Is Japanese gaming really in the rut that everyone suggests? From the front pages to the community blogs to the backwaters of video game podcasting, a loose consensus has formed that Japanese developers have faltered and lost their spark, while Western developers move forward, exploring new possibilities and perfecting old models.
But this grand narrative of shifting developer dominance glosses over the subtle nuances and finer distinctions that challenge the very premise upon which the East vs. West debate is built. From using oversimplified language to ignoring the relevant evidence, the success of titles like Mass Effect and Call of Duty have led to hasty and incomplete conclusions that miss a deeper and more complex reality.
Western developers make mistakes too.
Take for instance the terms of the debate themselves. The ďWestĒ may be shorthand for American video game developers, but when considering the style or spirit of a game, the ďWestĒ expands to include Canada, Australia, and the larger part of Europe. Together, those countries have a GDP
greater than the rest of the world combined. Not an insignificant alliance, especially in video games, an entertainment medium predicated on luxury and excess income to which most countries donít have access. Like the proverbial ďEast,Ē an amorphous collection of Asiatic countries that spent the better part of the last two centuries colonized and exploited. The only economically developed countries, comparable to those in the West, are Japan, South Korea, and to a growing extent, China. Together, these three countries donít amount to %50 of the Westís GDP, even after you include India.
In addition, though gaming is extremely popular in South Korea, and increasingly so in China, as of yet, neither country has seen its development industry move markedly beyond simply providing support to more established studios. Which leaves Japan. And if East vs. West means Japan vs. the U.S., E.U., Australia and Canada, then the outcome shouldnít be surprising.
Instead, what most people in the East vs. West debate are picking up on is Japanís decline relative to the market dominance it once had. When Nintendo revived the video game industry after its post-Atari implosion, Japanese developers benefited from increasing industry experience and a timely blend of creativity, talent, and an appealing cultural perspective. Itís only natural that Japanís market dominance would begin to decline as other countries, many larger and wealthier than Japan, continued to foster vibrant gaming communities of their own.
A good analogy is Americaís automotive industry. It was dominant for decades. After the devastation of WWII, companies like Ford and GM were unbeatable. But all good things must come to an end, and while mismanagement and costly worker benefits certainly contributed to their decreasing size, the relative decline of GM and Ford was less a result of mistakes on their part, and more directly attributable to increased competition from European and East Asian companies.
Even now plenty of gamers are clamoring for more Japanese titles.
The same holds true for Japan. Their relative decline is less a result of internal shortcomings than external increases to global competition. Itís not that Japan makes worse video games now. Itís that developers all over the rest of the world are making better games, and more of them, then ever before.
In fact, people should be less surprised with Japanese developersí decreasing share of the market, and more shocked by how, in the face of stiff competition from the largest and wealthiest countries in the world, they have maintained even the level of relevancy and dominance they have today.
Because they are still relevant. If you look at the 50 top selling video games of all time
, the majority were all created by Japanese studios. Even after you remove previously bundled titles, the Eastís cumulative success is astounding. The first Western game on the list is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas at number 18. Take out those titles that were once bundled and add the sales from Xbox and PC, and it still only makes it to the 16th spot. What about Call of Duty? Combined software sales from all available platforms and it still only sits at number 7.
Indeed, even though they are exclusive to one system, Nintendoís titles have outsold the competition historically, with more recent titles like Mario Kart DS still making it into the top 10 despite only being released on one platform. But that was yesterday some will say. What have Japanese developers done more recently?
Mario Kart remains the most successful and popular racing video game franchise.
On the one hand it appears as though the critical achievements
of the past several years have all been developed in the West: Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. For instance, in 2010, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences declared Mass Effect 2 game of the year. GDC Game Developers Choice Awards gave 2009 to Uncharted 2. In 2008, Game Informerís choice was Grand Theft Auto IV. And Gampro declared Call of Duty 4 the winner in 2007, while in 2006 Spike TVís VGAs granted the highest honor to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. All Western developed. All high achievements. And all great games.
But another side to the data tells a different story. Score aggregating sites like GameRankings and Metacritic, while loathed by video game journalists, instead point to the continued achievement Japanese developers. According to GameRankings, four out of the last six years, the game of the year was developed either by Nintendo or Capcom. Metacritic arrived at the same results.
And then thereís the bias of various video game critics and media outlets. Edge for example, has given more game of the year awards to Japanese developed titles since 2005 then other outlets, yet still remains closer to the aggregated norm, even as sites like IGN and 1up favored Western titles. In fact, it shouldnít be surprising that many Western video game media websites and publications seem to prefer Western games on the whole. And thus itís somewhat silly to point toward Western rankings of Western games and declare the West the victor. Would it make any more sense to decide the debate solely based on the results of Japanese video game websites and publications?
Still, there is one factor that remains a more objective measure of Japanís continued significance in the video game industry, and thatís the global appeal of the games they produce. Western games donít sell very well in Japan. But Eastern games DO sell very well in the rest of the world, including Europe and the Americas. From Mario to Resident Evil to Metal Gear Solid, Japanese games travel West, while Western title still have a hard time making it East. For all the talk of Japanese developers needing to look to what the rest of the world is doing, it makes one wonder if maybe Western developers shouldnít begin to look a little more at what the developers back East are doing.
On the other hand, where in Japanese game development is there room for this guy?
Now itís true that video game sales alone donít indicate whatís valuable or worthy of critical acclaim. And itís also true that Japanese video game developers have not been as good at adapting to the changing market as their Western counterparts. Downloadable titles have been some of the best to be released in the past few years, and yet on the whole that market has been dominated by the West. But itís also true that considering the size of their competitors and the changing global demographic of the average gamer, Japan has done surprisingly well. The current market trends are less a demonstration of their decline in the video game industry than a long overdue re-balancing of the scales. read