Reality or Illusion: The Fall of Japanese Games

Japanese games have unquestionably played a pivotal role in the evolution of video games – both as a technology and as an artistic medium since its conception. As a result, their games have been an integral part of any gamers’ life – irrespective of their age, background or genre preferences. Japanese games and their associated culture are adored, at times to the extent of reverence in the Western world, so it should come as no surprise that games from the “Land of the Rising Sun” hold a special regard – an entity equivalent of a holy shrine, in any gamers’ mind.

In simpler words, it is a sensitive, touchy topic for most of us and a potential minefield for controversy.

Right off the bat, let us look at the core question of this debate: “Has the quality of Japanese games declined over the last few years? Are they in danger of becoming insignificant in this day and age? Or is this just a relative decline against the exponential rise of Western game industry?”

I will be seeking the answers to those questions and a few more but not before I properly analyze the reasons behind each of those questions from almost every angle and try to cover most of the bases.

That’s simply because, what seems like a simple “Yes or No” answer to a “This or That” debate actually demands more analysis and thought than it might be apparent at the outset.

Act I: The Past

Anatomy of the Term

A term’s original purpose and its actual usage might often vary

 

Point of Debate No.1:

“Comparing Japanese and Western games is a totally valid, reasonable and completely legitimate comparison”

“Japanese” and “Western” games refer to the games developed in the respective countries. Western generally refers to USA, UK and Canada — the three English-speaking countries, but the term has also come to occasionally include European developers too. For the sake of simplicity, I shall be considering Euro developers as “Western”.

Firstly, I want you to understand that the purpose of why these terms were initially used should be painfully obvious to us – as a means of categorization.

But it is natural human tendency to first categorize and then stereotype that category by attaching certain recurring elements to it. It happens when we think of a race, community, culture or as in this case, to an entire industry.

So, Japanese industry got tagged with certain clichés and Western industry got tagged with some. Irrespective of the fact that they may belong to different genres, implement different mechanics or maybe even take inspiration from the country across the Pacific. It isn’t uncommon to see a Western-RPG developed by a Japanese company (King’s Field, Vagrant Story, Souls series) and neither is it unheard of the other way around (Septerra Core,Anachronox). Both the industries have given us a lot of examples where they have taken inspiration from the other.

So, the question we should be asking at this point is: “Is it fair and sensible to group together disparate games into a common group and then compare such incomparable or mutually influenced games?”

Such comparisons don’t even regard such differences as relevant to the discussion. They happen to be comparisons just for the sake of it.

I think this has a great deal to do with the “forum mentality” of the Internet. Bored people gathering on a common Web page and to make their lives more interesting, they start comparing things in “Versus Battles”. “Sandwich or vagina? Michael Jackson or Charlie Chaplin? Japanese or Western games?”

Each of those comparisons has something in common, but the differences set them apart well beyond the point of comparison.

Despite its futility and absurdity, such a comparison happens and continues to provide entertainment to bored opinionated people and still takes up thousands of pages on the forums every now and then.

Only One Half of the Picture

 

Point of Debate No.2:

“Japanese developers single-handedly dominated the entire industry and brought it to what it is today. Western developers were mostly insignificant in this picture until their rise in late 1990s and early 2000s during the rise of Computer-RPGs and first person shooters”

 Until recently, people often used to regard Japan as the be-it and end-all of the entire industry. In my early days on the Internet, it used to annoy me that many people never considered for the slightest second that the picture they were viewing – the one where Japan has dominated the scene since the beginning – is only one half of the entire picture.

In other words, Japan has undoubtedly dominated and influenced console gaming beyond question. But console gaming only happens to be one half of video games. People overlook, often to the point of ignorance, the existence and significance of PC gaming.

Prior to his space adventures,Richard Garriott of Origin Games was as influential a figure to gaming in 1980s as Shigeru Miyamoto was.

That is the field where developers from the West have dominated. Right from the Apple II days, to the technological breakthroughs by Sir Richard Garriott, PC gaming has almost been single-handedly dominated by the West.

Some of the people I’ve met on the Internet strongly believe that Western developers were insignificant until the late 90s and early 2000s – namely the golden era of Computer-RPGs. They completely disregard the fact that the early technological breakthroughs on Apple II and the computer systems often were the chief driving force behind so many console developments. Techniques to maximize performance, memory storage and breakthroughs made by Origin Systems defined gaming during the 80s as much as Nintendo and Sega did in its latter half. Many of the early Japanese RPGs – Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were heavily inspired from Origin’s Ultima series.

Thus, it’s important to note that the West was as influential and dominant to a sizeable portion of gaming before it rose in popularity.

As a golden rule, popularity and influence should never be equated and I feel this might be the reason why many consider West as less significant to Japan before 2000. As someone whose gaming background is an adequate mix of console and PC gaming, I believe both West and Japan were equally dominant and influential to their respective spheres during the entire timeline of gaming history. West had little interest in consoles and likewise Japan wanted little to do with PC gaming. They were dominating in their respective spheres and were influencing each other occasionally.

I don’t believe that the West was a complete “nobody” that rose like a Phoenix from ashes to stun the Japanese industry in the space of a decade. Nor do I believe that being from a different gaming background can explain ignorance to such obvious facts.

Do not confuse popularity with influence. Just because Japanese games were the craze before the FPS and the subsequent CRPG-boom of the 90s doesn’t mean Western developers had no significant role to play in the evolution of the medium.

It is important to consider this point because only then can we have a proper idea at exactly how these two halves of the same picture have stood relative to each other during the medium’s four-decade timeline before we set out to compare them.

The Picture Starts to Blur….

 

Point of Debate No.3:

“At what point did the scales in the “Japan vs West” comparison tip in West’s favour? Was it during the CRPG and Shooter Rush of the 90s or some other point of time?”

 

If you’ve read up to this point, so far I have clearly defined a picture of two distinct spheres – console and PC gaming that were single-handedly dominated by Japanese and Western developers respectively. They both were equally significant to the rise of gaming – working on their own spheres while occasionally sharing their influences in a common pool.

The unlikely turning point in the “Japan vs West” debate

It was around the early 2000s that this picture started blurring. I think that it began with the arrival of Microsoft’s Xbox. Not only a company from the West had actually developed a gaming console but they were also encouraging PC developers to make games on their console by providing attractive incentives.

Bungie was the first one to bite. It’s a well-known fact that the development of Xbox’s “killer app” – Halo: Combat Evolved began on PC and it was only on Microsoft’s insistence and purchase of the franchise rights did Bungie shift its development entirely onto their new console.

Bungie’s overnight success might have helped Microsoft set a foothold in a console market dominated entirely by Japanese companies. But what Halo’s success also did was show all the other PC developers – Western developers that there might be a big-time breakthrough awaiting them if they made their games on the Xbox.

Two developers who had been extremely crucial to PC gaming up to that point – BioWare and Peter Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios were the next in-line to make the PC to console transition. Microsoft jumped at the opportunity. BioWare was probably the most revered PC developer at that point of time and having their next game—a Star Wars game of all things—would be potentially as big as Halo.

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic was released in 2003 on Xbox as a timed exclusive. For a company with an entirely PC-based fanbase, it was a tremendous risk. Likewise, Lionhead’s Fable followed suit. A lesser-known (and oft-mocked) Computer-RPG developer – Bethesda Softworks – made their console debut as well with their flagship Elder Scrolls franchise. Morrowind created as many waves on Xbox as Fable and KotOR did. Despite being their least acclaimed game, Fable sold more than any of the classic PC titles that Peter Molyneux had made before. Ditto for BioWare and Bethesda. These developers with their new-found popularity and appreciation for console as a platform inspired many others to follow suit. Many followed and in fact, entire genres (adventure) made their console debuts during Xbox’s life-cycle.

What also happened was that the previously PC-only developers began thinking on how to adapt and please console gamers. The word “accessibility” sprung up from such a train of thought and this would go onto define numerous multi-million dollar franchises from the West in the years to come. For the first time in the history of game design, “accessibility” was considered as a serious concept in development teams and this was just half a decade from the 90s where games had hardly bothered to be “adaptive and accessible” to new gamers.

“Accessibility” suddenly became a popular concept among Western developers

As if by coincidence, people will say that this was around the time Western games began getting “better”. Their rise began around this point. In terms of popularity, I’d agree in a breath. But in terms of quality, I’d disagree because if you were to ask any BioWare or Molyneux fan at that point, they would say KotOR and Fable were easily among the weakest games in the developers’ repertoire.

What I can’t deny is that Xbox despite being trampled by Sony’s PlayStation 2 served as a pivotal point in the “Japan vs West” debate which upto that point had never been drawn onto a common ground. But with Xbox, the West had finally stepped onto the territory that was previously belonged to the Japanese only.

The war had just begun.

 

Act II: The Present

 

Excesses, Sloth and Greed

 

Point of Debate No.4:

“At what point did Japanese developers go wrong and exactly how? Where did the West succeed where Japanese failed? What aspects led to the rise of West and the fall of Japan?”

 

With the dawn of the current console generation the Japanese industry sensed a greater potential of a technical leap. The new technology on the Xbox 360 and the PS3 gave them opportunity to showcase their storytelling to never-seen-before beauty. It is common knowledge that a great deal of Japanese developers – especially those who makes RPGs tend to have a strong “CGI fetish”.

There is no better example to view the excesses that have seen Japanese industry stumble this generation than the dual whammy of Capcom and Square Enix.

Square’s insistence on new technology featuring ZERO gameplay has gotten them nowhere

First Square Enix. They spearhead the aforementioned “CGI fetish” and this can be clearly seen from the fact that the E3 2006 trailer of Final Fantasy XIII was in the making for more than a year. A CGI trailer featuring no finalized gameplay elements at all. In the years that followed, we saw numerous interviews with members of the art team of Square Enix where they said that they would spend weeks polishing “rocks” in the game to make them appear shiny, perfect and really beautiful. Rocks.

Rocks. That’s all I need to say, really.

That should tell you the mentality of the developers within Square Enix. But let’s not get biased here, Square Enix is a large company with many teams and divisions under it. Some of them chose to focus less on that and instead chose to make an occasional creative game. The World Ends With You happens to be one of those rare creative exceptions from Square Enix’s minds this gen. Internal sloth, lack of direction and incessant spending of time polishing rocks led to the fall of a developer who had for two console generations heralded Sony’s home consoles into a new generation.

But for the PlayStation3, we never had a Final Fantasy VII or a Final Fantasy X. In fact, we wouldn’t have a Final Fantasy for 5 more years by the time which it was too late to make a grand opening statement the series had become famous for.

Excesses and sloth weren’t the only thing that plagued Japanese developers.

Gamers: As seen from Capcom’s eyes

Capcom showed how greed and mismanagement can result in mass-scale PR disasters. Led by loose tongued developers like Keiji Inafune, Capcom saw Oblivion’s “Horse Armor DLC” and thought if Bethesda could get away with it, why couldn’t they? By implementing them in majority of their titles, Capcom quickly earned a notorious reputation for trying to squeeze more money out of their players. Instead of being a paragon of unrestrained creativity that they were during the previous console generation, Capcom instead became the nefarious poster-boys of DLC-related “money squeezing”. Locked DLCs, actual mechanics as DLCs, Capcom continued committing those sins and more shockingly without the sign of any apology or remorse.

 

Besides these ideological and management shortcomings, Japanese developers failed to capitalize on one key facet that Western developers thrived and gained popularity on – developing games for non-fans. In other words, the Japanese didn’t think much of, if at all, about developing games to expand their audience beyond what they had. Nor did they do anything to address the eternal problem of certain Japanese games never making out of their own country.

Japanese developers continued to make games that catered only to their audience, while Western developers built massive franchises riding on easing non-fans into their world. The afore-mentioned “accessibility” became the West’s favourite word and in a gaming scenario that had just opened up to non-gamers, the West did everything within its power to capitalize.

Plagued by ideological problems and unable to cater to wider audiences, the Japanese game industry didn’t fall from grace nor did their fanbase didn’t shrink overnight. In fact, their fanbase has more or less remained the same but what has changed is that the volume of gaming population has increased exponentially and the West has been successful in converting a majority of them.  The Japanese couldn’t or really didn’t try hard enough.

The Core Point

 

Have Japanese games really declined? Is that decline relative to the rise of the West? Or has the Japanese industry really hit such a low and become that awful?”

Before we start comparing “Japan with West” and see how they fare today relative to where they were in the last console generation, it is important to realize a couple of things I have stated thus far in the blog. A recap if you will:

1)      The “Japan vs West” comparison is absurd as it disregards the differences in mechanics, genres and influences when grouping them together and multiplies the absurdity by comparing them to another such group.

2)      Japan wasn’t the only dominant force in the industry before the late 90s/early 2000s. West was as dominant as Japan since the 80s with regards to PC gaming – the other half of gaming as Japan was to console. It is a point to be noted for those who still believe the West arose from a “nobody” to “superstar” status in the space of a single console generation.

3)      The shift of PC-only developers to consoles and the coming of Xbox – brought the West onto the territory that previously belonged exclusively to Japan. It also brought forth the importance of “accessibility” as PC developers adapted their ideologies to suit newer audiences and expand their fanbase.

4)      Japan, on the other hand was hindered by their ideological excesses (CGI fetish, mismanagement and greed) and the localization barrier meant some of their creative games never saw the day of light in the West. Their major franchises didn’t care much about catering to the new audiences and as a result many franchises had their fanbase become an increasingly minority in the “population explosion” — exponentially increasing number of gamers diluting the significance of their fanbase.

To answer the question at hand, I think Japanese games have declined. Speaking in general terms, Japanese games have without question declined in this generation in terms of popularity, influence and creativity.

“Is this decline relative to the rise of West?”

I believe so. Atleast, in terms of popularity, Japan has been mostly a blank bystander as it stood and watched the West grow in popularity while it did absolutely nothing to win audiences. I can see the likes of Wii Sports and Nintendogs as valid arguments to this point, but I don’t consider them games that actual gamers – casual or serious – would count among their favourites.

Gears of War and Oblivion defined this generation in more than few ways before Japanese games even stepped onto the scene

Japanese games generally are known for their inane habit to kick-start every console generation in style. When Xbox 360 came first with shiny new technology, Western games capitalized on that.  In fact, following the footsteps of Bungie and BioWare from the previous gen, a PC-only developer stepped onto the fore and created the game that would go on to define this generation – Epic’s Gears of War did exactly that. Technical achievements aside, it combined concepts old and new and showed us just how essential multiplayer will be to gaming experience in this console generation.  Gears and Elder Scrolls had laid foundations to tropes and elements that would go onto become staples in their respective genres long before Japanese games even stepped onto the scene and made a statement of purpose.

Even when Sony launched their console, despite it being considered mediocre by the sky-high expectations, it were the West’s new franchises – Resistance and Uncharted that arose out of the dust and made a mark on people’s minds more than any franchise from Japan did. Like I mentioned before, there was no FFVII or FFX to herald the arrival of a Sony console for Japan this time around. That sounded major warning bells everywhere.

In terms of multiplayer, which has often been considered a defining aspect of this generation and rightly so, the games from the West have adapted to it faster than Japanese did and led right from the get-go. It might have something to do with the fact that the majority of Western developers came from a PC background – which had a strong multiplayer foundation right from the 90s.

Japanese franchises have been merely chasing instead of innovating when it comes to multiplayer components. The multiplayer aspects of Resident Evil 5 and Lost Planet coming off as derivatives of its Western components especially after how most of the their gameplay elements were derived from the major franchises in the West.

The lone exception to this rule is Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls who looked at the multiplayer component like nobody did and they truly did something unique.

That still stands as a single example among many that state the contrary that Japan has been playing the “chasing game” with West in terms of innovative mechanics.

“Has Japan really declined to the point its games can now officially be called “terrible”? Or *gasp* “do their games “suck”?

No.

I will offer my explanation on reasons why I think the decline of Japanese gaming isn’t as worse as some of us might believe. Take this as my “counter-point” if you will:

Definition of Perfection — in more ways than one

1)      There Have Been Great Games. Many of Them : None of them as popular as Resident Evil, Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda used to be but extremely significant. Some of them have been extremely creative, bold(Catherine) , retained core elements of their genre(Shin Megami Tensei), took the best to a whole new level(Bayonetta) or simply took what the West did and did it better(Vanquish).

2)      Dominating Genres :  Let’s look at the fighters, frantic action beat-em-ups and platformers for a brief moment. Those may not be the most popular genres today by any means but they are still very much significant and if you look at those three – you will see that Japan continues to rule those three genres. With the rare exception of God of War and Rayman, every major franchise from those three genres comes from Japan.

3)      Shift to Handhelds:If you look at the volume of “great” Japanese games and divide them in terms of platforms released on, you might be shocked to see that a majority of them appear on handhelds. This can be understood by seeing the shift of Atlus and Level 5 to handheld after their rise of prominence on PS2 and the rise of developers like Chunsoft( 999 and Zero Escape) and Kairosoft (the madly-popular Story games on the iOS/Android). Each of these three developers have generated massive numbers of hits primarily on the DS and mobiles.  This shift makes sense and seems natural if you ever looked at the DS sales in Japan. DS and now the 3DS continues to outsell the home consoles by a factor of four – at the very least.

Handheld gamers are less likely to notice Japanese games’ decline — and rightfully so

So, it isn’t like Japan has stopped making great games. They still do but with significantly less popularity, they dominate significant but niche genres and a major share of the Japanese hits this generation have come on handhelds instead of console, which might explain the fact why many of us think Japan hasn’t been significant this gen.  It makes sense too if you see the insane numbers DS and 3DS sell in Japan. Their developers are doing exactly what their fellow countrymen demand from them — more handheld games — and they’ve delivered quality on that front. On the other hand, a lot of us “serious” gamers from West and places other than Japan tend to consider handheld and mobile gaming as “appetizers” and console as “real gaming”. Combine both those points and you’ll see exactly why most of us can’t even name half the hits Japan has created recently. Because we didn’t even bother to look.

Ask anyone who ever owned a DS and they would say Level 5 and Atlus were among their favourite developers. Ask anyone who saw the craze behind Kairosoft’s Story series (Game Dev Story) and tell me that that hit wasn’t as significant as Angry Birds was. Ask anyone who played the now-revered Monster Hunter, Ace Attorney and Dragon Quest franchises on the handhelds and tell me they weren’t quality games. Tell me, they didn’t say that they still thought Japanese developers produced quality games –and by a dozen too.

Parting Words

Japan’s decline depends on how your perspective stands in regards to the gaming scenario right now — niche or mainstream, console or handheld

Japanese industry has seen a decline this gen. But there has been also been quality coming from Japan in generous doses, it’s just that either a) it has paled in comparison to the West’s phenomenal rise in influence and popularity, or  b) you simply didn’t care about the genres in which the Japanese have continued to dominate or c) because quite simply a considerable share of talented developers from the Japanese industry have changed their priority to handhelds just like their audiences have and many of us haven’t even bothered looking there.

Does this make them insignificant, terrible and awful? Certainly not!

The Point that Doesn’t Even Matter

Point of LOL-Debate:

“Is Phil Fish right in saying “Japanese games suck”? Is Fish a grade-A douchebag? Or is he a messiah of truth? But firstly, exactly WHO is Phil Fish?”

Phil Fish is the creator of the retro-indie hit Fez. Before it released, Fish said during GDC as a developer of zero games in the capacity of a game developer – “Japanese games suck”

Those glasses and that expression reminds me of something….OH SNAP!

Ignoring the obvious criticism and agreement his statement received, I’ll instead focus on him first.

“Was what he said actually his opinion? Or a cheap way to publicize his upcoming game by creating a controversy?”

This can go both the ways. It just depends on how you look at it. As someone who closely follows the indie development scene, I can say that it is extremely difficult for any developer – talented or not to get noticed. There is such a massive pool of talent and randomized creativity in the scene that catching the public eye is often the one and the only barrier between anonymity and superstardom.

Fish might believe in what he said. But as a game developer in GDC, I think it seems to be too convenient for him to make such a statement. If Fish had said it in a forum, we wouldn’t have cared.  But on a platform like GDC, it seems too convenient.  Now if CliffyB had said that same thing, we all wouldn’t have seen it that way. We would be outraged but cheap publicity? CliffyB? That man is a walking-talking PR machine. But as someone with zero means to publicize himself other than his unfinished game, I can’t help but see Fish using this as a cheap means of earning publicity. It’s a skeptical way to look at things, but given the circumstances (at GDC) and Fish’s situation (zero means to publicize himself and a new game coming up) I can’t see why that couldn’t happen.

Coming back to the point, I think it’d be quite unfair for any Western developer to judge the Japanese industry as a professional. They are allowed to do so as a gamer but saying the “Japanese industry is terrible” doesn’t explain anything because you have had zero experience working in one.

Now, when Japanese developers like Atsushi Inaba(Platinum) and Hideo Kojima say that you have to take their word for it. They have said “Japanese games have lost that spark” and I can take that as a valid criticism from fellow industry colleagues who understand the Japanese industry. But a Western developer criticizing and deriding practices and ideologies he probably doesn’t understand – be it CliffyB or Phil Fish – would just come across as a silly, unnecessary and absurd statement.

–Ansh

Discussion

  1. Hey Ansh. This was really thought-provoking and well-researched. There is one point that I’d like to mention regarding the early years of gaming:

    On at least two occasions throughout your post you stated Japanese dominance of the 1980s console without mentioning that console gaming from 1972-1986 was completely under North American control. Even gaming consoles were exported to Japan by American entrepreneurs and distributed (with varying success) by Japanese firms. It wasn’t until the early 1980s when Service Games (SEGA), Konami and Nintendo decided to make inroads, not knowing that by then console-oriented businesses had found little success (or little need) to change the infrastructure (investments in new technologies, marketing, distribution and especially quality control). The Japanese merely wanted to establish a foothold among console manufacturers in the West, but once they came, they found themselves as the dominant force due to the gaming implosion.

    The above doesn’t change the tone of your post but I felt that it deserved mentioning the reason why Japan dominated during the second half of the eighties. Special thanks to Game Over: Press Start to Continue, The Ultimate History of Video Games, and EGM’s Game Timeline feature (EGM Buyer’s Guide, 2000).

    Which leads me to my next point (I didn’t plan on this but it came to me while I was writing the above). My theory is that the dominance of Eastern-influenced game content during the late 1980s and throughout the nineties was partially due to Western developers learning their lessons regarding the aforementioned game industry implosion and taking the time to learn new technologies. As you’ve stated, the stagnation of the console industry had led many to develop for the PC and Macintosh, refining their art, discovering new marketing techniques (shareware), learning new technologies (DOS, Windows 95, et cetera). New advances of techniques regarding PC/Mac game content, story-telling, marketing and accessibility had constantly threatened console manufacturers and game distributors both East and West for fifteen years leading up to the Xbox launch, which was why Microsoft was finally able to make inroads using primarily Western developers. Western developers (from the console gamers’ collective view) may have made missteps, but few realized that there was constant innovation going on behind the scenes without unnecessary adherence to console manufacturers’ development and distribution guidelines.

    Looking at the state of console gaming today, Western developers are reaping the rewards of previous developers who refined their techniques and well as willingly opened channels of communication to actual gamers. Eastern developers are still developing and distributing hardware and software in adherence to self-imposed strict guidelines as well as believing that “shinier” equals “better”. It took indie developers (the vast majority of them Western) to show gamers like us that even in the console industry’s seventh generation, better graphics doesn’t mean better games.

    I’m definitely not saying that all Eastern companies are concerned with the mantra of graphics over gameplay, but I am saying that they’ve creatively and figuratively tied their collective hands to a rock. If Eastern developers would take the time to refine their methods, not waste as much money or time on needless technologies, and find ways to communicate directly with their audiences then they would be on the road to recovery.

    Western gamers are still willing to play Eastern games, but it’s up to the willingness of Eastern developers to rethink and refine their communication, development and distribution models. Until Eastern developers learn to think a little more “outside the box”, they will continue to have missteps.

    James

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