Monday, April 19, 2010

Re: Why Is Japan So Behind?

Kotaku ran an article today asking why Japan is so behind in the gaming arena anymore. I posted a response there, but it ran so long, and I was so proud of it that I figured I'd post it here. It rambles a bit and I think it's redundant in a few spots. The original article is here.

Couple points:

"Abroad, university grads, grad school grads, and even PhDs make games. The vast majority of Japanese game industry people have a university degree or some game-design school diploma at best. There's no way we can win."

I love Japan a lot, but I HATE that status quo mentality that permeates Japan's society. Because you have a PhD, because you have a masters, does not make you good at something. This is especially true in a creative field like game making/producing. Artistic talent doesn't come from taking Philosophy III or a grad course in Business Development. If you're talking about the technical aspects of the production process? I know a few people that barely finished their Bachelors, but one guy helped design new algorithms for experimental handheld MRI equipment by GE, he was just simply bored with the curriculum. Not saying everyone is like that, but too many people discount someone because they didn't go to a glorified babysitter for 4-8 years after high school. (and that's not me insulting college as a concept, I in fact think education & a genuine thirst for knowledge are very important things. Rather, it's a shot at the fact that everyone thinks that going to a 4 year institution automatically makes a lamebrained 18 year old with "good grades" & a mediocre SAT score into a physicist, warlock or astronaut cowboy that can shoot lasers out of their butt.)

"Japanese game scenarios are the pits. We may be behind in graphics but that isn't a problem so long as they're fun and interesting."

I grew up with games, and by that I mean games & I grew up at the same time. When I was young, JRPGs were just coming about, and were interesting. But so many years later, when you have the same regurgitated characters, the same stories, the same "systems", it just gets old. I mean really, how many "Tales" or variations on generic PSP RPGs can one play before they say, "Wow, this is the same crap I played last game!" There is still a good JPRG here and there, but they've become super ubiquitous, and this has spread to other genres/series as well. I made a comment the other day that Castlevania games have been the same since Circle of the Moon, and for the most part, they've all embraced that exact same way of doing things. The only thing that changes from game to game are the characters (slightly) and the gimmick they use to have you using powers or weapons or souls or whatever. And going back to the RPG thing, Final Fantasy got sucked into that same black hole after FF7 or so. Repeat stories, uniform archetypal characters and waaaaaacky elements and a boring, uninspired battle system with gimmicky crap crammed into it.

"The PS1 era had a lot of cool and lighthearted games, but starting with the PS2 "otaku games" became the norm."

I really don't understand this comment, because as much as there were "visual novel" games around starting with the PS2, there were some really awesome Japanese PS2 titles. Okami, Shadow of the Colossus, ICO, Metal Gear Solid 3 (and 2 I guess), the Armored Core games, the Front Mission Games... I don't think the PS2 started or really even participated in the "ruination" of the state of gaming in Japan, things just started to trend that way. People became less interested in games on the whole, the birthrate declined, and the floodgates opened to pander to otaku in more mediums than one.

"Japanese game developers are born and raised and live in Japan. With games, with art, with otaku culture, and more, we have a distinct background and history. In the future we're going to have to make that a sales point, or find a way to "mine" it."

I saved this one for last.

I hate to break it to this person, but they already HAVE "mined it". It started out as PS1-era "quirky" titles like Klonoa, Jumping Flash, up through Dreamcast stuff like Chu Chu Rocket & Sonic's transition to 3-D, et cetera (Piss poor examples I know, but I don't feel like meditating until more cute J-titles of yesteryear come to me). Now we have eroge, Touhou & Bullet Hell Shooters, cutesy puzzle games like the 99th incarnation of Puyo Puyo, etc, which have an international fanbase, but not enough of one, and that is mainly due to the fact that a lot of it is just otaku junk. And THAT is mining, in the present tense. And that's a problem.

There are very simple things that people tend to miss when there *could* be a lot bigger factors at play. People go for the obvious reasons because, well, they're obvious: global economy failing and people having less to spend on entertainment, Japan as a whole losing interest in games and gaming, Japanese "amateurs" running the show making games, etc. And it's true that most of those things DO play a part in the problem facing the state of Japanese gaming now.

But there is one factor that I'm surprised that no one has "divined" yet. Especially considering that even in this article Nintendo is mentioned as still being a champ amongst chumps. Technology's inevitable march forward is Japan's problem. Moreover, it's their being the progenitor of the real, modern video game & the aforementioned "poor management" combined, that has kinda sunk them in this regard. Games like Donkey Kong, Mario, Kirby, up through the XBL/PSN classics du jour, Final Fight & Magic Sword and games like Resident Evil.

What do all of these have in common? In their respective eras, they were all representative of what you would call "acceptable realism". Now, "realism" is a relative term in this sense, in the now you would call it acceptable realism, back in the era of Super Mario Bros I guess you would call it something more along the lines of "pinnacle of gaming technology" or such. Japanese games worked for the longest time over others because the Japanese have that unique style, and in the case of games up through about PS2 level, they really dominated because as that 2ch commentor put it, they really knew how to "mine" that.

Case-in-point: I LOVE Nintendo's Game & Watches, mainly because of their form factor, their design, their use of small black and white LCD characters that had that distinct "look" to them, the backgrounds and color-filled artwork are amazing. Gunpei Yokoi and company that designed these utilized a minimalist LCD game with colored backdrops, fun gameplay and cases that had wonderful materials and good tactile feedback to make a great product. I'm not alone in this, there are many people that pay lots of money for these today, they're still loved the world-over, but not because they're made by Nintendo, but because they are representative of what "Made By Nintendo" means. However, if you made more today, I can pretty much guarantee that they wouldn't be as popular. And why is that? Because technology has moved on. Sure, it was awesome to have something that is still smaller than an iPhone, back then that played a game, but if you had the choice between playing Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker on your PSP, Gears of War or an Octopus G&W, most people are going to pick one of the first two.

Japan has always had that insanely unique set of design principles, but I think it's that "abstractness" - and their tendency to skew toward that abstractness - that has worked against them in the past few years. People, Western and Eastern, in years past loved that uniqueness because it abstractly and effectively used gaming as a medium to be entertaining. They could take a 16 by 16 square and make a Kirby or Mario, make colorful stages, colorful enemies and simple play mechanics that were good. As this blossomed, instead of having a "Chubby Cherub" flying around shooting at cartoon dogs or "Sky Kid"s flying cartoon planes over girls blowing kisses at them, you had late 80s/early 90s movies cliche bad guys taking swings at pro wrestling mayors and Metro City ninjas. But still, even as goofy as it was to find diamonds in garbage cans (some bad guys they were, I guess they weren't thieves!), there were still new levels of visual realism being set along with the new technology. Pilotwings might look like Mode 7 poo by today's standards, but back then when you pulled the ripcord on your parachute, you kinda felt it.

Also, a large part of the foreign interest in Japanese titles for the longest time, was that everything was "new", and "unique". Add to that the stigma that games/animation/whatever "are for kids" in the West, and there really wasn't a ton of active competition for the longest time. There was that mystique that enthusiasts loved, because nothing like the original NES' games had ever existed before, especially in the West. This didn't outstrip itself for a while, it lasted well into the Playstation & even today's era of games; the Persona titles, Okami, and even today's Professor Layton games come to mind. The only problem with this is that (and I talk about this below), realism kind of passed up those titles, and while people still love to play them, more people want something at the level of Modern Warfare 2 or Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption. Of course, there are those titles like Shadow of the Colossus that take that classic immersive, aesthetic greatness and bring it into the modern era of gaming, but generally those titles are few and far between now.

Essentially, Japan was good at being Japan. Doing their own thing, not worrying about competing with anyone, creating in their own environment, no pressure. If people liked it, they liked it. If they didn't, well, "We didn't design this for the West, Japanese will buy this," was likely the attitude. Is it that surprising that without any real competition, that their market flourished for almost 2 decades?

But - again - up until around 2000, games weren't considered a "serious industry" in the West. So whereas now, you have multi-million dollar investments - not unlike movie making - into research teams, level design, development, art, texturing, rendering & the like, back in the day, you had a few programmers, artists, a scenario designer and maybe a project manager in on any given project. So when there was a whiff of money to be had, when the medium had become "legitimized" so to speak, Western companies gained ground by taking it up a level, and making expensive teams of industry professionals.

And it isn't like Japan didn't do the same thing, their approach was just "different". I remember buying the game Parasite Eve for the PS1 in an import shop in NYC in 1997, and reading the instructions and seeing the people that Squaresoft hired on to help create the game. It was dubbed a "Cinematic CG Adventure" or something like that, and they used talent from Hollywood's best movies of the day to accomplish this. I can't remember exactly what they worked on, but I was surprised when I read their credits. The game wasn't a flop, but it wasn't earth-shattering, either. It was "growing pains", because no one had really attempted a "Cinematic Game" before that point. They relied too heavily on anime-crossed-with-Western-movie cliches, and filling too much of the 2 CDs the game came on, with "cinema" instead of making a well-crafted game. In short, they focused on one aspect that they thought would entice more people to play, than balancing what would have made an enthralling game, out.

Japan enjoyed a long heyday of these titles, eventually achieving a tenuous balance between that realistic upper echelon that gamers loved and the stylistic elements that put them on the map. But somewhere along the line, the scales tipped. And I recall the tipping point to almost certainly be around the intersection of the PS2 and the Dreamcast. It wasn't one point in time, either, this was a span of around 4-5 years in the which the rift began to open.

Backing up a bit, for years you had titles like Parodius, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Ikaruga, that lent themselves to 2-D, that were detailed-looking and started the pinnacle of 2-D graphics. But as far as immersive worlds, 3-D gaming, take a look at the original Tomb Raider (which I know isn't Japanese, I'm including it for the sake of comparison), the original Resident Evil, the original Metal Gear Solid title. Even  though these represented huge leaps forward in graphics back then, the truth is, they weren't that immersive, not by today's standards at least. They still allowed that abstractness to some degree, "cartooniness". And that was the key, there was not a DISTINCT difference between those two types of titles back then. In fact, Castlevania: SOtN looked a lot better than the first few Tomb Raider titles, or Resident Evil. But soon enough, realistic, awe-inspiring titles shifted from, "Oh my god, Shen Mue looks awesome!" to, "Oh look, another Naruto game. I think I'm gonna buy a 360, they're coming out with a game called Gears of War, it looks sick!" And in this generation, there is a true difference between something like Geometry Wars or The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom and say, Gears or MW2 or Battlefield Bad Company or Assassin's Creed 2 or Bioshock or Mass Effect 2 or any number of other titles, really. There is now a huge difference between something that's "fun" and something that's "an experience". Much like I imagine what the difference between pinball and video games was in the past. Both are fun, but most people prefer to be overwhelmed by a sensory experience rather than playing a fun distraction, a decent bit of the time. Obviously people still love their distractions and there is obviously still a place for those distractions - otherwise they wouldn't exist - but the majority of people that have seen "the best" or the most immersive tend to want to keep playing those types of games over Puyo Puyo Fever Deluxe Special Edition, or the 20th Zelda game that looks like it belongs on the Gamecube.

And eventually Japan kind of "regressed" - although I wouldn't totally call it that - and the rift really began to grow. And it's not that Japan is devoid of realism in their games, we have Metal Gear Solid, we have the newer Resident Evil 4 & 5, to some degree Final Fantasy 13 I guess and a few others like Devil May Cry 4, Lost Planet, etc. Conversely, stylized, 2-D games that are fun distractions aren't bad at all, but at this stage in the game as I said above, most people want the level of realism they've grown accustomed to. These games have become novelties that some people will buy for the occasional break between the big releases, or fun because they enjoy indie games or even because they legitimately like both types, but very few people are going to take stylized, cute 2-D over what they know today's publishers are capable of.

And I'd love to say that Japan is just dicking around, making sprite-based strategy games and Square-Enix making their 40th DS game based on Final Fantasy in underwhelming 3/4 view 3-D, but with Nintendo's domestic (domestic in Japan, that is) sales figures, it just shows that Japan loves the same old, same old. Nintendo hasn't shown innovation in some time now, unless you count the motion control thing, which was kind of poorly executed by them to get it out of the gate faster, and Japanese people apparently like it that way. So the "problem" becomes, if you're one of the richest companies in your whole country, which is the 2nd GDP in the whole world, then why rock the boat? That's why Pokemon hasn't gone 3-D for over 10 years, it's why Mario has had approximately 3 titles on the newest system and they look like they could've been pulled off on the Gamecube or DS, that's why the Touhou games are popular, that's why games featuring 1/2 naked, dimensionally-challenged girls are popular.

And if you've noticed, all articles centering around Japanese artists that work for Japanese publishers, are all ones that have already worked on more Western-style games in the (albeit recent) past. Keiji Inafune, Tomonobu Itagaki, Hideo Kojima... all people who had already Westernized long ago. (Just look at the list of games that I provided above, almost all are Capcom or Konami and well, Tecmo has a few Westernish titles, too)

So I don't see this phenomenon going away anytime soon, especially when you take into consideration that titles like Dragon Quest IX are still hitting the top of the charts (in spite of negative reviews by critics and players alike). It just justifies sticking with that age-old formula.


ebidebby said...

Interesting read! I have to agree with many of your points. With the exception of my beloved Megami Tensei (especially Persona) series, I haven't played a Japanese game in a long time. The derivative characters of Final Fantasy were just too much, and I haven't played since 9 (which I didn't finish).

It's interesting to see how Japan has fallen behind in terms of music games, as well. Not in the arcade, but the Konami Rock Band-style game was just abysmal.

But in the end, Japanese game makers are selling to Japanese gamers, and things like Pokemon are still really popular, even in the United States - despite being the same as the very first game.

Karasu-kun said...

MegaTen is one of those series that - to me at least - never really gets old. The stories don't really change that much, but there's just something refreshing about something based in the present day that isn't totally ridiculous, that doesn't have a million bullets being fired at all times or that doesn't have some sort of zombie apocalypse, lol.

That's actually where I stopped, too. I borrowed FF9 from a friend in college, played through like the first disc and put it down. In 7 there were mini-games and they were okay, kinda dumb, but ultimately benign to the real gameplay. Then in 8 they implemented other things where you needed to keep a consistent salary, collecting magazines, playing some card game, etc. I don't really dislike those elements per se, but when I want to play an RPG it doesn't really enhance things for me to break up the action by playing cards. But my big thing by the time 9 rolled around was that, I'm a completionist by nature, and so if I felt I was playing a game where I'd be missing out on something if I didn't find/do everything I felt like I was missing out. So I'd play using GameFAQs or guides or whatever, checking every few minutes to make sure I didn't miss anything, and that kinda sucked all of the fun out of the game. I actually stopped gaming altogether for about 2-3 years at that point. And I agree, even now anime archetypes have really kind of destroyed FF as a series, for me.

As far as music games are concerned, I think that's an especially "tangled" genre. Early attempts didn't especially catch on well because of specifics and differences in musical tastes. And trying to localize something with cultural bits often just alienates the actual fans that'd buy it for what it is, and confuses people who don't know what it is. And what's more cultural than music? DDR was the big exception, but really, who can explain that phenomenon catching on? And by the time games like Guitar Hero came about they instantly had such a large chunk of the market here that I was really surprised when Rock Band was able to grab a foothold like it did.

Karasu-kun said...

And I totally agree with the last part. In fact, there have been further articles on Kotaku about Keiji Inafune from Capcom being made head of International R&D and how he wants to "Westernize" the company's offerings more. The era of Japanese games being loved by the world was due to the fact that they did their own thing and (naturally) built games around and marketed to, a Japanese audience. Trying to emulate or assimilate to a Western audience seems to me like it'd be a disaster. If one complimented the other, or took things away from the other, I don't see that as a bad idea, but a lot of 2channers act like if they continue to, "be Japanese about it," that they'll collapse in on themselves like a neutron star. Large companies like Konami are already "outsourcing" games to foreign studios, and the visual results at least to the new Castlevania game (being handled by a Spanish developer with Kojima's overseeing/input) haven't been bad at all. The next Silent Hill title, as well, is being delegated to a Czech developer. As well, Capcom's Dead Rising 2 is being handled by a Canadian studio. The one thing I've noticed, though, is that all of the big titles mentioned above all have a Western bent to them. I don't see them sending a new Ookami or Yakuza or Kenka Banchou title out to France.

Yeah, I actually just had a conversation with a friend about the Pokemon thing. They had read this piece, and the Kotaku article it sort of "grew out of," and was saying, "Well, it is a game series marketed mainly to kids in Japan, and a good size of the market for it abroad is also children," and they were right. I mean, I have 25-30 year-old friends that actually work for a game company that play Pokemon now, but they're mainly marketed to children. And what do children like more than collecting highly-variable, super-powered animals? Why mess with the formula if all they're eager to do in future titles is "Catch Em All"? The only reason it signals stagnation to others is because it's a huge export abroad so naturally detractors will use it as a point with which to pin stagnation on. And proponents can scarcely avoid that when it is so well-known. But all-in-all it's really not so different from coming out with a new Madden or FIFA game every year with slightly improved graphics and updated rosters. Shonen anime is the same way, a friend that used to watch Bleach/Naruto before he started working for a "serious" game company, told me the other day that he tried to watch Bleach after a few years of not watching it, and he simply couldn't because the animation was so bad. And I found myself using that argument on him, just a few days after I had the Pokemon conversation. I said something like, "Oh well you know, they have to make one a week forever until kids get sick of it, kids don't care if Ichigo has 10 frames of animation a second or 60, they're just happy he's kicking ass and performing special attacks that they can run around yelling later." Ironically this is the same friend that thought Pokemon was childish in 1998 but plays fervently now. =P

Thanks for the comment! And my responses when I'm bored get gigantic, ゴメン!