ever be a meek "Yes, dear. Sorry, dear."

2007, a look backwards at a retrospective of the past in hindsight

It's not entirely inconceivable that interested consumers will look back on these closing months of 2007 as the golden age of the current generation of consoles. Wow, I am possibly one of the most cynical and bitter people you are likely to find, a decade in the industry can do that to a man, but even I was moved to excitement by some of the amazing titles released of late. I can't remember a similar period in gaming history when so many high-quality games were thrown at us in such a short time, a lot of them pushing technology to new heights, some refining existing experiences to a whole new level of polish and enjoyment and some even trying out new IP with apparent success. It's a hard act to follow.

Aside from the games the industry itself has seen some major news items, like the merger of Vivendi and Activision creating our industry's biggest entity, the continued and seemingly unstoppable resurgence of Nintendo as a major hardware player, the triumphant fall and rise of Japanmanship, XBox games breaking into the top 10 in Japan, sales records broken, profit records broken, a new and laughable, but not in a good way, Duke Nukem Forever teaser, a controversy surrounding game journalism, the Red Ring of Death saga, the list goes on.

For games, technically at least, the bar has been raised tremendously. Some "merely excellent” titles were swamped in recent months and sank without a trace in the face of so many high-quality products. This is difficult to replicate next year, as there are far fewer announcements of upcoming titles and the sequels of the current crop probably won't see the light of day until late 2009. And with so many new IPs being introduced this year, it paves the way for more sequels in the future. Assassin’s Creed 2, Bioshock 2, all these things seem inevitable. As are the copycat products. I'll guarantee, with fingers only slightly crossed behind my back, that some cynical developer somewhere will be copying the Mario Galaxy worlds and gravity system, and probably do a bad job of it.

As for myself, Super Mario Galaxy obviously ruled the roost, it being of such polished quality and full of that elusive "fun" us developers like to talk about for hours on end, that the whole experience was overwhelmingly excellent. I stopped playing it after gathering 105 stars as I feared the inevitable frustration of getting those timed purple coins and other tough challenges would eventually ruin my perfect enjoyment of the title. I might pick it up again at some point in the future though.
Portal too was a definite highlight and one that made a gruff cynic like me both excited and depressed at the current state of the industry. Depressed because I hadn't worked on Portal and because I cannot envision a situation, especially in Japan, where I would work on such an original title, and excited because it invigorated my creativity by proxy. These people were students not too long ago and a company like Valve, with elephantine balls of steel, invested their resources in them and let them get on with it, and as a result we have two new internet memes, a great game lauded by all who play it and a new "paradigm" (how I hate that word).
Bioshock too was, overall, amazing, Its much hyped moral complexity was of course an utter failure and the story too didn't lead down too many dark alleyways. Especially in the last chapter I was duped into giving the writers far more credit than they deserved, thinking I was being primed for an almighty twist which never arrived. But those criticisms aside, the setting was, both in design and in art, absolutely amazing and the relative ease of the gameplay, attacked by some, actually fitted perfectly with my ever diminishing skills, making the game fun, rather than show-stoppingly frustrating. As one of the few games I actually finished this year it deserves an award alone.
Assassin’s Creed too, not without its fair share of problems, is undeniably jaw-droppingly gorgeous, raising the bar for graphical excellence even further. And though there are obvious problems in the design, just running and jumping over the rooftops of the ancient world is fun.

On the more casual side too things have been rosy. Puzzle Quest for XBLA was a joy and easily sucked up a lot of my time but rewarded me with a full 200 gamerscore points. Less perfect but equally anticipated was the XBLA version of Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix, now probably the longest game acronym in history. It's a testament to the original design that despite the less than perfect controls and the lack of single-player challenges, the game was still magnificent. This was also the year Popcap gave us Peggle, another astoundingly original game that was almost impossible to put down. The DS too had some games that could be filed under "casual" which were highly enjoyable, and though something like Arkanoid DS was basically an ugly let-down, it is nice to see some companies are still playing around with DS peripherals, in this case the Arkanoid jog button extension, sold separately through the Taito website.

Visually, being an artist, 2007 has been more than impressive, with aforementioned titles like Assassin's Creed et all, but the most striking example for me must be Team Fortress 2, showing us what real, dedicated and intelligent art direction can produce. Whereas titles like Bioshock referenced the art deco era beautifully, it was Team Fortress 2 that redefined, in my view, what art direction should do: not just create a solid and continuous style but have it strengthen the gameplay rather than just paint a pretty picture. Hopefully titles with this kind of strong art direction, like also Super Mario Galaxy and, to a lesser but real extent, Portal, can finally teach your average publisher to not masturbate over technology so much and show the consumer that raw processing power alone does not make a pretty game. Proof of this is Unreal Tournament 3, which obviously has a powerful engine at its core and shows graphics made by doubtless creative and highly skilled people but ends up a soulless murky mess, interchangeable with any sci-fi alien versus space marine shooter.

So what will 2008 bring? Personally I think it'll be a more interesting year for the business side of things than the consumers. There are a few high-profile titles announced, but nowhere near as many as were delivered in 2007. But will these titles perform? For the Wii we have of course Super Smash Bros. which is highly anticipated but may suffer from the same malaise as Super Mario Galaxy received; it'll sell well enough but probably nowhere near as many as we are all expecting. Mario Kart, may fare better, but who knows? What both these titles have going for themselves is most probably the multiplayer aspect. For this reason I also think we will see more mini-game collections and board-game affairs, I'm sad to say. The market for the Wii is definitely shaping up to be one of casual fun, with little room for actual hard-core or mature games, though I'm sure a few publishers will try, in vain. No more No More Heroes, more Wii Play. Make of that what you will. Wii Ware may also see its release in 2008, but may serve to highlight the Wii's shortcomings more than its strengths, i.e. harddisk space and a rather laborious on-line infrastructure. I fully expect the emphasis to remain on Virtual Console rather than new content.

For the 360 we already have a line-up of early 08 releases from Japan, including some schmups, which I'm personally quite excited by. These won't, however, make any real impact on the market, but will further serve, as I've pontificated about before, to build up the XBox brand in Japan in preparation for being taken seriously when the next generation is released. I do expect that more western developed 360 titles will find small sales increases in Japan, though nothing that will make the analysts sit up and take notice. What could be a possibility is that those few companies that kept on making niche Dreamcast games until well after the console's death may look to the 360, as heralded by ports of Rez and Ikaruga scheduled for release on XBLA next year. This could mean more dating sims, adventure RPGs and schmups for the rather empty Japanese XBL Marketplace. The Video marketplace will remain empty, as I don't think the Japanese have bought into that yet. The otaku will buy their anime DVDs and the rest will watch their television programs (I wouldn't call them "shows"), so there is little impetus to put anything up for download.

The year will definitely be one for Sony to make a splash, but will they? They might. Metal Gear is one of those few titles that causes a stir in Japan, like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Monster Hunter, it's the kind of game that people will queue up for. And with the recent cheaper models going on sale for less Yen the Japanese public seems to be biting. This trend may gather pace with the release of Metal Gear. However, Sony's main problem is that it has too little on offer for the female and younger players, especially those superglued to Nintendo. Social networks, like Mixi, are very popular so maybe Home could help combat that dearth, but they should probably, even as a hard-core provider, give some more attention to casual. Of course, if Blu-Ray wins the odious format wars it could have a good effect on sales of the PS3, it being the cheapest player out there right now, but this is more of a long-term strategy and probably won't come into play this coming year.

Obviously the above is all conjecture based on personal observation and, I'm afraid, preferences, but even if I'm wrong on all counts it still makes for an interesting year ahead. I'll be keeping my breath baited. In the meantime let's reflect with wonderment and joy at the splendour and excitement of this quarter. Gamers never had it this good, and probably won't again for a while to come. Now I have to get back to my stack on cellophane-wrapped backlog. There just aren't enough hours in the day.

From the desk of JC

This year is the umpteenth time I won't be making the long, tedious and not to mention expensive trip back to, what the racists call, "my country". It's a little hard on the soul not spending Christmas with the family, especially since I am not getting the yuletide vibe at all in Tokyo this year. Some richer areas are all lit like a magical wonderland and have Christmas muzak everywhere, but the area where my office is located remains a vomit-stained pisshole with as much seasonal cheer as a jihad. What makes it worse is the fact I'll be spending the 25th at work, chained to my desk. Monday the 24th is a national holiday to celebrate the emperor's birthday, which is at least a day dedicated to a non-fictional character, but it would have been nice to spend Christmas Day on the sofa getting drunk and Boxing Day recovering. No such luck.

I will however be enjoying the usual New Year down-time that is traditional in Japan. The last working day of the year will be spent cleaning the office. This is a big Japanese tradition where everybody mucks in and makes the whole office spick and spam to be enjoyed for the first week back in work, after which it'll be the same old dirt again. But as I always keep my desk as clean as possible I'll be done in five minutes, pretend to help clean up the communal areas and divide the rest of the time between smoking and doing "research" on the company consoles. Though I'd prefer a holiday, a wasted day will suffice.

Then there will be a holiday for the first week of January. Though I am far from religious (the complete opposite in fact), I do enjoy going to the local temple on January 1st to drink a watery home-made rice porridge next to burning logs in a metal barrel, buy a new enma featuring next year's zodiac animal (boar?), an arrow sans point and pretend to pray to the gods.

So while you're unwrapping your presents, getting drunk, hooting at the Queen's speech and overeating, please remember little old me, gnashing my teeth at some entirely avoidable problem I am invariably asked to fix and cursing at Maya somehow crashing more often since Autodesk got their fingers on it.

Merry seasonal holiday, readers, whichever it is you celebrate.

March of the double Xs

There is a certain kind of game consumer, usually American teenagers or pre-teens, that will happily dismiss any game which doesn't feature rust-brown textures and genocidal space marines, or any game that dares use a primary colour, as "kiddie" or "gay". Not only is this sentiment pathetically homophobic an infuriatingly puerile, it is also entirely fallacious. If these consumers are so insecure about their masculinity that they need to compartmentalise those kinds of games in a simplistic, intelligence-proof way, "girlie" should be the adjective of choice.

Hard-core gamers have recently become quite vocal, on-line at least, about casual games and the danger they pose to their own niche entertainment. They want to play their Halo 4, Call of Duty 5 or Gotham Forza Turismo 18 but fear developers may be aiming where the money is - simpler games aimed at a wider audience. It's a little like when a small indie rock band becomes popular and they change their style to fit the mass market. These hard-core gamers were into games when they were still on vynil! Sadly, though, those days must necessarily come to an end. It's just too expensive to continue building these epic titles that cost millions upon millions of dollars to only be bought by a small fan-base. It's not viable. That doesn't mean those types of games will die out; I'm sure they won't. But I guess they just won't be the main focus anymore.

Then there are the publishers, ah, the publishers. In their drive to reach a wider audience (read: maximise profits) the new target of choice is the "female", or "women gamer". And they handle this new approach with as much delicacy and finesse as the previous "urban street" trend in gaming, where white middle-aged and well-paid pasty idiots were producing games based on "street" and "hip-hop" and what have you, dog. It was embarrassing. And so is the recent line-up of Ubisoft DS titles, aimed at girls, which revolve around babies and fashion. "Girls like babies, right?" Sigh. That is not pandering to the female demographic, that is patronising them.

Where Japan's game industry has fallen far behind in technical terms, it is ahead in another: the market. Strangely we see Japan again ahead of the curve, heralding what will inevitably become a world-wide phenomenon. When you look at the DS, in all its different colours, and the titles available for it, from the lackluster face training right up to Nintendogs, and if you keep your eyes open when you're out and about you'll notice something peculiar: the Japanese game market = women. More or less, anyway.

I have no hard figures to back this up*, but it would seem to me the Japanese female is largely to thank (or blame?) for the success of the DS and, to a lesser extent, the Wii. Going by personal observation alone, one mostly sees women with a DS in the wild. Of course there is the occasional salaryman or school-age kid, but by far the largest group you see playing on trains and in coffee shops is the professional female, aged, at a pinch 20 to 40. I often also see DIY-mod DSs, like pink versions studded with plastic gems. It’s a real fashion accessory. Judging by the current line-up of DS titles and those on the release lists, the female gamer seems to have taken over, in the same way they dominate Japanese television and the high street and have, with their collective monetary power, made one Korean soap-star the richest man in his own country.

The Japanese woman is to the Japanese market what the young white professional male is to the one in Europe; they are the decision makers, they are the target everyone wants a piece of. They have vast reserves of expendable income, living as they do rent-free with their parents until they get married at which point it’s the husband’s turn to provide. They are notoriously fashion-hungry; they had better be part of the next big thing or their status is severely compromised.

Sure, there is still the hard-core, the Akiba geek. They spend their lonely evenings with the most expensive hardware playing the longest and most tedious RPGs, but sales figures would indicate these guys have lost their moxy as a market force. Nintendogs, TOEIC English software, the cuter variety of gaming, like Pokemon on other accessible games, these are all selling like gourmet-branded hotcakes, mostly to the Japanese female. It’s only when extremely high-profile titles are released that the sales charts resemble anything like what we expect. Hell, even Super Mario Galaxy, critical favourite for game of the century, sold well but didn’t sell anywhere near as much as people thought it would. They didn’t have the girls on board.

Obviously this paradigm for success in the Japanese market is as volatile as it is profitable. Fashions are notoriously changeable in Japan and though the DS is riding high now, there is absolutely no way to see what the future will bring. Either way, I predict, absolutely seriously and with a straight face, other companies will help push the DS brand with things like Luis Vuitton DS cases or Prada styli. This is not as farfetched as you may think.

So another lesson for foreign publishers with an eye on Japan: women. Tap into their psyche and treat them as your main focus, and riches beyond your wildest dreams could be yours. They have the money, they have the power. And they are not interested in “imagining babies”. I, for one, welcome our new female overlords.

* You wouldn't believe the amount of research that goes into this blog**
** It's virtually none.

Gamesmanship - part 9

Know thine enemy

In previous chapters of this illustrious and indeed illustrated tome for the benefit of the gamesman in Japan, you have learned to deal with the native people and their ways in order to rise above them with the minimum of effort. Today we will examine that most loathsome of braggarts you may come across during your stay on these shores: the fellow countryman.

All your carefully constructed social positioning could come crashing down in the presence of someone of your own kind so every effort must be taken to establish immediate dominance over any and every intruder. Social superiority amongst expatriates in Japan relies on three distinct categories: longevity, employment and knowledge.

The first rule of social standing in Japan revolves around the number of years you have lived here and, more importantly, how many more you have lived here than your opponent. As this is a well-regarded social measuring tool it is not uncommon, upon introduction, to ask how long one has lived in Japan, so it is imperative you pose the question first. Whatever the reply is, you should chuckle knowingly and paternally, as if to fondly remember when you yourself were only here for so many years.
“10 years, you say? Haha, good lord. That’s quite a period, isn’t it? I remember my first decade well.”
Of course in the unfortunate event of being asked the question yourself before being able to gauge your opponent’s answer some wile may be required. To avoid giving a straight answer to which your opponent could unleash a rebuke of his own, you must wave the question aside, as if to indicate its irrelevance; when you have been in Japan as long as you have, of course, such trivial matters are of no consequence anymore.
“Oh my dear boy,” you heartily exclaim, “too long too long. I have stopped counting the years!”
Under no circumstances must you give an exact figure as confusion may arise during later meetings or when another person is introduced to you in front of your opponent.

Employment status too is an important indicator of class. Full-time employment at a Japanese firm is considered the highest honour, as opposed to, for example, part-time at a foreign company or English teacher. When the matter is broached the tactic is fairly simple. If your opponent is in a lower form of employment you must express jealousy.
“Oh, how I wish I was in your line of work. I don’t think the wages, stability and bonuses can ever justify the loss of freedom you must enjoy.”
Alternately, if your opponent finds himself a part of a Japanese firm, the opposite is required:
“Ah, the long hours, the frustration you must feel. I’m glad I have left that all behind me.”
In either case it must be made clear that your current situation is far preferable to your opponents’ and that your employment is a matter of choice rather than circumstance.

As for knowledge, the more intimate your acquaintance with Japan and its more obtuse cultural artifacts the higher you stand on the expatriate ladder. I find Stephen Potter, the originator and undisputed master of our craft, to have the best strategy, which works in Japan as well as it ever did back on the Isle, meaning of course the devastating Canterbury block. The simple phrase “but not in the South” can put a halt to any conversation your opponent might be engrossed in. For example:
“I found that the Kansai people are friendlier and more open than those in Kanto.”
“Ah, yes, but not in the south, of course.”
“I find a well-prepared fugu sashimi to be infinitely more delicious than any toro or hamachi.”
“But not in the south.”
This phrase can be adapted slightly for more in-depth knowledge, as for example:
“I always found Takehiko Inoue’s bold characterizations speak directly to the Japanese consumer making his work incredibly popular.”
“Ah, but not that of his middle period, of course.”

With a few swift strokes and maneuvers the gamesman in Japan can as quickly establish dominance over his tiresome countrymen as he can over the native population. Of course, like the Canterbury block, most original gamesman techniques apply when sparring with a fellow Briton, but caution must be observed when conversing with the wide variety of the lesser couth foreigners that inhabit Japan alongside, or rather, below you. One can hardly expect an Australian or, Heavens forbid, someone from our American colonies to have the wherewithal to effectively receive an Oxford pincer or Wodehouse leg, so always observe the highest caution in your choice of techniques.

Adventures in game design schooling

People still often contact me via e-mail regarding their dreams of working in the Japanese game industry and though I try to help out as much as I can, I am not always able. But it is gratifying to know my cynicism isn’t putting everyone off the prospect. Game design, it seems, is most people’s dream job and many readers have no previous game industry experience, which leaves me at a bit of a disadvantage in the whole agony uncle arena.

To those people I’d like to recommend reading Andrea Rubenstein’s blog about her Herculean efforts of entering into a game design school in Japan. She has written of her experiences on the Game Career Guide website, as well as her blog and it’s an interesting read. By the look of things she will start in April of next year, so I hope to be reading her insights of the actual program itself.

I have only ever dealt with Japanese graduates of a few select schools, in Tokyo, and know little about what goes on in there. I have also witnessed the mass recruitment drives, where in the first few months of the year hundreds of similarly suited young turks take a week long test to see who of them can be part of the select group of new hires. I am very curious to read Ms. Rubenstein’s views on the matter as she lives through them. I wish her the best of luck!

Note that this is a genuine recommendation, and not mere lip service because she lists this blog on her “resources” page; apart from a lake of bile I can’t really imagine what kind of resource I’m offering, but I am grateful for the link nonetheless.

The global gamer’s lot

The world is getting smaller, they say. We are becoming a global village, they say. Tish and pish, I say, we still have a long way to go. The lot of the global gamer is not a happy one. You may think living in, what some would consider, a paradise of gaming strips me of any right to complain but I am British, damn your oily hide, and complaining is what I do best!

Living with a language not your own is hard work. When I have my downtime I like to avoid anything that requires thinking and do simple, brainless things like playing games or writing a blog. Sure, I could, if I really tried, play a Japanese RPG, but believe me, that isn’t fun. I want to lie back and just, you know, play a game. So I end up importing games a lot. Big business, however, would like to see me strung up for this. Importing, they say, is illegal and must be stopped! They go after import websites and close them down with the heavy hand of the law behind them. They build their hard- and software to exclude anything not bought in your specific region. They do not want you to enjoy the games they had not intended you to enjoy.

I’m no idiot, occasionally, and I know full well there are behind the scenes implications with global releases and reasons behind region locking.

If American publisher X have a contract with Japanese publisher Y to release game Z in Japan, publisher Y will not be too pleased if its customers can circumvent them and buy their game straight from publisher X anyway. Part of these publishing deals includes guarantees, a lot of money and target sales figures, so naturally publisher Y wants to be in control in their own market to maximize their profit and control their customers. It’s a little like signing an exclusivity deal and then ignoring it; the value of the deal rapidly drops.

With the current popularity of game-related political bandwagons there is no end of scaremongering of our industry going on. We have not seen such relentless persecution of a medium since, well, comic books, oh, and rock and roll, and films, and, well, any new medium that the crusties can’t fathom. So our politicians do what they do best; regulate what we can and mayn’t enjoy. The rating system is a mess. Every region has its own, none are compatible and even within a single system there are inconsistencies. And somehow the fact retailers and parents ignore these ratings has become the entire industry’s albatross. That little rant aside, different regions do have different standards. Gore is toned down in Japan, as is more explicit sexual content, which considering this is a nation of happy go lucky perverts is a little strange. Germany of course is the most (in)famous example, with showing red blood being all but a capital offense. Europe’s “teen” rated game may be America’s “mature”, and vice versa. With all these differing levels of censorship a global free market of gaming is pretty much impossible.
That said, the most egregious content, the ones that get most older people’s knickers in a twist, has been pretty much outlawed by the console manufacturers themselves anyway. Adults-only content is a no-no within the industry, so at least there are no problems with having to pixellate pubic hair or removing that gay facial from a videogame.

Market saturation
Playing on from the first point, controlling the market, or rather priming it for maximum sales is an important business tactic. You can see this with films, where American DVDs often come out even before the Japanese theatrical release. Film theatres wouldn’t be much pleased if people could just get the latest DVDs easily and watch them at home on their massive flat-screens. Similarly, I am sure many publishers believe if a game is widely available customers are less inclined to buy the localized version once it’s finally released. In Japan this is hardly a concern; if a game is text-heavy players will want to wait for the localized version, as few are comfortable enough with their English abilities. In much the same way you’d have to be pretty damn hard-core to import a Japanese RPG if you’re an American who doesn’t speak Japanese.

Regional red tape
Each of the console manufacturers has regional headquarters. Sony, for example, announced that each regional chapter is now responsible for their sales quotas, rather than keeping a global approach. This ties in with the above. If Europeans had easy access to US Playstation games, technical signal differences notwithstanding, Sony of America would be encroaching on Sony of Europe’s territory, which ties in with the point above about market saturation.
On top of that each region has its own rules and technical requirements. Often these differences are infuriatingly obtuse and make little sense. Each SKU for your project will need some specific tinkering with to ready them for the appropriate region. Of course, the most obvious difference is the inclusion of multiple languages for the European version and the technicalities that come with that, but there are others too., like how the default OK and CANCEL buttons are different for Japan and the rest of the world. Why there isn’t one global technical requirement process is beyond me; it seems to create more work than it offers any kind of tangible benefit. If a manufacturer’s regional offices can’t even orchestrate a globally consistent approach where do we even begin?

All these issues used to be academic. If you go to a shop you simply only buy what is available. There was little chance of seeing, let alone being able to purchase a foreign game from your local high-street store. These days digital distribution is making headway and the lock-outs become jarringly irritating, like Tantalus we are presented with unattainable pleasures. The ease with which you can access foreign on-line distribution is only matched by the frustration when they tell you to bugger off because you’re not allowed to download something. Then of course there are websites that offer the importers some respite, dutifully warning which titles are region locked and which aren’t.

Here is the Japanmanship International Gamer’s Console Manufacturers’ Scorecard

Nintendo, D+
The DS is of course region-free, which deserves an A+. The Wii, however, is completely and utter locked per region, to the extent that with firmware updates even Datel’s Freeloader bootdisk cannot be used to play foreign Gamecube games on it anymore. I enjoyed many a foreign game on my Japanese Gamecube thanks to Freeloader but with the tyranny of being always on-line allowing Nintendo to combat any new similar product with a simple software update has made the Wii a bad choice for the importer. Once American Wiis are in good supply I may need to buy one just for the privilege of giving more money to Nintendo and being able to enjoy their games without the constant headache of a dictionary, which incidentally is very hard to balance on your knees while holding both a Wiimote and nunchuck.
It would be interesting to see if the DS’s liberal region approach has had any adverse effect on sales. Judging by its enormous success I‘d say probably “no”.
On average then a D+, just about a passing grade, thanks to the DS alone.

Microsoft, C+
Microsoft seem psychotically indecisive about region encoding on the Xbox 360. A lot of games have no locking whatsoever, some Japanese titles even play fully in English if you have the system’s language set to it. A couple of games, possibly due to ratings or the sheer volume of translated texts, are region-locked though, so I have to constantly confirm the status of a game before ordering it.
Live Arcade has this same problem. For most games you can download the demo using a faked US account, but can then be unlocked by purchasing them on your real Japanese account, except for some. How this choice is made seem utterly arbitrary. And seeing as the Japanese line-up offers only slim pickings and as setting up a second account with a US address is so easy (everybody knows at least one postcode: Beverly Hills 90210), most people I know have done so. Castlevania, for example, didn’t have a Japanese release until quite a few months after it has appeared on the US marketplace. Other demos don’t even pretend to localize and just throw the US version on Japan’s marketplace on the day of release. A few less have localised versions available on launch. It’s all a big, confusing mess.
With the recent updates we now have Xbox Originals, which are region-locked. Try to download one and no matter what your log-in says, your IP shows you’re not in the US and you’re politely told to go fornicate yourself. Considering Japan had a fraction of Xbox titles, and these days you won’t be able to buy them anywhere, this is just another middle finger to the Japanese market. Personally I am upset because I can’t play Psychonauts, as it was never released here so the Japanese marketplace is unlikely ever to get it.
Though some research is needed, the importer has it pretty easy with region-free games. Some curiously infuriating marketplace issues bring down the score, to a C+.. Must try harder.

Sony, A-
Unexpectedly Sony has gone the opposite direction and gone all hands off. Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable games are by and large region free. Though I personally have neither of these consoles I hear reports of the occasional locked content and problems with games reverting to IP location language selection rather than system setting preferences, but all in all this is a nice surprise for the global gamer. Sony may have its hubris leading to a terrible start in this generation’s race, and the machines may be too expensive for the average consumer, but you can’t fault them for going region-free.
The danger exists, however, that a small firmware update can negate this entire ideal some time in the future, but we can live in hope. So in contrast to the scores Sony receives for marketing and promotion, a solid, well deserved A-!

With today’s global society and the free exchange of information, being presented with a game which you are then not allowed to buy is like being refused service in a shop for being from the wrong side of town; it’s annoying and, though there may be legitimate reasons behind it, feels unfair. On top of that the small Xbox 360 community in Japan is already badly served compared to other countries, where the market is admittedly larger, so not even allowing keen, hard-core users to access content they have never been given access to before, like the Xbox Originals, is just another slap in the face. In other media I at least have the choice. I, for example, won’t let my viewing habits be dictated by the television and film corporations, and have bought a region-free DVD player so I could bring my entire DVD collection with me from England when I moved here. Even now there are many things I want to see that obviously don’t contravene any local ratings and censorship issues, like British comedy series, which I can purchase on-line and watch in the comfort of my Japanese home as a consenting, educated adult. With video games this kind of behaviour is not only discouraged but persecuted. Where it has been possible I have broken these international boundaries by means which I presume are legal enough; boot-discs purchased through retailers allowing me to play purchased video-games on a system the manufacturers didn’t want me to play foreign games on. But these days modding would seem the only option for certain systems.

As I mentioned before, it’d be interesting to see some studies examining whether or not the DS’s region-free approach has had a positive or adverse effect on business. As a consumer I simply can’t wait for the first of the Big Three to take the plunge and truly embrace the spirit of digital distribution: an access-for-all system serving the global consumer over the bureaucratic needs of the corporation.

Good game designer! Have a Marathon!

There is no worse way to start a conversation or, for that matter, a blog post with words along the lines of “back in the good old days…” or “do you remember when…” yet here I am doing it regardless. I guess I’m a rebel. Back in the good old days there were a lot of great little ideas in games that somehow lost their zest and have all but disappeared. This post is a recap of some fond memories of specific game-related elements that I’d gladly see make a comeback.

Inventive copy protection
Younger readers may not remember this, but back in the day there was a way for personal computers, or “PCs” as we used to call them, to hook up together via the telephone line and share data. It involved picking up your phone and putting the receiver on a plastic box with rubbery receptacles, listening to the digital equivalent of a smokers’ cough for a bit and then sitting back and waiting for hours, days, weeks. This marvel of technology as well as schoolyard tape swapping caused many a publisher to seek for ways to protect their product with a little thing called “copy protection”. These days it seems to involve fucking up your system, disabling your disk drive and installing malware, but back then, when floppy disks were actually floppy, they had to think of more clever ways. As a result there were some excellent copy protection schemes.
Of course the boring ones had you periodically refer to word how many on page whatever of the manual, but a game like Leisure Suit Larry 2 replaced that with looking up the phone number of the girl pictured on screen in your little black book, i.e. the manual; ostensibly the same ting but completely in keeping with the spirit of the game.
The most inventive one I remember was the one for “The Colonel’s Bequest”, in itself an excellent game, inspired by Christie and Hitchcock, which saw a young Laura Bow trying to unmask a murderer who is slowly working his way through all the guests at the colonel’s mansion. Before you could start the game you were shown a fingerprint. Using a little paper loupe with a red filter in it you had to scan the manual for the same print and identify who it belonged to. This was not an easy task, as the fingerprints were all very similar, but it was in keeping with the spirit of the game, set the mood, a fun little activity and, above all, impossible to photocopy.

In-box freebies
There once was a time when games didn’t take a couple of million dollars to produce, nor did they require teams so large they had enough genetic variety to propagate the species. In those heady days game visuals were not quite up to scratch yet and publishers had to rely on a few extras to immerse the player in the fantasy. What they would often do was stuff the game box full of goodies. I fondly remember unpacking Ultima and finding a cloth tea towel map of Britannia, a few plastic coins and a “moonstone” (bead of glass). I would spend hours reading the expansive and nicely illustrated bestiary whenever my father banished me from the computer, “for my own good” he mistakenly believed. Magnetic Scrolls gave added value to their excellent text-based adventure games by including faked newspapers, coffee-stained application forms and all manner of stuff pertaining to the game’s story and setting. Even A.P.B. came with a tiny sealed envelope containing a cheat code if you got desperate.
All these items added so much to the overall enjoyment of the product it’s a little sad that these days, in order to push the margins and which ever decreasing box sizes, publishers don’t bother anymore. No longer will players experience the joy of sitting down behind their computers with specially created notebooks or a map draped over their desks. Sure, there are now things called “special editions” or “collectors editions” that include a lot of extra stuff, but usually at a higher price, essentially making them purchased goods rather than excellent freebies that would make you think you were getting real value for money and fostered a real fan loyalty.

Immersive character setup
It’s fun to create your own avatar in games, spending a good few minutes tweaking facial features and selecting classes and skills. But a long time ago Origin sneakily lured you into character creation in a way that made you think and sucked you immediately into the story. When starting any Ultima game a gypsy woman would ask you some searching moral questions, to which there was no true good or bad answer. Depending on your replies your character was created and all that without any die rolling or points assigning. Would I give the beggar one of my rich master’s coins? Would I sacrifice my honour to humbly let a braggard take credit?
The sadly short-lived but extremely excellent Worlds of Ultima series took it one step further, with especially Martian Dreams pushing the boundaries. In stead of asking me if I wanted to play a male or female character, Sigmund Freud wanted to test some of his theories on me. “Do you feel closer to your mother or your father?” ultimately decided the sex of your avatar.
More recently Animal Crossing had a similar random but relevant questions system to create your in-game character, but other than that the art is sadly lost. However immersive many RPGs are, I can’ help but wonder if they could have been better if the character creation element was better disguised, rather than having me assign skill points.

Boss keys
Obviously another one for the PC rather than console crowd but when some developers realized how addictive their products were they thought it was neat to help their customers play more, play at work, in fact, by adding a boss key. A quick tap on the assigned button, ESC or TAB or something similar, would instantly hide the game and in stead show a static screen with a spreadsheet on it. The idea being you could play the game during work but as soon as the boss walked by you could instantly hide it from view and fool him into thinking you were actually busy, you know, working. I can think of a few games that could use this feature. Alt-tabbing is often simply not quick enough.
I also vaguely remember a small game called “Hunt the Wumpus” on PC which had, as its boss screen, a static image of a paused game of Tetris. In those days everyone was obviously busy at work playing Tetris. Class!

Obviously games have progressed far beyond what was possible in the early days, and despite the rose-tinted nostalgia many of us old folk have, games are generally much better now. Okay, I have fewer fond memories of playing games these days, but that’s mostly because my childhood was formative, and the games I played then influenced me, rather than them being superior to anything out now.
That said, there are a lot of great ideas to mine from these old deposits, a lot of neat little touches that can help today’s games get even better. Instead of making the same, avoidable mistakes we always make, maybe we should study the successes more and see what they can teach us or what we can steal.

Iceboy in Lavaworld

You may think platform games that resort to including a lava world, ice world or, heavens to Betsy, a combined lava and ice world, are suffering from designer’s imagination impoverishment syndrome (the well-documented but as yet untreated D.I.I.S. epidemic sweeping our industry). Let me tell you, they are not; these worlds are a virtual reflection of a typical Japanese tradition: the heaters and air-conditioners in office buildings.

After the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity of a Tokyo summer the dry, crisp cold of a Tokyo winter is usually the highlight of my year. The skies are bright blue, the sun shines, the air is dryer than an A.A. meeting and temperatures are comfortably low without the fear of frostbite. I love Tokyo winters. I love them as much as I detest Tokyo summers, and that is a lot!

However, with the cold outside air-conditioners, operating on a building-wide regime, get turned to heating, blasting the entire building with warm air, with no real options to turn it off locally, save for allowing a few slight temperature settings. What usually happens is that the building owner or concierge discusses with representatives of each company in that office when would be a good time to switch and at what time in the morning to turn on the device or when to switch it off. Sometimes it isn’t even discussed and the switch is made when the calendar dictates it’s autumn or spring, regardless of the weather. For most companies this works fine, but not for game development studios.

We are on a higher floor, so the heat of the floors below us rises. On top of that we have enough computers and devkits, whirring away, often and usually unnecessarily overnight, that we could, if we wanted, calculate Pi to the billionth decimal in microseconds. All these devices generate heat. All our pasty, flabby bodies, stuffed together in a small office, generate heat. The air becomes heavy, stale and hot. We open the windows but there is little breeze, so the desks on the outer edges become freezing cold but those in the center remain in pockets of stifling, stale warmth, not unlike a badly microwaved apple pie. In one office you’ll see both people with heavy coats and lap blankets as people with T-shirts and slippers. The outer circle develops colds, the inner crowd headaches. Productivity plummets, people get tired. And short of forcing a shutdown of the building-wide heating system there is nothing that can be done about it.

The summers aren’t much better, the situation being the polar opposite (and that is a better pun than you’re giving it credit for!) Those in the inner parts of the office are freezing, wearing coats and lap blankets as the air-conditioner blasts icy gusts straight down their necks, while those next to the windows are sweating and stripping to the bare essentials.

Maybe I have been unlucky, but in the small majority of offices I’ve worked this was the case. Recently it’s been so bad on any given day there will be at least 4 or 5 people off on a sick day – in itself a rare occurrence in Japan. It is extremely unpleasant. But at the same time, what can you do? Apart from having the building owner install a better and presumably much more expensive system would probably negate the cheap rent that got us renting an office here in the first place. Moving to another building would, aside from the problems of finding viable, affordable places, eat away at our already tight deadlines. We’re up a certain stretch of river without a boat propulsion device. Or rather, we are stuck in the first circle of Hell without the eternal damnation.

So there you have it; lave and ice worlds in games are actually subtle and politically subversive comments on the tyranny of office building air-conditioners. I bet you didn’t know that.