|squaresoft’s final fantasy (1987)|
my apologies to the land of the rising sun.
just off the heels of TGS ’10 (the tokyo game show for those not in the know), a few key people in japanese gaming have been saying that japan’s long era of dominating the video game industry is over, and western studios are the new leaders in that sphere. and these aren’t small fries spouting opinion either – these are real industry heavy hitters, like keiji inafune (father of mega man and onimusha) and hideo kojima (the brains behind metal gear solid). it’s even been covered by the new york times. i never really stopped to think about it, but it’s completely true. growing up as a nintendo kid in the 80’s and 90’s, my favorite games were all from powerhouse japanese studios – squaresoft’s final fantasy, capcom’s street fighter and side scrollers, and of course nintendo and shigeru miyamoto’s pantheon of classics like mario brothers and the legend of zelda. that was then. save the princess, slay the dragon, and save the world by means of jumping on heads and whipping boomerangs.
but this is now. who are the big guys these days? nintendo not withstanding, you don’t see a whole lot from namco, tecmo, capcom, or the other eastern houses. let’s look at some popular games of our time: halo, call of duty, guitar hero, madden, world of warcraft. what do they have in common? all software gems of the west. these days it’s electronic arts. microsoft. activision/blizzard (on whose idiot ceo i will be writing a full feature on in the near future). and why? because the market, not to mention the consumer, has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. in the western world, games have come a long way from basement d&d sessions and action and adventure. they’re evolved from just something that people play for leisure into fully immersive experiences that have the power to shape pop culture and mainstream media. you can use wii fit to get into better shape, party and social games to keep in touch or hang out with friends, or full out RPG’s if you want to lose yourself in a cinematic odyssey. example: xenosaga episode I (ps2) provided roughly 80 hours of gameplay for the full story, as opposed to super mario world (snes), which i have beaten in under 30 minutes. and world of warcraft? you better have at least 9 friends, a headset, and a few hours just for the final raid encounter in their wrath of the lich king expansion.
|bioware’s mass effect (2009)|
japanese studios just can’t keep up. their game market has declined 20% since 2007, while the american market is up 10%. what do the japanese masters have to say about it? capcom’s keiji inafune was very blunt about TGS: “i look around tokyo games show, and everyone’s making awful games; japan is at least five years behind.” pretty serious stuff. he went on to say “capcom is barely keeping up,” and further, “i want to study how westerners live, and make games that appeal to them.” he understands how much of the market we make up now. if he did study us what he would find is a fundamental difference in what japanese gamers enjoy versus americans and the west. he’d find stark cultural differences, that americans put such a high value on individuality and freedom, that the games that allow that will sell better. not to mention that we love our guns, so FPS games are highly popular. japanese games sometimes have the tendency to be linear, story/quest-driven (even though the write excellent stories), as in doing anything sometimes has a string of prerequisites before it can happen. western gamers generally seem to be more focused on openness and customization of the story catered to them – mass effect, dragon age and fable are all examples of this. these three changed the story and outcomes over time based on decisions the player made with their characters, and were all very popular
as far as inafune’s claim that capcom is barely keeping up, he’s right. i used to be one of their biggest fans and they’re starting to lose me with rehashes of 15 year old games instead of releases of original quality titles. their last real success was dead rising, which was catered to the west (and of course, the latest zombie craze). their upcoming reboot of the devil may cry series on the other hand, which is being recrafted to appeal to western audiences, actually made me angry. for other japanese companies, what does namco really have outside of tekken? when was the last time tecmo’s slogan of “100% games” was true?
devil may cry is evidence simply localizing game production for targeted audiences isn’t always going to work. globalization has hit the game market, and japanese studios are going to have to adapt to their new audiences. square-enix president yoichi wada put it best – “how do you truly globalize? i think you have to work with people who grew up overseas, who grew up breathing the culture. it’s impossible otherwise.” “the game industry is constantly changing. everybody’s joining the market. you just don’t know what’s coming next.”
on that note, if any game studios are reading this, i’ll be more than thrilled to consult.