Post E3 2009- Japanese devs strike back?

The geographical centre of the games industry has shifted. Milking the cash cow PS2’s huge installed base created for too long has lead most Japanese developers to fall behind the times, and the pinnacles of modern game design are coming from the West, with the Japanese gaming industry in big trouble.

That was the consensus coming out of TGS 2008 and yet now, shortly after the games industry’s Great American Bash that was E3, it seems like some focus is coming back East. Or is it? Or IS it? Let’s take a look.

First and third party Japanese developers have been crucial to the success of almost every format from the mid 1980s on. There were great games which shifted systems and had tremendous cultural influence worldwide. Super Mario Bros. not only shifted Famicoms in Japan and affected Japanese lives to the extent that the term ‘B-Dash'(hurry!) is immortalised in katakana English that’s still being used today; it also shook the foundations of pop culture in the West. Suddenly Mario was a more recognisable face to children in America than Mickey Mouse. Sega’s Sonicin 1991 had similar importance, capturing a slightly older audience. In the Playstation era, Final Fantasy VIIand Metal Gear Solid joined the likes of the N64’s Ocarina of Time to be internationally hailed as some of the greatest games of their generation, if not of all time.

From Mario to MGS and Zelda OOT- Japanese games matured with their key audience over twenty years, but recent attempts to recapture the young have lost some of what was the core market

From Mario to MGS and Zelda OOT- Japanese games matured with their key audience over twenty years, but recent attempts to recapture the young have lost some of what was the core market

Even when Japanese developers weren’t rocketing to the top of the software charts with their games, they were often critically acclaimed for being daring and different. NanaonCha’s Parappa the Rappercreated the rhythm action genre as we know it, albeit selling modestly, while the off the wall Katamari Damashii had decent sales on its eventual western release thanks to word of mouth hype and positive western critical response. Meanwhile games like Ico andWanda to Kozu (Shadow of the Colossus) as well as Rez on Dreamcast, and to an extent, Silent Hill 2 became responsible in the early part of the decade for creating a new form of ‘art house game’ which pushed gaming into new directions of storytelling and experience.

In June 2009, though, it seems the number of games that are making the most out of current systems and pushing those artistic limits are coming from the west. Innovations like Little Big Planet’s Play Create, Share mechanic and the popularisation of open world gameplay in GTA, are British. America’s Harmoinix and Neversoft have taken Parappa’s ‘anything is possible, you gotta believe!’ moral and applied it to huge profits. In terms of popularity, on 360 and PS3 western developed action games, mostly running on the same western developed game engine, sell like hotcakes. In 2008, all bar one of the years top fifty selling games that were available for PS3 and 360 were developed outside of Japan. The sole exception, Metal Gear Solid 4, was described by the game’s producer, Hideo Kojima, as being the most western influenced MGS game. Oddly, in my opinion, the game suffers as a result. Right now, it seems that Japanese games that do get coverage in the west are role playing games, that fall behind the quality standard set by FFVII some twelve years ago. The niche Japanese art house game has all but disappeared, and publishers are increasingly looking to western developers to handle updates to their old franchises, with Swedes Grin taking on the recent Bionic Commandopublished by Capcom, Canada’sNext Level dealing with Nintendo’s Punch Out,and England’s Climax handling Konami’s re-imagined Silent Hill.

Guitar Hero and LBP are two example of games that take arguably very Japanese concepts of rythm action and user creation and westernised them with great success.

Guitar Hero and LBP are two example of games that take arguably very Japanese concepts of rhythm action and user creation and westernised them with great success.

Arguably this sea change started in the Playstation era. With Sony being especially keen to court third parties, it was easier for western developers to get their content on Playstation without having to deal with Nintendo’s tortuous QA policies and licensing fees. Microsoft’s XBox was the first console in over twenty years to have a software line up that was almost exclusively western developed, and still have sales success. In the west, that is. Here in Japan, XBox infamously sunk like, well, a rather weighty games console. Back in 1996, Sony tried hard to market western developed games like Tomb Raider to the Japanese market. Western pop and rock music was selling well in Japan at the time, and it seemed to make sense that games would do the same.

 The western games movement was slapped down by Japanese consumers though, in the same way that XBox would be seven years later. Japanese punters didn’t like the action heavy western style, and they especially didn’t get along with first person games, arguably preferring games that embodied their central characters in the way traditional JRPGs did. Of all the games Sony would push in the mid 90s, only Crash Bandicoot had any real success. Today the situation is much the same. XBox 360 has been doing modestly well, but only thanks to JRPGs along with Street Fighter 4and Biohazard 5. The western game is pretty much still shunned with occasional exceptions for games like Grand Theft Auto. The average Japanese gamer still can’t figure out FPSs, as this writer witnessed at TGS- waiting in line for Mirror’s Edgewas a painful experience as 9 out of 10 of the people in front of me couldn’t figure out twin stick controls and were constantly walking in circles and looking at the floor. Every single one of Japan’s top fifty selling games across all formats was developed domestically,according to VGCharts, and yet desperately few of these games are genre or culturally defining, or even far above average quality wise. What gives?

Firstly, there’s the whole ‘casual’ gamer thing. In Japan, as elsewhere, the goasl following the success of Nintendo’s Wii and DS is to target the young and the casual game player. This explains the success of Wii Fit and Dobutsu no Mori Wii, despite lukewarm reception from traditional enthusiast press. Nintendo’s adeptness at creating games that appeal to markets outside of core gamers reaped dividends in the west as well. While 360 and PS3 is a reasonably Japanese free hardcore gamer’s zone, the truth is Wii is still outselling both machines in the west and at home, and Nintendo’s Wii Play, Mario Kart Wii and Wii Fit were by far the biggest selling games of 2008 (not counting Wii Sportswhich is a pack in game in the west). With western third parties still struggling to get a slice of the Wii pie, it could be argued that in terms of sales figures, the centre of games development is still Japan, but an abundance of minigame collections and tired franchises is a depressing thought.Whither the hardcore game? Where is the game that can capture the imaginations, and not just the cash, of players both sides of the globe?

These games will be huge, make no mistake, and may help capture both casual and hardcore gamers. With canny promotion they may do well in the west as well, recentering attentions on Japan.

These games will be huge, make no mistake, and may help capture both 'casual' and 'hardcore' gamers. With canny promotion they may do well in the west as well, recentering attentions on Japan.

 

Part of the answer lies wright at the top of Japan’s 2008 top fifty. Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G outstripped everything else last year by half a million copies. MoHun’s fantasy setting may not be new, but its real time fighting and online community sets it apart from other Japanese games. Monster Hunter Trion Wii will come out in August and will most likely be an absolute phenomenon, something which may carry west, allowing more hardcore gamers to pick up their Wiis.  On PS3 and 360, Metal Gear Solid Rising and the re-emergence of Gran Turismo 5 and Gran Turismo Portablefor PSP, along with Bayonetta and Konami’s new spin on Castlevania may see more Japanese games being played on western machines in 2010 than there has been for quite some time. And for the art house crowd, The Last Guardian, from the people that brought us Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, won a jaded western audience over when it was shown at E3. Meanwhile Nintendo, perhaps enraged that a very Japanese idea of community level sharing was popularised by Media Molecule and LBP,  are pushing Warioware-Made in Ore, and Mario versus Donkey Kong 3hard on DS to capture those players who are willing to devote enough time to their hobby to create levels and minigames and post them online.

Make no mistake meanwhile, it seems that the most recent wave of Japanese hardcore games may struggle in the wake of Modern Warfare 2, or any number of big western games coming this year and next. It’s hard to pinpoint a precise time when Japanese games lost some of their favour back west, when they began to be perceived as too casual, too childlike, or incapable of pushing the boat out as far as western games. But if E3 is anything to go by, we may be turning a corner again.

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