A Window on Japan - Part Two
Trips to Capcom and Sony yield some fantastic insights from some of the best creative minds in Japan
Following on from last week's first part of a look at the Japanese market and culture from the inside, part two follows the Nordic trade delegation's trips to Capcom and Sony headquarters.
As well as insights into the creative influences behind titles such as Shadow of the Colossus, Ico and Silent Hill, the Nordic developers had the chance to chat to Japanese counterparts on the pressing issues of the day - with some surprising results. Part one of this feature is also available now.
Round the Table
One of the undoubted highlights of the trip was the opportunity to watch the Nordic developers site around a big table with a host of their Japanese counterparts, and - via simultaneous translation - discuss some of the issues that both groups were coming up against.
Some of the main topics discussed revolved around the difference in approach of game design, and in particular the importance for the Japanese development community to come up with something new - not just iterations of existing game experiences, but moving out into new kinds of experiences, clearly a logical conclusion based on the ongoing success of Nintendo.
One small glimpse at the way that the Wii and DS manufacturer looks at the games industry and possible developments came from a brief insight into its design process - crucially that the company looks at the subject of technology based not on what it can achieve in terms of technical performance, but what it can add to the joy of the end user.
Clearly, Nintendo's current success is drawing on its experience as a toy manufacturer previously, and the operability of a game is the first question that's asked of non-Nintendo games - it shouldn't need a manual to play, but can still be a deep experience, while a new look or feel to a game is fine, as long as it's not something that might limit players.
Moving back to the roundtable, there were some obvious differences between the groups, as you'd expect. For example, while the Nordic companies - like many others in the West - were looking at the possibilities to enhance their own online operations, a subject which led to talk of the development in the way that gamers will occupy online spaces.
But while some of the opportunities surrounding 'digital natives' are at the heart of plans for some companies, the Japanese developers were less enthusiastic - much like with the UK's recent Byron Report, there's a strong focus in Japan right now about influences on children, and it seems likely that a law will be passed to limit internet access - meaning that the evolution of online identities could be restricted before they've had chance to develop.
On the flipside, there were one or two surprising similarities between the two groups, and undoubtedly the most startling was the subject of organisation. Certainly the impression that the travelling group had going into the meeting was that Japanese teams were traditionally well-organised, and that the resulting products were tight and disciplined.
So it was a huge surprise when one developer from a very high profile company, whose identity will remain anonymous, asked a question about company structures, noting that many Japanese firms had suffered as a result of not upscaling production teams cleverly enough as work-intensive next-gen projects became the norm.
A surprise, certainly, but also a slight disappointment for many attending given that on such a crucial matter neither side had the silver bullet the other was hoping for - while the typically hierarchal Japanese structures have become more inefficient, the increasingly flatter studio make-ups found in the West are arguably a more suitable and agile solution to increasing development costs - particularly when factoring in outsourcing.
To Shinjuku, and Capcom
Moving on and the penultimate meeting that week was at the head office of Capcom in Shinjuku, and another open and welcoming greeting typical of the week. It began with an explanation of the company's overall development objective: To continue releasing titles embodying the Capcom "feel".
At first read that seems like a bit of an enigmatic statement, but anybody familiar with the publisher's greatest franchises - Devil May Cry or Resident Evil - might understand that "feel", particularly when you look at Capcom's titles specifically developed for the Western markets, Lost Planet and Dead Rising.
The message for the Nordic companies was clear - we're looking for partnerships (indeed Capcom is already working with Grin on Bionic Commando) and are open to new IP suggestions or the utilisation of existing IP, but they must have that "feel" about them... and our milestone checklist is extremely thorough in order to protect that ideal.
It's the result of what might seem like a fairly narrow recipe for success - certainly a publisher like EA would be attracted by a much more diverse line-up than Capcom's - but it's brought success, and the resources to invest in other projects.
As the company's manifesto says, it wants to spread an understanding of Capcom's aesthetic across the globe through strategic partnerships with overseas developers, and it's trying to achieve an understanding of its titles by those developers. It has no defined proportion of the projects it wants to see split between new and existing IP.
But when asked if the publisher licensed the use of its own development tools to third parties, the reply was that it didn't - although the reason was somewhat curious: it's because Capcom doesn't have any real documentation for its internally-developed engines, and it would therefore be too taxing to have to explain to external partners.
As the trip's co-organiser, Sten Selandar put it: "It's a bit surprising, but then again, that's a business opportunity, since the Nordics and Europeans are probably more tech-savvy," he said.
Sony turns out in force
The final meeting of the week was to Sony Japan's headquarters, an event that was attended by a host of key industry names. Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida introduced himself, and then Michael Denny, in charge of European operations.
But also present were some of the company's key creative influences: Keiichiro Toyama, the man behind the Silent Hill and Forbidden Siren franchises; Yusube Watanabe, of Ape Escape and Eye of Judgement fame; and Famito Ueda, responsible for Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. A tremendous talent line-up and they gave up two hours of their TGS week to talk about their own influences.
It was an opportunity to gain some insight into the game design from some celebrated developers, and each one presented his own thoughts on the subject before a general question and answer session.
First up Toyama-san talked about his view that game planning and direction must constantly adapt to an ever-changing environment, that it must include production, that it should embrace changing realities - but that it mustn't lose sight of the original vision.
Watanabe-san added that he believed it was crucial to have a wide area of interest that should include "anything and everything" and that designers should be sensitive to emotions and dreams. He went on to explain how he liked to store them up for later use, and that it could be anything that he took in could become part of the creative process.
It was something that resonated clearly with Zoe Mode creative director Ste Curran, also along on the trip.
"The bit that stuck with me was the way that Watanabe-san gets his ideas from all over the place, and how it's an important principle of game design not just to be open to ideas from videogaming, but actually from everything," he said.
"So from your journey on the way to work in the morning, the music video you saw last night, the film you're going to watch at the weekend, the book you've read a thousand times before - it's about taking inspiration from all of these things and bringing them to videogaming.
"That's exactly how I work, and how I've always petitioned for everyone around me to work as well. I think it's so, so important to be able to create new things, to take ideas from everywhere. If we keep on cannibalising everything from videogames, we'll never grow. We've got to be able to be inspired by everything that surrounds us."
Finally Ueda-san explained how the team went about making Shadow of the Colossus, by first shooting an entire pilot movie that encapsulated a great deal of the look and feel, based on the emotive nature of the story.
He also revealed that he likes to base game concepts on imagination, and tries to make a game that he wants to play, but doesn't exist yet - and then by making up a concept video the team can constantly refer to it during long development cycles.
So what of the future?
Overall it was a fascinating insight into creative minds which have, for the most part, remained a mystery to most people outside of Japan - as was the trip as a whole, which was something that other trade organisations might do well to learn from.
It's a sign of the maturity of the videogames industry that, while the medium has been global for a long time, there's a willingness in almost every market to cross-pollinate with other cultures. It's not a move borne out of cultural goodwill, of course, but - as Yoshida-san concluded - a sign of the business times: "Japanese studios must consider markets outside of Japan, as development costs are now so high," he said.
In fact, while Sony has taken steps to ensure better communication across its territories, a move driven by Yoshida-san, it's a changing environment that should help Microsoft in the long term as well. With the Xbox 360's performance in Japan is poor by any standards, the ivory towers in the region are crumbling, led by none other than Square Enix - to bring the trip full circle.
At E3 this year Wada-san told me that the publisher could no longer afford - in the financial sense - to ignore the Microsoft console's performance in the US and Europe, and so another of PlayStation's primary platform-exclusive flag bearers in Final Fantasy will be making the leap to Xbox 360 at some point. At the same time the release of some Xbox 360-exclusive Square titles in Japan - undoubtedly fuelled by some solid investment on Microsoft's part - is gradually improving the consoles portfolio for the Japanese market.
But how will that market itself react to the changes? I've heard several people wonder aloud what the increasing globalisation of videogames will do to local cultures, although I suspect that's an overly emotional response, rather than one grounded in business sense.
The answer is that Japan will, for the foreseeable future, remain as a market rooted heavily in its own ideas, and that Japanese companies will continue to be best-placed to serve that market. Western-influenced games will gradually increase in profile, as long as they hold to a certain aesthetic, but they're unlikely to take over any time soon.
The really interesting part will be watching to see whether the Japan-developed titles will manage to reverse the trend in the rest of the world and increase their sales percentage. It's possible, particularly if some of the collaborations or acquisitions pay off - but right now the momentum is with the West, and that's going to be a tough one to stop.