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.