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.
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".