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.

10 comments:

  1. Yes, what Japanese developers are owning up to lately is exactly what you've mentioned on your blog so many times before. I feel Japanese devs have been caught with their pants down this generation for 2 main reasons: (1) Their outdated work methods (2) Changing Western tastes coupled with a shrinking Japanese market.

    They still make great games but they take such a long time to come out, therefore they have a fewer big hitters in the same space of time as their Western counterparts. Jpg's once the hot genre of the industry has become tired & cliched with little to excite fans. One can already see that even Japanese fans are showing signs of fatigue here if you analyze sales figures with past generations.

    I feel that Japan still does action games better than anyone, Ninja Gaiden & the DMC series are prime examples and these are games that do appeal to the now stronger Western market. I highly doubt that Japanese devs will ever steal the FPS crown away from the West but they can capitalize on their skills as action game crafts men by adopting more efficient development methods.

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  2. I'd be interested to know what sort of processes and metrics Japanese companies use in QA testing...if any at all, judging by these comments and others I have read.

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  3. @Greg: as you say, it's all about the efficiency, or lack thereof, in Japanese development. It is the root of most of Japan's problems, if you ask me.

    @Y.Datura: Metrics? How metric is eXcel?

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  4. Adding to Greg's list of reasons why Japanese development are falling behind:

    (3) No English whatsoever. given the fact that almost everything regarding new tech is in English, the Japanese devs still think/hope everything is going to be magically translated to Japanese.

    (4) Total lack of pro-activeness makes game development in Japan everything but efficient since everyone is waiting for their bosses to come up with the solution instead of trying to either work out something together or on your own.

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  5. Finally, an editorial that cites specific work practices rather than making vague statements about "Western Superiority".

    Unfortunately, I don't see these work practices changing anytime soon. They're simply too ingrained in the corporate culture.

    What it will take is a smaller company (Grasshopper, perhaps?) to set an example by approaching game development from a Western angle. Once a smaller company achieves a modicum of success with this, other larger organizations may follow suit.

    Unfortunately, it seems that too many Japanese companies are presuming that their problem lies in design and other aspects of development rather than work practices. A rather large company I know of considered at one point moving into the sports arena to compete with EA and also thought that shifting to FPS would pave the way to success. Talk about barking up the wrong tree!

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