How Japan Can Regain Its Crown

How Japan Can Regain Its Crown

The cultural divide between Eastern and Western gamers is keeping Japanese game developers up at night. “How can we break into the worldwide market?” the developers fret. “What kind of thematic content will make our games interesting to Western players?”

Famous Japanese game director Hideo Kojima has an answer: Japanese game developers should separate themselves into “Japanese” and “Worldwide” markets. Further, studios that are serious about breaking into the worldwide market need to be prepared to pay Western developers good salaries.

“Do we really need to succeed worldwide?” Kojima asked Famitsu Magazine (translated via 1UP). “That’s what I’m really wondering about. Everyone talks about overseas, overseas, but nobody’s really thinking about what needs to be done if we want to succeed. We get obsessed with thinking about worldwide because we’ve had previous success with games and anime worldwide, but none of those successes matter nowadays.”

“When you’re making a game, it doesn’t matter what nationality the team is — I think there was a lack of understanding among Japanese developers on that issue. It all comes down to the team you have. Even if I brought in the best developer in the world, it won’t result in anything if nobody around him understands what he says.”

Through the late ’90s and early Aughts, the success of Final Fantasy VII and Pokemon encouraged Japanese studios to export many Japanese RPGs (JRPGs) to America–whether good or bad. America’s demand for JRPGs has since dried up, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared. Even so, Kojima says Japanese developers need to be aware that there’s a divide between Eastern and Western players, and simply ignoring those differences in tastes won’t result in game that becomes a breakout hit.

“To put it in an extreme fashion, Americans like games where you have a gun and you’re shooting at space aliens,” Kojima said. “If you don’t understand why that’s fun, then you shouldn’t be making games for the world market; you don’t need to.”

Kojima plucked another extreme example from the air: Japan’s supposed love for games featuring androgynous boys wielding big swords. “Americans will counter with ‘What’s with these games featuring these feminine-looking boys fighting in Japan with these huge swords?’ It’s no wonder the target audience for a lot of games is getting so compartmentalized,” he said.

Even though Kojima’s examples of Eastern Gaming versus Western Gaming dabble in stereotypes, he brings up good points. While America, Canada, Europe, and the UK are all exchanging and playing each other’s games, Japan’s game market increasingly feels like it’s shrinking further into itself, even though it desperately wants to play. And we want Japan to play, because even when the country is trying hard to appeal to Westerners, its games bring a certain flavor to the market that is unattainable from anywhere in the West. But there are undeniable culture divides between East and West that need to be overcome, and Kojima cited one of them in his discussion with Famitsu: Pay scale.

“There are loads of talented developers overseas, but you can’t get them unless you spend the money,” he said. “If you base your calculations off the standard Japanese salary structure, nobody’s going to come to you. It’s the difference between what you pay a Hollywood star versus a Japanese film star.

In other words, if Japan wants to woo Western devs for the purposes of making games that appeal to the world, it needs to understand that few of those devs are going to re-locate to Japan unless they’re offered a good salary.

Otherwise, Japan’s only option is to keep making games for its home country, and Westerners will have to continue relying on plucky companies like Atlus and XSEED to localize and distribute those games. Sometimes we need awesome straight-up Japanese fare, but Japan is capable of contributing more. Game development should be a playground without walls, a place where countries around the world can mix ideas by importing and exporting willing talent.

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 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

2 Comments

  1. Nice article.

    After reading it all it made me think about the guy I’ve met at several E3s and Tokyo Game Shows. A guy based in the UK called George Bray, he has been helping many developers and publishers over the years get their content published or reworked for global audiences. I follow him on Twitter @georgebray for anyone wanting to go East or West with their content it’d be worth talking to him.

  2. Great the article, sorry for my English as it is not my first language.

    I used to love Metal Gear, Final Fantasy with it’s never ending story and silly hair styles, Pokemon, Castlevania (games in 3DS are still good) and any games with Japanese tags on it.

    But now that I’ve played games like Call of Duty, GTA, Fallout and Skyrim/Oblivion, I can’t help but think that japanese games now evolved pretty silly with no real innovations made.

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