How to Fix the Japanese Games Industry

How to Fix the Japanese Games Industry

Games writers often wring their hands over the seemingly sickly state of the Japanese industry. We have good reason to do so: Japan was once a mentor that developers around the world looked up to, and now it limps alongside Western development. Japanese console sales are stagnating, the Xbox 360’s attempt to gain any semblance of recognition in the market has been troubled to say the least, and game sales are down overall.

The picture looks bleak, but what can be done to repair Japan’s reputation as the heart of game development? First, straight from the department of philosophical answers: Japan’s industry can only heal when it learns to help itself. Prominent studios and developers already know there’s a problem. The question is, what will they do about it, if anything? Will Japan open itself up more to Western development ideas? If so, will it work to balance attractive new ideas with its unique flair? Or will it just continue to draw up further into itself and build walls around sacred franchises like Dragon Quest, Pokemon, and Monster Hunter?

The second key to saving Japan’s industry lies with us, the Western gamers. Specifically, we should stop freaking out about games falling entirely out of favor with our friends over the sea. Yes, Japanese game development needs a good kick-start–but we need to remember that it’s still breathing. More importantly, we need to realize that just because Japan’s buying trends don’t mirror our own, that doesn’t mean their industry is ailing beyond hope.

Western audiences buy a lot of game consoles. Japanese audiences buy a lot of handhelds. Like, a lot of handhelds. Japanese sales numbers for 2010 put Nintendo DS and Sony PSP games way ahead of console fare, barring Wii games. Japan is a nation of commuters, which is what inspired Gunpei Yokoi to invent Nintendo’s handheld Game & Watch series in the first place (he saw a bored train rider fiddling with a calculator for want of anything to do, and the pathetic scene broke Yokoi’s heart). It’s no surprise that the Japanese regard handheld games as a more convenient, private way to pass the time than a console.

Also worth noting is the nostalgic pull of certain game franchises. We all latch onto favored game series and characters, but Japanese adults especially adore new adventures in trusted properties, and enjoy sharing them with their children. Dragon Quest may be nearing its tenth installment, but there is no game property on Earth that’s treated more tenderly, or with more reverence.

We don’t need to panic over the state of Japan just yet, but the country’s games industry is definitely at a crossroads. The release and subsequent sales of the Nintendo 3DS will be telling. What games will Japan make for the handheld? Will they be full of rich ideas that appeal to the East and West alike? Will the fissure between our cultures crack and yawn wider, or will a bridge be built this generation?

Either way, Japan isn’t down and out by a long shot.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. Is it Japan’s fault that the crap western developers make do not appeal to them? Publishers in the west care about one thing: making as much money as possible. That may not be bad in it of itself, but take a guy like Kotick, who loves money more than games, in charge of making games and you will have the big studios churning out what they thing will continue to just make money. It won’t end until those sorts of generics games stop making money, and probably that won’t happen.

    >Will Japan open itself up more to Western development ideas?
    What does this mean? I think the answer is likely no.

    >balance attractive new ideas with its unique flair?
    Many of the currently top selling games for consoles were made in Japan. Five out of the top ten games sold in the world in the last week were Wii games made in Japan.

    I agree that there is a sense of stagnation, but it’s not something we can forcibly fix. We can make games which appeal to as many people as possible, or we can focus on our niche first. I think Japanese people care more about making the best possible games for their niches.

    Dragon Quest, Pokemon, and Monster Hunter are all excellent franchises and are worthy of their praise. They are all IPs with excellent games and not just sacred sacred franchises.

    Big studios which cut stop projects just because they do not seem like they will be blockbusters are not the answer. Small developers and indies willing to take risks are closer to the answer. Still, making games is hard and it’s easy to fail.

  2. Nadia Oxford

    What does this mean? I think the answer is likely no.

    Basically, more games outside Japan’s comfort zone–FPS games, RPGs that are a bit more open-ended like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2, etc. Not saying Japan should just ape those games (what would be the point?), but maybe adopt a happy medium between the two.

    Small developers and indies willing to take risks are closer to the answer.

    Yeah, and there is still hope for Japan–Level 5, for instance. I hold a lot of affection for the Japanese games industry; it’s what I was weaned on. I don’t want to see it stagnate and die off entirely.

    Still, making games is hard and it’s easy to fail.

    Sadly, yes. 🙁

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