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Handy avatar 1:26 PM on 01.14.2011  (server time)
The Culture Gap.

Cereal business this time guys.

Like, super cereal.

I’m talking Branflakes, yo.

In the last year we’ve heard a lot about Western vs. Eastern design philosophy, how many times have you seen the comments section of an article devolve into “Yawn, another pretty boy with ridiculous hair and a massive sword” and then “At least it’s better than another buzz cut marine killing everything with his massive gun”. And while there’s certainly a lot to be said about both sides approach to game design I want to talk about something slightly different. Specifically, publishers attempts to appeal to each market.

Japan got one version, we got the other, I’m not sure what these guys are doing with their market research but something tells me it could be money better spent elsewhere.

Over the course of the last few years we’ve seen examples of Japanese publishers altering a games content for its western release or cutting it out all together in some cases. Yakuza 3 had to cut content due to “time constraints” and chose what they thought western gamers wouldn’t miss or wouldn’t “get”. Some of it was understandable (most of us wouldn’t get a quiz about Japanese history), some of it less so (everybody gets having drinks with hot girls).

Personally I’m not sure I buy the whole “time constraints” thing, this game came out in the same week as Final Fantasy XIII, were SEGA really in that much of a rush to send it out to die? It just seemed strange for a game so steeped in Japanese culture, to the point of keeping the original voice track, using English subtitles and keeping tons product placement for things we’ve likely never heard of, to suddenly decide something is “too Japanese”, but I’m trailing off here.

As a result many gamers felt short changed out of content, certain areas of the game world felt empty, and the only way to go out with women, and thus gain access to many missions, was by getting accosted by them in fast food restaurants. Say what you like about hostess bars but picking up chicks at a burger joint isn’t exactly classy either. Fortunately it seems like SEGA took the complaints to heart and have stated that Yakuza 4 will make it over completely intact.

Maybe a better example of what a publishers thinks the west wants is Nier, in Japan two versions of Nier were brought out, Nier Gestalt and Nier Replicant, one for the Xbox and one for the PS3. The only difference between these two games is the protagonist, PS3 owners got a slender young man with fabulous hair and Xbox owners got an elderly gruff man with a voice so gravelly you could park your car on it. Guess which version was intended for overseas...

Go on, guess!

Again, the only difference between the two games is the way the protagonist looks and his relation to a sickly little girl, Replicant got the young man who was the girl’s brother and Gestalt got the older guy who served as the father instead. The gameplay, plot, cut scenes and dialog (except where necessary) were exactly the same. Funnily enough, the father who’d do anything to save his daughter turned out to be a much more affecting story, I’m not sure if this was just a happy accident in our favour or a result of the publishers underestimating the Japanese audience and thinking they’d prefer the more stereotypical lead.

Of course it’s not just little changes made to cater to our supposed tastes, entire games are built up around the idea of appealing to the west. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a huge market and they’d be stupid not to go after it, but there’s a right way to go about it and a wrong way. Let’s take two games, Quantum Theory and Vanquish, both were released around the same time, both are third person shooters, and both were made with appealing the west in mind. One is way better than the other.

It’s very possible that Quantum Theory started out as melted plastic armour DLC for Gears of War

Quantum Theory, to me, seems like the result of relying too much on market research and not enough on heart. It’s like they went “What’s big in America? Big guys shooting at shit and stuff? Let’s do that.” and then added the gimmick of throwing a woman at people to spice things up. With Vanquish on the other hand, Platinum took the concept of a third person shooter and made it their own, they coated it with visual flair, sped the whole thing up, filled it with their trademark over-the-top action, added transforming robots, and basically made a game so crazy and intense that you forget how badly you need to pee until you pause it.

Comparing the two, Vanquish couldn’t be more Japanese and it did just fine in the west, whereas Quantum Theory, the game made specifically for us, bombed. I’m not saying Japanese developers shouldn’t attempt something outside their comfort zone, I’m saying that if they make that sort of game they should want to, they should put some heart into it, it shouldn’t be because “that’s what sells” or trying to ape a successful franchise, hell that doesn’t even work for the western developers, that’s why Call of Duty is still at the top of the charts and Medal of Honour dropped off ages ago.

It’s not a one way street either, I’m sure plenty of content is changed or cut for a Japanese release, but that sort of thing isn’t usually reported on because it doesn’t affect us, the only recent example I can think of is not having the option to nuke Megaton in Fallout 3 (for obvious reasons) or not being able to shoot civilians in MW 2’s No Russian (for less obvious reasons).

To pick on Quantum Theory again, because quite frankly, they deserve it, imagine if Activision announced “Hey, we want a slice of that Japanese pie” and revealed their new game staring an effeminate fourteen year old with a sword way too big to be practical as they shout “Come on! That monster’s got numbers comin’ out of its head! You guys love this crap right?”. Like Quantum Theory it’d be a soulless grab for cash from what they perceive to be popular.

I’m not completely naive, I understand that sometimes a game needs to cater to western sensibilities, some things just do not translate directly and need to be altered one way or another to flow with the rest of the game. Atlus is a company that gets this, changing content and dialog where it’s needed but always trying to stay true to the original vision. Take Teddie for example, in the original version his name was Kuma (Bear) and he had a verbal tic where he ended sentences with “-kuma”. This wouldn’t make any sense in English, so the localization team changed his name to Teddie (which is effin’ genius when you think about it) and replaced his verbal tic with un-bear-lievable puns.

Which is much better when you think about how things could have turned out.

“This blog is getting un-bear-ably long.”

Takeshi Yamanaka gets it too, understanding that while his game is niche, having a global view of the industry doesn’t hurt things. But what do you think? Should games be ported over directly or should changes be made? Would the money spent making changes be better spent finding a better way to advertise the games to the west instead? Should we all get in a big circle and sing Kum by ya? Sound off in the comments.

(Apologies for the lack of boner jokes in this post. But look forward to my next blog “Gaming’s Top Ten Greatest Boners!")

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