J-Dev Confidential 5

In this series of posts I examine, from the unique perspective of having experience and knowledge of both Western and Japanese development practices, where, in my humble opinion, Japanese game development is going wrong. Beware that these are merely generalised opinions and do not necessarily apply to all or any specific Japanese companies, some of which are, admittedly, slowly changing their approaches and attitudes.

Part 5 - Cultural myopia

Most countries, to be fair, have a level of nationalism and ignorance of anything outside their borders. In Japan, though, this seems to be true to the extreme. Despite a tenuous love affair with anything (Western) foreign and years of schooling your average Japanese knows nothing of any foreign culture or language. It really isn't for lack of trying or desire, but really, Japan is isolated, mentally.

And there is nothing particularly wrong with this. Some researchers have even pointed out that Japan's isolation has some good side effects in terms of social control and safety. The problem in this context, however, is that the video game market is a global one, with North America being the biggest, and Japan's continuously shrinking into insignificance. In a Gamasutra interview Nippon Ichi producer Souhei Niikawa is quoted as saying:

"My goal is to make a game that will sell in Japan, and hope that if it sells in Japan it will sell in America too."

This sentiment is so common, in fact, that I would have thought it was a government mandated strategy if it wasn't for companies like Capcom and a handful of others who have recently aimed their sights at North America first and foremost.

Most companies set at work creating a Japanese game for Japanese audiences, with a vague idea it might get localised and released in the West once it's finished. This gives rise to bad planning when it comes to localisation, with no automatic systems in place once translations start to be made, which in turn is responsible, mostly, for the long delays Japanese games see for Western releases. You can also see this kind of lack of planning in bad GUI design, where in Japanese there is enough space for a single kanji but not the multisyllabilic German equivalent. Then there are those name input sections with space for only 4 or 5 characters, enough in Japan but nowhere else, and those weird text input screen layouts where an alphabet is retroactively fit into the usual kana chart layouts. Extra delays are seen when programmers, with absolutely no language skill other than Japanese are copy/pasting foreign texts into the code from translated spreadsheets, giving rise to bugs like mistranslations, bad copying, missing special characters and problematic sentence breaking. On top of that there are numerous stories of creatively arrogant producers who demand literal translations, thinking a rewrite is not true to the spirit of the original, instead of realising a literal translation is simply ugly or makes no sense whatsoever. In short, for most Japanese games localisation isn't even an afterthought, it's never even thought at all until localisation projects start up after completion of the Japanese version. It's an expensive mess.

Aside from this we also see cultural gaffes, like the notorious but predictable outcry over Biohazard 5 (Resident Evil 5), where early footage showed us a Caucasian protagonist mowing down hordes of zombies, who just happened to be African, set in Africa. In Japan there seems to be the belief that without intent there simply is no insult. In an interview regarding a disgustingly racist and xenophoic magazine a while back (not related to gaming nor Capcom!) the writer defended his use of the word "nigger" by saying it wasn't a bad word in Japan, so don't get upset. The inclusion of the takbir as a throwaway sound effect in Zak & Wiki caused uproar amongst Muslim crowds, much to the surprise of the developers. In many cases of such cultural misunderstandings all it would have taken was for a foreign employee to tap the producer on the shoulder and say "ahem, you know some people will take issue with this, right?" But Japan, bless their hearts, are so unaware of other cultures and how they perceive things, the fact such issues could arise is simply unthinkable. Especially in these sensitive times this can be a real issue, as Sony showed us with the recent Little Big Planet disaster.

It's funny that two of the above examples revolve around Capcom, one of the few corporations that have publicly stated their intent of focusing on Western markets and working systems. The fact they courted controversy, entirely by accident and ignorance I am sure, just goes to show the baby steps this industry is still taking and just some of the many obstacles it has yet to surmount. Just imagine how many deeply insulting gaffes are hidden away in titles that will never see a Western release? Imagine the uproar if these were to be localised.

Now I am not advocating an overly political correctness onto the Japanese as a whole. I'm merely pointing out that they should be aware where problems could arise and then decide if they think it's worth it or not to continue along that path. I'm sure in the end the Biohazard 5 hooplah did give Capcom some extra publicity, so it's not all bad. But claiming ignorance is simply not going to cut it. One of these days a Japanese developer will innocently create a clownish in-game character called Allah who runs a pork shop and plunge Japan into a diplomatic crisis. To do business globally requires a global awareness. Japan lacks this entirely, and though it's only causing minor controversies now, it is another hurdle they need to overcome in efforts to modernise the industry.

With this also should come a greater understanding of Western markets. A lot of people claim Japanese games are better, more fun because they have a certain je ne sais quoi , but these arguments usually revolve around just a handful of games. The few games that get localised and released in the West and are successful are a tiny, unrepresentative sample of the wider market in Japan. There is a lot of sub-par shovelware here (as there is in the West to, it must be said) and many games that will simply not appeal to a Western gamer. You may claim hentai mahjongg games or homosexual boys' love story and rub-down games could sell in the West, but my contention is it'll sell only to a tiny niche market, so outside of the wider market reality. As little as Western publishers understand Japanese audiences, the Japanese understand even less of Western audiences. This explains the "develop for Japan, pray for success in the West" mentality of today, but that won't cut it with the increasing budgets and risks of the current generation hardware.

I'll conclude this rant with a personal experience. In my career in Japan I have worked on a series of games that traditionally sold better in the West, in sheer numbers, than it ever did in Japan. At no point was this ever taken into consideration during development; we were still always creating a game for Japan, ignoring future localisation issues until the game was finished. In content too, when I was feeling bored or ambitious, I'd sometimes create something that might appeal more to Western audiences, or suggest game ideas in the same vein, only to have them uniformly scrapped because they never really meant anything to my Japanese colleagues. Similarly, content was included that was typically Japanese but meant nothing to Western audiences. "How would you translate this, JC?", I'd be asked and I'd tell them a literal translation with the caveat that even that would mean absolutely nothing in the West where we simply didn't have or understand such things. These would of course still be included and later cause headaches for the translators. And though initially I tried to make my views heard and understood on these matters, in the end I was met with the usual "but this is Japan" response and it's not my job to streamline business or development, but simply to do my art job and play nice. And yet it still annoys me that such simple opportunities were ignored due to lack of interest in or understanding of the audiences.

NOTE: Japanophiles may claim it's exactly that quirky, untranslatable Japanese-ness that forms the charm that gives the appeal, but, even if that is the case, which is arguable, you need not lose that by including extra content to appeal to a wider audience. But that is just my personal opinion.

Change is afoot. The hard realities of Japan's failing market and the unstoppable rise, credit crunch notwithstanding, of both the quantity and quality of Western games is too much to ignore. More and more Western games are being published in Japan and the market too will soon enough realise their home-grown output is rather lacking. In order to survive the bigger Japanese companies must necessarily consider North America and Europe as their main market, and this requires an understanding of those cultures, an understanding currently lacking. One thing that would help is more foreign employees to mix in with their Japanese counterparts to create a healthy mix of diversity on the work floor. This, I think, is the first actual change we'll see and is already occurring to an extent, which I'll discuss more in my next post in this series detailing "staffing".

26 comments:

  1. Having grown up in the States, I found it really weird that my husband, a Japanese national, knew absolutely nothing about European history, such as the story of Troy, and also knew absolutely nothing about the Christian religion. I had to try to explain to him what Lent was, once, and he just didn't understand why you would deprive yourself of something like that, it made no sense to him. Learning about world history and religions was all a part of school when I was growing up, and I just think it's strange that the Japanese system doesn't branch out like the American ones do.

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  2. @Deanna
    I don't think the American or other education systems are any better. What did you honestly learn about Japanese or Chinese history in school other than bits of World War 2? Do you fully understand their cultures? I think it's only natural that most countries focus on their national history and their history as a country in the world first and foremost. There is no way you can learn so many details of so many cultures.

    You said you were surprised your husband knew nothing of Christianity. Why is that a surprise? Christianity is a very small minority religion in Japan. What do you know of Shintoism or Buddhism? Just because something might be a big part of your life and personal culture, doesn't mean it even has to exist in the minds of other cultures.

    Anyways, I find it hard to believe that you learned any more about your husband's culture in your school system, than he did of yours. That is all.

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  3. @Deanna

    PS: Also in Japan, school and religion are separate (as they are in my country and as I also believe they are in yours according to your constitution). So I wouldn't expect someone to have learned about your religion in their school system because they shouldn't be.

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  4. Velvety has a point, Deanna. I think a more suitable analogy would be if your husband was actively hoping to get a foreign wife but did none of the ground work and study. The Japanese game industry is the guy who is jealously eying the blond, blue-eyed cuties from abroad but doesn't speak English and doesn't know how to approach them, their customs nor their cultures. This is a guy set up for many a disappointment, so he'll continue dating Japanese girls in the hope one of them turns out to be foreign.

    Hm...I think I stretched that analogy beyond its breaking point, but I hope you see what I mean.

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  5. In Sweden you have religious studies/history (or something similar, the subject is simply labeled as "Religion" but contains the history of the various faiths as well) where you get to learn a bit about all the major religions as well as other... ways to view the world (for lack of a better word). And I think it's something you should be taught in school since it will give you a better understanding of various faiths.

    Sorry for the OT-ness JD!

    Keep the articles coming, this series is very interesting indeed. It makes me look at our development procedures here to try and see what we can improve so we don't end up doing the same mistakes that you outline :)

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  6. JC your analogies are always mind-boggling and excellent at the same time.

    With regards to what Deanna said about her husband, I don't really understand why someone would give up anything for lent either. I suppose thats just me though.

    Also, JC, have you considered doing any Japanese translations of your blog posts? I'd really look forward to it, just to see comments from readers stating '...but this is Japan!' to confirm your worst fears.

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  7. @velvety

    Totally OT from the main post, but because schools and religion are separate, that doesn't in any way stop schools teaching about religions, in fact it would be a massive oversight for schools never to teach that these things existed.

    I learnt about Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, and so on in school, should I never have been taught anything these things because the systems are separate?

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  8. @Chris

    You are right. Religion is something students should be taught about. I guess my second post was stretching my point a bit. I think my main point was made well enough though: that it's a bit unrealistic to expect a school system to teach students about every culture's history. Japan may be fairly closed off to the rest of the world in many ways, but in reality it's not much different than any other country in that respect (as worldly as you might otherwise think you are). And sorry for helping steer these comments off-topic everybody!

    JC, great post (look at all the heated comments you've inspired :)!!). Back on topic, I have a comment. You seem to think that if many Japanese game companies aimed for Western/NA style games to begin with, they might make better profits. But is it really that bad if lots of them aim for Japanese audiences? The market over there must still be good enough. Also, if game companies start created your standard cookie-cutter NA style games, wouldn't that feel a bit stale?

    I guess I'm trying to say, when you first start to make a game, you pick a target audience. Even in NA, within a specific genre of game like a FPS, you need to pick a style and target for your game. You could make a FPS game for the hardcore fast reflex fan, or a for the stealth fan, or other places in between. But either way, you are closing your game off to certain players by picking one style. This leads to a better game that's true to it's core. There are many middle of the road style FPS out there that are average and get forgotten because they try to please everyone and have no main target audience besides "everyone".

    So if Japanese games started trying to please NA gamers and Japanese gamers at the same time, wouldn't that take something away from their focused result? Having localization in mind from the start is good, but trying to please too many groups of players at once would also take something away from the game imo. Honestly, how many NA games do you think target Japanese audiences? very few. Most of them, I'd guess, are localized and exported to various other parts of the world as an after thought too. Perhaps they have localization in mind from the start, but the core of the game still has a very focused target.

    Anyways, as always, great post. It's got me thinking :)

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  9. In response to some earlier comments, I can't expect a Japanese person to know want Lent is, in fact many Christians don't know what it means either.

    That said, I have learned about religion in school because religion is a key aspect of human history, philosophy and society, especially in the east where buddhism had a big impact.

    I also studied Japanese in high school, and as a part of the course we learned about Japanese history and culture because it's a big part of learning how to speak Japanese effectively. I also learned about Spanish culture (Spain and Mexico) in Spanish class. The Japanese are taught English in school, but it's business English, only enough to learn how to speak it and not the intricacies of where it comes from. This is a problem since, I assume, English in Japan is seen as an educational hurdle more than a learning experience.

    I don't think anyone could argue that the impossible to understand mess of some translations is a positive part of Japanese game design. If that's the case then why aren't more gamers translating Spanish or Argentinian games? Why aren't we playing more German games? No, I think such an argument comes squarely from rose-goggled Japanophiles who ignorantly insist anything and everything from Japan is automatically perfect. Better translations are better for everyone, and literal translations make me angry to high-hell.

    PS. JC, will you ever disclose where you worked or what games you worked on? Don't make me bust out iMDB to track your stuff down, lol.

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  10. Great post as always, and this time you even whet our appetite for the next post by disclosing its topic!

    A lot of this post seemed to be about poor planning in terms of localization (With a 'z', thank you very much!) and implementing elements appealing to western audiences. While I agree with this, I disagree with parts of your PC sensitivities. Intent is a significant part of whether something is offensive, and minor uproars just get you more sales. As long as you don't piss off Muslims your generally flying in the clear.

    Oh, and while I haven't played a bunch of Japanese games, I did run through Chrono Trigger on an emulator for the first time a short while back. I think that's one of the outliers you spoke about, and it was awesome.

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  11. I just wanted to add I know exactly what you are talking about when you mentioned people who think that all j-games rule.

    I had a friend in the USA who used to think that all foreign movies were better than USA movies. To prove that wrong, all we had to do is walk into any foreign video store. 99.999% of the movies in those stores are 100% crap. Walk into a Mexican or Korean video store and it's really crappy soap after soap.

    The reason he thinks the way he things is because he only sees that 0.001% that actually don't suck that make it to the indie movie theathers in the USA.

    The same is true with j-games. There is a TON of crap in Japan just as there is in the states, it's only the top titles that actually make it across the ocean.

    As for the religious thing, I did find it interesting that many Japanese just have no concept of religion as a belief in a deity who makes the rules. Instead, most of them that I talked to view religion more as just some fun old activity you do for fun, no belief or faith involved.

    Japan is fairly unreligous unlike say Korea. I'm not making a value judgement about which is better but it does mean that many japanese just don't understand what it means to "believe" in a religion vs just participate in its activities.

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  12. Wow, these comments have taken a strange turn! :)
    As Gman pointed out, religion is looked at entirely differently in Japan, possibly because the homegrown one, Shinto, is devoid of any strict dogma. People can have a Christian wedding, a Buddhist burial and participate in Shinto festivals and noone bats an eyelid. Personally, I like that about Japan; nobody judges you or attacks you based on your beliefs, but sadly it also gives rise to cults, of which there seem to be a worrying amount. It's only my atheism that gets people curious, as if that's the one attitude unheard of in Japan. "You're European, so you're Christian, right?" Um no, not at all. :)
    Woah, OT, ok.

    @ixis: As I pointed out in the first post (disclaimer) of this series, I really have no intention, ever, of disclosing my full history as I feel it's unfair to the companies involved. Sorry. :)

    @velvety: I'm not saying Japan needs to make NA games for NA, they simply need to realise that NA is the biggest market and that taking that into account during development is not a bad idea. Be that in the form of developing an English version first, adding specific content that appeals to NA or simply avoiding obtuse Japanesery, whichever. But as the Japanese market can't sustain all the many Japanese developers, as it really isn't that strong, the old idea of "for Japan, hope for a hit in the West" is simply not going to be enough anymore.

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  13. I am really enjoying your recent series of posts. I've lived in Japan for three years, so I can relate to some of your frustration at times. It is always amusing to see so many blogs with special note sections, for the Japanophiles...Anyways, thank you for sharing your experiences.

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  14. @Velvety:

    No, my high school had classes that taught you about world religions. They didn't say anything about following them, they just taught you their beliefs and all that.

    And my school ALSO had classes that taught about world histories. We did have classes on WWII and the holocaust, but we also had classes on Asian history and that tied into their cultures and all that.

    So yes, my school was a public school, but it taught diversity and it taught world subjects very well. I didn't realize the rest of the world wasn't like that before I met my husband.

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  15. I am consistently floored that a nation the size of Japan has such nationalistic pride, even to the point of pigheadedness. If they were a large country with notable economic and military might (e.g. USA, China), I might understand.

    (I'm having trouble commenting as my LiveJournal name these days; it keeps giving me an error.)

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  16. @DoesNotEqual: Don't know what's going on there, DNE, sorry. :/

    And worryingly there is a movement within the Japanese government who wants to scrap the "Self-Defense Force" and have a real army again; usually the same people who keep on denying they did anything wrong in China and that exemplary Japanese soldiers in the war were wrongly persecuted. Scary stuff.
    But a bit of national pride isn't a bad thing. I mean, coming from the World's Greatest United Kingdom, I understand no country can ever be a great as ours, but still. ;) I think the pride issue is only really a problem in politics. I don't particularly get the sense developers are too proud, just uninformed.

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  17. @DoesNotEqual:
    I am reading you right? It's bad for small, poor, weak nations to have nationalistic pride, but okay for large, rich, strong nations to have it? A nation has more right to think they are better if they have the military/economic means to impose their will on others?
    I find that line of thinking extremely dangerous.
    Like JC, I think not too little and not too much national pride is best. But I'd much prefer that pride come from historical/cultural/scientifical accomplisments or whatever else that is not related to "being stronger than the other guy".

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  18. JC, I don't begrudge Japan its national pride, I'm just surprised that it's kept the video game industry from realizing that anything short of global success in a global market isn't really success. Japan's electronics and technology markets have long since figured it out, and their automotive companies have known it for decades. I'm glad they're finally coming to the conclusion. Besides, it's not like these companies won't be making their Very Japanese Games in addition to the globally-marketed ones, and it's not like smaller companies like Atlus won't be bringing them over for the niche market.

    Saúl G... I'm afraid I can't muster up a response to your gross misinterpretation of my comment that won't come off as anything but unpleasant.

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  19. DoesNotEqual:
    Sorry to have misinterpreted your comment and my apologies if I was offensive in any way. I'm still not sure what you meant, though.
    I think a big part of the problem with the Japanese video game industry is that it is considered part of the "contents" industry and thus much closer to the book, movie, manga, etc. industries. Contrary to the electronics and goods industries, the "contents" industry has a long tradition of focusing on the local market and considering exportation only after something has proven a hit. It's only for the videogame industry that this model has become unfeasible.

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  20. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, especially when typically the best of the crop is picked for export.

    Over here in Japan, they think Hollywood produces some of the most amazing films ever, but they're spared a lot of crappy releases.

    And if they think Western games are all Fall Out, Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto, they haven't been subjected to the tide of extreme movie license crap, Barbie Horse Adventures, some of the horrors of licensing I dealt with earlier in my career...*shudder*

    Japan's had a long history of just cherry picking the best of what religions have had to offer and thinking nothing of it.

    And Deanna, I'm an American and I don't get what the point of Lent is either. Well, I sort of see why others do it(it's a tradition, people have been doing it for ages.)

    But, I guess the main point about all this that JC brought up is that even if I can't find a personal reason to ever do it myself, I get the gist of it/heard of it/be weary of making fun of it in a video game.

    The cultural export thing can be crazy, especially when the importer gets some really wrong ideas of what's appropriate.

    I'll try and haul over to Tokyo and describe some fun growing and modernization pains at my workplace. They might be a hoot for ya!

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  21. Actually, to be fair about the culture gaff in Little Big Planet, isn't Media Molecule(the developer) in the UK?

    While LBP is Japanese published, it's not Japanese developed.

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  22. @Does Not Equal:

    Um... Japan has the world's second largest economy. Size aside, it most certainly qualifies as a world superpower.

    Also, I don't think you can automatically pidgeonhole all occurances of cultural myopia as being rooted in nationalism or jingoism. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of being of a disconnected island nation with a history of isolationism that only ended 140 years ago.


    @Deanna:

    I don't want to sound mean or anything, but I wonder if perhaps your husband simply didn't pay attention in history class. The story of Troy, for instance, should be as well known in Japan as elsewhere. I've yet to meet a Japanese who couldn't correctly identify Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, etc. either. Do they tend to concentrate on Japanese history? Sure, but we do that in the States, too, don't we?

    And I'm not sure that his confusion over Lent (which, I might add, is a distinctly Catholic tradition and is probably relatively unknown by a large number of self-professed Christains anyway) stems from a lack of education or cultural awareness. I was raised Catholic and it still makes no sense to me. Which is probably why I, like JC, am a proud atheist. Like him, I have also found that this concept blows the minds of many Japanese.

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