Japanese devs aren't stupid

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.


  1. My applications are going out tomorrow morning.

    I hope they are also accepting less experienced planners.

  2. I can't be the only one that's tired of this self-depricating, self-defeatist attitude among Japanese devs lately. It's as if it's hip to start mourning the perceived suckiness of the Japanese industry every time a microphone is shoved in the faces of these people. In what way are we falling behind?

    Tech? Perhaps a bit, but Capcom's MT Framework engine, Square's new engine, and the team behind MGS4 seem to make that argument hold less water than it would seem to on the surface. Add to that a new openness to the use of Western middleware (Unreal, Havok, etc.) and the argument seems very thin indeed.

    Sales? Indeed, but does this not stem less from the lack of effort on the devs' part and more on a greater need for market research and effective advertising?

    Creativity? Hardly. The West might be up to their gills in tech, but what good is it if all it can seem to produce these days is a series of cookie cutter FPS and top down twin stick shooter "indie" games?

    Could the shrinking of the Japanese market share not be due to the following issues:

    1) Gargantuan companies with virtually bottomless advertising pockets (EA, Activision)?

    2) The fact that the West finally has its shit together outside the PC sphere?

    3) The sheer numbers involved when you look at the amount of Western devs and their output in comparison to their Japanese counterparts?

    I'm sick and tired of the doom and gloom that immediately pours out of these people's mouths during interviews. The "problem" is mostly in their heads and stems more from the above than anything else from where I sit.

    And, yes, I do work in the Japanese game industry and I've had plenty of experience with Western devs as well. To say that their method is "better" when their games outsell ours is akin to equating the lack of a meteor hitting the Earth with my wearing my lucky socks. Westerners like online FPS and rock sims these days. Westerners make them. This isn't rocket science and the problems that plague production here - real as they may be - shouldn't be made into a scapegoat.

    My two yen...

  3. lildavey- I dunno man, it seems like you're sugar coating a lot of that, or talking yourself into it. The difference between Japanese and Western games is getting somewhat blatant. And it's pretty common knowledge that the work habits here are unhealthy.

    Also I'd love to hear which next gen titles are thought to be creative (no sarcasm intended). Stylistically, I love the art coming out of Japan. But the stories seem very uninspired and even recycled to me. I don't have a Wii so maybe that's the problem? Recently I've gotten sooo tired of the whole post-apocalyptic magical JRPG with an emo protagonist.

    And I'd like to point out that the games coming out in the West are very diverse, and have very captivating storylines. If you can dig deeper than Gears of War 3 then they are pretty easy to find.

  4. Inaba and Okamoto are both part of the creative exodus from Capcom - whose strategic planning was often marred by low ROI platform exclusives. While I love both of them as creators, I do not hold them in the highest esteem as business people and take their market assessments with a grain of shio.

    The biggest weakness of all Japanese software developers (games, business software, etc.) is in strategic planning. Their laser-like focus on honing and polishing does not serve them well at the big picture level. While they're busy lamenting the loss of their creative center, I predict the Korean online developers will eat their PC opportunity and the Western console developers will bleed them dry on the 360 and PS3 with less polished product but spectacular marketing.

    That leaves the Nintendo platforms...

  5. Western Devs Don't Get the DS.
    Sure, this is an old article, but it points out that technology doesn't equate to fun.

    I heard executives of a certain ill-fated San Francisco development studio tout that their game would conquer since they had real-time shadows. Yes. Real-time shadows is what makes a game great my ass. There are NES games that had real-time shadows. That dark circle followed my character pretty faithfully.

    Granted, Media Critic only looks at Japanese games that make it to the Western market which is generally the cream of the crop. There's plenty of crap, non-games as well as gems that will probably never see the light of day in the US or Europe.

    Also, don't you find it quirky that EA is funding Japanese developers now? With the tech for Spore and games with some other highly advanced algorithms under the hood, why are they reaching over the Pacific for game concepts and development teams?

    The industry has creative geniuses all over the world, as well as it's fair share of hacks crawling out from under rocks anywhere that rocks can be found.

  6. The difference between Japanese and Western games is getting somewhat blatant. And it's pretty common knowledge that the work habits here are unhealthy.

    I'll absolutely grant you the latter, but I don't see the huge impact on output - especially considering that this is hardly a new phenomenon in any way, shape, or form. The former, I take issue with, which I addressed a bit above and will delve into here in a bit.

    Also I'd love to hear which next gen titles are thought to be creative (no sarcasm intended).

    Dead Rising tried lots of new things. No More Heroes broke some ground. Pixel Junk is putting out some really interesting downloadable titles. The Last Guy is pretty unique. Mario Galaxy was groundbreaking in some ways. Eye of Judgement was innovative. There are plenty of sequels I could cite (MGS4, Bio5, Ryu Ga Gotoku 3), but I'm not sure what you mean by "creative" so I'm not sure if you want me to leave those out. Believe me, I'm not going to discount creative stuff coming out of the West, but I don't see why that would somehow nullify what's coming out of Japan these days.

    But the stories seem very uninspired and even recycled to me.

    Once again, Dead Rising breaks a lot of molds both in story content and the way it unfolds in real time. The Ryu Ga Gotoku series rivals any hardboiled novel or film in emotional depth and intrigue. Katamari Damashii was very unique. No More Heroes brought satire and scatalogical humor to new heights in the medium.
    I mean, I could always throw that back at Western games. For every Assassin's Creed, there are dozens of grizzled space marine FPS. There are rules and exceptions on both sides, surely.

    Recently I've gotten sooo tired of the whole post-apocalyptic magical JRPG with an emo protagonist.

    I've never liked them, but they're pretty damn easy to avoid. Besides... grizzled space marines.

    And I'd like to point out that the games coming out in the West are very diverse, and have very captivating storylines. If you can dig deeper than Gears of War 3 then they are pretty easy to find.

    Once again, that could be said - quite accurately - about either region, couldn't it? Dig deeper than these RPGs you find so offensive and give a Pixel Junk game a shot.

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