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.

Latest comments (10)

Nick Parker Consultant 5 years ago
Bloody good analysis again Rob with a usual objective eye for the twists and turns of a challenging thesis. The worry is, as you suggest, that developers turn inwards to reap the rewards of a local mobile based gaming community rather than step up to the console mark. This is going to be a temptation for all developers across the globe who can't read the runes and then jump on band wagons. Immersive core gaming experiences are here to stay; there are enough gamers who want that "console" experience but the distribution will move to all devices as development tools allow MGS/Res Evil/FF to play in browsers and broadband streaming technology means gamers don't care where the game comes from as long as they can access it anywhere at anytime. These "console" developers mustn't give up as they confuse a current dying console market with gamers not wanting to play console games; gamers do but they want to be able to chose how. As an after thought, this must apply eventually to Nintendo whose IP will become more platform agnostic.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Gary McHale Studying Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, University of Sussex5 years ago
I started working in the Japanese games industry about 10 years ago. There are some less "fluffy" reasons than those described. Most of the Japanese software middle managers (who entered during the 2D era of gaming) were not up to the demands of modern games programming. They either did not have the academic background, or they were not that particularly intellectually gifted. Japanese employment is far less fluid than in the West so these managers acted as a bottleneck for new talent. The second issue is that a lot of programmers have not traditionally been recruited from the top universities or from strong engineering backgrounds, so even the younger generation were not particularly gifted either. It has taken time for high quality technical people to filter through to the higher levels of management, when it became apparent that they required a far more technically capable leadership. However, things have changed quite considerably since I first started working in Japan. One of the best examples of this the appointment of Yoshihisa Hashimoto (ex-SEGA) as CTO of Square Enix. Japanese companies have far more institutional inertia than their Western counterparts, however sufficient time has passed for a new generation of gifted technical programmers to attain senior management positions. Japan has just been going through a prolonged transition period.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
I think, alot of aspects of gaming industry are also cyclical. In addition, it is quite a remarkable game changer when the Japanese developers try to have global appeal these days due to a shrinking overall market. Lets give it five years, I'm sure there will be some really funky standout new champions of Nippon!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (10)
David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers5 years ago
I would say that, on the whole, it's not that Japanese games have changed it's that they haven't changed enough. There's been a general drift in interest between the West and Japan, as noted in the article, and that's contributed to the disconnect that almost every Japanese developer I know can't seem to explain. There's also generally been a falling behind the curve technology-wise, a clear reliance on established properties and an insular attitude to its own culture that has exacerbated an issue that got its start when games shifted from mostly 2D to 3D.

These are huge generalities and there are still AAA developers out these producing good stuff (Platinum Games in particular is a standard bearer) and I'm hopeful that some of the best talent in Japan striking out on their own (like Inafune) will lead to a Renascence from the country,.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Paul Gheran Scrum Master 5 years ago
The Japanese are stoic, and this is reflected in their state of game designs. Like Gary, I also lived and worked there and this article includes some excellent cultural insights, "...the issue of technologies or products evolving in Japan which are so specific to that market that they have no hope of survival overseas." Our cultural context from commuting to eating to social and bathroom behavior is so differently nuanced. DeNA and GREE are predicated on much of the Japanese context, so their battle in North America will be a long, expensive, fruitless one unless they realize just how different we are.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jason Preston asst analyst, Interpret5 years ago
This is one of the most insightful and informative articles I've read on this site.

Paul Gheran raises an interesting and common point in his comment above. The Galapagos effect is due, supposedly, to the utter difference between Japanese culture and other cultures. What I'm curious about, is how this cultural gulf specifically affects games. For instance, Paul mentions a different nuance to commuting, eating, social behavior, and bathroom behavior in Japan. How, pray tell, are any of those nuances preventing Japanese titles from succeeding overseas? Is this Paul's way of saying that DeNA and GREE product lines are dominated by titles along the lines of Washing Your Hands Properly, Navigating Shinjuku Station, and Please Pass the Wasabi? My question is a bit sardonic, but I'm sincerely curious to know more of the substance behind the Galapagos effect metaphor.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers5 years ago
I'd imagine it's a lot of small elements rather than one big thing. One general example - in Japan, it's considered subtly erotic to do something like a skirt blowing up so you can see the panties (or something happening to see the panties). The the West, many people would consider this pervy and weird.

To give something more game related, in Japan, the sound effects, text descriptions and graphical style of Dragon Quest have been widely known, imitated and parodied over the years, but in the US, the audience for that game is much smaller, and instead of filling someone with positive nostalgic feelings, it's more likely to seem outdated.

Those are just a couple of examples, but I hope that helps give you an idea of what Rob is probably hinting at.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rob Fahey Columnist, GamesIndustry.biz5 years ago
With regard to the last few comments, I should point out - I think the idea of an immense cultural divide between Japan and the rest of the world is a complete myth. It's a myth which has its origins in a variety of different places, both in Japan and overseas, and one which is perpetuated by the language barrier - Japan's English language education is absolutely terrible and very few Anglophones speak Japanese. It's helped by the fact that some of the cultural differences are very visible, and abetted by the borderline racist media narrative of "wacky Japan" which highlights cultural extremes as if they were mainstream. Nonetheless, it's a myth. Once examined properly, the cultural gap between Japan and any other nation is no greater than, say, the cultural gap between the United States and England.

This isn't to say that there are problems in making cultural exports work, but they're not as great as you might think. The appeal of most entertainment is fairly universal - one of the problems journalists often encounter with Japan is that they mistake products aimed at the small but lucrative "otaku" market with mainstream products.

With regard to the "Galapagos effect", it's not really a cultural issue - it's purely an issue of economics and business structure. Japan is an extremely lucrative domestic market of 120 million enthusiastic consumers, and because of various economic structures, has tended to develop certain technologies - like its mobile networks - on an internal basis rather than following global standards. As a consequence, companies tend to focus inwards, building products for Japanese technology platforms and Japanese consumers. The resulting products (games, phones, consumer electronics, etc.) are highly adapted for this specific market, and just don't work overseas.

I could envisage a similar effect occurring culturally, of course - but if the UK can successfully export something as uniquely odd and British as Doctor Who around the world, I very much doubt that Japan's cultural differences are really that much of a barrier to success.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Paul Gheran Scrum Master 5 years ago
"Once examined properly, the cultural gap between Japan and any other nation is no greater than, say, the cultural gap between the United States and England."

That's just not correct. Read Trompenaars and Hofstede please.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Gary McHale Studying Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, University of Sussex5 years ago
After 20 years working for Japanese companies, having a Japanese wife, learning Japanese and living in Japan for more than 10 years, I have also come to the conclusion that there really is a significant cultural gap between Japan and Western cultures. Although I agree with Rob, that some of the media seeks to present a cartoon version of Japan which is quite misrepresentative.

As far as games are concerned, there may also be genetic factors, motion sickness is far more prevelant in Japan than it is in the West. This is one of the reasons for a preference for third-person, rather than first-person games. SEGA had a tie-up with Keio University specifically to look at motion sickness related issues (after feedback from Jet Set Radio).

However, these differences are surely one of the reaons why Japan sometimes produces unique games. Again I agree with Rob on this and his point about Dr Who is well made. I don't see cultural differences as a problem over the longer term, but the technology gap will take some time to narrow. The impact of this is that Japanese firms may shift focus to mobile games, which potentially are more targeted to domestic markets, but are closer to the skill-sets of Japanese developers. It really requires a change in recruitment practices to get the right intake to master the latest techniques in game programming.

Japanese game artists and game-play/level designers (what they refer to as "designers" and "controllers" respectively) will remain amongst the best in the world.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.