Don’t take my word for it

If this blog has proven anything over its lifetime so far it is that I am a far from reliable source as well as biased and embittered. The good news, depending on your point of view, is that I try to sidestep these little hindrances with an insincere and patronizing sense of self-depreciation, so it’s all good.

One thing I keep harping on about is the theory that Japanese game development is by now far behind that of the West in various ways though mostly technical. I also mention on occasion the strange make-up of the Japanese market and the predictably unpredictable purchasing trends of the Japanese gamer. Despite the usual cries of “Japanese games are better” from various persistent corners, these things I hold to be true, but my resolve is never so strong that repeated statements without backing evidence cannot sway me or question my observations.

Luckily and strangely there has been a small spate of reports of late where Japanese developers and publishers in interviews seem to have come to the same conclusion as I. This is not in any way a narcissistic boast, but a confirmation that these kinds of ideas do seem to be gaining ground, which, especially considering this is the natives talking, is both troubling and positive. Troubling because it means we really are in a slump over here, positive because acknowledgement is one step towards improvement.

In a recent Gamasutra interview, composer Akira Yamaoka made some choice comments.

It's completely different working with an American team. There are of course advantages and disadvantages, but overall, I'm really impressed with the American staff and their technology. Their graphical and technical ability is amazing. There's a huge gap, actually. They're very advanced. I'm Japanese, and I think this is not just with Silent Hill but with the whole of the industry -- I look at what American developers are doing and I think wow... Japan is in trouble.
Indeed it is. And he mentions some other problems that I generally agree with.

the salary isn't that great.
This is a point I wholeheartedly agree with, as it is pretty much the bane of my existence.

we don't have a lot of people who can understand English deeply enough for something like that, so that reduces speed. And while we're waiting for that, we're already a step behind everyone else who can understand it intuitively. This sort of thing builds up, and we just fall further behind. I mean of course we can understand it once we know what it says, but this falling behind really affects the quality of what we can do.
…which you may remember I commented on before, the general lack of English ability slowly gnawing away at Japan’s technological progress. The whole interview is worth a read and doesn’t confine itself to bitching about the Japanese industry; these were just a few quotes from one small section where these issues cropped up.

More recently Kotaku reported on a Gameindustry.biz interview with Square-Enix big-wig Yoichi Wada, in which he says, amongst other things:

It's haphazard growth, if you like. Nintendo has been doing really well, and DS particularly is enjoying a great boom. But when it comes to games for core gamers, it's quite weak. Sooner or later core gamers will become impatient, and there'll be a point where 'real' games will resume growth, but it's not happening at the moment. However, for core games, the European and American markets are growing at enormous speed.
It would seem that a focus on Western markets is what is most needed in Japanese game development if profitability is at stake. Or perhaps more companies will follow in Capcom’s footsteps and have a divided focus on both Western-style games aimed at the Western market and Japanese style games for the Japanese, with any lucky overspill into the West being taken as a bonus.

Aside from more and more locals voicing their concerns, physical evidence is mounting too. Most of the recent next-gen games created and released in Japan simply do not stand up to comparison with similar recent titles from the West, especially in terms of polish. You may enjoy the upcoming Yakuza 3 for the Playstaion 3, for all it’s olde worlde charm, geisha teasing mini-games and, oddly, bikinis, but next to, say, Assassin’s Creed it looks and feels like a last-gen game with extra normalmaps and bloom slapped on.

The game is obviously aimed at the Japanese, with its subject matter, the endless reams of textually presented conversations, the silly brainfarts of game design and the modeling of the game’s characters on fairly famous Japanese actors and such. They simply aren’t trying to appeal to the West, a stupid business decision to start with, but one that at least let’s them get away with a lower technical standard, for now. Games like Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted and others are being increasingly aggressively marketed in Japan and sooner or later even the Japanese hard-core will demand a certain quality of product that most Japanese developers seem unable, or unwilling, to provide right now.

But with the dawning realization of these problems at least the possibility of change is real. A larger divide seems inevitable with Wii and especially DS titles keeping their strong and profitable focus on the Japanese market and anything even slightly more technologically advanced, by necessity, being aimed squarely at the West where the market is bigger. But for this to end in success Japan first needs to bridge that gap it has allowed to grow over the last decade orso.

So in conclusion, though my opinions are solipsistic and based on spurious, casual observation most of the time, I am in general agreement with the growing swell of Japanese developers and publishers that Japan is in trouble, so sometimes I am correct. So there.

15 comments:

  1. So developers who noticed this should be looking for people bringing the western efficiency with them, shouldn't they?

    I hope this will get better until I'm able to get to Japan. Hardcoding everything and the "do it now, check it later"-style planning would suck as a work environment. Newer studios, maybe even founded by those who have some experience abroad like Yamaoka-san, should be much better.

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  2. I remember an interview with Jade Raymond at some gaming convention where she proudly told us that Kojima played Assassins Creed. He told her that the game played like a Japanese game and she took it as a complement. Reading your story and Akira Yamaoka’s interview that’s kinda ironic.

    You might be right but I wonder: If the west is so technically advanced why is it so hard for them to add a bit of colour in there games? It shouldn’t be too hard for them to have a palette that goes beyond grays and rust-brown.

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  3. I've been noticing this by myself, just by actually playing the games.

    For example, I've heard so much good about Metal Gear Solid. They hype around that franchise is incredible!

    So I bought MGS3 to see what all the hoopla was about. I could stand about 1 hour with that crap.

    The control is terrible, and the game is full of weird design decisions, many times in relation to the camera.

    The funny thing is, MGS3 isn't that old! But the problem's which it's full of, doesn't exist in most western games.

    When you wade through all the hype, you often hear that, "yeah, it's difficult to control, and it takes a few hours to learn". To hell with that! I'm playing games to be entertained, and I demand that the games I play are on a design level which corresponds to this century, not the early 90's.

    MGS4 is supposed to have been changed dramatically and Ryan Payton has himself stated the he's fought some really tough battles to get the controls "westernized".

    When I look at the videos of that game, it actually looks playable! Maybe I'll finally be able to enjoy the terrific story of MGS now with the fourth release.

    oh, and MGS3 is crap! :)

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  4. Don’t know which MGS3 you’ve been playing, Snake Eater or Subsistence. Snake Eater had a fixed camera. The problem with that was while that approach did work work for MGS1 and 2 where you went through small corridors MGS3 had a whole forest to explore. They changed the camera in Subsistence for one that follows the player. Having that said I can’t say MGS is difficult to control. The only weird thing that comes to my mind is that you play as this super-spy that somehow can’t jump.

    I wouldn’t go far as call MGS3 crap. Personally I thought was the lesser one of the solid series, many do disagree though. Only playing 4 will do the story no justice, since it’s the last one of the second trilogy. You have to play 1 and 2. 4 is made to tie the ends of those two together.

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  5. Remo, yeah, I remember that Jade Raymond comment, and I guess that is part of the problem: this indoctrinated idea that Japanese games are great, which is even believed by the Japanese themselves. That kind of attitude leads to stagnation.

    I agree about your colour palette comment and one thing this post doesn't cover is what Japan does *right* that the Western developers could learn from, like more inventive art direction (generally) and more interesting quirks and ideas for gameplay. I've often said to colleagues the best combination would be a senior Japanese art and design team backed by a Western code team.

    One day the twine shall meet, I hope.

    As for MGS, I've never liked those games. I've tried, really tried, but the play mechanics and controls just seemed to be there to annoy me and subvert my progress. Graphically very well designed, gameplay-wise not so much. MGS4 should be interesting.

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  6. I believe that the mindset of "Japanese games are the best" comes from two factors:

    (1) Japan was dynamically influential on video gaming's formative years; not just at home, but in arcades as well. The bulk of gaming's most famous mascots came from Japanese developers.

    (2) The different cultural background of Eastern developers meant that Japanese games were simply different than the slew of same-old-same-old Western-developed games.

    This falls apart nowadays, as the game industry continues to become more and more competetive. It forces developers to innovate in order to be noticed, while increased exposure to Japanese games shows us that they also suffer from plenty of Same-Old Syndrome.

    That said, I still wish that a number of specific overseas games would come to Western shores, just as much as I hope certain games developed in this half of the world become big hits in the East.

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  7. Yes, it certainly isn’t just you – the anecdotal evidence is pretty overwhelming from all sides. Obviously, there’s the argument that being better on the technical side isn’t everything, and that Japanese games’ strength in the future may rely even more heavily on their aesthetics as opposed to their technology. But that’s not conducive to a strong industry as a whole.

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  8. Hmm..I think the PS3 might have something to do with this. If the PS3 gets to the level that the PS2 got in terms of sales, I think developers will quickly evolve and learn new skills.

    It just seems to me that Japanese developers are too attached to last-gen technology because there doesn't seem to be enough demand for nex-gen games in Japan.

    Developing games for the Xbox360 will always be a half-hearted effort and won't allow for much skill developing.

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  9. Not really sure I understand the "developing games for the 360 will always be a half-hearted effort" comment. Care to elaborate?

    I work at a Japanese game company, and oddly there are more 360 owners than PS3 owners. Sure, these are hardcore gamers that know their shit, and a couple of them even import western games, but isn't that kind of who both the 360 and PS3 are aimed at? My boss is a complete PS3 fanboy and we have a PS3 team who worked on some launch stuff directly for Sony and yet still only a couple of people care much about PS3.

    If Japanese developers start focussing on the west, I think that it could cause problems for the Sony since the hardcore platform of choice in the US is the 360 and in Japan the Wii and DS have taken over. The PS3 is still an important platform and I don't see it getting left out completely, but I do think that it has nothing that makes it stand out against the competition other than the fact it plays blu-ray movies. I don't buy games consoles to play movies.

    Anyway, I don't want to subvert the discussion, so I'll shut up.

    YMLL

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  10. I tend to agree with most of what you've written here JC Barnett. My impression from the Japanese gaming industry is that they are falling behind technically. And from reading your blog over the months, I can see from your point of view how the development methods are partly behind that.

    But I also agree that Japanese games do tend to be more interesting on the gameplay and quirkiness side of things. Look at Katamari for example (or even as others have suggested in the comments, look at older iconic games like Mario Brothers - they're weird when you think about them, but great fun). Of course, these 2 statements (falling behind technically, but being more quirky) aren't true in all cases, but I think they are in general.

    We can even look at the console markets as a clear view of this difference. Western market creates xbox360, which is mostly a powerful gaming rig pushing next-gen graphics. The games are mostly cookie cutter FPS gameplay from previous games that haven proven popular. And Japan creates the Wii which is lacking in graphic output, but has amazing quirky fun gameplay possibilities. The games are more "cartoony" but have lots of neato appeal.

    I think there are problems with both sides. But I also like that there are both sides. Sure, I'd love to have creative gameplay AND great graphics in a game at the same time, but right now it's pretty much one or the other. But at least I can play both between different consoles and games, and I'm not limited to only one.

    Some day I hope us gamers can have our cake AND eat it too :).

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  11. Does Japan's seclusive culture has to do with this in anyway?

    Japan, to me, is like an attractive but egotistic girl who thinks the world exist for her..

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