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Japan's fall from grace; gaming.

If one were to look at the list of Japanese inventions then there would be a notable section involving gaming. Many of the mechanics and controls that have now become standard whethers they be the addition of the rumble, which is used now in all console controllers.

The Japanese were the undidsputed kings of the gaming industry far less than a decade ago and before that they were standing high on the Mount Olympus of the industry.

So what happened?

Now before I recall the sighed reaction of DeeJay from the Street Fighter 94 movie about Microsoft. I should mention before the venture of the first Xbox the forray of console online gaming had been ventured by that old hand: the Dreamcast. A console which was the first to come out in the much heated genre boasting a number of hardcore gaming features including the standards of online gameplay the console flopped. Console making is an expensive business which often involves having a loss-leader strategy so Sega was pretty much losing a lot of money making these consoles and with no other subsidaries to make up for the loss the company as a whole would end up maiking a loss. But also the legacy of the Sega Saturn had left a stench of failure onto the new console and people weren't all too trusting. But also and more importantly was that the 3rd party developers were not willing to back an uncertain horse when they sensed that their efforts best be served onto the much hyped PS2. Indeed the PS2 in leiu with their strategy of creating multimedia devices came out as the strongest winner of the fight and it was much to do with how far 3rd party developers had backed it up.

Whilst Sega put a very large effort into making games for the console and there was the much accredited Shenmue, the console lacked the kind of killer app and Sega lacked the portfolio of games that such companies like Nintendo could boast.

When Microsoft announced the Xbox, people just went out and called it a CPU turned sideways. The design was considered grotesque and unimganitive and the controllers are considered some of the worst controllers ever made. And ofcourse Microsoft was just entering the industry didn't have that vast portfolio of first party games. In many ways the Xbox was considered the Western take of the Dreamcast, sharing many similiarities.

Yet they succeeded where Dreamcast failed because they could survive the intitial war of attrition that consoles have to go through in their early lives. But also they had the perfect killer app in the games Halo which is widely considered to be one of the best FPS game franchieses. The Halo franchise fully boasted the online features that perhaps the Dreamcast couldn't project to it's audience and Microsoft made it so that players would have to subscribe and pay for their online services.

With the success of the original Xbox, Microsoft in their cunningness released their console the first and thus the HD wars began. The Xbox 360 was now designed now in a sleek white shell which some have likened to a kettle pot but the controllers were now more slimmed down and hand friendly. With a strong launch lineup and the much aniticipated follow up in Halo, Microsoft was sitting pretty. Although many gamers had attested to waiting for the much hyped PS3 the warning signs of the console being incredibly expensives pushes some gamers into the arena of the 360. Microsoft cultivated developers for some of it's own IPs but strategy for them was to work with 3rd party developers. The 360 was a place wheer 3rd parties could do well and didn't suffer overcrowding like such would happen on the Nintendo consoles but Microsoft made their console easier to develope for and gave out developmen kitts. That is easier for PC developers. What Microsoft did was to provide a space for expansion and transition from the PC market and open a window into the console market. Now PC developers could make their games for the PC AND the 360 and thus they standed to make more sales. With this unified development scene they could now bring the FPS genre into the full stage of mainstream gaming. As it is now the FPS genre is widely known as the king in terms of sales.

But meanwhile in Japan, the developers and the gamers couldn't care less about either of the gaijin Microsofts consoles and games. They were still happy with their PS2s. The Japanese would rather develop for their own home audience which they could atleast understand and it was enough to sustain them at the time. It is often said that the Japanese think of anything foreign as inferior and those games weren't sold in Japan.

The problem of course with this was that this was a race. Competition entiles that those companies be proactive and always look to maintain some lead and advantage. So whilst the Japanese were playing away in the last gen, developers got to grips with making games for the HD consoles. But ofcourse unlike the Japanese, the Western world is very happy with early adoption and the 360 was selling well particularly in the US.

Now when the PS3 arrived it was considered too expensive but not only that, it was hard to develop for. Combined with poor sales, Sony could only weep as they had reversed their position from leader to lagger.

Now that the Japanese HD console had finally arrived the developers had now started to get to work they found that costs were enormous. But also they were now lacking in experience compared to their Western counterparts. Development for some of the games on the HD soon took up an enormous times such as FF 13 and the costs were hammering. The West had now become using standard development engines such as the Unreal engines and the Japanese had to make engines from scratch. The Japanese just couldn't use the Western developer tools as they were unfamiliar with it and there was the language barrier. But also development teams had grown so much larger now and it had become an industry with a cartel of a few massive pubilishers. All of whome could make heavy marketing pushes and release games almost yearly. Publishers like Activision could even have franchises with unique periphery items. But mostly the Western developers were now better able to harness thier wider cuture and provide trhe poilish into the levels considered Hollywood. Indeed even some movie directors had become interested in gaming such as Steven Spielberge and even genres like books could be brought in such as the infamous Tom Clancy series. As Western developers rised to the challenge of raising the quality of their games to better represent the wide array of media at their desposal it in turn earned the ability to make games for these franchises. Whilst this wasn't new that Western developers handled Western IPs and made games for all sorts of movies of shoes lfrom Harry Potter to Star Wars they could now be accredited to making a more mature representation.

Back in Japan they didn't have so much foreignly recognised IPs. Despite having such cultural icons as Dragonball and having the backing of the anime industry, anime was still considered a niche and had began too decline. Indeed anime's influence on Japanese gaming was almost universally felt, from the storylines to the very asthetics and character designs. But as the Japanese tried to go deeper within their genre they had found ony the displeasure of the global audience. If it wasn't already apparent, it should be noted that the Japanese don't like change, confomity is the modue opperandi. The Japanese couldn't go deeper into their storytelling and find the new levels of maturity that the Western developers could from their cultural offerings. Anime has always been considered more mature than your average kids cartoon, with it's violence and somber tellings of war and death. Yet many of the fields of exploration were on diffrenet pastures much to say the rise of dating sims and the overt sexualness if Japanese games. In this case anime maybe considered teenage as though it may try reach for more mature subjects but it treats them almost like a joke and needs to exaggerate the almost squirmy aspects such as cheesy dialogue and make jokes about tits and boobies.

Japan in this case was suffering what I call Tarantino syndrome. In his heyday Tarantino was considered upbeat and his films were lauded as quirky and fun. He was a fan of gratuitous violence and he liked to make loads of references. The problem was that Tarantino kept making the same things. His movies offered the same formula of having being, non linear, chapterised, gratuitous pointless references, overtly incompetant characters and extreme violence. People came to realise that he wasn't mature at all and the famous and respected film critic Mark Kermode said that Tarantino was unprepared to rise to the next level and didn't wanna try anythin different. He didn't want to use special effects but he never took the plung or took the opportunity to use the advancements as they arised.

Compare this to say Spielberg who did try keep up with technology but he also tried different things such as themes and he did try for some levels of maturity.

So Japanese games were being much the same with overbearing cliches including dialogue which tranlated across horribly. Back when the technical limitations were around spikey hair could be excused because of polygons and the dialogue came in box form and so the actual horrific sound of the words never entered your ears.

Western developers have had an ambition to raise the respectability of gaming and push the limitations to the limit. Recent games such as Mass Effect are built with a whole universe at mind. The scope, scale and phyics have all changed. And we have seen that modding communities such as machinima have risen up to utilise their genres in aqll the myriad of ways. The Western devleopers are tentative to their audience as the Western gamers are very vocall in their complaints and make them quite direct. Not to say the Japanese politely bend over and allow themselves to get screwed but Western companies fear belligerent retaliation. In an indistry where their can be spats even between publishers and developers such as infinity ward vs Kotick it seems that you listen carefully or you get a cauliflour ear. But companies like Nintendo would rather say "la la la friend codes, la la la" which just wouldn't fly in the face of Western gamers for Western games. Whilst the Western developers aren't all too free to do their own thing it has been heard that typical to Japanese idiosyncrasies, the developers just do waht they're told and never threaten to walk out or quit.

Although he PS3 is ultimately more superior in hardware terms to the 360 and suffers a afar lesser break down rate, as well as boasting free online. The 360 maintains a lead over it. This is due to the fact of online services. It cannot be overstated enough how important online play is now for games and any games not to include this feature may suffer.

Now not that all Japanese are hard stuck on this animesque formula but even those that aren't face an uphill battle. Capcom, Atlus and Platinum games come to mind. Street Fighter 4 offered what was the ressurection of fighting games and yet it's sequel Super Street Fighter 4 took to vastly improve the online play. Not only that but they tried to balance the game as much as possible and try to use DLC to make extra money. But attempts to beat the west at their own dominant genres like TPS and FPS games have met with utter failure. Even games like Vanquish just don't cut it and lacking online play could be a big reason why.

In this industry of growing costs it is imperative that companies find new ways to recuperate costs and make a profit. And so schemes like DLC are offered which the West seems to utilise to a far greater extent than Japan does. It seems almost funny that Square Enix must now make several closely related Final Fantasy games in order to try generate a profit because of the expense of their engine whilst the West simply releases DLC.

It seems Japanese game makers are in a rush to create as many spin offs and sequels as possible, as we have seen from companies like Capcom and SE. But these measures are nothing new which is what is all the more bothersome as creating the next Super Street Fighter HD Turbo Remix might just be pushing it too far. Not that certain publishers don't whore out a cash cow franchise and then look to grind the axe into it's sullen head (Kotick) in a cycle with ever increasing sequels but perhaps those sequels exist in a more looser sense. The storyline in one Call of Duty game may not totally translate into another, whereas in Japanese games it feels like it's cram and rehash job like Tales of Symphonia: New Dawn.

More onto certain differences would simply be into the cultures. Grind is an ever present part in Japanese games which is all the much hated in the West. That is because the Japanese view everything as work even gaming apparently. But the West prefers a somewhat instant gratification from their games such as in FPS games. Trying to accomodate between both maybe too much of a hard thing to attempt.

Now althought a long long section has just been saying what the Japanese do wrong it must also note the success stories of Japan as of now. None moreso than Nintendo. This company seems to do well on both sides of globe and it sells in megatonnes. Even their outdated tech console, the Wii sells more.
Now could Japanese developers emulate the success of Nintendo? Well for one thing Nintendo has a wide portfolio of games but more importantly it has a family friendly image. In a world where conservative pundits speak loudly and boorishly about how violent videogames are and how they will corrupt the minds of children, Nintendo maintains a clean sheet. And being clean can be very lucrative. It can guarantee and almost universal appeal even to those considered the non-gamers. The quality can even attest to what can be known as vitage or fun for all ages such as the likes of Pixar. But Nintendo games also happen to be widely different to their Japanese brethren because of this. It means any kind of realistic weapon or gore is not made available but is means it doesn't follow the pitfall of trying to be cool all the time. Compare Mario who is a round Italian guy who uses a hammer to you're Japanese male hero who uses a big ol' fancy sword and talks about protecting his friends all the damn time. The Nintendo universe can feel more fresh in that in doesn't encroach on the Tarantino inmature space of including over the top blood violence and so it can persue different creative avenues because it need not worry about trying to be cool.

Nintendo is also clearly a company that doesn't seek to enter and compete with Western games in their own genres. When the new Metroid: other M was released one couldn't help but notice that perhaps Nintendo was worried that the Metroid franchise couldn't survive in a gaming climate of FPS blockbusters and so they looked to change the direction. Unfortunately it was met with scorn as the attempt for a Japanese game to try characterise Samus in a serious way was widely criticised for making her into an insecure weak woman which is considered a Japanese cliche.

Anyways it seems the Japanese have tried to sink into the handheld genre where the costs and risks are ultimately lower. But then there is the Iphone. A bastion of really cheap games and some of them made by former great console developers. But the Iphone is but another mutlimedia device which can do far more than just play games. Even Nintendo has come to realise that Apple may just be it's greatest rival yet.

With their market share quickly eroding, the Japanese need to do something and fast. In a country where pessimism and fatalism seem failry common it may be hard to do so. But Japanese developers outdo their Western counterparts in terms of collaboration. Capcom has brought this back with a heavy vengeance with MvC 3 and Tekken vs Capcom. Square Enix is happy to make Kingdom hearts for the handhelds but that all elusive Kingdom Hearts 3 has yet to be announced. Plus considering that Disney to the chargrin of comic fans, owns Marvel it could mean a clash of astronomical proportions in a game of amazing variety and scope.

Shonen Jump; a company that has published famous mangas like Blach and Dragonball, once had a game out with all their characters in a full out fighting game. If such a game was to be made on a HD console than ot would also open up people to old and forgotten characters and series like Ninku. Just as Super Smash Bros can be acredited to the rise of a new Kid Icarus game.

Either way the Japanese would need to wake up and start taking some real wide influence. Even if that means playing Western games, which so many of them really don't.

But I feel Japan is just too stubborn, the talk we hear now is of an industry where the people have given up. A phrase once used to decribe how the Japanese has lost their self-determination was "shikata ga nai", or "nothing can be done about it,". One can't help feel that sentiment exists for the situation now.
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About palpablepalpatineone of us since 2:07 PM on 11.21.2010