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Bob Muir avatar 5:27 PM on 02.17.2008  (server time)
Rantoid: What is wrong with Japanese developers?

Necros Says: I'm thinking Rantoid is going to be moving exclusively to Sundays for the near future. It's not that I don't love writing this column, but a giant block of free time has been moved from late Thursday to the red-eye shift on Saturday night at my job this semester. Of course, I'm sure you all could care less.

I grew up with Nintendo systems. With only a few exceptions like Rare, almost every game I owned came from a Japanese developer. And even though I could have expanded beyond those games, it was almost a conscious decision on my part. To my younger eyes, Western-made games had generic graphics attempting to be realistic with limited processing power. They were all centered on tough, macho guys torn from the screen of a summer blockbuster action movie. In contrast, Japanese games were an endless treasure trove of creativity, treasuring not only gameplay over graphics, but also interesting art styles over graphics. I saw no reason why I'd want to delve into what I viewed as a boring, mainstream Western market. Forget Half-Life; it was Mario or bust in those days.

Obviously, there was a lot wrong with those sentiments. While Western developers weren't in the same position of power as their Japanese brethren, there was still a lot of quality content to emerge from the West in the 90s. As I grew up, I got over my prejudices and realized that I was missing out on a ton of games. For instance: Harmonix, a US-based company, made a highly-creative music game called Frequency at a time when the industry was churning out DDR clones. Furthermore, I have since amended my sins of skipping classics like Half-Life. These days, I can easily get excited about Western-developed games. In fact, Western developers have received a surge of talent as of late.

We've seen Bioware produce some of the finest RPGs on the market, pushing the genre in ways that aren't seen in JRPGs. Last year's BioShock amazed gamers with its sophisticated narrative and immersive gameplay. And God of War has given the similar Devil May Cry games a serious competitor. Despite an industry focused on sequels, retreads, and clones, as well as an unhealthy fixation on FPS games, Western developers continue to innovate.

This isn't the issue, though.

Japanese developers seem to be running out of steam. I used to look to Japan for examples of weird, quirky games that showcased ideas that had never been done before. This is the country that birthed WarioWare, Katamari Damacy, and Viewtiful Joe. These are my "peeps," my "homies." But while I still love Japanese games, lately, they seem to be making my DO WANT list less and less, not because they look bad, but because there are fewer of these creative games. And when these games are developed, they're almost always retreads of earlier entries. Capcom and Namco ran the Viewtiful Joe and Katamari series into the ground with samey sequels that failed to impress like the originals.

You want to see how bad the gaming environment in Japan has become? Look no further than one Mr. Goichi Suda, auteur of the post-modern hit No More Heroes. Gamers around the world generated tons of hype in anticipation for his follow-up to Killer 7. He rightfully assumed the game would be a big hit. However, when Suda personally attended a signing for the Japanese launch, no one stepped up to buy his creative idea except for a Famitsu editor covering the event. The game surely wasn't the problem; the issue was the Japanese gaming public and their rapidly shifting tastes. (Astute readers can probably see where I'm going with this.)

Due to the development of Japan's impressive cell phone network, simple time-wasters were developed for the man or woman on the go. Developers, seeing a market to tap into, soon began developing casual games for cell phones. Nintendo's success with the DS in Japan was only confirmation of this trend; propelled by the emerging casual market, the DS became a cultural phenomenon on par with the iPod in America. However, it was not regular games that sold well on the system but light-weight casual games in the vein of Nintendo's Brain Age. Sure, it's always great to expand the market, and I'm certain Nintendo is happy with their bottom line. However, this has honestly had an unintended side effect: weakening the traditional games market in Japan, specifically in regards to consoles.

If you were an investor, who would you chose to invest in: the developer who is devoted to making products that match the traditional concept of video games, games that sell only to a hardcore niche; or the developer who publishes casual "games," products that are widely bought by those only briefly familiar with the medium? It's no contest. Casual games are just too good of a moneymaker to pass up. It's hard to justify dumping millions of dollars into developing a hardcore video game when it's easy to churn out another Brain Age clone or illustrated kanji dictionary. Because of this, traditional games have to walk on eggshells. The developer may be willing to innovate within a series, but the fanbase is most likely going to reject any changes to a familiar formula. So what choice does a developer have to do but lean on the conservative side and release a rehash of a previous game? Western gamers were surprised at how generic and unoriginal Mistwalker's Blue Dragon was, but it was precisely what Japanese hardcore gamers wanted: more of the same. On a similar note, the recently released Devil May Cry 4 is getting good reviews, but it is nothing we haven't seen in previous installments of the series.

So what is my point here? To put it simply: the rise of casual games is seriously damaging the Japanese gaming market on a level not comparable to that of America. As a result, they are quickly becoming unwilling to innovate, leaving Western developers to pull ahead in creative ideas. Numerous Japanese developers have lamented the state of Japanese gaming and acknowledged current Western superiority, including Goichi Suda, Yukio Futatsugi (Panzer Dragoon, Phantom Dust), and apparently most of Konami, as they have outsourced the development of major titles like Contra 4 and Silent Hill 5 to Western teams. Even Nintendo has handed over the reins of the beloved Metroid series to Retro Studios, centered in Texas.

Are Japanese developers incapable of making some truly great games? No, and I hope to see great things come out of Atsushi Inaba, Shinji Mikami, and Hideki Kamiya's Platinum Games studio in the vein of Capcom's shuttered Clover Studio (another victim of the rise of casual gaming). However, Japanese developers seem less and less willing to forge their own path in a crowded market.

Necros didn't write Rantoid last week because he was busy being a student at Syracuse University. When he isn't swamped with work, he appears as a regular on Failcast.

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