In a games industry where Nintendo still has a strong presence and Hideo Kojima’s face adorns more and more gaming articles the closer we get to Death Stranding, Japanese gaming is struggling to find a foothold in our picky Western cultures. Indeed a good proportion of Japanese videogames never even make it across to us, purely for lack of viability with a Western mindset. As Westerners, we think we know what we like. Any Western gamer reading this could tell you and it would likely be THE games industry to them. That being, big AAA titles with gritty realism. Mostly shooters or sequels of established franchises.
Firmly rooted ideas of what or who a hero should be and how they should behave drive Western games development. Ingrained ideas of how to execute narrative and storytelling in compelling ways. The list goes on. Yet, as this writer became aware of a pocket within the games industry that has begun to struggle, through no fault of its own, he could not help but delve deeper to answer what is becoming for most – a growing mystery. The dwindling light of Japanese influence on global gaming.
A Defined Difference Of Mindset That Left Publishers With A Very Black & White Picture Of Global Gaming. Which Side Would They Choose?
The difference in history and, in turn, culture between the West and the East is massive. As a result, different tastes for all kinds of things develop across the generations. Japan is widely considered one of the most influential birthplaces of videogames, bringing forth the whacky and creative ideas of Pac Man and Space Invaders. This is the first buzzword – whacky and creative. Ok, two words.
As a result, Japanese game developers are, and it goes without saying, extremely talented and creative folks. Often, titles that bear many years of sequels end up being selectively supported, especially so for making it to the West. To list a few survivors of the trip across the ocean – Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid and, just about Dynasty Warriors. Aside from these long-travelling and viably worldwide marketable products, Japanese videogames are often fresh IPs as a result of their developers’ creative minds. Of course, this should be great for the games industry as a whole. So why isn’t this aesthetic of game creation getting a thumbs up in the West?
Take a look at the last two generations of games consoles. Now, take a look at some of your favourite games from those generations. Or even the ones you don’t like that you knew had a strong presence in the industry at the time. Now ask yourself how many of those were sequels, reboots or spin offs. Aha. There’s the problem. As Western games developers sprouted in growth between the age of the original Playstation and the following generation, so too did corporate greed. An unavoidable factor in anything that makes disgusting amounts of money, of course.
As a result of this growth in the industry, games developers and, by unfortunate extension, shareholders and publishers want one thing. Reliability. As far as a publisher is concerned, backing a project for an entirely new IP is an inevitable gamble. Exceptions being, of course, Horizon: Zero Dawn or games similarly backed by first party publishers who can cough up the money. They’ll be coughing up the money for things us Western gamers have been spoiled with over the last few generations. Things like optimised graphics, smooth mechanical handling and overall flawless performance.
While the creative Japanese minds want to create something new and original, publishers would rather stick to the likes of Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty for yearly guaranteed profits. Is it any wonder Square Enix merged with many Western studios halfway through the last generation? People like Jean Kellums, a writer for Platinum Games have similar explanations in their own theories.
Without A Tendency For Yearly AAA Titles That Appeal To The West, Japan’s Gaming Ecosystem Is Left By The Wayside
Of course, this lack of corporate meddling (We’ll brush Mankind Divided under the rug for now) is good for the Japanese games industry. As a rare survivor of the “always a bigger fish” rule adopted in the West, Japan can enjoy a plethora of original ideas and colourful explorations in what videogames can deliver. Yet, only a slice of the pie is available to us Westerners. You guessed it – those reliable sequels. Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid and Persona would all be considered reliable to publishers as established franchises with existing fanbases. These gaming giants were of course rooted in most of our childhoods and our fondness as a result can be relied upon to make money. Sadly, this only further alienates Japan from the Western games industry.
Taking a brief look at the above mentioned games, an over-arching mindset of Japanese game creation can be identified. Like I said – whacky, colourful and imaginative. Even Metal Gear Solid has ongoing themes of the paranormal. The dividing line between Japanese and Western games development is this mindset that differs so drastically. Our Western made games focus on realism in a broader sense. Even sci-fi games would apply to this. When realism is taken into account, I mean things we take for granted in particular games. Things like jump height, when the controller should vibrate, how a weapon should reload, how things should look. With this rigid frame placed on developers, our Western made games have seen a stagnation, with only a few stand out pieces in recent years. Has anybody stopped to ask “why can’t we have a games industry that is stand out across the board”. At the risk of going around in circles here – the publishers… and their lack of willingness to take risks. All of this, while the many beautiful Japanese games that never reach us end up under exposed.
To condense this – we like the comfort of sequels and familiar dependability. Gritty realism where it can be applied. For fantasy titles like the Witcher 3 or Mass Effect, we search for a love interest which meshes nicely with our media’s obsession with celebrity gossip. The Japaneses on the other hand, are more focused on the purpose of what a videogame really needs to be. High fantasy, thought provoking, colourful experiences. An escape from reality; something they seem far more willing to do.
Once The Top Dog Of Console Hardware, A Simple Shift Was Enough To Knock Japan Off Its Perch
Japanese gaming has its roots in the arcade scene. Pac Man and Space Invaders pioneered the idea of serious gaming. This idea permeated through the minds of everybody as these arcade machines could be found just about anywhere. The added sense of accessibility for all only granted yet further success. It goes without saying then, that upon the arrival of the SNES, N64 then the Dreamcast, Japanese developers were all over it. Our arcade machines were bringing ever new delights and boundary pushers like House of The Dead and the birth of the Tekken series, giving Western developers, Midway, a run for their money with the Mortal Kombat series, still 2-D at the time. It seemed like Japan was ahead of the curve.
Around this time, however, it was becoming more and more common to bring the arcade into your own home. For a time, the luxury of gaming in your own living room only served to amplify Japan’s success. More original IPs emerged on the first Playstation like the first 3-D Metal Gear game or Silent Hill. It was at this time that publishers were very happy with the likes of Konami or Capcom. As a result, we follow the rule of publisher backing = quality. The titles these developers produced were some of the most graphically impressive of the time and had no end of media exposure. Yet, in the following generation, something would happen that would set Japan on the back foot for many years to come.
It Could Be Said The Original Xbox Heralded The Beginning Of The End For Japanese Dominance In Gaming
When Microsoft decided to tap into the gaming market, creating the Xbox, something else also came into being for the first time. The first console designed with PC architecture. This stood as an immense threat to Japanese developers. For all of gaming history thus far, the Japanese had been getting by swimmingly, using the architecture of their pioneering arcade machines. An arcade style gaming architecture that I dare say we have to thank for cartridges. By the time seventh gen rolled around, PC architecture was considered par for the course with the rise of online play and digital marketing.
This meant that Western developers had a field day since they had been making use of PC architecture in game design from the beginning. Along came the famous engines we have today. The likes of Unity and Unreal allowed Western developers to crack their fingers in readiness. It allowed them to suddenly generate games of high visual and mechanical quality. Suffice it to say, the leap between sixth gen and seventh was quite a treat. Now, the West had been springboarded to advantage, ahead of the curve forcing Japan to learn how to use new tools as quickly as possible to keep up.
The Red Pill Or The Blue Pill?
As a result of this sudden shift in tech dominance, Japan stands at an interesting juncture within the global games industry. With big time publishers burying their heads in the lucrative Western sand, Japan may find itself within a gaming ecosystem of its own. Distribution would be quick and easy. Game design could be carried out to the highest possible standards – to their terms without making modifications for the larger audiences in the West. They would likely be logistically prepared for this scenario as a good portion of their games already remain only in the East.
This is the first of two theories and the least likely. Publisher’s lack of willingness to invest in new franchises may unwittingly be the result of a flourishing indie scene. The indie genre of gaming has already proven both lucrative and important. It nearly stands as relevant as triple A gaming after its many successes coupled with the digital marketplace. Indie devs succeed in their projects because, at the very start, they did not have to sell their idea to a publisher. Which means they have total creative freedom in designing their game. This fits wonderfully with creative Japanese minds that want to build something original.
Where Next For Japan?
Only time will tell what direction Japan will ultimately choose, moving forward. Just as they held the torch for the birth of videogames as we know them, they may well hold the torch for a second renaissance in indie development. Western studios like Tarsia are setting the bar high with their upcoming title, Little Nightmares. There’s little room for doubt in Japanese dev’s abilities. How they choose to leverage those abilities will remain a mystery until their next world renowned title takes us by storm.