When the industry heads to Tokyo for the annual Tokyo Game Show, it is more than just an opportunity for fans and media to see what is coming soon. It is a time for the industry to reflect and determine the shape of the industry as it is, and as it will be. It is also a time for the developers of the world to come together and see where the international leaders and top influences are being felt. If this year’s TGS is any indication, according to Capcom’s head of global research, Western developers are now far ahead of their Japanese counterparts in game development and innovation, at least five years ahead.
“I look around Tokyo Games Show, and everyone’s making awful games; Japan is at least five years behind,” Keiji Inafune said in an interview with the NY Times.
While most Japanese developers would be unlikely to agree with Inafune, at least publically, the sales results back up his claims. Once, the top selling games around the world came from Japan, and most of the early icons from video games (Pac Man, Mario, Sonic, etc) were born from Japanese creativity, but that trend has gradually shifted.
Following the trail of coins
Where once the world looked to Japan for the truly big hits, most of the biggest (top-selling) franchises are currently coming out of the West. Games like Mario’s newest adventure, or the Final Fantasy series still turn a profit, but they are nowhere close to the record-breaking release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, or the recently released Halo: Reach, which earned $200 million on its first day, despite a generally small market share for the Xbox 360 in Japan, where Sony and Nintendo dominate. Other worldwide hits, such as the Grand Theft Auto series, and the recent Red Dead Redemption are also global hits, but neither have fared especially well in Japan, which typically does not embrace open-world-style games.
According to the NY Times, in 2002, Japan owned around 50 percent of the worldwide game market. As of 2009, that percentage had fallen to just 10 percent. The Japanese domestic gaming market has seen a related drop, falling more than 20 percent since 2007 to $6.4 billion. By comparison, imported games reached record levels of sales, reaching heights in 2008 of $21.4 billion, before the recession claimed a share of that growth.
While some Japanese developers will continue to create content that might specifically be geared towards a Japanese market, even if they do have some success in the West (Katamari Damacy, for example), many developers are now looking to create content designed specifically with the West in mind in order to remain competitive and profitable.
“Japan used to define gaming,” said Jake Kazdal, a developer for EA, who has worked in both Japan and the U.S., told the NY Times. “But now many developers just do the same thing over and over again.”
Kazdal believes that one of the causes for the Japanese decline in the world market is the different tastes of Japanese gamers, who traditionally are more likely to buy a linear game, while the obviously larger number of Western gamers are moving more towards open-world games that allow players to wander freely. There are a few developers that are attempting to walk the line and find games that will appeal to a more, truly global audience.
Nintendo is proving to be an exception to that rule, but as the bulk of its best-selling games are made by Nintendo itself, the majority of Japanese developers are moving more towards other platforms and looking towards wider audiences.
How the West was won
Platinum Games, the developer behind Bayonetta, is a prime example. Its upcoming game Vanquish takes a Japanese style of design, which it has said is based off of the anime series Casshern –– a huge hit in Japan, but mostly unknown elsewhere- and crafted a game with Western audiences in mind. The story of Vanquish pits U.S. forces against Russians, in a futuristic space station. At E3, the developers confirmed that the setting, the plot, and the speed of the game were all designed with Western audiences in mind, and Platinum is not alone.
Inafune’s company, Capcom, has taken note of the success in Western markets, and has begun to create more and more games with a specifically Western market in mind. For example, the Dead Rising series, which features games set in a small American town’s mall, and a Las Vegas-like city were hits in the U.S., but treated with the same apprehension in Japan that many Japanese-slanted games receive in the West. Capcom is also looking to expand its foreign market share by purchasing Western companies, such as Blue Castle Games, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, which collaborated with Capcom on Dead Rising 2.
While many developers may not have the resources to purchase other companies as Capcom does, many are looking at the way the make games in a different light. Rather than simply create a game, then attempt to translate it into another language, developers like Square Enix, the people behind Final Fantasy, will write multiple scripts for each language. Where most games might have a staggered international release date of a few days or weeks, the Final Fantasy games tend to be released in Japan months before North America and Europe, precisely to ensure that the translation has time to be more than just cosmetic.
With the increased globalization of the video game industry, plus the Chinese market slowly warming to the idea of allowing video games to be marketed and sold (someday), developers — not just in Japan, but worldwide — will increasingly look to produce games with international appeal. If Japan hopes to regain some of the world market share, it will have to catch up to everyone else.
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