I remember gray late summer days in London, little over a decade ago. I was a young, keen graduate, out of pocket, desperately looking for my first job in the game industry. A friend of mine had suggested I check out Edge magazine because they have job ads in the back. I went to Virgin Megastore, on Oxford Street near Center Point, taking the side entrance off Tottenham Court Road for the game section, and bought the magazine – I even remember the cover of the issue. I applied for a job advertised in the back and landed myself an interview. During that fateful meeting I was even told “I see you got our job ad from Edge, which speaks in your favour”. I landed that job, which started my career in video games. The company has since gone bankrupt, but it got me my first, all-important break and I guess I have Edge magazine to thank for that in some way.

Aside from being a helpful resource Edge magazine has also proven itself to be in possession of excellent taste and keen insight, as they have seen fit to nominate this here blog for “website of the month” in the January issue (#183).

I am indebted, in more ways than one.

Best of the West

With all this defeatist talk of the difficulty Western games have in Japan, I thought it might be time to have a gander at those mythical titles that actually have migrated successfully. Game markets are notoriously subject to the ebb and flow of ever changing public wants, so this “all time” examination may not bear too much significance these days. But with enough spurious chin-stroking on my part we may learn a few tricks Western developers can employ in their quest to crack that Eastern nut. This list is far from complete, but does represent some of the bigger successes. Sales figures may not be definitive, but ballpark figures will be good enough for this exercise.

Tetris (Gameboy)
Total sales Japan 4.2 million
Total sales world: 30.2 million
Though initially handled by Nintendo (of America) and licensed by Henk Rogers’ BPS, this game is undeniably as non-Japanese as its affable creator Alexey Pajitnov.
The universal appeal of Tetris is legendary, of course, and it spawned many imitations and variations, also in Japan. It succeeded both thanks to not being tied down to specific character design as well as its Russian atmosphere, which speaks to the natural curiosity and affinity a lot of Japanese have with Foreignland. The fact it was a pack-in for the immensely popular Gameboy of course also helped.

Donkey Kong Country (SNES)
Total sales Japan 2.9 million
Total sales world: 9.3 million
Donkey Kong Country 2 (SNES)
Total sales Japan 2.2 million
Total sales world: 5.1 million
Donkey Kong Country 3 (SNES)
Total sales Japan 1.7 million
Total sales world: 3.5 million
Rare’s Donkey Kong Country series is probably the best example of a Western title making a splash in Japan. Nintendo’s involvement was of course a factor, as were the ahead of its time graphics and traditional platforming gameplay. Donkey Kong as a character may also have boosted its popularity, as it is still around today very much in the shape of Rare’s effort, though with varying levels of success, as in, for example the following:

Donkey Kong 64 (N64)
Total sales Japan 1 million
Total sales world: 5.2 million
The fact this sold about half of any of the DKC series speaks to the waning popularity of the DK series, but all things considered it still sold significant numbers for a Western-made product. Rare, as a company, doesn’t enjoy as much of a reputation as it did in the West, where they were heralded as the torch-bearer for, what was then known as “Japanese-quality games made in the West”. By the release of this title they were already slipping and it is likely it was only the Donkey Kong IP which carried it to modest success.

Crash Bandicoot (PS1)
Total sales Japan 0.9 million
Total sales world: 6.8 million
Crash Bandicoot 2 (PS1)
Total sales Japan 1.3 million
Total sales world: 7.5 million
Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped (PS1)
Total sales Japan 1.4 million
Total sales world: 7.1 million
For a title which looks and plays like a very Western game, the Crash Bandicoot series overall performed admirably in Japan. Crash of course famously was never accepted as a platform mascot. However, back in the day Sony spent a king’s ransom on marketing the original Crash Bandicoot in Japan, as its success was seen as vital to the new Playstation brand. Though 1.4 million units sounds like an admirable sales figure, especially for a Western game in Japan, when offset against Sony’s massive advertising budget it could have performed better.
Also, Crash did have some excellent and simple design, which made it easier for Japanese players to appreciate. Though a fully 3D game, graphically speaking, it harked back to easier times with levels that were basically 2.5 in essence. There was little chance of players getting lost or disoriented or for them to have to battle a shitty camera system. All these elements have slowly disappeared from the series over time, making it hard to imagine any Crash title being able to make any significant impact in Japan today; the character himself just isn’t strong enough to carry it.

Sim City (SNES)
Total sales Japan 0.7 million
Total sales world: 1.9 million
By mere virtue of the success of the console, a lot of SNES titles were sold, which meant statistically speaking some Western games would sell in Japan better than they probably would these days. Sim City, again, is one of those boundary-breaking titles that spoke to a wide audience. Graphics were functional at best but avoided, again, the difficulties of foreign character design. As it was something very new at the time it also spoke to the Japanese market’s hunger for innovation or at least for new experiences. This trend is still visible today when, even as it’s the sequels that sell best, the market still demands a certain level of innovation and any title that simply delivers more of the same without adding a few new touches will simply not succeed. This then was the first city simulator that spawned sequels and spin-offs and, as a first, must have spoken to the Japanese.

Banjo Kazooie (N64)
Total sales Japan 0.5 million
Total sales world: 3.6 million
Another Rare entry and this one a title which is held with many fond regards by Western gamers of a certain age (like me). It was a great platformer, yet its characters were relentlessly Western. Cutesy and colourful does not automatically equate to character design fit for Japanese consumption.

What’s most interesting is that aside from Tetris none of the titles above really enjoy the cult status they have, somewhat, in the West. Though Nintendo continues to exploit the revamped Donkey Kong character, his debut title (DKC) is just an old game, rather than a fondly remembered classic. Banjo and Kazooie failed to make a splash as merchandisable characters. Crash equally never captured the hearts of the Japanese audience to the extent of national fame, though the continuing downward trend of the series’ quality may be a contributing factor. I’d say these characters can be filed under “recognizable” rather than “beloved”.
Tetris, conversely, continues to see new leases of life with new versions being released constantly and some very well-made mobile phone adaptations. That one is a true classic.

What about some more recent, high-profile titles?

Grand Theft Auto 3 (PS2)
Total sales Japan 0.3 million
Total sales world: 11.6 million
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
Total sales Japan 0.4 million
Total sales world: 14.8 million
It took quite a while before Capcom swallowed this bitter pill and dared to release this western game in Japan, after most other publishers had shied away from it. Did it pay off? Well, they probably made their money back from localization, and all things considered it didn’t do that badly, but in a global sense it was a failure. The whole sandbox attitude is not something the Japanese gamer enjoys, let alone the urban, hood, gansta violence. Some Japanese youth like the gansta-rap image and even do their own hilarious imitations, but the idea of battering hookers wasn’t as big a hook as it was in the west, apparently.
True to expectations the title did cause a bit of a storm in a teacup with local politicians clamping down on 18+ rated games, like these (notice the triangular warning on the package shown above). The CERO rating, as it is here, is now in force in most places by having these particular titles separate from the regular ones, on a shelf with ample notification of their mature content. Some shops even go so far as to remove the covers from the boxes and replacing them with photocopied pieces of paper containing the title of the game and a short explanation of its contents. I think it is even against the law to sell such titles to underage customers, though that may come down to local governments. If anything the release of GTA in Japan proves that Japanese politicians are as keen to jump on vote-winning bandwagons as their foreign colleagues.

Halo 3 (360)
Total sales Japan 85k
Total sales world: 6 million
Much has been made of Halo 3’s launch, extending even its reach to Japan. The figures, however, speak for themselves, showing a mere tiny percentage of market share. Sure, for a first-person shooter on a badly selling console it’s not a bad figure, even if it pales compared to global sales, but it’s not good either. Microsoft, of course, fully anticipated this, knowing full well its only market in Japan was the super-double-hard-core, and subsequently didn’t go as batshit insane with its marketing spending as it did in the US. Sure, there were a few posters and advertising spreads in Famitsu for weeks on end, but any more publicity would not have made the, apathetic average Joe-san give a damn about first-person shooters on an expensive console.

Honourable mention
Parappa the Rapper (PS1)
Total sales Japan 1.4 million
Total sales world: 1.9 million
Though this game was very much designed and produced in Japan, it deserves a special mention as one of its main attractions was the design and character work by American artist and overall genius Rodney Greenblat. With Parappa he did the impossible, which is for a Westerner to create a style and set of characters that spoke directly to the Japanese, leading to a period of fame with merchandise, anime and even a café, which have all but subsided over the past few years. As a rule, with a few notable exceptions, Western character design faces a huge cultural chasm to cross, but Mr. Greenblat bridged it with aplomb. You gotta believe!

In conclusion it’s difficult to nail down any specific definitive tactic that can guarantee success in Japan. Even though Mr. Greenblat hit the bull’s eye with Parappa going for original character design is by far the most challenging. Having a game that avoids character can offer an advantage, like Tetris or Sim City, but this too is a gamble, as your average Japanese player does like his avatars on screen to be a certain kind of cool or cute. I think the best lessons can be learned from Donkey Kong; take an existing Japanese IP, improve on it or simply license it, have direct input from the locals, in this case Nintendo, and keep your fingers crossed. This of course doesn’t maximize returns, as you’ll be paying license fees and sharing profits, as well as signing over a chunk of creative freedom. But in the end it would appear the safest route into Japan.

Sources: VG Chartz, Enterbrain, MediaCreate, the mind of JC Barnett

Say chee-zu!

Pursuant to a recent rant regarding my status as a foreigner in Japan, where I boldly claimed to be an active and contributing part of society regardless of the status the Japanese themselves and some very deluded foreigners may lend me, the government here has made it a policy to distrust foreign nationals as a matter of course. As of this November 20th any person who is neither Japanese nor a diplomat must have his fingerprints and photograph taken when entering the contry, in pretty much the same way America treats its visitors with a dose of hostile suspicion and demeaning examination.

Fingerprinting foreigners in Japan was a custom that was thankfully done away with before my time here, yet it has now reared its ugly head again. The Japanese themselves cannot be printed unless they are suspected of a crime, but foreigners’ civil liberties must take a dive if they have the temerity to visit or live in Japan. Any future plans my readers may have of coming over here had better include a lengthy wait at Narita airport customs, as you will be queuing up with the masses so they can make sure you’re not a terrorist or criminal or, well, Japanese.

Funnily enough it’s domestic terrorism that is the bigger problem in Japan, though in light of today’s increasingly paranoid and hostile nationalism evoked by illegal invasions and terror attacks, it was predictable Japan, like many other countries, would fall for this placebo tactic. Let’s face it, it’s not so much about protecting the public but handing more power and information to the rulers, whom, in Japan, I have no power to elect.

Preceding this new policy by a few weeks was an initiative by Hello Work, Japan’s cutely named governmental employment services, who put out a request to companies to register their foreign employees. This, I had presumed, was usual, as I’ve worked in other countries where at the very least a photocopy of your passport and vise should be registered to make sure you’re not there illegally. But what struck me as patronizing was the idea that it was for my own protection as it was an initiative to “make sure employers aren’t exploiting foreign workers”. Sure it was. I would have had much less of a problem with it if they had just stated they wanted to take a census and keep an eye on all us dirty foreigners in Japan, which it most obviously was.

Some more conservative scaremongers may claim that fingerprinting and having to show your foreigner registration card on demand shouldn’t be an issue for law-abiding citizens. As a lefty I claim it’s a slippery slope and an unnecessary, xenophobia-inducing one at that. Still, compared to other countries immigrants in Japan don’t have it that bad. But saying it’s worse elsewhere is no excuse to condone the slow disintegration of our already slim civil liberties as citizens living in Japan and contributing to Japan’s society, culture and economy.

A final tip for future tourists: though Japan’s attitude to service and customers is superb, second to none, true to a global tradition airport customs staff are hand-picked from that specific grouping of morose, humourless sociopaths, and any attempt to, jokingly or not, sabotage the mugshot and fingerprinting process or any vocal protestation on the day is not advisable! I recommend taking the traditional appearance of a bumbling, friendly, polite, attentive and accommodating fool that so many travelers adopt at airports as it is the easiest way to get through the whole sorry mess and start your holiday in earnest. Keep the complaining and bitching, that air travel so richly deserves, for the pub and an audience less inclined to bang you up for days for not cooperating with the humiliating and dehumanizing process of proving you’re not a terrorist.

Beaujolais Nouveau Day

On November 9th, the first shipment of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau arrived at Narita airport with a fair amount of pomp and noise. The 3,500 cases, containing roughly 40,000 bottles were held until, under French law, it was allowed to go on sale this November 15th. In total 8.4 million bottles are expected to be imported.

As with all fads there was a bit of a hoopla around last week's first sales. Pretty much all alcohol outlets had special stands with plastic cups for tasting. Small stands were erected in the entrance halls of department stores so customers didn’t have to go downstairs to the food show to be hit in the face with French. I went to a central Tokyo department store to pick me up a bottle. A small crowd of mostly women and young couples were milling around. As I stood in line for a taster I could see the angsty look in the face of the women dishing out the samples, quickly replaced by relief when I talked to her in Japanese. She gave me a thimble-full of Taillevent, which was hardly enough for a taste, but I ended up buying a bottle anyway. It’s a cheeky little wine, but I prefer something a little more mature and full-bodied.

Though Japan isn’t as hung up on wine as a lot of European countries are, there is some interest. Wines are becoming increasingly popular amongst women, but we have thankfully yet to see any real armchair snobbery, or, sadly, supermarkets offering affordable yet good wines. For the good stuff you need to go to specialist shops or Shinjuku’s very much imposing Isetan’s winery which is laid out like a jewelry store and has attendants in evening suits and white gloves as well as detailed information on heritage and taste for all the wines on offer. It’s the kind of place where the cash register is hidden from view, which makes it look exclusive.

This increased interest in wine however did not help sales of EA’s “Sommelier DS”, which apparently tanked badly. Tto coincide with the release of this year’s wines, also saw the new “Wine no Hajimekata DS” by Square-Enix. Having a little more of a game element to it, it may fare better, but one wonders if people care enough. That said, it’s young women who like the wines and it’s mostly young women who love their DS, so it may be a marriage made in heaven. The special edition comes with a bottle of wine so I presume that would make it an Adults Only title. I wonder if they have to put it amongst the porn and gore games in the shops. That’s a thought.

If you like your wine you’re pretty well served in Japan. Obviously you must avoid pub wines, which come in the flavours “red” or “white”, both chilled to beyond taste, which considering their pedigree is probably a blessing in disguise. But there are plenty of shops that sell a large variety of wines, both imported and local, with Yamanashi prefecture being the most famous for Japanese wines (grape, not rice). And as it’s not so important in Japan you can easily get away with knowing bugger all about wines without people turning their nose up to you. If, like me, you just like to drown in sorrow, your average sub-grand yen imports from the local supermarket will serve you well. Kampai!

The Big Dipper

There is a well-documented problem with longevity amongst game industry careerists. Part of it is the frivolous nature of our products. When you’re meeting with friends who are lawyers, doctors, cancer curers or crime-fighting superheroes it always feels a bit sad when you tell them you’re still making kids’ toys, especially when you’re getting older. It’s also partly due to the punishing work “ethics” and generally lower wages. This is why most companies advertising for staff stipulate the applicant must be “passionate about games”, because, let’s be honest, the only real rewards you are going to receive are self-made.

In Japan it works a little bit differently. It’s often just seen as a desk job, as I suppose it is, and any real chance of promotion comes with longevity at the company. If you’re in your thirties and have been employed at the same place for, say, a decade, you’ll be promoted, whether you’re suitable or not. This partly stems from Japan’s history of life-time employment which, as I made clear at the start of the sentence, is history. Any person who still claims this as a fact of Japanese life needs to move out of the 80s. That said, job hopping is still very much a developing skill. Employers expect the employees to expect life-time employment, but that’s where it ends.

Eventually a lot of people end up leaving the industry, globally speaking, as employers are keen to hire enthusiastic graduates rather than keep their senior, and therefore more expensive, staff. Only those few who are extremely lucky enough to find a place of employment ideally suited to them find a new lease of life and stay the course. This is pretty much what it comes down to, life in the game industry: job-hopping from one place to another, or being made routinely redundant, until you find a place where there is an ideal marriage of wages, quality of life, projects and people. Ideal for you, that is. Alternatively you could be blissfully aware of your own incompetence and stick it out at a place where your employment is safe, possibly due to longevity or having incriminating photos of your boss at hand.

In the meantime most of us just ride the rollercoaster of highs and lows until we are sick of it and get a real job. Personally, and I think this may be endemic, I find my lows getting lower and my highs less and less high as time progresses. Soon enough the highs can’t counter the lows anymore and then I’ll have some difficult decisions to make.

The reason so many people get burned out, apart from the obvious crunch time mentality, is, as I see it, twofold. Firstly the job requires a creative mind, yet one hardly gets any opportunities to let that creativity run riot. This is the “prissy artist syndrome” where the increasingly technical tasks start to eat away at your Muse. You want to go mad and create insane characters and fantastical worlds, yet most of the time you have to polish, fix, adjust, change, bug-check, implement. These are necessary tasks and all part of the job, but when you’re feeling low these activities can really get on your goat.

The second reason is one the employers need to take the blame for. The aforementioned passion that is, apparently, a job requirement, is mostly advertised to get young, keen people to work for little money and do unpaid overtime willingly. It’s hard to make employees work extra time for no extra pay or reward other than, maybe, a few days holiday at the end of a project of a duration that usually doesn’t reflect the countless hours you’ve worked for free, but if you convince them it’s “for the good of the game” you usually can get people excited enough to comply. However, this is a double-edged sword. Aside, of course, from overworking your staff and decreasing their effectiveness, you are also chipping away at their morale. “Wow,” a keen applicant may think, “I am passionate about games! They want passionate people! I can give them all my ideas, I can really help make this a better game!” But no, there is usually little room for employees to contribute to the extent they believe they will be able to, so this false expectation of being deeply involved turns into bitter resentment when leads and bosses dictate what needs to be done with little regard to the ideas of the “passionate employee”.

In the end you have turned from passionate artist to competent but tired craftsman until you become a journeyman, doing your hours for the pay with very little enthusiasm. At that point you think to yourself “hey, I can work my hours with little enthusiasm elsewhere, for much better pay!” and you get a job in banking.

Of course, the many people that do stay in the industry before their use-by date are lucky. They end up somewhere where they feel valued, where they feel adequately compensated and can work on things they like. They are also an immense asset, having acquired more knowledge than the five graduates their wages would easily pay for. But these days finding such a place is a little like winning the lottery.

With increasingly expensive development cycles and a staffing problem the traditional decline in morale of seniors is something that should be addressed. However useful keen and cheap graduates are, they are no substitute for a weathered veteran. At the very least you need a few of them aboard. It’s a shame to lose all these people to the better paid, better scheduled and better rewarded jobs. I wonder what could be done about that.

On the other hand…maybe it’s our industry’s self-regulating culling process. Get rid of the chaff, out with the old. I mean, if Portal has taught us anything, not desert related, it’s that it’s the new guard, the young turks, who will bend new life into game design while the old fogeys keep harping on about nicer-looking guns and better ragdoll physics. It takes a team of seniors to come up with Halo 3, but it was a pack of students that came up with Portal. Bah humbug. What do I know? Maybe it’s time to be put out to pasture.

All aboard the Nintendo gravytrain!

There is no excellence without labor. One cannot dream oneself into either usefulness or happiness. - Liberty Hyde Bailey

I used to think the most fun I’ve ever had was watching our pet cats emerge from general anesthetic after their vasectomy, seeing them walk around the garden like little drunk, emasculated zombie hobos, propping themselves against trees and falling over hilariously But then Nintendo gone and done and went and did finally release Super Mario Galaxy and it has totally turned my appreciation of fun on its head.

Of all the stunningly excellent games we have been able to enjoy over the last few months and that are on the release lists for the coming holiday season it’s only Super Mario Galaxy that I feel warrants a perfect score, with the only improvement that could be made at this point in time is to have more of it.

The sad thing is that releases like this usually give rise to the old developer complaint that “only Nintendo makes money on Nintendo consoles”. And this is true to an extent. With licensing and production fees any third party title that is released on a Wii or DS will also generate an income for Nintendo, in pretty much the same way it does for any of the consoles. However, the implication is that Nintendo has some kind of monopoly over sales hits on their own consoles. They do, apparently, but the reason as to why is hardly a mystery.

Mario is of course a very strong IP that is hard to compete with, but it only became so because of the continued care Nintendo seem to pay to its products. They spend time and money on doing it right and it shows. You are pretty much guaranteed a Nintendo developed product is going to deliver a standard of quality, because it has always done so in the past. If anything we can thank Sonic for proving the idea that an IP only remains strong with continued care and support. If you’re going to hastily develop a game with a small team, low budget and tight deadline then obviously you’ll never be able to compete. Yet because so many publishers and developers have accepted the notion that it’s impossible to compete with Nintendo software that they are unwilling to invest heavily in games developed for Nintendo hardware, thus proving their own preposterous hypothesis. You’ll need to invest a lot of time, money and talent into any game if you’re aiming for quality, let alone one that has to compete with Zelda or Mario, yet publishers keep on rushing out substandard titles and complaining how they don’t sell.

With the increasing costs of development for current generation consoles, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, (funny how Microsoft Word underlines that name with a red squiggly line) publishers have gotten into the mindset of cross-platform development, using one console, usually the 360, as a base from which to easily and quickly generate different SKUs. This is why some of the Playstation 3 titles look no better than the 360 versions. This is also why Wii titles from this heritage look so rubbish. They are simply toning down the graphics and shoehorning in a motion sensor control. It’s a natural progression, I guess,, but by now it should be obvious that Wii titles require their own approach and can’t simply be extracted from cross-platform source.

Many complain about how weak the Wii is in terms of power. It is indeed not as fast or big as its competitors but most developers use it as an excuse for their ugly games. Yet Super Mario Galaxy is gorgeous. It has a more solid, beautiful look to it than most Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 titles. This is because they have a little thing called “art direction”. Rather than aiming for realism, bloom and normalmaps they aim for design, something Nintendo, and the wider Japanese industry, seems to be petty good at. Obviously, having a more intimate knowledge of the hardware and probably better technical support than any 3rd party developer helps, but to condemn the Wii for its visuals is misdirecting your ire; blame bad art direction instead or, more accurately, uninspired art direction. Technology doesn’t make pretty pictures, design does.

Gameplay-wise Nintendo games also shine out. Sure, it’s hard to compete with that but most developers just seem to give up, in a defeatist, exasperated way. Has Nintendo somehow hired all the truly creative minds in our entire industry? I hardly think so. There is some amazing talent strewn across the globe. That inspirational spark of genius that often ignites Nintendo-made games can be fostered elsewhere, given the right working environment. That is to say, nurture your talent and avoid design by committee. I’m pretty sure every designer in the world has a few genius ideas of how to utilize the Wii’s control system, yet publishers are usually unwilling to allow these to be followed up on until some other company has already proven it to be a success.

So my message to developers and publishers is, in no small part due to my desire for more good Wii games to play, to make an effort! Put your better team on Wii titles. Develop them from the ground up, and don’t just make inferior ports of multiplatform titles. And stop crying over your spilled milk; the reason Nintendo seems to be ruling the Nintendo market is largely due to the lack of any real competition. With the surprisingly huge Wii install base, even if Nintendo earns a slice of your pie when you release a Wii title, there is a huge market of hungry gamers out there, gagging for quality products. Stop complaining and step up!

Fallingu Behindo

I have often stated nobody in Japan speaks English. This is of course not entirely true, but it’s a handy guide for aspiring immigrants. You really need to make the effort to learn Japanese or you’ll face a lot of frustration and hurt your opportunities. But some people do speak English here, some very well, even. Despite learning it as part of the standard curriculum at school most Japanese simply have too little knowledge or skill in English to use it and any proficiency is mainly due to foreign exchange experiences or personal interest. But even in the latter case some people go to English language schools for months and still can’t master the language to a level where it becomes useful. Sure, a lot of people will be able to get the wide gist of a piece of English text if absolutely forced to read it, but ordering a cup of coffee is still too difficult.

Like it or not, and even though it’s not a majority language, English has become, due in no small part to technological advances made in the West and the widespread use of the internet, the lingua franca. Most countries’ populations have dealt with the situation admirably, even though English is a notoriously difficult and confusing language. Watch any news item and most people interviewed, wherever they are in the world, speak English at the very least to an extent it is usable and understandable. Except, of course, when it comes to Japanese interviewees who always need to be dubbed and translated. The same goes for the video game industry. Watch any developer interview on, say, Gametrailers and they’ll speak English, be they from Poland, Russia, Sweden, America (where they speak it very well) or France. But not, of course, Japan.

This is not a rant against Japan’s overall inability to learn a language or my own self-made frustrations as a lifer here, but it struck me that this is most definitely a contributing factor to the further falling behind of Japanese game development especially on technical issues.

One of the great aspects of our industry in recent years is the greater freedom with which developers share information. Shows like GDC, sites like Gamasutra as well as many other outlets are great ways for developers to share information on a mutually beneficial basis. And something like, say, Tim Moss’s excellent lecture on data driven systems, once translated and communicated by me to the rest of the team, turns from a lucid and interesting talk into an incomprehensible, childish load of gibberish. Articles of note on Gamasutra, when sent by email to colleagues, end up ignored in the same way I ignore emails, as it is sometimes just too much bother struggling through a text in a language you haven’t mastered, especially when you’re busy.

Also when it comes to the job market Japan is in trouble. There is a constant lack of qualified applicants and little time or money to train graduates to a good standard. Whereas Westerners are pretty free to move from country to country to find the best companies to work for, Japanese companies, due to their lack of English ability, are limited to local hires and those few foreign idiots who learned the language and are willing to take a massive pay cut. It would seem a lot of able applicants are relocating to America because integration is painless and the salaries much better. Japan is missing the boat here, letting good candidates slip through their fingers. The attitude should be "we want the best, so we look for the best!” rather than “do you speak Japanese and are you willing to work for 50% of the salary you could get elsewhere?”

Though some companies do license foreign technology, like Renderware and Unreal Engine, support, though localized, is usually a step removed from the actual developers of the software. This extra degree of separation can add to response time, affecting the development and ultimately the experience of licensed technology. Even then there are on-line communities where questions can be fielded but fewer in Japan than abroad.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Two of the three major console manufacturers are Japanese and offer pretty good local support. The Japanese market, though shrinking, is at the moment still viable. And with the massive success of the DS and Wii, arguably two pieces of hardware without huge technical power, current working systems in Japan can still be used to profitable effect. Some Japanese developers too have started talking candidly about their technology and practices and there are some local seminars and shows like CEDEC and the like. But when it comes down to numbers these events pale in comparison to foreign shows and with western companies becoming increasingly aggressive in the global market Japan needs to step up and take the challenge, and for this a minimum requirement would seem to be some usable level of English proficiency. It’s not a panacea, but it’s definitely one aspect that is a hindrance to the Japanese game development industry.