Otaku Encyclopaedia

This month saw the release of the Otaku Encyclopaedia, written by Japan’s foremost gaijin geek Patrick W. Galbraith, of whom any interested net citizen will have seen photos, dressed as Dragonball-Z’s Goku on the streets of Akihabara.

Probably to the annoyance of overseas readers I am not much into the stereotypical aspects of Japanese subculture, like manga or anime, as seems to be the standard with a lot of Western immigrants here. Sure, I own Akira on DVD and really enjoyed Ghost in the Shell, but I almost never visit Akihabara nor go to Mandarake and never watch anime on television. At first it might have been the language barrier, but these days it is simply disinterest. Hell, I’ve met average game otaku who knew more about stuff I’ve worked on than I do. It is a little scary and daunting sometimes. I’m not against any of that, mind, I’m just not that into it.

In preparation for the launch Mr. Galbraith attended this month’s PauseTalk as well as, post-launch, this week’s CGM Night to do some serious PR pimping. I have been informed he’ll be making a presentation at this month’s PechaKucha Night as well. At only 2,000Yen and with the author there to autograph my copy I had little excuse but to pick one up.

The book is, as the title suggest, encyclopedic, in layout if maybe not content. That isn’t to say it isn’t extensive, at 247 pages and each listing taking up a page at most, though often only a few paragraphs, it does seem to cover a lot of ground, and is interspersed with interviews with otaku notables, like Anno Haruna, the retro-game otaku, and figurine maker Bome. Though it does cover subjects I would not have thought “otaku”, such as bosozoku (bike gangs) and yakuza, I do guess these are part of Japan’s subculture and probably feature heavily in manga.

Even if you do consider yourself a hard-core otaku I’m sure this book will surprise you, as the scene here is very wide and encompasses many kinks and quirks. It was certainly an eye opener for me, and I’ll keep it at hand when browsing the darker, pinker, stickier corners of the internet. It helps to be informed about these things.

You can get it from Amazon here, or if you’re in Japan, here.

Rape games maybe not so nice afterall

I have written, quite a while back now, how Japan’s loose and fast obsession with nymphets is something that makes my skin crawl. The sexualisation, exploitation even, of extremely young girls, sometimes even prepubescent, may be a cultural phenomenon that I should try to accept in my attempts to integrate, but as a liberal lefty some things are beyond the pale. It is true that Japan generally has a laissez faire attitude towards personal proclivities; if you want to spend your Sundays dressed as a game character walking around Yoyogi park or spend all your money on “hug pillows” then, well, bless you. It is generally a great attitude, where people don’t necessarily get judged for being weird or wanting to do odd things, but it does sadly also include the more extreme behaviours.

Now Kotaku reports that the Ethics Organization of Computer Software, the EOCS, in Japan, have decided, in a non-legally binding or official way, to curb the creation of rape-type games. People with an eye for news of the weird may have heard of a little title called “Rapelay”, reviewed on SomethingAwful and sold, then banned from Amazon outside of Japan. In it the player takes control of a character that rapes three women, or rather a mother and her two young daughters, with all manner of features like pregnancy and forced abortions. You wouldn’t believe the furore this title caused in Japan upon its release: virtually none. Japan, purveyor of perverted pornography, pretty much provides anything to anybody, whatever ails you, you’ll find it, and things much more disturbing, for sale in Japan, though you may have to delve into the deeper backstreets of Akihabara for your own particular whims. And though I have never discussed titles like “Rapelay” with Japanese people (the title makes more sense, so to speak, in Japanese combining the last katakana of “re-pu”, rape, with the first of “pu-re-i”, play) and am pretty sure most people would be horrified at the idea, the attitude most prevailing regarding dubious issues seems to be one of “well, whatever turns people on” or “as long as they have fun” or some such.

The link between explicit titles, involving rape and paedophilia, and real-life crime are hard to prove in Japan, with so many of such crimes remaining unreported. Though personally I feel paedophilia having to be reined in by law should be an issue beyond discussion, it’s a little harder when it comes to sexual fantasies, especially between consenting adults. Ero-games are usually sold in specialty shops or special areas of bigger stores, and there are fairly decent protections in place to keep such games out of the hands of children, including a built-in morality sense where most kids seem to stay away from illegal activities and products until they are of age, like alcohol and tobacco. Rape fantasies are not unique to Japan, let’s face it. But I don’t think games are an Art, they are a product and as such have some responsibilities. That said, I’m also no great fan of censorship, and riling against sexuality explicit games, especially coming from a gun-porn and violence heavy culture, is rather hypocritical. This is why I am quite glad this is a voluntary move made by a body of developers and not a law passed by the government. Will it make any difference? Perhaps not in the short term. “Rapelay” was made quite a while ago and it is only now, amidst a mini-flood of negative press and outcry from the West, that the Japanese have sat down and said to themselves “hmm, maybe rape isn’t so nice”.

Earlier an American man was arrested for possessing paedophilic manga, importing it, as part of a much larger general manga collection, into the U.S. I am in no way an expert on this, often getting rather hot-cheeked and embarrassed at the idea of it all, but I have been told it is still legal to own explicit material with minors, like such Lolicon manga, but not to sell it? Distribute it? I’m unsure. The law in Japan is often pretty vague and useless and unenforceable. But other reports have said this issue too is being looked into.

With a crackdown, voluntarily or legally, on underage sexually explicit materials and rape-type games I am pretty sure these things will be pushed underground. No longer the banners in Akihabara shouting out the underagedness of the girls in question, but maybe under the counter approaches. In a country as happily perverted as Japan, where sexuality, and explicit sexuality, in sharp contrast to the existing censorship laws, is rather exuberant and accepted, people will always try to provide for the proclivities of the extremely perverted, as long as there’s a market. But it is good to see, though sadly only after rumblings in the West, that Japan generally is looking into these sticky issues and agreeing a more responsible approach might be required.

PechaKucha Night

This month was the first time I attended a PechaKucha Night, a gathering of creatives and interested parties to mingle, drink and watch presentations. The cool part of the event is that any speaker can pretty much talk about anything but is limited to only 20 slides which show for 20 seconds each, making each presentation no longer than 6 minutes and 40 seconds. If anyone has even sat through a long presentation you’ll appreciate this approach, giving you insight in more fields without it ever becoming boring or, if a presentation is about something you’re not interested in you’ll know in a few minutes someone else will be speaking.

The event took place at SuperDeluxe near Roppongi Hills, an underground space where previously I had attended Danny Choo’s CGM Night. This month’s event was pretty packed, making a short trip to the toilet a bit of a Herculean task, swimming through crowds and crowds of people. This also meant that the noise was sometimes a little distracting as people kept on chatting with each other during some of the presentations. Harsh though it may sound, it is a pretty decent indication of the level of interest in your talk; if you’re being drowned out by the crowd it might be because your presentation isn’t that interesting. That said, each speaker got supportive applause and there was generally a benevolent air of interest.

The speakers came from quite a variety of backgrounds; illustration, fashion, architecture, sound engineering, charity, art, etc. Some were better at public speaking than others, most were in English, some in Japanese and after each presentation the hosts had a quick chat in both languages. Personal standouts were Josh McKible’s presentation on his Nani?bird project, a super-cool “open source” art initiative based on a simple but cute papercraft bird toy, and game developer Mark Cooke’s insane but highly entertaining experiment in creating 10 games in 10 hours (total) specifically for PechaKucha. Christian Houge’s awesome photos of Barentsburg too made for an excellent presentation, though sadly by this time, near the end of the evening, people were getting tired and restless.

PechaKucha nights are held all around the globe; in fact at this event it was mentioned they had recently started in their 200th city, quite an accomplishment. This means there might be one near you, which makes it a great opportunity to learn what fellow creatives are up to and meet new people. If they function as the Tokyo event, there are no sign-ups nor reservations needed and entry is cheap at 1000Yen, which includes a drink. Sign up for the newsletter on the home page and keep up to date on what’s happening with PK Daily.

Plants vs. Zombies

There is something about Popcap that seems to make most of the games they release golden; it’s a mix of excellent presentation, ease of play, mixing genres and some addictive je ne sais quoi. “Plants vs. Zombies” is the latest title released and seems to be making somewhat of a splash on-line. At its heart this game is a simplified Tower Defense game, in which the player plants a variety of flora to protect the player’s house from a hoard of invading zombies. As a true Tower Defense game it doesn’t satisfy though. Mostly zombies move in single file and offensive plants, too, are limited to a single row, though later upgrades to offer a wider area of attack. Even though it’s an incredibly fun game, it does have some issues which are worth investigating. What makes this particular Popcap game so fun despite some flaws, and what is it that elevates it above the increasing flood of independent releases today?

The main problem with the game is that the basic premise, the largest chunk of the game in the adventure mode, is very slow to start. With limited options and the previously mentioned single-file approach to offense and defense, you spent the first part of the game basically building the same elements in each row, which makes the game somewhat boring. And this is a shame, because once the game starts to build, exchanges day and night cycles, adds a pool, moves to the rooftop things get a lot more strategic. Even at this point there is a fair amount of row-based similarities in your tactics, but with a huge list of plants to choose from and only a limited number of seed slots to occupy during a wave your choices in “weapons” and the way you choose to play all become strategic elements in the game outside of the actual level.

What is most telling is that the selection of mini-games is actually more fun than the basic game. Whether it’s zombie bowling, a reversal of roles where you supply the zombies, a slot-machine based version of the game or one of the puzzle modes you’ll probably be spending a lot of time on these. This is not just because they’re good fun, but also because you’ll need a lot of money to buy upgrades with. And though this isn’t a problem per se, the way mini-games are locked is rather crippling. It takes a good length of time playing through the story mode before mini-games are unlocked as an option from the main menu, and even then you’re only given a few, with more unlocked as you finish the story mode.

For the independent developer, though, a lot can be learned from Popcap’s games. Their presentation is usually very high quality and Plants vs. Zombies is no exception, with cute plants, fun zombies and a healthy dose of humour thrown into the mix, especially in the way the zombies try to fool you with handwritten notes sometimes – check out the “help” section on the main menu for example. This title is slick! Some of you may have seen the “music video” on-line, which can also be seen during the end credit sequence, and you have to be a heartless bastard not to smile at its silly cuteness. Zombie Michael Jacksons too appear and do the Thriller dance moves. This game is overflowing with character!

Value for money too is something Popcap gets right again. The number of different mini-games, although all vaguely based on the central premise, is astounding and even harks back to some previous Popcap titles with a Bejeweled knock-off in there somewhere. It’s not just the sheer amount of imagination that surprises as the amount of fun all these mini-games offer. The tradition is that mini-games are annoying breaks from regular play with little compulsion to replay them at leisure, but not so in Plants vs. Zombies, where they are actually more fun than the core mode. Then there is a Zen Garden mode, where you look after pot plants for extra bonuses, as well as an almanac that lists all the seeds and zombies you’ve encountered with funny descriptions. Content-wise Plants vs. Zombies puts most other independent offerings to shame.

Though Plants vs. Zombies isn’t quite the must-have Peggle is, and it will disappoint tower defense fanatics, it is a great little title I can recommend to anyone, though know that it only really picks up after you’ve completed three quarters of the story mode orso. For independents it is a must-check-out for the level of polish and presentation few other developers seem to be able to match these days.


The video game industry was arguably kicked off by a bunch of unwashed enthusiasts coding games in a few weeks in their bedrooms. A lot of them were derivative or obvious knock-offs of other titles, others were original and created new genres, but a single person could turn a hobby into a profession and make good money; it was the Wild West back then.

Okay, this is not entirely true. The industry as it stands today is probably more down to Nintendo reviving the market and changing the rules with the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System), but even then most people employed to create games came from this pool of bedroom enthusiasts. During that time companies were created that still exist today, that are, in fact, huge multinational corporations today. And don’t forget, Richard Garriott started out selling his game through mail-order in Ziploc bags with Xeroxed instruction leaflets and ended up becoming a space tourist. It was a wild time of opportunity and possibilities, where an enthusiast with a dream and the chutzpah to work at it could make something of himself or at least create a game and send it out there.

The success of the iPhone platform is arguably kicked off by a bunch of unwashed enthusiasts coding games in a few weeks in their bedrooms. A lot of them are derivative or obvious knock-offs of other titles, others are original and create new genres, but a single person can turn a hobby into a profession and make good money; it is the Wild West.

Now I’m not directly comparing the current iPhone craze with the early days of the video game industry, but there are parallels. Single enthusiasts seem to have as much of a shot as anyone else to create something and put it out there. These days of course they are competing with huge, well-funded corporations like EA and Square-Enix and the surprising thing is that they are competing well. The old system of creating polished product on a closed platform, selling it and marketing it apparently works as well as getting a lucky mention and ending up in the top 10 downloads, which in turn leads to ridiculous returns.

And our industry hates it. How often do we hear people complain that the App Store is a swamp of substandard product with the occasional hard-to-find gem? How many people complain how a quick rip-off game shot to the top of the charts while their own presumably awesome, highly polished product languished in barely triple figure sales? People have even declared the iPhone a dead platform because of this already; “too much shitware” they claim, “there is no point in trying to compete in that market, it’s weighed down by crap and a bad rating and search system”.

Poppycock, I say! This is purest industry hubris, and I’ve heard it many times before. It’s a repeat of the early days of the Wii when publishers threw together cheap shovelware and declared the Wii a failure because they couldn’t make significant sales for their substandard product. Before people understood the DS it was declared a failure. We, as an industry, are very adept at pointing the finger of blame, be it the App Store system, that old classic the economic climate or the failure of a platform to appeal to the market your own game is supposed to appeal to. When things go bad it is never the publisher’s nor the developer’s fault; it’s always an outside influence that pushes down our creativity, our Art.

The fact it is incredibly hard for a highly polished product to make significant sales on the iPhone tells us a few things:
1. Maybe people are more interested in iFart applications or cheap knock-offs than expensive gaming experiences akin to those on home consoles. Just like the Wii is a massive success because the market that wants Wii Fit and Wii Sports is larger than the market that wants Space Marine FPS games. The iPhone market is comprised of gadget freaks and mobile phone users, not home console gamers.
2. It’s useless to transpose the home console business onto the iPhone; it works differently and if you get unexpectedly bad sales you might be doing it wrong. Whatever the “right” way is might still be unknown, but therein lies the challenge, right? Or do we really want to keep things as they always have been? Surely that will make us stale and irrelevant?
3. The iPhone is delivering unto us a new generation of bedroom coders and entrepreneurs. We can either sit back, complain about their successes and watch them set up shop and compete, or we can snap them up for ourselves.
4. More has been released on the iPhone Apps Store than on the three home consoles combined (this fact is entirely made-up and spurious), and people are making money of off it. How is this a failed or broken platform?

The industry must step up or shut up. Stop blaming the economic climate for studio closures, stop pointing to your bad sales on the iPhone as a failure of the system as opposed to a failure of your own business plan. Personally I find more interesting things have come out on the iPhone than the home consoles, due to the hobbyist nature and accessibility of the platform and the lower costs involved. Are we going to sit back and let Apple reinvent our industry as it did with the music business? Or are we going to take it seriously as a platform and try to crack it?

Poken? I’ve only just met ‘em!

I am now the slightly bemused owner of a “Poken”, a little gadget which was introduced in Japan at a previous Danny Choo CGM Night and given away to lucky attendees, of which I wasn’t one. I had to purchase mine, though that said, I used my loyalty card points to essentially get it for “free”, which is good as I wasn’t keen on paying about 2,500 Yen for one myself.

A Poken is a small, cutesy plastic character with a big white hand sticking out of the side of it. The hand is detachable, the character merely a case, and turns out to be a USB flashdrive. You put the hand bit in your PC’s USB and it connects to the Poken website, where you fill in your personal details, add an avatar image, provide the links to your Facebook, Linkedin and a wide variety of other social network accounts. You then walk around with the thing in your pocket and if you happen to come across a new contact with the same device you hold the little hand bits against each other, in a tiny, geeky high-five, and it exchanges data. Next time you log in on the site that person and their details will be added to your friends list. It’s cute.

I do have my reservations, though. Unless it becomes widely popular I will find myself in situations where I have to ask if the other party has a Poken, which would invariably lead to questions and explanations, unless I wear the damn thing around my neck, which, frankly, is not going to happen. Secondly, though it connects automatically to your other social networks, it is in itself yet another social network of sorts. You have to log in to their website and organise your stuff from there. It is not as extensive as, say, a Linkedin, but it is yet another log in and website to bookmark. It would have been a much shrewder marketing move had they worked directly with one of the larger sites, like Facebook, and made it slot in seamlessly and branded it as part of their service.

On the one hand the physical high-five to exchange information is cute, and it certainly gives you control over whom to connect to, on the other, a Wifi roaming mode would have been cool for situations where you just want to meet new people. I can imagine drinking in a bar to have my small one-handed ninja (not a euphemism) beep at me, telling me there is someone else around with the same interests and the same device. I vaguely remember such a thing having been marketed years ago, only to disappear in the mists of rapidly aging gadgetry, but maybe today the market is more open to such a device.

As it stands now, the Poken seems a gimmicky and slightly overwrought way of handing someone a digital business card. What makes it special is the high-five aspect of it, which I don’t quite think is enough to make this a worthwhile purchase. I’ll be carrying mine around from now on and see if it will be of any use whatsoever, but somehow I have my doubts.

Finally, the name is just prone to ridicule and innuendo, which I guess is both a blessing and a curse. Though maybe that is only an issue for people who, like me, grew up on a diet of Carry On films.

A Poken costs 2,480 Yen (19EU, 26USD), comes in a variety of cutesy characters and is available at larger electronic stores. They have a website here.

My Famicase

Kichijoji is an area outside of my usual bubble, a 40 minute train ride from Shibuya or, had I been smart enough to take an express rather than a local, 15 minutes. It has a vibrant shopping area surrounding the station, with covered streets packed with tiny shops and bars, and a nice park for family strolling. I, however, made the trek to visit the smallest, geekiest showcase of recent time: the My Famicase exhibit at Meteor.

Meteor is a tiny, tiny retro shop selling Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) cartridges, CDs, books and T-shirts, as well as some other odds and ends, like incense and tea pots, for some reason. It boasts several tiny CRT televisions hooked up to old consoles, a Vectrex and a working VirtualBoy. The single rack of T-shirts had some awesome Famicom and Game&Watch related designs, all at a fairly hefty price, and all in either S or XL sizes. I’m apparently geeky enough to want a shirt boasting the Zelda hearts meter or the Mario Bros. pipes, but not geeky enough to fit within the two stereotypical body images of the geek: morbidly overweight or anorexic. I’m a Japanese Medium, which is great for my ego but makes geek clothes shopping difficult – which in turn, I guess, is good for my image.

The My Famicase exhibit takes up the top half of one wall and displays 50 Famicom cartridges with custom designed labels by a variety of local artists and designers. They are not specifically game based and range from abstract to faux-game artsy. Especially of note is illustrator Hawken King’s “Bush Jr.” design, the one overtly political cartridge which, I gather, has caused a minor storm in a teacup for him, showing, as it does, George W. Bush looking decidedly simian climbing one of the WTC towers. It’s a really cool design, and others too were worth checking out.

The exhibit is until the end of the month but all the cases can be seen on the website, here.

As the shop Meteor and the exhibit are fairly small, it won’t take up much of your day, so while you’re there, walk into the nearest side-street, underneath the railway tracks and a 100 meters orso into the suburban area behind it to have a quick gander at manga artist Umezu Kazuo’s funky house, often called “Makoto-chan House”. It’s a mad structure painted in red and white stripes, with his famous character adorning a ledge along the top and boasting a small tower with two round windows and a strategically placed nose. The mailbox too is an old-fashion Japanese pillarbox. So bright and, frankly, awesome is this house that it prompted dullard neighbours to file suit in complaint. In January the Tokyo District Court thankfully dismissed the lawsuit meaning curious visitors can enjoy this little splash of brightness in an otherwise fairly gray neighbourhood. It is quite literally almost around the corner from Meteor, so one might as well have a quick look.

Design Festa Gallery

Tucked away in the tangle of backstreets in trendy Harajuku lies the Design Festa gallery. Even with detailed maps I managed to miss it, circling it twice until I caught the colourful building from the corner of my eye. I always find it awkward walking around Harajuku, prowling grounds for the young and trendy, making an old and decidedly unhip crusty like myself stand out like a sore thumb. Especially on lovely hot days like today when the crowds wear clothes so insubstantial they barely leave anything to my already overactive imagination, and with photomodels on every corner being snapped by a variety of still and film cameras, it’s very hard not to appear a Humbert Humbert, always afraid to end up on the business end of a police baton for disorderly lascivious leering. But walking at a brisk pace and keeping my head up, eyes above neck-level, I managed to do some art sight-seeing without being arrested.

Design Festa gallery occupies two brightly painted buildings, divided by a little terrace café, and boasts a variety of room types where young artist can rent spaces to exhibit their works. Rooms vary from small to actual bathrooms and garage-style open areas, so hence the costs to exhibit, though still very competitive, also differ from area to area. On the one hand this free-market attitude towards exhibiting is a great thing, offering unknown artists a place to show off their works, but it also means there is no real bar for quality.

As spaces are rented out for days to months one never quite knows what you’ll see when you go there, though if you check the website (here) there is a schedule. When I visited I enjoyed some of the wall paintings outside and in the stairwell and the cool one room exhibit by Venom Palette, who was kind enough to explain his work and was selling T-shirts ridiculously cheaply. Other exhibits were less impressive, including the large space occupied by a woman with a very tenuous grasp of anime-painting. At first I thought it might have been ironic, but judging by the subject matter of women in various cute poses, it was pretty clear that her skills were somewhat outrun by her enthusiasm. Another exhibit was being prepared as I visited; a young Japanese man was hanging up a thousand little sketches which looked pretty cool, but sadly I didn’t wait around. The café, just a few scattered tables, was nice for a sit down and a drink, the sun beating down and a cool breeze sweeping through the buildings.

Harajuku is usually a destination for visitors and tourists, mostly for the weird fashion and loli-goths, as well as some trendy shopping streets, but while you’re there I can recommend making a slight detour off the beaten track, though it must be said not that far off the beaten track, and visit Design Festa to see what the young artists of Japan are up to.

Hard up

I don’t know if people watch the news a lot, but apparently there is some kind of global financial meltdown occurring. Not being a financial type I’ve done my bit by studying the crisis; reading a lot, listening to informative podcasts, like the occasional This American Life finance special and the Mark Thomas interviews, and, generally, trying to be informed. From what I gather Japan is mostly feeling the pinch in the sharp decline of exports, and the loss of consumer spending, though the latter has been in effect for a few decades now. House prices and mortgages don’t seem to play a huge part here, as the value is in the land in this earthquake-overdue country, with houses making up only a tiny fraction of the loan. Banks, too, seem far more conservative in Japan, with less emphasis on lending you what you cannot afford to pay back and more on the squeezing of blood out of stone, charging for every tiny transaction and offering interests so small they fall under quantum mechanics

No, I am not quite sure what is happening, and it appears that, yes, consumer spending may be down, but one has to look hard and in the right places to see much evidence of this. Personally, I go by the entirely unscientific method of checking what’s going down at Hard Off, the hilariously named sister-shop to Book Off, the second hand book, games and, in the case of the former, bric-a-brac chainstore. It is the omnipresent second-hand shop around Japan, though smaller, privately owned “recycle” shops are also quite common in certain areas.

In times of great cleansing or economic depression it’s always good to drop by a Hard Off and see what people are trying to get rid off to make a little extra coin. Like most second-hand stores around the world, though, the mark-up when your refuse is put on the shelves is several thousand percent. However, with “large rubbish” special pick-ups, the local ward can ask as much as 3,000 to 5,000 Yen, it’s often cheaper to sell that old CRT television for 100 Yen at a Hard Off.

What I found striking, though, was the sudden prevalence of luxury goods at the local Hard Off (I’m trying to mention the name of the shop as many times as I can; it still makes me giggle). It used to offer the usual, from clothes to kitchen wares, some old home consoles, a few televisions, and maybe a brand corner, these days there were shelves of LV bags, expensive watches, half a shop full of televisions, a lot of home consoles, up to and including the PS3 and much, much more. Now, the televisions can be explained by the switch to digital signals in 2011, and the marketing push to get people to buy new, HD sets in anticipation. The rest, though, seems quite obviously, though unscientifically extrapolated, a result of belt-tightening. People are feeling the pinch and trying to sell their most prized or expensive possessions to avoid having to go to one of the loan companies and their exorbitant, extortive even, interest rates. Luxury watches, game consoles, brand goods, Hard Off has many of them, a lot more than it used to have even a few years ago.

The lessons to learn here are: firstly, yes, there is something awry even in Japan when it comes to the economy and people are panicking a bit, though hysteria may be too loaded a word and, secondly, if you need some new hardware or luxury goods it is not a bad idea to check out your local Hard Off. Tourists, too, especially of the retro-geek kind, might find those elusive Hello Kitty Dreamcasts or an original Famicom in these stores, and if they fancy digging around the large plastic buckets, maybe even some good retro games at prices Super Potato wouldn’t be able to compete with. If you want brand handbags expect to still pay a lot to these second-hand extortionists but at least it will be a lot less than buying them at the Ginza branch first-hand.

The global recession is quite scary, especially if you delve a little deeper into it. It’s not all bad news though (only mostly), as I haven’t paid full-price for a video game in a long, long while now.

Memories of days gone by

I am one of those gamers who some months ago hungrily lapped up the re-release of Banjo-Kazooie on XBLA and, more recently, Banjo-Tooie, two titles from the N64 glory days when the name “Rare” was still a force to be reckoned with. Playing these two titles, though if I’m honest with myself the former moreso than the latter, reminded me of two things: we’ve come a long way and where are my platformers?

The cut-off for replayable retro seems to be just after the 16-bit era where games were made in glorious 2D that has aged a lot better than the 3D era of the Playstation and aforementioned N64. Previously I have toyed a little with PS1 games released on the Playstation Network, though the edges were so rough it made my eyes bleed. The first few generations of 3D games are, frankly, ugly as sin these days. Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie however still seem to stand up pretty well. The textures are rough enough to count the pixels, as are the models and their polygons, but Rare still managed in those dark ages to squeeze a lot of character out of their worlds with cute animations and design. Don’t get me wrong, the games are ugly these days, but somehow the charm they still possess seems to make up for that.

Platformers, though, seem to have migrated to the handhelds, for some reason. I can barely remember the last decent Castlevania on home consoles (I lie, it was obviously Symphony of the Night on PS1, released over 12 years ago). I tend to discount things like Bionic Commando Rearmed and Banjo-Kazooie, as these are remakes or re-releases. Which leaves games like Ratchett & Clank and…what?

Things like Prince of Persia, Uncharted and Tomb Raider fill some of that void, as do brawlers like Oboromuramasa, yet my platforming hunger seems very badly served by today’s market. Are they the way of the point and click adventure? It’s true there is an awesome amateur platform development scene out there, but damn, I long for the old days. If the Xbox, in Japan at least, can provide for the tiny shmup community, where is my fan service?

Ignore me, I moan. The DSLite provides me with my kicks still; a few excellent Castlevanias, new quirky games like Henry Hatsworth (recommended!) and others give me all the platform kicks I really need, but for what I desire, cool platformers on my telly…I still hunger.

Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie in the meantime are excellent diversions from the usual brown, bloom space marine fare, and I recommend anyone who enjoyed them the first time round to give them another go; they’re still fun! Oh, Rare…we didn’t need vehicles…just more of this, please…

Tokyo CGM Night (episode 4)

Video game development is a tough mistress; especially within a studio system you end up chained to your desk for the largest part of the day, turning your eyes and brain to mush as you try to cope with ridiculous decisions from higher up that somehow only seem to affect your schedule, not management’s, then if you do ever make it out to socialise you are bound by Non-Disclosure Agreements and just end up in massive bitching sessions, propping up other developers’ complaints with your own similar stories of how naff it all is, so more often than not you just end up going home straight after work to spend some quality time with your beloved bottle of wine. So it was with some trepidation and not a little amount of strain that I have been making efforts to go to events, social gatherings, dinner parties and whatnot to meet a wider variety of people and talk about the finer things in life, one of those being the fact I’m an independent now and am free to talk about whatever I wish to whomsoever can stand to listen to me.

The last day of April I attended, finally, one of pro-blogger and part-time stormtrooper Danny Choo’s Tokyo CGM Nights. I had previously made plans to go to earlier versions of this social event, yet something always seemed to crop up, be it another arbitrary and ultimately useless deadline or a total lack of energy after spending a week re-exporting work due to some minor change in the tool technology.

The event was held at SuperDeluxe close to Roppongi Hills, a basement-level club of sorts which was reserved for this event alone that night but looked like it might be a jolly good lark as a regular club space. The crowd was slow to build at first, which gave me a good opportunity to chinwag with some random people, all of whom were very friendly and interesting, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, though all somehow involved, sometimes just tangentially, to blogging or podcasting.

This blog being a little specialised I was not surprised few people had heard of it, which also wasn’t helped by the fact my business card has a name on it different to what I write under here. That said, it was good to meet with people in a way that didn’t inevitably lead to loud moaning sessions about the state of the game industry, though I did try, out of force of habit, I guess.

Once the room had filled up Danny Choo started his presentation, an informal affair with three projectors beaming images on the wall, showing at first the new Nikon commercial he stars in and some talk about the various blogs and businesses he is involved in. Next followed several more people all talking about some recent projects, mostly revolving around new ideas in blogging and information sharing, after which there was, what I gather to be the tradition, the handing out of presents through the traditional Japanese sport of rock, paper, scissors.

Taking photographs seemed to be the done thing at the event, and though I did try, the light conditions were just too bad for my little mobile phone camera, and standing there with that little device made me very self-conscious as everybody else seemed to have the latest, most massive professional equipment around. Danny Choo’s site usually acts as an aggregate to the various blogs that write about the event, so interested parties should keep an eye open for better information and, no doubt, a ton of photos via other people’s sites. I didn’t particularly hide from the cameras but I didn’t push myself to the forefront either, so my fragile, and by now meaningless anonymity may last a bit longer.

Though the event is a great place to meet new people it is, however, somewhat closed off. Though it was easy enough to get in, invitations are only sent to people within Danny Choo’s network who are related to blogging or other IT businesses, with the caveat that no details of the event will be broadcast before the date. This makes it hard for me to recommend it to people visiting Japan, but if you end up moving here and, as seems to be the Law, start blogging about Japan, there is a good chance you’ll end up at one of these events at some point.


Few consoles elicit more confused reactions, amongst gamers and developers alike, than the Nintendo Wii, to this day lambasted for its gimmicky controllers and lack of power and storage compared to its two main rivals, not to mention the supposed lack of “decent” games available for it. Yet somehow, sales figures can’t lie, it is massively successful and enjoyed by many; the market it provides for, however, doesn’t overlap the group that is most vocal: the internet hard-core gamers and journalists. Some scorn at the success of the Wii Fit but no matter how such products don’t provide for the hardcore, they do provide for the Wii’s main market, and to criticise that is not unlike criticising a dairy farm for not producing the beer you like so much better.

And despite the fact the Wii has proven itself to be the console of choice for, what some call, the “casual market”, some developers and publishers can’t help but try to pander to the hardcore. Games like Madworld and No More Heroes seem a bad fit for the Wii’s market, and their sales figures are less than stellar. This month it is no other than No More Heroes’ publisher Marvellous who bring us “Oboromuramasa”, the latest game by Vanillaware of Odin Sphere fame.

The game itself is nothing more than a brawler set in an ancient Japanese setting, through which the player moves via small stages where the occasional brawler battle takes place. There are some RPG elements involved, like levelling up and forging swords, but generally the game is a button masher and would probably fare better on other consoles where the main market is more receptive to such titles.

That said, what Muramasa has going for it is, like Odin Sphere, the drop-dead gorgeous visuals, proving once again that art direction trumps technological prowess by a mile. This game would have been immensely lacklustre had it been rendered in “glorious” 3D utilising every single byte of memory that the Xbox360 or PS3 have to offer. Instead it runs comfortably in the Wii’s low-resolution environment with its beautiful, hand-drawn 2D graphics that are rich with little touches of detail and sometimes barely perceptible animations. Seeing Musamasa in motion is gratifying in itself, regardless of the game mechanics behind it. It is simply beautiful.

People versed in ancient Japanese art and history will find plenty here to get excited about. Images borrow heavily from famous artworks, and though generally fairly “anime” styled, it has an overall feel of historical paintings. This, the Japanese version of the game, also relies heavily on kanji and a little bit of an obtuse front-end, so importers are advised to wait for the European or American versions.

Once these localised versions are released, though, I suspect it will find somewhat of a larger market abroad than it does in Japan, especially among the “Japanophiles”, as the game drips Nihonese like nothing else. But even then it will have to compete with much better marketed games like Wii Fit and big licensed fare that the casual gamer might have heard of. I fear this game might not receive the attention it deserves simply because it is a new game and people need to know about it before they actively seek it out and buy it, as opposed to stumbling across it in a game shop and picking it up on a whim; that seems to be a tactic that doesn’t work well for Wii games.

Though I am becoming less and less of a “hard-core” gamer, I am immensely gratified developers like Vanillaware continue to pursue their art and create off-beat games like Muramasa; especially as a visual artist myself I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of the presentation alone. My thumb, however, probably won’t outlast the actual gaming experience and I am probably doomed, like many others no doubt, to get the main bulk of my enjoyment from HD Youtube movies created by others.

Oboromuramasa is a gorgeous game. I recommend it to anybody who is serious about the medium to look at it as another example of games being an art in and of themselves, as opposed to something similar or equal to the more established art forms. Buy it when it is released locally and keep your fingers crossed Vanillaware makes enough money out of it to spurn them on to make more games with this visual style.

The IGDA and QoL

Few subjects are as contentious amongst developers, staff and management alike, than “unpaid overtime”; it’s sadly an issue that still divides, and about which more has been written, argued the toss about and discussed with less possible hope of an outcome than the Israeli-Palestine question. Game development being a highly creative industry staffed by motivated and, frankly, obsessive talent the idea that overtime is absolutely required if one is to develop a decent game is sadly still prevalent. Ignore scheduling issues, if the staff isn’t willing to kill themselves for the good of the project no good games, some say, can ever be made. Management obviously thinks unpaid overtime is great for business, squeezing free man months out of staff while conveniently ignoring century-old research that pretty much proves that overtime turns to negative productivity. My personal views on the matter should be obvious by this opening paragraph alone, but for every lefty liberal socialist like myself there is a raving workaholic who will come with plenty of counter-arguments. So, we look at some representative body to take up the issue, and as game developers we have, sadly, only one of those: the IGDA.

Recently somewhat of a storm has erupted when the IGDA, which claims it champions “QoL” (Quality of Life) for its members, ostensibly developers, had a roundtable discussion at the IGDA Leadership Forum 08, “Studio Heads Hotseat”, where a board member, at the time, boldly claimed:

there's a lot of talk, "oh you can make great games working 8 hours a day 5 days a week, it's management's fault if they work more than that," fuck, it's management's fault for hiring people who want to leave at 5pm every day is the way I look at it
-- Mike Capps, President, Epic Games
Video here.

This, in turn caused somewhat of an uproar on the IGDA feedback forums and a very lackluster, non-committal response from the board.

The story drags on quite a bit, and rather than recounting it here I suggest readers to watch the videos and follow all the links in the forums and the IGDA website. The long and short of it, though, is that the IGDA, the only spokesgroup our industry has really managed to create basically has very little it does for the lowly developer, seeming to be more in line with the management ideas for which us developers exactly need an organisation to protect us from.

The overall usefulness of the IGDA is also an issue many developers can’t seem to agree on, with some local chapters actually being well-run and offering a lot to the local members, yet others being pretty much useless. So far I have been a paid member, a token of support for the idea alone, as I was never in a real position to devote myself to the organisation in the form of tangible help and commitment; sadly a common situation for many developers. After this QoL debacle, though, I have decided to let my subscription run out after which it shan’t be renewed. We desperately need an organisation to protect the interests of developers, and the IGDA has sadly proven itself to be somewhat of a lame duck in this regard, peppering their site with splendid ideas and research, yet not being able to even stand up to its own board of directors when they blatantly and openly defy the very principles it is supposed to uphold.

These mundane issues, readers, are what keep developers awake at night. I’m sorry it’s not as sexy and academic as ludological narrative philosophy, but we are people after all, people stuck in a industry so mired in the 80s bedroom coding scene that it never found the time to grow up.


My apologies for the lack of activity on the blog recently, caused by a wide variety of influences. Hopefully by next month things will have quietened down somewhat and I’ll be able to spend some time writing again.

For now, though, readers in the UK might be interested in an article I wrote for GamesTM magazine (issue 81) concerning the state of the Japanese development industry. Though I have not yet read the final copy, it’s not anything you haven’t heard me complain about before on this blog, but I did force myself to keep a positive slant on the subject for once, belying my natural genetic inclination to merely bitch and moan. For this seemingly impossible task I sought the help of three fellow foreigners in Japan, working at Tri-Ace, Grasshopper and of course Q-Games. Their insights and thoughts on the subject, for which I am eternally grateful, are worth reading. The magazine is available now, I believe.

Next month on Japanmanship: some activity again, I hope.


I’ve lived in Japan for more than 8 years now so one would assume I’ve sampled the many different aspects of the local culture in that time. However, having spent about 98% of my time here as an indentured wage-slave, chained to my desk for the majority of the day, I am as new to Japanese culture as your average well-informed tourist, and so it was that this month I had my first encounter with the art of Kabuki, a form of Japanese theatre.

The occasion, if one was needed, was to sample the ambiance of the Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza, Tokyo’s most expensive district, which will be torn down next year to make way for some new high-rise, which will contain the new venue for Kabuki. The current building was first completed in 1889 but was burned down due to an electrical fault and rebuild in 1925. As it stands now it pops out from between the shiny, mirrored exteriors of neighbouring buildings, looking as it does like a Japanese traditional temple of sorts made out of stone, as the original wooden structure was apparently not heat resistant enough. It contains a small reception area leading to the left into an area full of stalls and shops selling programs, souvenirs and lunch boxes, and a large auditorium split over two levels with boxes on either side. Unlike the sumo arenas there is no tatami and all seats are comfortable and just about spacious enough cinema-style seats made of red cloth. The stage takes up the entirety of the back wall with a narrow catwalk leading off to the left and through the seats into the back. Compared to the Western theatres I’ve visited I’d say the stage is about 150% of the width, and the catwalk barely as wide as an aisle. We were lucky enough to get good seats right next to the catwalk near the door that is sometimes used to usher in or lead off some of the main characters. Whether it was specifically for the play we saw or a general part of Kabuki theatre, the centre part of the stage could rotate, switching the scene seamlessly between two sides of a large cube.

Though Noh is a more visual experience Kabuki, closer to Western theatre, has its pomp and pageantry, with beautiful costumes and thick make-up. The actors, all male, including the women and young girl roles, utilise a style called “aragoto”, and is not unlike a drunken tone-deaf enka singer in the throws of a losing battle with constipation; long drawn-out syllables, dramatic wobbles in the voice, a lot of crying out and unnatural yet dramatic poses here and there. It can in no way be described as realistic acting, yet carries with it its own sense of drama and emotional punch that even I, as a dirty foreigner, felt.

The play we saw was “Genroku Chushingura”, a modern interpretation of the story of the 47 samurai, based on historical events (apparently), and as a whole is a series of plays written between 1934 and 1940. It is considered a masterpiece of modern theatre. Considering the afternoon showing, which we attended, lasted 5 hours (!!!) we didn’t see the whole story, which continued that evening in another showing of several more hours. Luckily the play is split into little self-contained episodes, so we caught the start of the story and a dramatic climax concerning one of the ronin and his quest for revenge, making it a very satisfactory experience without feeling we missed out on the rest.

Set, as it is, in Edo-period Japan the actors, on top of their acting style also spoke in rather florid polite feudal Japanese, translation was going to be an issue. Luckily the theatre provides little translation boxes with a single earpiece that, for a small fee and a deposit, pipes English into one ear during and timed to the performance. In the end, I think with the earpiece we got more and better information than the Japanese audience, as in lulls and places we were also informed of some of the history and events that transpired in between the acts. The dialogue was never translated directly but always referred to, leaving room for extra adjectives that made everything crystal clear. Considering the play is very wordy and contains several long acts of people sitting and talking, the earpiece was a godsend, and comes highly recommended by yours truly.

Another fun aspect of seeing a Kabuki play live is the audience. As certain famous actors strike dramatic poses, shouts can be heard from the audience, as they call out the actor’s name or the name of his “acting house”, as a mark of appreciation. Apparently the actors were a famous bunch, but as it’s a closed shop and Kabuki actors rarely branch out, none of the names meant anything to me. It also was made clear to me afterwards that the gaggle of women dressed in kimonos in the audience were likely wives or other family of the actors, which explained why they were thanking people outside the auditorium. I’m sure some Japanese people will be mightily impressed if I tell them I saw such-and-such or whatshisname in a play, but for me, it was just a bunch of guys acting, and acting very well, I was surprised to find.

The play opened in a flurry of action and confusion, as Lord Asano and Lord Kira are in a stand-off. The former has drawn his sword within the walls of Edo castle, a capital offense, but is held back and forced to drop his katana. What follows is a short investigation and verdict that Asano must commit ritual suicide (seppuku) as a penance for his transgression. The reason for the altercation is never exposed but appears to concern an insult by lord Kira, which made Asano, a powerful and rich leader, forego his responsibilities and act with the honour of a samurai, damn the consequences. We are lead to believe that lord Kira definitely did something wrong here, escaping as he did and going into hiding despite having only sustained two small cuts, while Asano is painted as an honourable man who can’t have transgressed for something trivial. . Asano never explains himself except to say he is sorry he didn’t kill Kira and, under the watchful eye of one of his retainers who was allowed to hide near a tree in the garden, Asano is sentenced to seppuku. Sadly, we don’t get to see the act of harakiri at this point, as the next act starts a few weeks after that event.

Next follows a long act pertaining to chief retainer Oishi and the fact his clan, under the disgraced and now dead Asano, is to be dissolved, alongside many others under the current shogun, and he must leave the castle. There is a lot of crying out and lamenting, but also resolve and in one scene he and 53 of the samurai, as well as 3 servants, sign a contract in their own blood to swear allegiance and trust to Oishi, to leave the castle in peace but to avenge Asano by killing Kira. Fifty-six, yes. I was confused too.

At this point I felt the play was dragging, and seeing as we were only half way through, I was fearing the rest. However, the final scene in this act, in which loyal friend of Oishi, Tokubei, and his 14 year old son, commit suicide, on stage, had a drastic effect on me. To this point I felt everything had been too wordy and static, but this scene turned out surprisingly emotional and effective. The suicide wasn’t that graphic, but despite the “over acting” it had an undeniable punch to it which caught me off guard.

The third and final act was by far the best and had me on the edge of my seat, despite possibly being the most wordy of the lot. It revolved in most part around one of the ronin, Sukeemon, delivering a message to lady-in-waiting Okiyo at Ohama castle around the time of the annual ladies’ outing. The act opens with a large group of women frolicking about, and by women, I do of course mean “men”. They generally seemed to really enjoy prancing about daintily and looked and acted pretty much like women. The central scene in this act is a discussion between lord Tsunatoyo and Sukeemon, the former trying to pry out of the latter if there are any plans to avenge Asano, seeing as Oishi seems to be living a life of debauchery. Oishi is of course biding his time and putting spies off his scent by pretending to be a drunk and hopeless ronin, but Sukeemon cannot tell lord Tsunatoyo this. Tsunatoyo, in his turn, plays a drunk and leisurely lord and Sukeemon seems to blatantly disrespect him. Their duologue is incredible, with a lot of back and forth, teasing and joking, poking and exploring, until we find out Tsunatoyo is actually a man of great wisdom and politics, knowing full well what is happening and himself making a play for the shogun, seemingly on the side of the ronin, and he promises Sukeemon he will petition the shogun for the brother of Asano to be reinstated and the ronin to be able to serve him. He also allows Sukeemon to secretly watch the evening’s procession, because he knows all Sukeemon wants is to finally see the face of lord Kira, who will be attending. This scene was a play in itself and an astounding piece of work.

It transpires that Sukeemon wants to avenge Asano that evening, and Okiyo begs him to reconsider, but eventually relents and tells him lord Kira will be playing in the Noh play tonight. That evening the play climaxes as Sukeemon creeps in the bushes behind the Noh theatre and as lord Kira appears to make his way to the stage, he attacks him with a lance. The figure, we find out as his mask slips, is actually lord Tsunatoyo, not Kira, who deftly parries the attack and subdues Sukeemon without any effort. In the central speech he admonishes Sukeemon with talk of honour and revenge, how the honour of the act is more important than the actual killing, and that all things must be considered in a wider picture, what with the upcoming petition to reinstate Asano’s brother. Integrity to the end, is the message, as Tsunatoyo tells the guards to escort this "poor lost drunkard" to the castle gates. He continues to the Noh stage fully composed, as if this altercation hadn’t happened. And the afternoon’s performance ends.

As I said, the play was slow to start but once I got into it I was gripped. It’s certainly an experience to recommend, but you’ll have to hurry as the theatre is set for demolition early next year. I’m sure they’ll play elsewhere as the new theatre building is being constructed, but the old environments of the Kabuki-za Theatre definitely added to the atmosphere. The plays currently being performed are also ones selected by the audience as their “favourite plays” to celebrate the last few seasons in this location. There were two breaks, neither of which lasted long, and though there are plenty of stalls within the theatre, it’s probably best to bring along a lunchbox from one of the many department stores in Ginza, as your choice will be wider.

The only slightly bitter taste after the experience was the heavy emphasis on the samurai spirit and honour, which, considering the plays were written by 1940, could be interpreted as something not unlike propaganda. On top of that, the Japan of today, as I experience it, has removed any evidence of honour. One can’t imagine these drunken, stinking salarymen, or the megalomaniacal money grabbing businessmen, routinely fucking over the workforce, playing fast a loose with the law for a quick profit, when one thinks of honour, obligation and hierarchy of the old Edo period. That said, no country is immune from glorifying the past despite the current state of affairs; one just has to think of Britain and its adherence to traditions like knighthood, or, heheh, knighthoodies*. All such ramblings aside, Genroku Chushingura was a pretty awesome play, with especially the central scene of Act 3 sticking in my mind as a particularly excellent piece of writing and acting. And besides that, Kabuki is such a typical Japanese art it’s worth it for any tourist to check out, if possible, just for the experience.

* sorry...

It's a mad world

It’s always good, at least for the ego, to have one’s opinions confirmed, or at least agreed with, by other parties. Let’s face it, I’ve made some stonking howlers on this blog over the years, but the growing trend of Japanese developers swallowing their pride and admitting the way Japanese development works is in no way competitive with that in the West mirrors my own, by now possibly tiresome, claims to the same.

This time two reports follow this rising tide of disenchantment. One is an interview with Platinum Games’ Atsushi Inaba, producer of the upcoming Madworld, as well as Okami and Viewtiful Joe. Though Madworld is not a game I am interested in, both Okami and Viewtiful Joe are astounding games with daring visual styles, so hearing him say things as

“I think that western developers are superior to those in Japan overall”
is somewhat of a shock. But he is, of course, right. Reading the rest of his interview here, it is obvious the man has his head screwed onto his shoulders. He talks of globalising the game market, the importance of IP and the fact Japanese developers need to get their act together to compete with the West. These are, by now, fairly common sense issues, but for Japan, always resistant to change and taking responsibilities, having this discussed out in the open is a positive sign that people realise there is a problem, which, in turn, is the first step to change and improvement.

The second news item comes from Square-Enix president Youichi Wada, a man whose open candour I am really beginning to respect. Earlier this month he explained the delay of Dragon Quest IX, and chalked it up to being caught off-guard by the number of bugs, apologising for the arrogance of it all. Pointing to the way debugging (QA testing, in Japanese development parlance) worked under the current system meant too many “stubborn” bugs slipped through the net. Indeed, I have found from my own experiences that no testing is done until certain parts of the team are finished with their tasks and are then moved on to bug checking. At this point it usually becomes a race between the coders trying to finish the game and fighting a sudden rising tide of bugs. As Mr. Wada explains in his comments, it might be better to test new features to some extent as and when they are being implemented, and not to just hack the whole thing together and simply fix some issues as they crop up, which is usually not the case.

As I previously wrote, and with Mr. Inaba’s own works to back it up, Japanese developers do do some things right, especially in areas of visual direction and exploring weird nooks and crannies of game design, but general development practices are now too old-fashioned and apparently uncompetitive. No longer can throwing more developers at a problem and requiring them to work weekends and nights fix every scheduling issue, and I, for one, am glad some heavy hitters in this industry are coming to terms with this and actively seeking to make changes.

Despite the reporting of such seemingly negative quotes about the Japanese development community I’d like to remind my readers that this is generally a positive thing. However much you may like Japanese games, they are facing difficulties here, and not just because of the global economic meltdown. Companies have been merging for survival for a while now, with several more to do so on the horizon, with only a few of them looking strong enough to survive; specifically, those few are mostly the ones that have committed to change and a global market. If you want to continue playing Japanese games and enjoy their cookie quirkiness, change is absolutely required, and acceptance is the first step.

Only in Japan

As I, and many more Japanese developers and publishers, lament the falling behind of Japanese games, now much harder to ignore, it behooves us to remember that Japan is not doomed; it does do certain things right and allows for games that no Western publisher, even in these indie-courting times would probably ever greenlight. Exhibit A: Noby Noby Boy.

If you haven’t played this Playstation Network exclusive yet, well, um, nothing that can be said about it would make any sense. Even watching the trailers and movies on-line can’t quite convey the utter insanity this product enjoys. Imagine a designer, possibly delirious from lack of sleep or maybe even riding the Cake horse, just throws up some ideas for the Hell of it with nobody to tap him on the shoulder to say “Excuse me, this is just ridiculous and insane, let’s not do this”; imagine also graphics that are colourful and cute but also sort of smell like 1st year Game College graduate's experimental tomfoolery. Imagine a game with no direction, challenges, goals. You are now only part-way to imagining Noby Noby Boy. Seriously, just play it for a while and enjoy – that’s really all you can do with it. Like me, you probably won’t spend weeks and weeks on this, but for $5 it’s hardly worth fretting over. At that price it easily outlasts a movie rental or purchase, so just go ahead and give it a try. Your brain will thank you for it.

Noby Noby Boy is a toy, in the purest sense of the word. We could only call it a game because it is played on a games console, but that’s about it. There are some trophies that, provided you cheat on the internet and find out what they are for, could provide some goals for you to aim at, but generally, the only function this game has is to occupy you and make you waste some time, time spent giggling, being confused, laughing, more being confused, being confounded, and possibly more giggling. If I were forced to describe the game, I mean toy, which I’d hate to do, it’d be something like: you control an extendable worm-like character that can fool about in a scene, eat stuff, poop stuff and let characters ride on his back. There is some meta-game (whatever that means) about growing long and having the Girl character grow long with you in order to reach the moon or something, but generally, it’s about faffing about.

And it’s great that such titles, alongside the gorgeous “Flower”, also on the Playstation Network, are being made. Noby Noby Boy is obviously several degrees more insane than Flower, which is simply beautiful and relaxing, but both offer a gaming experience that is quite unexpected. And if these games prove to be a success, which I not only hope they do but somehow think they will, it will show that there is a market for non-gamey games. It certainly shows Japan has an ace up its sleeve; technically it may be behind, but when it comes to mad ideas, the possibility to explore them and release them commercially, they still seems to have the upper hand.

Falling out

When it comes to video games I am a man-child who knows what he likes. I’m not interested in shooters, I’m not interested in dystopian future settings, I hate RPGs, I don’t care one jot for gore and gibs, realistic characters bore me, open world environments with little to do but travel across them are tedious. I like simple, colourful games, with fun or cute characters, some challenge but mostly just rote activity, and general glucose happiness. So why in the world am I so addicted to Fallout 3, a game which goes against every gaming sensibility I thought I had?

This is not the fist time Bethesda has made me a traitor to my own desires. I have arguably spent more time on Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion than any other game in recent memory, even though I hate your usual orcs and elves malarkey. At the time I thought it was merely because it reminded me of what I saw in my mind’s eye when playing Ultima back in those long forgotten days of my youth, such as they were. Oblivion’s pretty environments were a dream become reality, though a decade or two too late. And here they do it again, giving me a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland for my semi-realistic character to traipse through in a tedious, repetitive grind. And I’m loving every second of it.

The sense of utter devastation as I travel through the wasteland that was Washington DC, the underground shelters, vaults, dotted around in between ruined monuments and ramshackle dwellings, the burnt out buildings that hint at a past life, burned books and furniture everywhere, the old-fashioned technology that helps me unlock doors, the rebels that scour the lands for Nuka-cola bottle caps, though slightly depressing, in a ponderous way, never before have I spent so much time exploring and surviving a believable world, each new area bringing both the joy of discovery and a sense of futility, both uplifting and depressing at once.

Combat too has grabbed me to an extent I had not anticipated; not playing it as a shooter, but each time opening up V.A.T.S. and carefully aiming my rifle at specific body parts to disable them, a system I haven’t seen executed so well since Origin’s Knights of Legend. And having a rabid dog jump at me, shooting its head off with a shotgun, and seeing its headless body fly past me carried by its initial momentum, or separating a mercenary’s head clean off his torso with a single sniper shot, may be gory as Hell, indeed much gorier than I want from my games, but is immensely satisfying. Part of this is due to the slow-motion sound and the echo my gun makes as the boom bounces around this empty landscape, and the physics applied to these dead ragdolls make the experience so visceral and demanding and somewhat exhausting, I truly get the sense I’m a survivor, protecting myself for the sake of living, rather than rampaging like a buffed-out roid-rage space marine.

Another reason I am spending so much of my time in this world has probably something to do with its achievable trophies (as I am playing this on a Playstation 3). Too many games out there still have ridiculous trophy demands; spend the entire game hopping on one foot, or beat every single person in the world in an online battle within 4 hours. Fallout 3, however, has trophies designed to make you explore the wastelands, do those cool side missions you’d otherwise ignore, and collect those rare items you otherwise wouldn’t have bothered with. Sure, two bobbleheads are one-off opportunities never to be reclaimed should you miss them, a design decision I loathe with a passion. This is exactly why Bioshock never got a deeper play-through; miss a few audio dairies and you’re boned, as well as those ridiculous “play the game on the highest difficulty setting without dying” trophies no sane man with things to do would attempt. Fallout 3 rewards you with trophies for doing things that actually make the game play experience better, which is exactly how it should be. I wish designers would pay a lot more attention to the heightened experiences well-designed trophies can offer.

The question I couldn’t escape while playing this game, though, is the obvious: would this game ever sell in Japan? The answer is obviously “no”, it certainly wouldn’t. Aside from the fact the gameplay is very “foreign”, ie. not suited to your average Japanese gamer, there is also that elephant in the room: the bomb. Part of the appeal is the what-if question of what would happen, more or less, if an atomic bomb dropped on America. Japan, of course, has the answer already, though Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never plagued by super mutants and feral ghouls, as far as we know. But so much in the game surrounds the nuclear attack, from the village called Megaton to the Nuka-cola plant, that it is almost a joke. Now don’t get me wrong, I think your average liberal lefty foreigner like myself is probably far more concerned about the sensibilities of selling such a game in Japan than our average Japanese youth. Don’t forget their own proud creation, Godzilla, rampaging and destroying whole cities to the delight of the local audiences. No, the Japanese like their fantasy global or national destruction, and few younger Japanese would probably care too much about nuclear attacks forming the background of a video game; a few psychopaths aside, the difference between reality and fantasy is well understood here.

Still, one can’t help but think: Fallout 3 paints a bleak picture of humanity’s survival and corrupt governments in a barren desolate landscape filled with destruction, death and radiation. Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside, your average Japanese gamer isn’t looking for such an experience from their entertainment, I shouldn’t wonder.

And though parts of the game are rough, buggy and badly acted, Fallout 3 is already a high-point in my gaming year and I can’t wait to see what Bethesda comes out with next. Whatever it is, and however much I’ll hate it on paper, I’m sure I’ll buy it, play it and love it. Damn that confounding developer!

Make or Break

Ask any developer what they think of their marketing department and you’ll be guaranteed a flood of expletives and death threats. The common knowledge dictates that marketing departments have a disproportionate and destructive say in the design of your product; stories of interesting ideas being shot down, due to the uncertainty of their success in an unproven market, or numerous me-too design changes based on today’s best-selling competitors are the standard. Indeed,it would seem a lot of games are designed entirely to the marketing department’s wishes, so that they have a known entity to sell, rather than the onerous task of actually trying to market something new and potentially exciting. These stories are obviously vastly exaggerated, though I’m sure some have a kernel of truth to them, but it is certain that most developers view their marketing departments with hatred and scorn. Japan, thankfully, seems a different story, with sales and marketing brought in when the project is presentable, so they can learn what it is they have to sell; the way marketing is supposed to work. Either way, and however much we’d like to ignore it, marketing is possibly the most important aspect of your success. The designers may think it’s their bold new ideas, the artists their pretty pictures, the coders their bleeding edge technology and the producers their sexy, moody fashion shoots for the popular media, but all those mean nothing without the proper marketing behind it.

The crux of that last statement is, of course, proper marketing. And as an up and coming, God-willing, new independent venture, it’s something that has occupied our minds to a large extent. It has not been a direct influence on our business plan, but it is obviously something that needs to be addressed, because without it we might as well not bother.

Of the various marketing strategies, the media overkill is not something many can afford. It’d be nice to have our titles splattered across huge billboards, aired during the Superbowl and tied in with a MacDonald’s Happy Meal, but unless I travel back in time and invest heavily in Google, it’s unlikely to ever happen.

Then there is the “all publicity is good publicity” tactic, of which I am no great admirer. Abhorrent marketing campaigns like these are plenty in our industry, thinking particularly of the late Acclaim’s horrendously puerile “name your baby Turok” and “all speeding tickets paid for by us” scandals, but would include, in my book, the pushing of spokespeople like the rather obvious female pro-gaming groups, the hiring of porn stars and the disastrously sad Jade Raymond fallout. Yes, such tactics get your name splashed around, but bring with it a decent amount of loathing and bashing, not to mention nasty personal attacks that can really hurt both the person and the product. To this day John Romero has failed utterly to make me his bitch.

This interesting interview with independent developer Cliff Harris pretty much seems to hit the nail on the head.

“…if you sell games, and you don’t know which pages on your website have the lowest bounce rates, if you don’t know what the average CPC is for your ads and do A/B testing to increase the CTR…. and much more importantly, if you have no idea WTF I’m talking about, then you are quite simply losing sales to people like me, who study this stuff :D.”
Marketing is part fine art but mostly a matter of hard figure crunching. As Mr. Harris points out it’s no use spending a certain amount of money on advertising and hoping that’ll do the trick. Constant vigilance, adjusting your marketing according to short-term results and basically, spending a large amount of time and not an inconsiderable percentage of your profits on it would appear the minimum requirement, and is therefore a very important aspect of any independent venture but one that many forget about.

Our industry is a young one, and filled with gusto. Too many people still believe it’s the ideas that count, or that pouring your heart and soul into a project will result in a quality product that will sell itself. And though a passion for the job seems indispensable, it means nothing if people don’t know about it. And though it is something I have a deep personal interest in, our necessary focus on future marketing and other business strategies does distract from actual development. Starting a new business requires participants to wear many hats, but all these tasks compete with each other for time and attention, and with only so many hours in the day it’s often difficult to find a balance.

Don’t despair, though, I know more about marketing than I’ve let on. This blog is a terrible example, with badly placed GoogleAds, resulting in disastrous CTRs, equally badly placed adverts for my CafePress store, which in itself is in dire need of updating, and a readership that has been entirely built up by word of mouth. Luckily, the blog is a hobby, something for myself to satisfy my Muse, and readership, though very welcome, was always somewhat of a side issue. For a business however these sorts of things need to be ironed out and perfected. Every single dollar, or Yen rather, and every minute of time spent on marketing must be worthwhile. In the short term that is a matter of experimenting and learning from those who have gone before us, like Mr. Harris, but in the long-term it’s a constant struggle with results, CTRs, page hits, pick up rates, metrics, time, effort and money. Otherwise we might have to fall back on plan B: make a game so insensitive and abhorrent, that it will be covered on Fox News and the Daily Mail and get our names out there, and possibly land us with a jihad.
I’d prefer proper marketing, though.

Up the hill backwards

“Vacuum created by the arrival of freedom,” warbled David Bowie, “and the possibilities it seems to offer.” For all my hypocritical moaning about overtime and the drop in productivity that invariably accompanies it, I found myself to be my own worst manager. Our little indie venture is going extremely well, which is massively exciting and energising, but makes it almost impossible to switch off. Recently I have been feeling a little peaky, walking around in an aching haze, not quite realising why, until it struck me I end up working a good 10 or more hours a day, with only a lunch break some days.

I have tried to force myself to relax on weekends, with limited success. I switch on the PC in the mornings, check my mail, read the blogs and news, and end up sneakily drawn into work. Several hours later I realise it’s past lunchtime, at which point I’ll shower and leave the house for a breather, all the while thinking hard of what I could and should be doing in that time. After lunch it’s back to the PC, to work until supper, continuing afterwards until well into the evening. This weekend I tried to relax and play some games, to little avail, and found myself behind my desk again. The workload is enormous, yet fun and exciting, and not being busy on it feels wrong. I really have to think of a better way, but in these early stages of the venture I feel too guilty and, frankly, impatient to not kill myself over it.

Beard growth has been continuing apace, if slightly disappointingly. My cheeks refuse to foster anything more than a few pubes, whereas my moustache is getting ahead of my chinbeard, making it look slightly Village People. I’ll be off to the local Donki tomorrow to try and find a cheap beard comb to tease the growth along. At this pace I won’t look at home in the 19th century until the end of the year, bah humbug!

I have also mastered a useless but highly honed new skill. Over supper we often watch the cable television Mystery Channel, a fine collection of old films and good old British serials, such as Morse, Poirot and whatnot. However, for some inadequately explained reason not all programmes are broadcast bilingually, often featuring only the Japanese dubbed audio and believe me, Poirot in Japanese loses a lot in translation. I am now an expert on figuring out if a programme is in Japanese or English before even a word is spoken, thanks to, what I now hatefully call, “the Japanese groan”. For some reason, Japanese actors, and voice-actors, always overact physical discomfort. As most mystery shows start with a murder of some kind, the first audio usually revolves around groaning, and so horrendously bad and vaguely sexual is the Japanese voice-actor’s interpretation I can identify one at a hundred yards in bad light; short sharp exclamations and plenty of them, interspersed with audible gulps and intakes of breath. “Ugghh…ahhh..(gulp) …uhhhhmmmggg…(gulp again) Gggggg.” Terrible. Why this particular phenomenon might be remains a mystery to me; possibly a cultural thing about not showing emotions whenever possible, and so your average Japanese not being fully aware what actual exclamations of pain and discomfort sound like. I haven’t a clue, but each time I hear one of those groans my irritatometer shoots up and kills any potential enjoyment I might have received from watching a Japanese Belgian detective being massively clever.

Another annoyance is the lack of decent audio to keep myself occupied through these long working days. As a commuter I had more than enough podcasts to carry me through my trip, using the BBC iPlayer radio during the day to catch up on the wireless. These days, however, I don’t seem to find enough audio to fill an entire week. I would request from my readers any decent podcasts that I can try. Personal favourites like “The Bugle”, “Collings and Herrin”, “Perfect 10”, “Answer Me This” and things like “Smodcast” offer only tiny titbits once a week. “Filmspotting”, “Skeptics’ Guide”, “Fresh Air”, “This American Life” and “Keith and the Girl” help fill the gap but I am in no way close to filling my 10 hour a day quota. I’ll gladly receive any tips for recommended listening through the comments to this post. In grateful return I’ll give you this free bit of advice: do not listen to “Stop Podcasting Yourself” when in public because guffawing openly causes people to stare and avoid you.