Japan’s Stagnation: Blame Executives

Japan’s Stagnation: Blame Executives

The state of the games industry in Japan (barring Nintendo’s continued success) can be described with a handful of unhappy words: “Sad, confused,” and “struggling” are three accurate ones. But labeling the maladies of Eastern game development is much easier than pinning down an exact reason for the troubles, and it’s a hell of a lot easier than prescribing a cure.

Still, Japan’s stake in the industry is very much worth saving, so it pays to listen to the devs who have worked in the Land of the Rising Sun long enough to pinpoint one of its woes. Tomonobu Itagaki is one such developer: The creator of the Dead or Alive series has clocked substantial time with Tecmo-Koei, and is currently experiencing the Western side of game development as he works on Devil’s Third, which will be published by THQ in early 2013.

One of the problems with Japanese game development, says Itagaki, is a lack of “creativity and ingenuity” from Japanese executives. People who don’t know how to make games are calling the shots, and that makes for a lot of problems.

“In the U.S., more so in the U.S. than in Japan, I think there are a lot of top management people who actually know how to make games,” Itagaki said in an interview with Gamasutra. “I think there are more people here like that [in the U.S.], than in Japan. I think it’s a good thing.”

Itagaki acknowledges that video games are business, but if there’s not enough creativity and fun going into the final product, it will ultimately deflate. “In Japan, management people, they sort of pretend they know what they’re doing,” he said. “Those management people, they say, ‘I love games,’but they don’t know how to make them.

“In Japan, in this industry, they are lacking not just in technology, but the important thing is the creativity and ingenuity. They’re lacking in that. So they complain a lot, they say a lot, but then they don’t take action. So before they say anything bad or complain — ‘Do something!’ is what I want to say.”

Itagaki has developed on both sides of the pond: His analysis of Japan’s development troubles come from experience. The question is, is he right? The troubles with Japan’s industry are numerous, but it’s not hard to envision that a wide separation between executives and developers is one of the country’s problems. Game devs from any country are likelier to relate and respect someone who worked his or her way up from a bug testing cubicle than they are a person who was brought in from the outside with no real hands-on experience with game making.

On the other hand, we have to give pause and think about one of the individuals who brought video games back to North American homes after the crash of 1983: Hiroshi Yamauchi. Yamauchi helped raise Nintendo from a humble card manufacturer to an entertainment giant. While he made a couple of blunders in his time overseeing Nintendo (Virtual Boy, intentionally making the N64 difficult to program in hopes that less talented studios would stay away), his successes overshadow his mistakes by far. And the interesting thing about Yamauchi’s time with Nintendo is that, according to the book “Game Over” by David Sheff, Yamauchi never played video games. Not Nintendo’s games, and not his competitors’ games.

But Yamauchi was also a heck of a businessman before his retirement in 2002: He obviously had some serious talent determining what buyers wanted before they even knew what they wanted (again, exception: Virtual Boy). Chances are good that the Japanese execs Itigaki references are businessmen with no particular talent, but no less worried about the bottom line.

If you’re in top management, you have a history developing/loving games, and you’re overseeing a project, you’re not in an enviable position. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to hurt someone’s feelings–possibly the feelings of someone you used to work with–and choose between creative expression and profitability. Still, it’s a healthy position to be in, because you’re familiar with the work, can point out mistakes, and keep spending under control. Not only does this kind of hands-on experience improve a game, but it improves relationships between the developers and the managers as well.

It’s not to say a person who has no game-making experience is incapable of making a good game, nor can game-ignorant executives bear exclusive blame for the troubles plaguing Japan’s industry. But patching the divide between Japan’s executives and game creators would be a good start to setting the industry on recovery’s road.

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.

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