Hype is a strange beast as it is mostly one-sided. Magazines, blogs and websites have been masturbating themselves silly for weeks, months now in anticipation of this game and even a rather tentative chin-rubbing post of my own regarding the subject was reproduced at various other sites and caused a flood of outrage and misinterpretation. If I wanted tens of thousands of unique hits to my blog today I’d say something inflammatory, like Smash Brothers X sucks! But I won’t because it doesn’t.
Kotaku screamed scarcity and reported lines in Akihabara, so it was with a little shock of recalling some sleepy memory that it was today the game was released as I walked past a central Tokyo electronics store totally devoid of people. Okay, I am one of those freaks who gets up and goes to work at a normal time in the morning so the stores weren’t open yet, but neither were there any eagerly anticipating otaku queuing up.
At lunch I contemplated walking down to the shops to get my copy but opted for a sit down, coffee and chain-smoking session instead. Colleagues had gone out to buy it and told me there were plenty of copies available.
So in the evening, tired of life and work, I walk past the store and think to myself why not check it out? To my dismay there were few people on the shop floor and fewer still in the queue. The display said to ask at the cash register for Smash Bros. rather than to pick up an empty box and take it there yourself. This didn’t bode well. But after a short wait I asked the clerk if they had any, to which she turned around and picked up a pre-bagged copy from several boxes stuffed with similar plastic bags. Apparently they had expected a flood of customers and to keep lines moving they had tried to avoid wasting time bagging the games when sold.
Now you may think they might just have had a new shipment in or something but no. The great DS drought of early to mid 07 Saw queues hours long before new shipments actually arrived.
There was no clamoring. There was no queuing. There were plenty of copies available in a major, busy central Tokyo electronics store. This would indicate that the game may not actually be such a hotcake as people might have thought and for a moment I felt very smug about my post of the game being too hardcore for Wii. But then I noticed that all other customers buying the game on either side of me were schoolgirls and young women. The men in the queue all had PSP games or DVDs to buy. A lesser person would have been mortified but my masculinity remains intact – as a foreigner in Japan I think there is an automatic presumption of otakuism. That said, it’s women that form the base, non-hardcore market in Japan, I thought, but that may have been utterly wrong.
So what of the game? Oh it’s wonderful – exactly what you’d expect. Tons of characters, tons of mad stages, tons of play modes and unlockables. Graphically it sits very nicely on the evidence shelf of the case of Common Sense vs. Wii Naysayers. The game deserves a medal for having an operatic opening sequence, which was utterly wonderful. We don’t need orchestral or techno, but a tenor here and there does the trick.
The reason it’ll appeal to the Wii core is the multiplayer aspect, of course, which has such an emphasis it’s the first option of the menu. Within it you’ll find an absolute smorgasm of play options to set up and tweak, hot-seat party modes and whatnot. The on-line section is easy as pie, though it was rather empty when I tried it. Single player has the usual CPU matches, mini-games and, by the look of things, a vast single player adventure mode. After two long-ish levels I cleared it 4%, so that bodes well.
The reason it won’t appeal to the Wii core is that, well, it’s hardcore. Like its predecessors things get hectic on screen and it’s all too easy to get lost. It’s still fun but a little overwhelming, even for an old seadog like myself. The characters are cute but some are a little obscure, if you just imagine yourself a middle-aged newcomer to the medium. Everybody knows Pokémon and Mario, but Pit and, Hell, even Olimar? Of course I know them but I am a sad geek with no life, but what of your average “non-gamer”?
Even though I don’t think this title has automatic appeal, it is the kind of game people could get into once you have a group of them all playing together. The moment a Nintendog jumps up on the screen and blocks all the action everybody will shout “Get down! Get down!” When the piece of ice that is the arena breaks off a glacier and slides into the sea it’s not only a poignant comment on the state of global warming, it’s also a mad rush that makes everybody holler. It is a great party game, and I’m sure some Wii-core players will pick up their own copy after playing it at their hardcore nerdy friend’s house.
I doubt this is the game to break the Wii Fit and Wii Sport stranglehold, if even a title like Super Mario Galaxy couldn’t, but to date it’s probably the best, most enjoyable hard-core multiplayer title available for the Wii. If you’re hard-core you must get this. If you’re not, you must try this.
Hype is a strange beast as it is mostly one-sided. Magazines, blogs and websites have been masturbating themselves silly for weeks, months now in anticipation of this game and even a rather tentative chin-rubbing post of my own regarding the subject was reproduced at various other sites and caused a flood of outrage and misinterpretation. If I wanted tens of thousands of unique hits to my blog today I’d say something inflammatory, like Smash Brothers X sucks! But I won’t because it doesn’t.
A recent post by Michael Abbott of the Brainy Gamer cut a little too close to the bone for me. In it he riles against the cynicism, or "snarkiness", he feels is so prevalent in video game websites and blogs. And honestly, he has a point. There does seem to be a prevailing sense of snarkiness on a lot of game related websites, which is why I usually and subconsciously limit myself to games news reporting sites, as opposed to editorials, like the Magic Box where I can find what I need reported as dull fact without the stench of some person's opinion which more often than not is clouded by personal opinion and cynicism. It's also why I really enjoy the Brainy Gamer as his obvious enjoyment of the games he is playing and talking about shines through, reminding us developers that despite what we think of the games we create there are people out there who really like playing our stuff. We should be grateful for that and remind ourselves we are not in this business to satisfy our own muses so much as to satisfy our customers, oh, and to make a profit but those latter two should go hand in hand.
So, for a radical change, I'll have a look at some positives about working as a foreigner in Japan because, despite my many grumblings, there are some. I know it's more fun to bitch and moan about my commute and natto and whatnot, but I know there is a real danger some excited pipe dreamers are put off the idea of working in Japan because cynical old sinners like myself keep harping on about how dreadful it all is. I've made fairly similar posts before and may be repeating myself on certain items, but this post is more for me than it is for you.
What is good about being a foreign game developer in Japan?
1. As a multilingual, assuming you will bite the bullet, as you should, and learn Japanese, you have access to a much wider pool of information and data than most of your colleagues. During my morning trawl through my usual sites and blogs I usually end up the main informer to the rest of my colleagues. They see me as a source of news and information, which helps me gain a certain standing which, though a little unwarranted, does help my ego.
2. You're the Devil on the inside looking in. Japanese culture has many, widely reported negatives for those that are part of it, but seeing as you'll never be one of those you have a real opportunity to not only protect yourself but try to improve the situation for others. By setting the example of coming in early and leaving early, as well as getting all my work done by actually working during office hours, I have, on more than one occasion, inspired Japanese colleagues to do likewise. As I have the license to break the rules it's much easier for others to follow, the onus taken away from them and put on my head. At a previous company almost a dozen colleagues ended up coming in earlier and leaving earlier and meetings were scheduled, eventually, to reflect this.
3. You've done something quite difficult that a lot of people dream of but few have the drive to actually accomplish. Though I always keep saying how working in Japan isn't really half as difficult as most people like to think, it is quite a lot of work. For every one of us who made the move, and there are quite a few, dozens haven't though sort of wished they had. You haven't taken the easy route of staying at home and being comfortable, you've moved across countries or continents, leaned a new language, a new culture and are, whether you like it or not, a richer person for it. That doesn't mean you're in any way better than those who haven't made the move, of course, but it is something you can feel proud of, if you're so inclined.
4. Your name, being foreign, sticks out in the staff roll (credits list) like a sore but elegant thumb. Your name actually gets noticed by those who view the list just because it isn't in kanji.
5. Even if the train lines are not, life generally is pretty darn good in Japan. Sure, people are selfish and annoying, like everywhere, and Tokyo can be quite dirty and overwhelming, but the immense choice of things to do is just fantastic. You could eat a pretty good meal for a reasonable price in a different restaurant every day, if you want, or be stuck in the middle of town with no idea what to do and be within a stone's throw distance from a couple of dozen venues to occupy your time at. There is crime, but the overall sense of security is still present. If you lose your wallet there is a real chance it'll be returned to you somehow. And though in everyday life your role as a part of Japanese society is marginalised, you'd never know this on an average night out, where you'll bump into friendly, drunk people everywhere.
6. With Japan as a base you can travel to many interesting places on a tight budget. Not only Japan itself has a lot of interesting places to visit, but for fairly low air fares you can travel to most parts of Asia and Hawaii and see the world without having to be a backpacker.
7. Your work environment will be a lot more varied than back in the West when it comes to the mix of genders and personalities. In many studios in Europe and America it's still a bit of an old boys Star Trek clubhouse, with the overwhelming majority of employees being male and of a certain age and type. In Japan the mix is far more generous and though there are problems here too, the overall impression is that it's far more mixed.
8. Though there will be the occasional arse who'll resent you for being foreign, earning more or being able to sidestep the rules, generally people you'll work with are friendly, open and, most importantly in light of the subject of this post, not so damn cynical. I've never had a drive-by in my time in Japan, the hateful tradition especially prevalent in the UK, where random colleagues would walk past a monitor and say "that's shit". When checking out new titles there is more of an open interest rather than an exercise is slamming the product. And just because you're not Japanese some colleagues will be very excited to work with you, chat with you and get you out at night to get you drunk.
9. Being in Japan makes you just about different enough to write a blog, whether your life deserves one or not.
10. At long last Japan now finally has good deodorant in the shops. Sure, it's only Lynx/Axe which makes you smell like a horny teenager, but at least it works better than the powdery shite that was the norm previously.
With every employment decision you must weigh the pros and cons against each other and obviously Japan has its fair share of cons, like working conditions and pay for example, but don't let's forget there are pros too and I especially need reminding of that sometimes but so do you, the reader, who may at times feel mired in this blog of putrid cynicism. I apologise for that, but I'm only doing what, as a Brit, comes natural.
Posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Tokyo is big and full of people, a lot of people. This is hardly a staggering revelation and probably won't win me a Nobel Prize, though it'd be nice to be nominated, but it is a fact of life any Tokyoite, whether native or imported, must sooner rather than later come to terms with. Like London the city has bands with populations ranging from "a writhing mass" in inner Tokyo to "a fuckload" if you include greater Tokyo. Apparently, if you count the whole metropolitan area Tokyo is the most populous city in the world, with 35.2 million people living in 13,500 square kilometers*. Footage of famous Hachiko square's crowded zebra crossing and trains being crammed full by station attendants are staple fare for exploitative and often sensationalist programs on life in Japan, but they are true, this kind of malarkey does actually happen, daily.
Luckily, yet strangely, Japan's infrastructure is a well-oiled machine. Investigating the intricate network of delivery, consumption, garbage hauling, water supply, electricity and public transport would probably be not unlike a short stint in the Total Perspective Vortex. If you thought mankind's place in the Universe is insignificantly tiny in the face of infinite space, try looking at Tokyo. But the system is not infallible, and when even tiny things go wrong the whole tower block of cards comes tumbling down.
Forgive me for yet another train post, but you have to appreciate that when I spend a good two hours a day on one, the experiences make up a large proportion of my day to day life and following the “write what you know” rule it’s only natural the subject will crop up regularly. The train line I am forced to take daily happens to be one of Tokyo’s busiest and, it would seem, most fallible. It’s bad enough when you walk to your station in the morning and are greeted with a milling crowd of people, some in groups surrounding station attendants who give out free tickets and alternate route information. When the train ends up working again they will be slow and stuffed so full of people they are in danger of imploding. The platform is usually overcrowded and you may have to wait as several trains chug by, letting on a small handful of people. My hour-long commute can easily stretch to two or more on these occasions making me late for work and forcing me to do overtime to make up for the delays. This happens at least a couple of times a month.
What’s worse is when it happens in the evening. Just the other day I managed to leave work right on time only to be confronted by the aforementioned crowds though, it being central Tokyo, worse by a multiple of tens, hundreds. My only alternative was a massive detour, taking me well past my station in a different direction and then using a combination of busses and local trains and, eventually, a taxi I would manage to get home. The problem, they said, was a “human accident”. This may have been a suicide, as they never come right out and say that, but seeing as the station in question wasn’t an express stop it may well have been a poor soul dragged to death in the slipstream of a fast train running through the station. In these situations it’s of course callous to get angry, so I thought I’d do a little shopping and see if the situation developed.
After informing several colleagues and friends who use the same line, a mere half hour later things appeared to be up and running again. I made my way onto the crowded platform and luckily managed to squeeze onto a carriage quickly. However, a few stops down the line, in an already slow moving journey, we had stopped for a good forty minutes inside a tunnel. A new problem had occurred, a broken cable, which allowed me to get upset and angry without any moral implications. After a good while we were asked to walk through the train to the front carriages which had reached the platform already and get off. Now I was stranded at a local station with no alternate routes available to me.
The evening was cold and harsh winds chilled you to the bone. There was some talk of busses but the chaos outside the station didn’t bode well, so I made my way to a local family restaurant to have a quick dinner and see what happened. Of course I was not the only one with this great idea and queues had formed everywhere. Luckily, as a smoker, my seat became available early, so I wasted some time with a beer, coffee and shitty meat platter with rice. Every other customer there was in the same boat and the staff looked surprised and overworked. Everybody was checking their mobile phones for further information, but it took a good hour and a half before there was any change. At least I was warm here.
When the news came the trains were back up and running I wasn’t convinced. The possibility of further problems and longer delays seemed real, as I had been burnt by that earlier in the evening, but begrudgingly I made my way outside. On the way back to the station however I noticed a man getting out of a taxi, so I jumped the bushes and got in before anyone else in the crowd could. This was, in retrospect, a mistake. The roads were crowded and progress was slow. Eventually, despite some quiet detours, the taxi ride took about twice as long as the train would have, which I heard later ran smoothly for the rest of the evening, even if they were somewhat crowded.
In the end, all said and done, my usual one hour trip back home took four and a half.
Whenever small problems like the above crop up it’s a little scary to see how much chaos is created. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people are stranded and need to use facilities unable to cope with the strain. Busses are stuffed beyond capacity, taxis are making a mint, roads are gridlocked, family restaurants run out of steak and yours truly has a wasted evening. It’s almost as bad as the company running out of coffee the next day, forcing me to survive on a mere two mugs until lunchtime. In a microcosm like Tokyo I’s a little scary to realize how fragile things can be and though a single train line conking out is bad enough one shudders to think what a real earthquake would do or a massive power outage.
* Source: “QI: The Book of General Ignorance” by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
Posted on Saturday, January 26, 2008
The perpetrator this time was an episode of Radio 4's Excess Baggage revolving around Japan in which several foreign residents discussed life here in the usual ways. The usual ways being a kind of academically removed, observatory role casting a clinical eye on a culture without really inhabiting it. Being a professor in Osaka and eating sushi every Wednesday is hardly a basis for a pan-cultural hypothesis. Yet people still gladly do so, throwing up rubbish like "the law-abiding Japanese" or "the respectful society". Once you are swept along in the culture, as one can never really penetrate it, and live your every day in this supposedly polite country your view is somewhat different. Now I'm not claiming my point of view is the correct one, but I'd like to think it's more pragmatic than the usual wishy-washy adoration so many Westerners give to Japan.
The worst insult I can give Japan as a whole is to say it really is no better or worse, or different, than pretty much any other country in the world. What it has going against it though is sheer numbers. Say if five percent, no, let's be a little more realistic, if ninety-five percent* of any given population is a selfish, insufferable oik, it means Japan's population of 120 million has at least 114 million bastards, as opposed to Britain’s 57 million. Personal experience makes me believe the vast majority of these live in Tokyo, and the largest part of those seem to use the same train line as I every day.
This week's perpetrator was a woman, which is quite rare. Whether she was generally annoyed, outright racist or really claustrophobic I do not know but for some reason this short trip it was I whom she had decided to wage train war against. The train was full, space there was none. I found myself standing behind her with a crowd of people pushing me in every direction. At the slightest pressure she put her arm against the metal bar underneath the luggage racks and put up resistance. Now this is quite common. Usually the people standing in front of the seats have less room than you'd think and to stop themselves from keeling forward onto the laps of the lucky seated they have to hold the bar and push back somewhat.
However, this specimen glanced back with a nasty look, pushed back further and started pushing well beyond her personal space, turning her free shoulder my direction for extra pushing power. The woman was short and aged somewhere between 12 and 40. I usually have a hard time telling the age of Japanese people, but it was made more difficult because her genetic mudpool was obviously not encumbered much by beauty. With hair like a scouring pad and a face like a slapped haddock she scowled and took personal offence at the outright temerity I showed at daring to even occupy the same planet as her, let alone the same train carriage. She pushed and pushed, shoved her elbow back and into my ribs, rotated her shoulder over and over and saw every failure of mine to give her space as a personal insult.
Obviously there was no place for me to go, as the train was packed and I wasn't pushing her at all. My physical body was merely offering resistance to increasing pressure on her part pushed against an impenetrable wall of bodies behind me. I just stood there as this little harpie was waging war against my person.
These days I am just too exhausted to even care anymore. In my younger days I would have fought back, maybe tell her to "grow the F up, you incontinent old bat", but nowadays even throwing a marked look someone's way is just too much for me. I just stand there. I avoid gazes and let the laws of physics dictate. You push me but I can't go anywhere, that's the end of it. I'll let you exhaust yourself while I just take it like the dirty foreigner you already think I am.
At a further stop more and more people piled on, which invariably pushed me more into her space. To this she didn't take kindly and started pushing so hard she was losing her original position. In these circumstances I usually step sideways or, if there is no space, turn sideways, let them push past me and occupy the space they were inhabiting. This happened beautifully. She almost fell backwards, saw me slide into place and tried to regain her position. This was of course impossible and she started kicking my foot and saying, quite loudly, "yamete kudasai", "please stop" which, though using the polite form, wasn't very polite and a little irritating as I wasn't doing anything. More shoves and kicks followed. More impassive standing sill resulted.
A nearby man witnessed all this, gave the back of her head a dirty look and, instead of showing me sympathy, just made sure he was well clear of her, as much as was possible at least. When the time came to disembark the inevitable rush ensued. I was swept forward by the crowd, as was she, but she was kicking, pushing me all the way out the door. She even saw the opportunity to shove an elbow roughly into my chest on the way out, which was so feeble and pathetic that only a few hours later it barely hurt anymore.
The only way you could interpret Japan as a polite country is if you observe the passive acceptance of the wider public of such idiots. In Britain I would have been legally justified in punching her in the back of the head and a lesser, more aggressive person would probably have stabbed her in the ribs. People ought not to behave like this and it is generally unacceptable behaviour. Except in Japan where people live and let live, or bully and let be bullied. Sadly, of course, I can't act as the moral police in Japan as I don't even have the right to exist here. I could be arrested and made to pay the cleaning bills for bleeding onto the decent, law-abiding Japanese citizen who stabs me in the face.
I am still unsure of her motives though. I thought she started pushing before she had seen me, so maybe it wasn't a racist incident, though she wasn't pushing the people either side of her. But she might have spotted me from the corner of her reptilian eye when I got on and marked me as a, well, mark. Or maybe this woman was just genuinely pissed off at the world. In a country that glorifies and idolizes the cute it must be hard living as a reprehensibly horrific genetic mishap. This woman was ugly as sin and had probably spent a lifetime of disappointment and rejection. An astoundingly handsome man like myself would be an easy target for her wrath and frustrations. She hates the world, but that's okay, the world hates her too. I certainly do. But I don't hate her as much as those observers who keep claiming Japan is a more polite, respectful country than any other because that is so far from the truth it's laughable, if it wasn't so sad.
* I'm not a glass is half empty kind of person. There is a glass but the only thing in it is probably backwash.
Posted on Wednesday, January 23, 2008
I'm just waiting for a business deal I've entered into with a fine Nigerian gentleman to come to fruition. He's been out of touch for a while, but he has my bank details and I've advanced the transfer fees, so any day now I expect to be enjoying a rather nice windfall. I plan to use this money to start up a combined Gravure Idol casting agency and game development studio, so I've spent some time thinking up how I'd run it. Having experienced several different work situations I've come up with the following list of rules by which Japanmanship Co. Ltd. will be run, hopefully to great success vastly growing my newly found yet strangely delayed fortune.
Working hours will NOT be flexible. Everyone is expected to start at 9 o'clock in the morning, though delays for personal reasons will be allowed they will be the exception. Similarly lunch is set at midday and will last an hour. The upside is that people will be kicked out of the office by 6 in the evening. Nobody is allowed to work late unless a very good reason can be provided to allow this, at which point some kind of overtime payment scheme will be initiated. This will force the leads to make realistic schedules and dissuade the company from feature creep and the crunch mentality.
During those fixed hours I expect people to actually work. Short eye-rubbing or cigarette breaks are encouraged but general flapping about isn't. Because hours are strict, meetings can be planned accordingly but will never overrun into either lunch break or leaving time. Should this threaten to happen, the meeting will be suspended and a follow-up meeting planned during business hours. If nothing has been decided after one and a half hours of discussion the meeting will be stopped and all attending parties forced to take a breather to think about things and clear their minds.
Whenever I assign responsibility to a lead I will have to trust them enough to professionally pick up the baton. There is no point in me then hovering over their shoulders and letting my personal tastes interfere with the leadership of their team section. I won’t demand stupid changes just for the sake of it. I’ll let them get on with it. Besides, I will, quite literally, have my hands full with the Gravure Idol casting section.
The working environment will see each project's team separated into their own open-plan office. Inter-team communication can thus be achieved easily without interference from irrelevant personnel working on something completely different, though employees are encouraged to mingle, from time to time, with the other teams to exchange ideas, tech, etc. The Gravure Idol casting part of the business will be located in a separate, sound-proof room with a sofa to which I shall possess the only key.
There will be no dress-code or rules for desk adornments other than the proviso that it must not be mortally embarrassing to show clients around the work floor. That means presentable clothing and good standards of personal hygiene, and a ban on lolicon figurines and stacks of empty pizza boxes. We're professionals, not children.
In a similar vein I will not pimp out the office like a Blade Runner brothel or kiddie playground wonderland. Focus should be on comfortable and practical working environments for the staff, not showing off to visiting clients and delivery boys what a gosh darn tootin’ coolio hip-daddy finger-popping company we are (or, as is usually the case, pretend to be).
I will never, ever publically complain about the low sales or bad reception of any of our games, especially not on-line. If I need to address such an issue anyway I will never ever tell my audience they are wrong about their opinions, as that is the most arrogant and blindly idiotic hubris that one can imagine. Instead I will listen and try to learn from the experience so it won’t be repeated in the future. We are creating a product, not a vanity exercise or Art.
The company will focus mainly on hiring experienced personnel but we won’t fob them off with the usual carrots. We don’t pay “competitive salaries” but “good salaries”. We don’t demand a “passion for games”, though being informed about games is a requirement. We won’t tease you with bonuses and stock options that never arrive but negotiate a salary and benefits package you are happy with as is. If you get paid a bonus, it will be exactly that, a bonus, not a salary supplement. For Gravure Idols employment will be considered on personal merit. Candidates for this part of the business will be judged on assets, moral flexibility and endurance.
The development of games will not focus on breaking any new technical ground. Other companies can continue spending millions of dollars and man-months pushing technology forward, we'll just follow along in the slipstream. Technically the focus will be on re-usable code and proper, workable tools. The system will be data-driven, so game designers and artists can "create" the game themselves without needing a coder to implement every tiny change in assets. Tools will be neatly integrated into the main creation software, like Maya.
No title will go into full production until an extensive prototyping and pre-production process has been completed by a small core team, after which point the rest of the development should, if things go well, be simply a matter of filling in the empty slots with assets. Of course, if later on in development some design mistakes become apparent, at least we’ll be data driven to an extent things can be adjusted without causing massive delays and crunch. If change during development is going to be inevitable, as most developers seem to claim, we will anticipate, schedule and cushion ourselves for these eventualities.
Soap and paper towels will be provided at all times and failure to wash one's hands after toilet use, using both, not just water, is a sackable offence.
Japanmanship Co. Ltd. will have a bright future ahead of itself. If only that guy would call me back about that international temporary money transfer.
Posted on Sunday, January 20, 2008
"I wasn't expecting that Wii would be a console targeted only for non-gamers", says Goichi "Suda51" Suda of Grasshopper Manufacture, the man behind Killer 7 and the recent No More Heroes in the wake of massively disappointing sales of the latter. In a recent interview he claims, like so many others, that only Nintendo can sell games for the Wii, which may be because only Nintendo is targeting this "non-gamer" market properly.
The Wii's audience is vastly different from the other consoles' and previous generations, that much should be obvious by now. The undisputed major titles are Wii Sports and Wii Fit aimed squarely at, what we mistakenly and slightly patronizingly call "non-gamers". I guess the term should be "previously non-gamers" or “differently interested gamers” but ideally the real terminologies should be "gamers", people who enjoy games of any shape and size, and "hard-core gamers", those of us who spend too much money on games, own more than one console and have vastly inflated opinions and feelings of entitlement when it comes to our favourite titles. Just because the new main target market is less interested in killing generic alien invaders or level grinding doesn’t mean they are “non-gamers”, if you ask me. The reality is that the regular gamer market has outgrown the hard-core one, in terms of numbers at least, and that the hard-core is becoming increasingly niche. All this is widely known, or at least quietly realised, and has been written about before.
No More Heroes, even though it is fun and a game I'd recommend to any Killer 7 fan, is niche even for a hard-core game and sales have proven this. But next week will be an interesting event. Next week sees the Japanese release of Super Smash Brothers Brawl, or "Sumabura" as the cool kids call it. This game is the ultimate in fan service, a fanboy's wet dream of IP crossover and a deliciously retro 2.5D beat'em up. It is hardcore, but it is popular hard-core. But is it a fit for the Wii audience? My guess is: not so much.
The media hype machine is in overdrive. Famitsu gave it a perfect score and bundled this week's issue with a separate, quite thick informative booklet on the game's characters. To be played best, allegedly, you will need to purchase a classic controller or dust off your old Gamecube controllers. It possibly requires a lot of time to unlock all the events if it's anything like its Gamecube prequel. The fans are rabidly excited (as am I) and it's out on Thursday.
As a spurious prediction I’d say we may see a promising start with the usual drop-off over the next few months and sales figures that would make anyone proud but that are still lower than expected, a bit like Super Mario Galaxy. If Sumabura doesn’t sell that well it would be proof positive that the Wii isn’t a hard-core friendly platform. I suspect already that it isn’t, but a title like this could prove it once and for all.
And that’d be a shame. With lower development budgets for Wii titles it offers a good platform for niche or truly original hard-core titles, as opposed to the mega-projects that make Xbox and Playstation development so risky these days. But if nobody buys them, what is the point? The Wii will have painted itself into the casual corner once and for all, but seeing the sales figures that is not a bad corner to be in at all.
This also means the Wii is out of the “console war”. It has its own market distinctly different from its competitors, whom must fight amongst themselves for their own top spot. Both Microsoft and Sony are making wooing noises to the casual market but they’ll have a hard time stealing customers from the big N.
So any publisher looking to make money on the Wii must squarely look at casual and avoid hard-core at all costs. Also, they must make sure they have a title which is easily shortened for the Japanese fans, like “Kinhar” (Kingdom Hearts), “Grantsu” (Gran Turismo) or “Durakuwe” (Dragon Quest).
I will, of course, be buying Sumabura next week and though I haven’t really done much game review type posts may report on my findings after a weekend of hard-core Peach on Pikachu action.
Posted on Thursday, January 17, 2008
There is an old anecdote, which could be apocryphal, of an old British actor, possibly Sir John Gielgud, publically joining in the debate against the decision to remove kippers from the breakfast menu on the trains’ buffet carts, in a bygone era when the British Rail system wasn’t an embarrassing puss filled boil on the United Kingdom’s escutcheon. After much public outrage lead by Sir Gielgud, the train companies backed down and kept the kipper breakfast. On a subsequent occasion Sir Gielgud was travelling by train when the porter came to offer him his breakfast. “Ah, it’s kippers I presume, Sir Gielgud”, although I have no clue whether he was knighted yet at this point. “Dear boy no,” came the alleged reply, “I can’t stand the things.” “But I thought you fought for kippers on the breakfast menu,” the porter replied. “No, no, I merely wanted the choice.”
However much I think Microsoft and Sony’s seemingly endless supply of hardware iterations is a bad idea, flooding the market with many ever so slightly different and confusing versions of their hardware, I told myself if I was ever to get a Playstation 3 I’d need the full product, not the diet version Sony created to lower the price. Though I don’t intent to play Playstation 2 games, I want the choice to be able to do so. Though I probably don’t need four USB ports, I’d like them there just in case. So with this in mind and the as yet undecided new format wars between HD-DVD and the silly named Blu-Ray, I decided to sit it out and wait for a better opportunity to arise in the future.
Then, in a week where more film studios pledged allegiance to the Blu-Ray Sony Japan announced it would be discontinuing the 60GB version of its hardware over here too. Here I saw my choice of hardware SKUs suddenly evaporate. Soon the version with backwards compatibility would be gone forever. Sweating nervously, like the idiot I am, I thought I had better bite the bullet, get it over quickly like pulling the wax off in one fast pull through gritted teeth, to lie back and think of England.
The purchasing of my Playstation 3 is yet another example of what medical professionals now call F.I.G.S. (Fucking Idiot Gaijin Syndrome). After work I went to our local BicCamera to search for the remaining 60GBs. Usually, with large items, there will be a display model and a small stack of cards, of which you are supposed to take one to the cash register where they’ll supply you with the real thing, boxed and ready. On this occasion though there were no PS3s to be found anywhere. So I start to panic. Had there been a mad rush to get them now they’re discontinued? Am I too late? I went to the register to ask, “Do you have any 60GB PS3s left?”
At this point the reader should imagine a camera slowly riding backwards revealing the background, a wall, literally a wall full of PS3s in every shape and size Sony saw fit to produce to date. “Um,” the clerk replied and “yes.” If I had had any shame left my ears should have been burning, yet the feeling of embarrassment has all but dwindled due to overuse. Nevertheless I could see that behind her rictus service-smile a little bit of her soul had died. In her mind Americans are apparently not so cool and faultless as she was made to believe anymore. Of course, during these moments I always pretend to be American; I find it helps soothe the stab of shame.
It is almost, but not quite, interesting to note that in the time it took for the clerk to double-bag and process my PS3 on registers next to mine two Wiis and about three copies of Wii Fit were sold to respective customers.
Coming home and enduring the predicted salvo of ridicule and browbeating of She Who Must Be Obeyed I set to installing my new monstrosity. Of course, for an HD machine with HD capabilities and HD gaming it had escaped my attention that an HDMI cable was not included, so I jogged dutifully to the local Tsutaya. After a brief search I was forced to ask the staff if they had an HDMI cable. “A what?” “HDMI cable.” “H?” “Heh-Dee-Memu-Aye Ke-bu-ru” “HM?” “HDMI Cable, dammit. HDMI, I don’t know how else I can say it.” “Ah, HDMI!” But they were out of stock. So I continued my quest to the local electronics shop, which by that time had closed, though a nearby Donki was finally able to provide. Home, sweaty and tired I made the space needed and set it all up.
The very next morning I was awoken early, too early, by the return of my beleaguered Xbox 360, fixed, again. I set to the arduous task of connecting both to my WiFi router. After a headache-ridden morning and four hours of what can only be described as fruitless fucking around, neither my brand-new PS3 nor my much maligned 360 are on-line. I hate this state of affairs as it makes me feel both consoles are running on less than full capacity. The one thing that drove me away from PC gaming and into the arms of consoles was the ease of use and plug-and-play nature of video gaming. Those days are sadly gone. One can’t fully set up a console these days without a degree in Obtuse Acronyms, a masters in numerology and the patience of a Saint. The Wii, in stark contrast, took all of three minutes to be set up and connected to the ether. It purrs gently, its blue light suggestively blinking at me, while the two most powerful gaming consoles on Earth sit next to it, castrated and impotent.
So here I am, the slightly nauseous owner of all three current-gen gaming consoles. I can’t walk into my living room these days without the sick feeling in my stomach that I’ve been too profligate. Between the consoles, games and massive television I can’t help but feel, in a Fight Club kind of way, that I’m too deep into consumerism. I know these things can’t bring me happiness，as my continuing frustration to hook them all up to WiFi proves, and all the money spent could have gone towards much worthier causes like my savings account, pension plan or Absinth. I also know I’m such a sucker that the mere mention of a possibility of a chance that an item may not be available in the near future is enough for me to break out in a sweat and rush out to get one. I’m a sap, a sucker, a schlemmel.
Posted on Sunday, January 13, 2008
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.
Posted on Wednesday, January 09, 2008
In Japan the undisputed hardware best-seller is, beyond any doubt, the Nintendo DS. It continues to sell and annex shelf-space all over Tokyo. New colours are released regularly and all get swallowed with great excitement by the masses. Now there is even talk of a DS Lite v.1.5 which I’m sure will prove just as popular, with owners of a DS shelling out yet again for a new version. I probably will. I’m sure others will too.
The success behind the DS could be attributed to a few factors. In my casual observation they appear to concern:
Pricing – Though not exactly cheap，they don’t break the bank either. The software library too is affordable, with bigger titles still coming in cheaper than their home console counterparts as well as offering a mid-range set of products.
Software – This is the much debated fact of the DS success story. “Non-game” titles such as Nintendogs, Brain Age and the like have a wide appeal that the market in Japan was, apparently, hungry for. Luckily these titles are also not so expensive to develop, so we see more and more of them every day. Sure, some of them are rubbish, shovelware, but they still make money, creating a library so huge there is plenty of choice for your average gamer – which is something which I believed helped make the PS2 so popular.
Design – The DS Lite, as opposed to the original one, is sleek, slim and cute. There are a variety of colours and special editions and on more than one occasion have I witnessed home-made modded cases. In a fashion-hungry country like Japan design is a big deal, and the DS is sleek and stylish enough to be appreciated.
But where can it go from here? To be honest, for a while yet Nintendo won’t have to go anywhere. They rule the handheld market and could continue to do so for the foreseeable future, without price drops, redesigns or releasing a next-gen version. But we all like to pontificate on these matters, and we all have our wish-lists, so here are some of the considerations I have come up with.
It has already been rumoured a DS Lite 1.5 is in the works with, allegedly, slightly larger screens. This could be achieved without a price hike but wouldn’t add that much value to the console; the screens are large enough as it is, larger would just be greedy. But my aching eyeballs would certainly welcome this.
One of the cool things of the iPhone and iPod Touch is the multi-touch screen interface. Instead of registering one point of contact it can detect multiple, creating a whole new level of interaction. Bu this won’t happen. The price of the technology would probably push the DS Lite into “luxury” commodity, rather than affordable gadget. Also, it would certainly create some new genres of games but wouldn’t specifically help the current crop of titles out there.
A small internal hard-disk would allow players to keep downloaded demos on their DS even after turning it off. Hard-disk space is fairly cheap these days and wouldn’t probably make the console prohibitively expensive. A memory card slot would probably be impossible, knowing Nintendo’s mortal fear of piracy and user controlled content, unless they go proprietary, but the benefits would probably not outweigh the cost. Besides, do we need another format on the market? But with an internal hard-disk, we could have….
…downloadable games, like WiiWare and Xbox Live Arcade. This though is extremely unlikely to happen for the DS. Part of Nintendo’s Midas-rivalling wealth lies in licensing the hardware, the production costs of the DS carts. To cut that out of their business plan would be punishing. Of course, there could be a two tier system with small games available for download but bigger titles remaining cart-based, but that would still leave problems of transactions and credit card purchasing systems to be implemented on the DS.
Which leads us on to connectivity. Wouldn’t it be nice if the DS was fully WiFi connected to the internet at all times? Open up your DS email application and check your mail while you’re on the train. Organise your agenda and upload it to your computer at home. These things can all be done with PDAs and Pocket PCs but those are much more expensive than this little toy. If Nintendo dare move into this market, it would mean a big blow for pocket organizer companies, especially considering the current DS user install base. This, though, is again very unlikely to happen, as Nintendo won’t be able to control the data being transferred, which may include sensitive and copyrighted software or family-friendly image breaking pornography. It certainly would if I got my hands on it, is all I’m saying.
Built in TV
The TV tuner peripheral has proven to be a bit of a success in Japan. Judging by the numerous new mobile phones being released these days it would seem the Japanese market wants their TV with them at all times. One has to wonder why. Is it really important to watch panel shows of talentos tasting various types of ramen while you're on the train? Either way, a DS with a built-in TV tuner would probably make it too expensive so it’s unlikely to happen. Better keep it as a purchasable extra for those interested rather than foist it on all of us.
Built in camera
If connectivity is improved, a tiny built-in camera would be an excellent addition. There is already a microphone, so a small, low-resolution video device above, say, the top screen would allow for a real pictochat, in real time. It’s a little gimmicky, but it could be fun, and may even be used to add your photo into multiplayer games, like how Super Mario Kart in the arcades had funnily modified photos of the players hovering above their cars on the tracks.
One thing I miss from the GBA days is being able to play them on my television via the Gamecube Advance Player. Due to the DS’s control mechanics it’s extremely unlikely to ever happen with this console. And as he utter failure of the Gamecube’s few games that used GBA connectivity shows us, it’s probably not worth the effort to implement it in this generation. The recent Wii Channel that lets you temporarily download DS demos is probably as far as it’s likely to go, but some kind of video-out so I can play DS games on my television would be cool.
There are already some titles that contain a few books on a DS cart. You hold the DS book-style and use the stylus to flip through pages. It works great, despite the small screen, something which is better in Japanese than English, I think. But how cool would it be if Nintendo started charging less for cart manufacturing and allowed for books to be cheaply sold as DS software? Once the software has been developed it’s merely a matter of changing the textual content, and if you release a single book on a cart for, say, little under a 1000 Yen, I’m sure the whole eBook market would react positively.
The DS has a long life ahead of it yet. I find this amusing as I distinctly remember the E3 where it was revealed and noticed the arrogant snorts of attendees who called it “gimmicky” and prophesized it would be killed by the PSP. And though it has had a shaky start, it is now the undisputed emperor of the Japanese market. And Nintendo would probably be foolish to muck up the strategies too much by changing the console too far beyond what it is now. I doubt any of the above will actually be implemented, save for the bigger screens, as they really don’t need to do anything to continue the sales trends, for now. But still, it’s nice to dream about these things occasionally.
Posted on Friday, January 04, 2008
The seasonal period has its fair share of arbitrary and baseless traditions, most of which are fairly innocuous and some harmless fun. Others however are dangerously stressful and depressing, like the usual “good resolutions” that some of us feel compelled to promise in the New Year, usually after a profligate Christmas season where money was thrown around and alcohol and food consumed with embarrassing fortuity. Invariably these promises fail to bear fruit leading to further disappointment and depression in the already gloomy early months of the year. Tish and pish to them, I say! Out with the resolutions, in with the new tradition: the airing of grievances. To have a good old moan exorcises the daemons and stress of the previous year, clearing the mind for the inevitable stress that lies ahead. Here is my shortlist of annoyances.
2. The way the Fox Japan announcer pronounces "horror" as "horrow".
3. The way leads have this tendency to ask you to work within a strict polygon budget, are unhappy with the results, change it by adding several thousand extra polys and say "See? I improved it. It looks nicer now." A poly reduction task usually follows some months later when performance issues are bug tracked.
4. The on-going steady decline into far-right nationalism and fear mongering racism of the Japanese government.
5. American gaming podcast hosts who pronounce "niche" as "nitch" rather than "neesh".
6. Politicians and news media and their symbiotic relationship with regards to videogaming and overly sensationalist news reporting.
7. Game industry analysts who are clearly making shit up as they go along, have a success rate of about 1% and are making all the obvious mistakes fanboys make when they let personal opinion and casual observation inform their judgments.
8. Keynote speakers or givers of presentations who use the phrase "I'll just go ahead and..." whenever they put up a new slide, reveal figures, scratch their nose, exhale, etc.
9. The decision making process of Japanese game development combined with the utter failure of planners to actually plan ahead for things.
10. The word "flabbergasted" which I hereby nominate to be stricken from the English language on grounds of esthetics and taste.
11. Third party publishers who whine about their shitty, second-rate shovelware not selling as well on Nintendo hardware as Super Mario Galaxy.
12. My commute, my train line and the thousands of people I have to share it with, especially those that try to read newspapers, shove and push and somehow think they deserve more space than is physically possible to provide.
13. Kanji, the inability to survive using English alone or my aging brain refusing to learn more languages - take your pick.
14. Japanese game development companies who ask you for your current salary and future salary expectations and then proceed to offer you a job with wages below, often very much below your quoted figures. I’ve sent out more rejection letters this year than I have ever received over the course of my career.
15. The inability for common man as well as supposed professionals to grasp the difference between "it's" and "its".
16. Populist “literature”. Sure Dan Brown was enjoyed by 100 billion people but that doesn’t automatically mean it is quality literature or beyond criticism. It just means 100 billion people have very little or no taste in books.
17. Meanderthals, slow walkers and those whose walking speed is near-stationary because they're fucking about on their mobile phones or reading a manga.
18. The type of game journalist who thinks he is part of the development process and will happily share is insights so the developers can make the game better by writing things like “If they sort out these problems before the title’s release next week it’ll be a better game”.
19. Sony’s amazing ability to turn a worldwide, top-selling franchise into the albatross of the gaming industry by merely using management hubris and badly judged PR.
20. The religious war on freedom, science, common sense and modernity in general.
21. Pseudo-science, astrology, homeopathy, and other baseless, supernatural hokum.
22. Fundamentalist, rabid anti-smokers who won’t be satisfied until tobacco, smoking, smokers, the word “smoke”, ex-smokers and ashtrays have been eradicated from existence and history and don’t even have the common decency to let me kill myself in my own way in private as it somehow is a personal insult to them and their brood. These are also the kind of people who think “Mind if I fart!” is a hilarious, original and apt come-back to any polite smoker who enquires about the possibility of him smoking if no one else minds.
23. Conversely, Japanese parents who bring their young children, babies even, into the smoking areas of cafes and restaurants and proceed to blow smoke into the faces of their progeny making me personally feel bad about smoking in an area that is supposed to be a safe haven for us sophisticated folk.
24. The ever decreasing standards of air travel. It won’t be long before we won’t be allowed any check-in or carry-on baggage, pass through the metal detectors naked, wear orange jumpsuits and be chemically sedated just to protect “democracy”.
25. Knowingly self-depreciating humour, excessive complainers and self-loathers.
Have a good 2008. If you share my world view you may agree things can only ever get better.
Posted on Tuesday, January 01, 2008