Thursday, 16 September 2010
In Japan, Gamemakers Struggle to Instill Taste for Western Shooters
[Takeshi Kitajima, 37, plays Just Cause 2 in a Sofmap store in Akihabara. "When I started the game, I wasn't sure what to do," he said of the open-world action game.
Photo: Robert Gilhooly/Wired.com]
"TOKYO — Japanese publishers looking to import American games face a daunting task in a country that hasn’t warmed to next-gen graphics and first-person shooters.
“Japan’s never been very receptive to foreign games,” says Gwyn Campbell, who works for a major game publisher in Tokyo and is the host of a gaming podcast with other expatriates. “The term ‘foreign game’ is traditionally an insult — it means ‘low quality.’”
The anti-Western prejudice is deeply ingrained in the minds of Japanese gamers, who traditionally favor handheld devices like the Nintendo DS over high-powered consoles like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
Yo-ge, kuso-ge, goes the saying: “Western game, shit game.”
Still, partly because high-def game development is so expensive and partly because they see an undeveloped market just waiting to be tapped, Japanese publishers are pushing foreign games with increasing vigor in their home country, even though the domestic audience has historically been loath to try them.
“These companies want to make money,” says Campbell. “They’ve got these games, these assets that exist, and they’re trying to bring them over.”
At the Tokyo Game Show, which runs from Thursday to Sunday here, many of the big games on the show floor are being developed outside Japan. Square Enix’s most popular franchises — like Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, games that move millions of units in Japan alone — are relegated to a small corner of the company’s massive booth.
Instead, the majority of Square Enix’s show-floor space is given over to Western-made games it is publishing this year under the label Extreme Edges, a new brand for “mature” titles. The games include Call of Duty, Deus Ex and Lara Croft, the kind of high-end titles that do well in the United States but haven’t taken off in Japan.
Many other games at Tokyo Game Show, Japan’s biggest videogame expo, are developed here with an eye on the Western market. Most are shooters, a genre that dominates the U.S. charts but is not popular here. It’s all an attempt to reach a broader audience with next-generation games, something that Japan hasn’t been able to do yet.
“The classic, traditional Japanese formula is not a moneymaker anymore unless you have “Monster Hunter,” “Dragon Quest” or “Final Fantasy” in your game title,” says James Mielke, a game producer at Tokyo-based Q Entertainment. “It’s a real risk for a developer to make a game that’s designed specifically for (Japan). That’s not a safe strategy.”
What Japanese Gamers Want
Japanese gamers have very specific tastes, often embracing the polar opposite of what sells in the rest of the world. Open-world games like Fallout and Grand Theft Auto emphasize the player’s freedom to do whatever he wants, which doesn’t fly in Japan.
“They want a guided experience,” says Campbell. “They want their hands held. They want the familiar. They don’t want new. When you go against that, they get angry.”
Some companies attempting to sell Western games in Japan are attempting to turn that negative into a positive. Bethesda’s advertising campaign for Fallout: New Vegas features a group of Japanese youths protesting the linear, on-rails nature of traditional Japanese role-playing games.
But sales numbers don’t lie. Of the top 100 games sold in Japan in 2009, you have to go all the way down to No. 77 to find the one title not made in Japan — Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
This does seem to be changing somewhat: On the top 100 list for the first half of 2010, Call of Duty is joined by Electronic Arts’ Battlefield and Sony’s MAG and God of War.
But these are minor victories at best. The portable PSP and Nintendo DS dominate the market with games like Monster Hunter and Dragon Quest while high-definition, next-generation gaming struggles to get a foothold in Japan. Sony has sold just more than 5 million PlayStation 3s here, and Microsoft barely limped past the 1 million mark with Xbox 360. The only next-gen game that sold more than 1 million units in 2009 was Final Fantasy XIII.
[A display for Halo: Reach goes all but unnoticed in the Sofmap electronics store in Akihabara.
Photo: Chris Kohler/Wired.com]
The lack of success so far doesn’t mean Japanese companies are going to quit trying to woo gamers to Western-style games.
Stop into the PlayStation 3 section of any electronics store in Tokyo and you’ll likely find that most of the titles on display are either from outside Japan or designed to appeal to Western tastes.
In the next month, two Japanese publishers are gearing up to launch third-person shooters that crib from Epic Games’ Gears of War. Sega’s upcoming sci-fi shooter Vanquish adds a decidedly Japanese over-the-top flair: The main character in his superhuman robot suit can slide around the battlefield like a base runner coming in to home plate.
But one critic I talked to who had played Tecmo Koei’s forthcoming third-person shooter Quantum Theory said it was almost indistinguishable from Gears. The thrust of the criticism around the game thus far seems to be that it apes the outward form of the popular shooter, but not its intrinsic appeal.
Part of the problem seems to be a total lack of exposure among Japanese gamers — and, perhaps more importantly, among Japanese game developers — when it comes to high-end videogames like Halo and Grand Theft Auto, with their lush graphics and open worlds.
“I’ve come across Japanese development companies as recently as two years ago where the engineers, the designers of the game, owned a PS2, a PSP, a Wii and a DS,” says Campbell. “I’ve sat people down with a next-gen game, and they thought they were watching a cut scene until I gave them a controller. I was like, ‘No, this is what people in the West play.’”
Such experiences are not unusual in a country where next-gen consoles have so far failed to catch on the way they have in the West.
“The other day,” says Q Entertainment’s Mielke, “I was having lunch with a friend and I said, ‘Have you ever played StarCraft?’ And he said, ‘What’s StarCraft?’ Sometimes it’s just really shocking that their gaming vocabulary isn’t as extensive as it could be. I think Japanese game developers need to start playing other people’s games to open their minds, just like a writer might want to read classic literature to be inspired.”" - wired.com