Setting Sun: More Death-Knells for Japanese Gaming
Rumours of the industry's demise have been greatly - if understandably - exaggerated, says Rob Fahey
Keiji Inafune has a message for the Japanese games industry. It's the same message that he's had for quite some time, and a message that he's been happy to expound upon in any public forum that'll have him. He reiterated it at GDC this week, claiming that even his contemporaries in the Japanese industry are starting to come around to his point of view. Japan's creative engines are out of steam, he reckons, and the country's games have become throwbacks and relics on a landscape dominated by western developers.
It's a strident and deliberately attention-grabbing argument, and Inafune is in a reasonable position to make it, given his long career as a crafter of hit titles at Capcom. It also has the benefit of being rather more articulate and intelligent in its argumentation than that of indie developer Phil Fish, who also won headlines at this year's GDC for telling a Japanese developer seeking feedback on his country's games that "your games just suck". And to think that some would say our industry lacks for intelligent and nuanced criticism!
What's perhaps more telling than either of those comments - Inafune is saying nothing new, and Fish's comment was little more than a poorly worded gut reaction - is the extent of coverage each has received. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Japan-bashing is in vogue in gaming circles, but it certainly seems to strike a nerve. There's a deep undercurrent of thought, both among gamers and within the industry, that agrees with Inafune and Fish - much of the criticism for the latter, notably, stemming from the rudeness of the comment in its context, rather than any flaw in its reasoning.
The argument isn't "Japanese games suck", it's "Japanese games suck now" - an important distinction.
In a sense, there's a powerful allure to the idea that the seemingly bottomless well of creativity in Japan's game development has started to run dry. Comments from people like Fish don't speak to me of some kind of western cultural imperialism or jingoistic sentiment, as rabble-rousers on social media were quick to accuse. Rather, there's a kind of a disappointment there; the reaction of a generation of gamers for whom Japanese games used to open doors onto magical new worlds, and now seem to have lost that capacity.
The argument isn't "Japanese games suck", it's "Japanese games suck now" - an important distinction. Scratch the surface of someone who expresses dislike of the nation's output today, and you discover someone underneath who can wax lyrical about the time when Japan's games were world-beating. Look at a trailer for Phil Fish's extraordinary and beautiful indie platform title Fez, and you see a loving homage to an era of colourful, visually innovative, and mostly Japanese games.
So, what happened? Where did it all go wrong? There's a popular and deeply tempting narrative that simply says that Japan lost its mojo. It's a narrative that slots neatly into the broader economic and cultural story of the Lost Decades (indeed, now the Lost Generation) since the end of the economic bubble in the early 90s. It interlocks pleasingly with the idea of a nation that, after a century of looking outwards and westwards, reversed course and turned inwards. That's a perspective that gives us an easy narrative about a country whose game developers stopped making innovative, optimistic fantasies for gamers everywhere, and started making retro games to help salarymen recapture their 1980s youth, or dating sims for stay-at-home social recluses.
Like all simple narratives of complex social change in gigantic countries, this one is deeply suspect. It's got some of the answers, but not all of them - not even a majority. If we want to really understand what's happened to Japanese games, we need to look a lot more closely and carefully at the country. There are problems - GDC's coverage makes that obvious - but they're not necessarily the problems you'd expect, and could even turn out to be serious advantages in the years to come.
Let's address, for a start, the idea that Japanese games are immensely qualitatively different to the way they used to be in the past.
Let's address, for a start, the idea that Japanese games are immensely qualitatively different to the way they used to be in the past. One important thing to recognise in this regard is that you're not observing this from the position of a fixed observer. Most people comparing Japanese games now, when you're in your late twenties, thirties, forties - whatever - with Japanese games then, when you were a teenager or a student. Is it any wonder that tastes have changed? The optimistic RPG narrative or the self-important chest-thumping of Metal Gear don't always resonate with an older, adult audience the way they did with teenagers. That doesn't mean they suck - it just means they're not for you any more.
That's not necessarily a problem - but a broader issue exists in terms of Japan's perception in the west. In the 90s, when Japanese games were at the peak of their international appeal, Japan was an exotic and little-understood island wonderland. Today, it's arguably equally poorly understood, but far less exotic. Japanese games, movies, anime and manga, even food, have become everyday fixtures in western life. The new worlds to which Japanese games can open doors have become more humdrum; they no longer have the sheen of excitement that used to come simply from being Japanese. We're seeing them, perhaps, for what they always really were.
Moreover, the question of developers turning inwards in the past decade is certainly a relevant one - but not, perhaps, for the reasons that many people imagine. One of the immense challenges facing the country overall is what's sometimes called the "galapagos" problem - the issue of technologies or products evolving in Japan which are so specific to that market that they have no hope of survival overseas. This problem is especially relevant to Japanese mobile phones, which for over a decade were the envy of the world, but never made any headway in markets outside Japan - and are now being rapidly exterminated by the arrival of a foreign species, the iOS or Android powered smartphone, whose technology instantly leapfrogged the Japanese devices.
Japan's mobile game market was a very big deal long before iOS kick-started the stagnant and largely stillborn western mobile games market.
Of course, this had a massive impact on game development. Japan's mobile game market was a very big deal long before iOS kick-started the stagnant and largely stillborn western mobile games market. Japanese feature-phones, the predecessors to smartphones, boasted a huge range of game content - often from leading developers like Square Enix and its ilk, and often sporting hugely innovative functionality that took advantage not only of the mobile network but of phone features like cameras or GPS.
Late last year, I wrote about the relative stock performance of mobile gaming giants DeNA and GREE in the Japanese market, but perhaps didn't emphasise one point enough - the relative size of these companies to the rest of the Japanese games industry. In a nutshell, their combined revenues outstrip the rest of the Japanese games business. In Japan, mobile games are the mass market; console games are the niche. Which of those sectors, do you think, has attracted the bright young development talent in the past decade? The new, exciting, rapidly-growing one, or the old, expensive, risky one, dominated still by the legends of the 80s and 90s?
Of course, none of this is visible to us in the west - not least because a majority of these games don't even work on any phone ever released here. Sadly, this has indeed caused an inwards turn in terms of how the games are developed, but the coming years will be interesting to watch. Both GREE and DeNA want to break out of Japan in a major way, and the vast experience and talent of Japanese mobile developers may be a part of a successful strategy in that regard. Japanese mobile games could yet succumb to the Galapagos problem, but equally, they could come to dominate the international market just as Japanese console games did in the past.
Games like Catherine demonstrate that the nation's developers are still capable of turning out eye-opening and medium-expanding work.
This isn't the sector Inafune is talking about. He's interested in AAA console games, and has always had western sensibilities in that regard. It's not the sector Phil Fish is talking about, either - like Inafune, when he talks about Japanese games, he means traditional console titles. Yet even in this field, it's perhaps unfair to accuse Japanese games on the whole of lacking appeal. Even if the west's honeymoon period with Japanese culture is over, games like Catherine demonstrate that the nation's developers are still capable of turning out eye-opening and medium-expanding work. Games like El Shaddai and Child of Eden reaffirm the position of Japanese design and artistry in our industry, while Inafune's old buddy Shinji Mikami has proved that he can still turn heads with explosively stylish games like Bayonetta and Vanquish. Few games can claim the anticipation heaped upon Fumito Ueda's upcoming The Last Guardian... And at all that, we haven't even mentioned Nintendo yet.
Japanese developers don't get the easy ride they once did. Their games are no longer automatically fascinating just because they're Japanese, and many developers struggle to break away from the childish narratives which enraptured us as teenagers but feel laughable as adults. Yet there's still a wealth of talent in this sector, and in the mobile gaming sector, sadly hidden from Western view, a whole new revolution in gaming could just be churning away. You can never go back to the past - but it would be foolish to entirely write off Japan's future.