Relatively recently, we were treated to some interesting announcements from E3 in LA, such as the introduction of Nintendo’s new gaming console, the Wii U, and the coming of a more gritty but natural Lara Croft created by game developer Crystal Dynamics. However, upon closer examination of E3, it becomes apparent that the event is dominated by Western developers and publishers.
Every year, game development studios spend millions of dollars on the development of titles for various platforms like the PS3. Those titles are certainly not developed solely for the domestic market, but with the goal of worldwide distribution.
Although some of the major and more popular titles in Japan were showcased at this year’s E3, the world barely took notice of them. Of course such domestic games like Mario, Pokemon, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear Solid are still big brands worldwide, but the question is: is Japan’s best already behind it?
The following list shows the top 5 selling titles in Japan for 2010. (Data compiled by the Research Institute ASCII)
- Pokémon Black and White
- Monster Hunter Portable 3rd
- New Super Mario Bros. Wii
- Wii Party
- Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation
The following list shows the top 5 selling titles in North America for 2010. (Data compiled by NPD)
- Call of Duty: Black Ops
- Madden NFL ’11
- Halo: Reach
- New Super Mario Bros. Wii
- Red Dead Redemption
Even though there was a difference in the release dates for Japan and North America, “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” made it onto both Top 5 lists. Examining the other titles, one thing becomes clear: players abroad and in Japan prefer completely different games and genres. Speaking of differences, I would like to voice some thoughts regarding differing concepts in Japan and the West.
1. Freedom of Choice
Not on the list, but nevertheless very popular examples of Western games are: “KotoR“, “Deus Ex“, and “Dragon Age“. One special point of interest in these games is the fact that they provide the gamer with various situations in which he or she can freely decide which path to take, rather than having to follow a preset linear storyline. It is not only an “extra” that goes along with the story, but an underlying concept of the game that has great influence on the outcome of the game. This mechanism keeps long-term motivation high, and offers a high grade of replay value to the game, which is especially important for single player games and almost considered a standard among RPGs. Indeed, the linear game play was something that was criticized by players of FF13 in the West.
Lately we see a lot of attention being garnished by an indie game called “Minecraft”, a game which offers another form of freedom. The game follows a very simple concept: players can freely create the game world in any way they like, e.g. building their own houses and gardens with any specs they like, resulting in completely different game worlds for each player. Although the graphics are rather poor, the flexibility provided by this game concept has led to over two million downloads worldwide and made a great impact on users around the world.
2. Multiplayer: Confrontation or Cooperation?
In any country, multiplayer and online gaming are no novelty, and it is no exaggeration to say that gamers all over the world enjoy multiplayer games. However, the way multiplayer games are played in Japan and the rest of the world differs slightly.
In Western countries, many gamers enjoy playing “against” one another, either with friends or complete strangers (playing against human opponents), as can be gathered from the genres that are mainly played. On the other hand, examining hit titles in Japan such as the Monster Hunter series, it can be seen that Japanese players enjoy other game factors in multiplayer gaming, such as “cooperative play” in slaying “monsters” (playing against an AI).
Over the past few years, multiplayer and online gaming in Japan has provided a great medium for building new relationships, and there has been a tendency to solidify relationships with friends and acquaintances through games. In other words, video games have become a communication tool in Japan, even though the majority of players enjoy gaming the old-fashioned way: side-by-side, in front of the television with friends and family. This is caused by differences in lifestyle in Japan and overseas. In Japan – due to the enclosed urban lifestyle – it is far more natural to play multiplayer games in the living room, while it is more convenient for people in the United States to connect online.
3. Differences in Artwork
The aforementioned game Minecraft is a good example for the argument that even simple graphics do not necessarily have a negative effect on the success of a game. However, graphics undoubtedly play an important role when it comes to a player’s first impression. When comparing Japanese and Western games, even the untrained eye can see a vast difference in game world and character design.
Many of the epic Western titles try to catch players’ eyes by seeking thorough realism. While American artists are trying to be as realistic as possible with aspects such as the game world and main player characters in addition to NPC artwork, the Japanese put an emphasis on the design itself, trying to create a cool, interesting, and appealing look. Even for fantasy genres, most Western games stick to this concept to reproduce realistic-looking environments with a realistic feel of the game world in as much detail as possible. They usually draw on designs that have an actual reference model. While the protagonists of many Western RPG games often fight monsters in “real” heavy armor, many Japanese heroes rely on jackets or coats as clothing. This difference is made even more obvious as many Japanese games make use of manga and anime artwork. Even though the same CG character modeling techniques are employed, at a single glance it becomes quite apparent that “Tomb Raider” was made abroad, and that “Tekken” is a Japanese game.
Regarding these differences in artwork, of course the developers’ personal tastes and preferences come into play, but the question of what sort of design will be most accepted by players is also definitely taken into consideration. When developing for the Japanese market, “cute” is generally accepted as more likely to hit with users than more edgy, realistic character design. However, the unfortunate reality is that this “cute” style of design tends to be relatively unpopular with players in the rest of the world.
4. Developing Games for the World
The scale of the differences in games for which demand is high in Japan and the rest of the world is quite large. With a bit of arrogance and exaggeration, it could be said that “the fun of Japanese games is incomprehensible to foreigners”. However, it is possible that gamers outside of Japan are thinking: “Japanese developers don’t take our opinions into consideration at all”. In reality, it may not be that overseas game fans stopped caring about or paying attention to Japanese games, but that Japanese creators never really took notice of overseas gamers in the first place.
Using Capcom as an example, last year they unveiled games such as “Ōkami” and “Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective”. These games are widely known by Japanese gamers as having extremely high-caliber game elements and being wonderfully entertaining. However, they are in no way considered to be games created “for overseas audiences”.
Nowadays, things are vastly different from the times when Japan was considered to be on the cutting edge of the gaming industry. As overseas game developers continue to hone their skills, the number of options regarding non-Japanese games has increased exponentially. The fact is that it is becoming impossible to keep pumping out games which are simply fun and well-made and automatically expect them to become hits (this is not necessarily the case with products such as the Wii, which provides an all-new form of entertainment). “This particular game hit in Japan, so upon localizing it and sending it out to the world market, huge profits automatically followed”… This sort of thing simply does not happen anymore. In reality, games such as Capcom’s “Dead Rising” – which was created with a later global launch in mind from the start – tend to become smash hits overseas.
Japanese game developers are finally beginning to take notice of this issue, and have apparently began producing games made for the world, as opposed to just games created mainly for domestic release. Previously-mentioned Capcom has begun preparing games such as “Dragon’s Dogma” and “Resident Evil”, which are clearly not meant to be purely for domestic release.
Put simply, over the next year or so, Japanese games created with the rest of the world taken into consideration will start being released. With these releases, the true merit of Japanese game creators will be taken into question once again. Hopefully, from next year on, Japanese booths at E3 will finally get their groove back and thrive once again.