However frustrated I get sometimes it is good to know there are Japanese developers, of actual importance and status, who seemingly pretty much agree with me. It's a little confirmation that makes me glow on the inside and reminds me that, even though my tone may be condescending and bitter at times, I am not pulling all this out of my arse.
In an interview in Gamasutra, Platinum Games' Atsushi Inaba speaks frankly of the wide chasm between Western and Japanese games. What lends these comments particular weight, in my eyes, is that I personally consider Platinum Games' output to be of extraordinary quality, painting them as one of the top developers in Japan. Yet even Mr. Inaba concedes Japan is behind.
"And what I want Japanese creators to realize now is that they are now following the lead of the U.S. creators, and that we need to get to and then surpass those creators, with innovative games that sell in the West as well."
He points to one particular strength of Japanese developers, namely working well within tight technical limitations.
"Japan had always been good at taking advantage of what was available within the technology of the consoles that were available then, and worked best within the restrictions, while the West had always been great at going beyond what was available to them. So, going forward, I believe that Japan needs to be more creative, and go beyond what is given. "
It is true, from my observations, that Japanese developers generally don't cope well with the raw power and the expectations that come with that of the next generation systems, which, in conjunction with the huge sales figures, might explain why so many of them are looking at the Wii and the DS as primary platforms. Arguably, Japanese developers are doing amazing things on the DS, for example, pushing its limits both technically and creatively; this is one area where one could argue Japan is ahead of the West. The Wii, however, remains a Nintendo powerhouse, with plenty of cheap, substandard shovelware littering the shelves in Japanese stores too.
One thing Japan is still pretty strong in is, in my opinion, creative design. This is a country and market, though also blighted by sequels and cynical cash-ins, where one can still follow the, what I call, William S. Burroughs school of game design pitching. One can dream up a high-concept pitch, say "you play a mechanical fetishist penguin from the future who needs to save the world by slapping people's arses with a sword made out of handbags while avoiding FBI agents dressed as lolitas who want to use your brain to create a funky coat for the president's daughter, who is also a pink SUV", which would, in the West, get you escorted off the premises by security but, in Japan, might lead to nodding and chin stroking. When Mr. Inaba speaks of being more creative, I'm sure he means technically.
Just the fact that companies like Capcom and Platinum Games have come this this realisation and are working to remedy it is very comforting. Game Republic's Yoshiki Okamoto agrees but is a little more defeatist about it, thinking that the West is now so far ahead that it's almost impossible to catch up.
"Even if we thought about catching up with them now, they'd still be making progress."
He might be right, but it's not a lost cause. Things need to change and it seems they might. But as all things in Japan, the change will be slow and will require input from the outside. Readers of this blog may be interested to hear that Platinum Games are willing importers. theoretically at least, as Mr. Inaba mentions:
"Bayonetta is a very difficult game to develop, and if there are very capable developers and programmers in the West it would be great if they could come on board."
If haven't a clue how far they are prepared to go with this, as it'd require some extensive company-wide language training, relocation support and possibly a restructuring of development systems and salary structures, but eager readers know where to send their resumes. It should also be noted that Game Republic appear to also be gaijin-friendly. Don't focus too much on my fatalist bitter ramblings, but take some solace in the fact Japanese developers too are looking to fix things.