There's only so much money a Japanese game can make in a Western market. This largely has to do with cultural differences inbred into the minds of those making these games. Each developer, designer, programmer, and producer leaves behind the fingerprints of their upbringing and culture, even in innocuous things like a line of coding – which, when multiplied by the millions, can make a world of difference in the final product.
Gaming, after many decades, is finally a mainstream affair in America, no longer sidelined or dismissed as a child's plaything with no real weight or value – and Japan had nothing to do with it. This is precisely because of those cultural differences and limitations on influence within Western markets.
This post serves as an expansion, an elaboration, on my previous blog, focusing on the sacrifice of creativity and innovation for the sake of commercialization and risk reduction. In it, I advocate that the best way for Japanese developers to reach their highest potential for profit is by offering alternatives to Western games. The Japanese must refocus game design towards more original and innovative titles, rather than trying to emulate Western successes – and failing miserably at it (again, due to these cultural limitations and differences).
This post is to detail just why that is.
Love it or hate it, Madden is a big reason why gaming finally got over that hurdle of being ridiculed in this country (back when EA was the king of the market, and everyone's favorite villain). Other games came along and helped it out, especially when Call of Duty got really big. But Madden, at least in my mind, was the originator. If you used to own a game console, obviously you were either an adolescent of limited maturity, a slacker, a loser, or whatever name you want to dig out. Get crazy with it.
But when Madden came out, oh no! See, it's different now: I got this thing to play football! Yeah, stop frontin': You know you want to come over and try this shit!
Madden was a trojan horse. It let average fathers and boyfriends all across the country buy PS2s without getting that weird look from their spouses (though their parents will never understand it, even today). I mean, yeah: They weren't thrilled about the idea, but it wasn't any different from when everybody came over on Monday nights anyways. And at least it wasn't one of those weird games, like Final Fantasy! Then some eyebrows would have been raised.
But Madden? Ok. Then time passed, with each year a new Madden, along with some other games to bide the time between installments: NBA2K, the NHL series, other assorted sports games to go along with them. Then there was Halo! Then Guitar Hero, Gears, on and on until the 4 Billion Dollar Baby from Infinity Ward.
Part of it simply was that too many guys were into it. This child's plaything was inescapable because Westerners finally cracked the code as to what would make a lot of money in the West. That's the problem with this debate: It assumes that Japan was ever on top to begin with in the West, that Japan had ever cracked that code. Relatively speaking, for the time period, they were on top – relatively.
What if Japan is simply doing as well as it's always done? That it merely looks smaller compared to the new Western juggernauts given this sort of renaissance? What if we're unfairly measuring them against the West? And why would it be unfair if we were?
It'd be unfair because of those cultural advantages.
Could a Japanese developer make a football game like Madden? Probably not, because it's not a part of their culture. A game like Madden takes hundreds of people, each with at least a comfortable knowledge of not only the sport and its rules, but the passions and culture around it – all of which the average Japanese, let alone a Japanese programmer, wouldn't know shit about!
Japan struggles to make a AAA shooter because the mentally required for it is not a part of their collective psyche. The Japanese are not exposed to guns and warfare to the level that Americans are, who grow up hunting and playing with toy guns in the backyard. The Japanese don't spend most of their summers watching Rambo and Die Hard like Americans did. It simply is such a foreign concept that there will inevitably be limitations to any sort of attempt to emulate it, and any attempt will falter in comparison to an American equivalent.
It's a lot like asking a vegan chef to cook a roasted chicken. What the hell does a vegan know about cooking chicken, or how to make it taste good? They don't eat chicken at all, and probably never liked it to begin with! (No disrespect to vegans – y'all are fine people in my book).
We have to re-evaluate how we measure Japanese success, and begin to discuss if there are indeed limitations to this success within the West. Will there be overlap, things both cultures enjoy? Of course. Will there be Japanese who are appealed to the stuff the average American is, and vice versa? Undoubtedly - It's how Japan made money in the West in the first place. But in terms of mass market success, the route Japan has taken this generation, in trying to kill its old self and copy the West, hasn't worked.
There are a lot of other issues that contribute to this failure, such as the insistence on developing in-house game engines as opposed to pre-built ones like Unreal, which also deserve a fair look - Japan's problems are not isolated to a single issue.
But can Japan ever really, truly understand the Western gamer and how best to appeal to him?
Probably as much as the West can ever really, truly understand the Japanese gamer and how best to appeal to him.