If the weekly StatCounter reports that still get sent to my email inbox, and are promptly ignored by myself, are anything to go by Japanmanship still seems to be getting some traffic. As you may have noticed, though, I've done extremely little to it over the last year orso.
Posted on Monday, May 17, 2010
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.
Posted on Tuesday, June 16, 2009
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.
Posted on Wednesday, June 03, 2009
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.
Posted on Thursday, May 28, 2009
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.
Posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2009
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?
Posted on Tuesday, May 19, 2009
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.
Posted on Thursday, May 14, 2009