Losing that Japanese Touch

CheezePavilion wrote:
Getting back to the OP, I think it's a matter of sour grapes: Japanese games aren't doing as well as they once did (or maybe it's just that Western games are doing better). Therefore blame it on Japanese vs. Western tastes, rather than face the cold hard truth that the problem is Japanese games haven't been innovating, and have gone stale. I mean, if something like Demon's Souls can become a minor hit in America the issue here isn't Japan vs. the West, it's just Stale vs. Innovative. BioWare didn't get where it did by simply slapping prettier graphics on Baldur's Gate, right?

I don't know if I'd call it sour grapes, but on the whole I tend to agree with you. The fact that many studio heads from Japan have said much the same over the past couple years (being outpaced by Western developers) is very telling, imo.

From a strictly console perspective, it's hard to argue that during the 8 and 16 bit era, Japan was where it was at for the bulk of top-tier software. Fast-forward a couple cycles and we've seen a surge of Western developers winning the hearts and minds of gamers. I guess you could say it's a combination of elevated quality and changing tastes. JRPGs, SHMUPS, and platformers...the bread and butter of quality Japanese exports...just aren't very popular in today's market. Western gamers seem to crave shooters, WRPGs and such these days. Genres Japanese developers are not strong at.

Advances in technology seems to have torpedoed Japanese localization as well. Twenty years ago, dialogue in games was relegated to text only. It's the best the tech could support. Today voice acting is the not the exception but the norm and most Japanese game's voicework translated for Western audiences is utterly abysmal, even from top-tier developers like Capcom, Square/Enix, Nintendo, etc. I think this really hurts the perception of quality when looking at Japanese production values.

Then you have the bugaboo of online infrastructure. Japanese developers simply don't seem as adept in integrating online gameplay into their software. Maybe it's just not as important to their home audiences, but it sure is heck is for modern Western gamers. It's another strike against Japan when comparing relative game quality and expectations, and again gives the appearance of them being behind the curve.

I wouldn't say that Japanese developers are not innovative though. It's just seems that they are innovative in ways that many core Western gaming audiences are not terribly interested in. I say "core" because companies like Nintendo are absolutely killing it in the West, but the sad truth is that many or most "core" Western gamers could not care less.

Nintendo innovated with motion controls, stylus for handhelds and now 3D for 3DS. You have to applaud them for their forward-thinking in this dept. Unfortunately, this hasn't translated well into software applications that many of us care about. For the Wii specifically, the system is great in party settings in a Dave & Busters kind of way, but there is little "serious" gaming to be found for Western audiences to sink their teeth into, again adding to the perception that Japan just doesn't get it when trying to court modern Western gamers.

Interesting Article from Wired. We're talking about the American perspective of Japan, but the opposite relationship is also pretty interesting.

Some choice quotes.

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.

And this:

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.

All in all, I think the article makes use of too many generalizations with respect to the attitude of Japanese gamers (there's a sense in the article that the Japanese gamers are wrong), but beyond that point, this may shed some light on the argument here.

Full disclosure: I've never played a JRPG I've liked and I still couldn't tell you why.

Grubber788 wrote:
All in all, I think the article makes use of too many generalizations with respect to the attitude of Japanese gamers (there's a sense in the article that the Japanese gamers are wrong), but beyond that point, this may shed some light on the argument here.

That article could have benefitted from interviews with Japanese developers, for sure. It has an air, largely conveyed through the quotes, that the Japanese are backward and just don't get it. What kind of crazy culture doesn't like first-person shooters and open-world games?

As to this:

“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.”

That guy can get tossed. Western gamers are just as picky about having their hands held and given something they're familiar with. They just like their hands held while walking through different parks.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
As to this:

“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.”

That guy can get tossed. Western gamers are just as picky about having their hands held and given something they're familiar with. They just like their hands held while walking through different parks.

Did you see Brainy Gamer's bit about how his college freshmen can't handle Ultima IV?

cube wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
I'm not a fan of this sort of over-the-top localization pre-mediating Japanese culture. But then I'm not concerned about sales numbers in the short term so much as I'm concerned about the long-term intermingling of cultures and values with outside perspectives, and about the long-term depth and health of games as a medium.

But at the same time, a lot of those points are something that the Japanese publishers and developers consider when they consider releasing a game internationally.

Xenogears was almost not localized because it deals heavily with religious themes. Other games have been "sanitized" for the US market.

The fact of the matter is that these perceptions DO effect whether or not games are localized, and is basically the point of this entire thread.

The questions asked that brought about this thread aren't the real questions. We all know that design and publishing companies make business decisions--that's not a debate. What is worth discussion is whether and to what extent we think that ought to be the case.

Floomi wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
I don't think we need to be explaining or reciting excuses for corporations. They pay people to do that.
Er, okay then. I'll bow out of this discussion.:

I don't want to come off as harsh as I did. (OK, maybe I do a little.) It's just that I don't see it as a worthwhile discussion to talk about a rather transparent status quo as if it needed explanation.
ETA: A better response would have been that if the answer to this thread is "Yeah, it's hard to make a game that appeals to two disparate audiences," then we should say that and move on. I think there's more interesting ground to till here, though.
Grubber788 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
I would have gone with sushi, zen, bushido or karate.

Sushi is perfectly valid, but I generally exclude food from cultural arguments if only because it's too easy, particularly if we are discussing American viewpoints. In general, I'd say that America's palette variety is rather large, so any country's greatest cultural export could be called a certain food. That doesn't seem satisfying though.

If you want to worm your way into the hearts and minds of mainstream US culture, there are few better entryways than food and sex.

Zen is undoubtedly a Japanese concept, but a holds a relative minority position in America as an "exotic" alternative to mainline religions. I don't think it's affected popular culture any more than Paganism has. (I mean this as an insult to neither Zen Buddhism or Paganism, mind you)

It's not at the point where it shines through much in sitcoms, but I think eastern thought (and, I'd argue, Zen in particular) has greatly influenced American philosophy.

wordsmythe wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:
As to this:

“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.”

That guy can get tossed. Western gamers are just as picky about having their hands held and given something they're familiar with. They just like their hands held while walking through different parks.

Did you see Brainy Gamer's bit about how his college freshmen can't handle Ultima IV?

It was interesting, as was his article about Fallout.

About Ultima IV: "Unplayable"

About Fallout: "Fallout 180"

ClockworkHouse wrote:
CheezePavilion wrote:
I disagree. For me, it (along with other shifts) significantly changed the game. Maybe it just didn't have the impact on you that it did on me. The question then becomes, I guess, which of our experiences is more representative.

About as representative as the views of the people who think that each Final Fantasy game innovates on the previous one versus those who think they've stayed the same for years.

It's a matter of perspective. When you're inside a genre or title, when you're a fan, small changes can really mix things up. When you're not a fan, titles tend to blend together and look stagnant. From where I sit, Western RPGs have barely innovated in a decade; it sounds like from where you sit that they're still robust and engaging.

Granting all that for the sake of argument, we're talking about the loss of fans, not about people who were not fans. You can't attribute fans turning into non-fans to a theory that requires them to be non-fans in the first place.

CheezePavilion wrote:
Granting all that for the sake of argument, we're talking about the loss of fans, not about people who were not fans. You can't attribute fans turning into non-fans to a theory that requires them to be non-fans in the first place.

I'm not so sure. I think that, yes, you have some people who were really into Japanese games but abandoned them because they became stagnant, but I don't think those people constitute the majority of the Western market Japanese developers are attempting to attract. My observation is that the Western games market either consists of people who weren't that into games until the rise of Halo and Call of Duty and/or Wii Sports and Wii Fit (thus, people who wouldn't have tried a "serious" Japanese game to begin with), or of people who played Japanese games because those were the games that were mainly available when they got into gaming (around the 8-bit and 16-bit era) but they've naturally gravitated toward more Western games as they've gotten older and those games have become more available. (Don't forget, too, the shift of gamers and developers from the PC, where Western games have always dominated, to the consoles, where Japanese games have traditionally dominated.)

Your argument about sour grapes hinges on the idea that the Japanese as developers have stagnated while Western developers have continued to plug along and create new and innovative products. I just don't know how you can make that argument with a straight face in a year that saw (or will see) the release of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Bioshock 2, Rage, Halo Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Singularity, Metro 2033, Alien vs Predator, Medal of Honor, Homefront, and a host of other shooters I'm forgetting. There's not a lot of light showing through the cracks that separate those games from one another and from the glut of shooters that have been made the last five years.

There are larger cultural and market issues at play here than can be accounted for by saying that Japanese developers have stagnated.

Reading through that Wired article and such, I think there's a definite misinterpretation. People say they don't like open world games, but some of the biggest selling games are loaded with side quests that require a lot of dedication to complete. Final Fantasy games always have extra missions and worlds. Similarly, the whole third act of Final Fantasy 6 is open in that the player has the option of finding whatever characters they want in whatever order they would like, as well as a whole load of other side quests that are completely optional.

I think the greater issue comes in terms of polish and motivation. I never played a GTA game but decided to get GTA4 cheap since the story looked good. Three hours was enough for me to put that game back in its case to return to the store because the controls were awful and so many small design choices were completely balls. I love a narrative in games and want to support such endeavors, but my first taste of GTA left me unhappy and pissed off. In such a case, saying "Western Games = sh*t Games" would be something coming out of my mouth as well.

Two open world games I actually found enjoyable were Assassin's Creed 2 and The Saboteur, and it's a shame that the latter hasn't been favored more. I didn't think highly of Pandemic, but it's kind of sad that their last game was actually quite good and did a lot of open world elements right.

More so, however, I feel curious to discover what the Japanese impression of Assassin's Creed 2 might be. It has an open world, yes, but it also has what I think is really important, and that's a well defined character mixed with a well-defined purpose. Americans love putting themselves into the game, but the Japanese like characters. This ties a bit back into what I was saying about what seems to be cliches to us. Even side characters that aren't important are given generic back stories merely so they seem like a person. As such, having characters like ours that are intended to be silent so the player can be them might seem lazy.

In fact, I wonder if there can be real studies made on the differences between characters like Ness and Crono versus Gordon Freeman.

I think there's a lot that can be said here and is worth discussing. I think part of Japan's problem in facing the modern games scene is that Western audiences are just as confused about their motivations as we are, and the two cultures really need to reach out better and come to an understanding.

Hrm. My brother has some friends in Japan. I wonder if any of them are familiar enough with English that I could exchange e-mails and figure something out.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
CheezePavilion wrote:
Granting all that for the sake of argument, we're talking about the loss of fans, not about people who were not fans. You can't attribute fans turning into non-fans to a theory that requires them to be non-fans in the first place.

I'm not so sure. I think that, yes, you have some people who were really into Japanese games but abandoned them because they became stagnant, but I don't think those people constitute the majority of the Western market Japanese developers are attempting to attract. My observation is that the Western games market either consists of people who weren't that into games until the rise of Halo and Call of Duty and/or Wii Sports and Wii Fit (thus, people who wouldn't have tried a "serious" Japanese game to begin with),

Well failing to capture those people can't be part of the story of the decline of Japanese games--you can't count people you never had. It's a *relative* decline, not a *absolute* one then. The slice of the pie Japanese games covers is still the same absolute amount of pie, it's just part of a bigger pie. That's what I brought up in my parenthentical.

or of people who played Japanese games because those were the games that were mainly available when they got into gaming (around the 8-bit and 16-bit era) but they've naturally gravitated toward more Western games as they've gotten older and those games have become more available. (Don't forget, too, the shift of gamers and developers from the PC, where Western games have always dominated, to the consoles, where Japanese games have traditionally dominated.)

In that case it wouldn't be that Japanese games don't appeal to Western tastes, it's that they don't appeal *as much* as Western games.

Your argument about sour grapes hinges on the idea that the Japanese as developers have stagnated while Western developers have continued to plug along and create new and innovative products. I just don't know how you can make that argument with a straight face in a year that saw (or will see) the release of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Bioshock 2, Rage, Halo Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Singularity, Metro 2033, Alien vs Predator, Medal of Honor, Homefront, and a host of other shooters I'm forgetting. There's not a lot of light showing through the cracks that separate those games from one another and from the glut of shooters that have been made the last five years.

That's because you're misinterpreted my argument as being one where consumers demand immediate innovation in every single installment.

There are larger cultural and market issues at play here than can be accounted for by saying that Japanese developers have stagnated.

Maybe--Aaron D. brings up some good points. But if it's market issues at play here, then it's sour grapes blaming Western tastes.

Aaron D. wrote:
Nintendo innovated with motion controls, stylus for handhelds and now 3D for 3DS. You have to applaud them for their forward-thinking in this dept. Unfortunately, this hasn't translated well into software applications that many of us care about. For the Wii specifically, the system is great in party settings in a Dave & Busters kind of way, but there is little "serious" gaming to be found for Western audiences to sink their teeth into, again adding to the perception that Japan just doesn't get it when trying to court modern Western gamers.

And Sony and MS aren't doing their own motion controllers, aiming them at the western mar-oh, wait.

Duoae wrote:
1. Interest, wonder and exploration of deities and organised religion
2. Exploration of and less strict gender and sexual roles in society (expecially wrt men/males)
3. Questioning of authority structures and leading cultural and social rebellions
4. The use of characterisation (specifically self doubt) to show that protagonists don't necessarily believe that what they're doing is right but that they must do it anyway to achieve change.

Another problem that I have with the whole list is that it implies that japanese games are somehow more intellectual than western games. It's like saying that Bioshock has as much intellectual weight behind it as a high level critique of randian philosophy. Ultimately, Bioshock was a game with a slightly more interesting narrative then most that lent itself surprisingly well to combining first person shooting and lightning bolts, just as most japanese games boil down to choosing something from a menu to see a combat animation (being reductive, but still). Just because Dante or Bayonetta occasionally pummel vaguely angel shaped creatures doesn't mean that their games seriously deal with religion. Just because Nier features a hermaphrodite doesn't mean that the game deals seriously with sexual and gender roles.

It's like saying that Bioshock has as much intellectual weight behind it as a high level critique of randian philosophy. Ultimately, Bioshock was a game with a slightly more interesting narrative then most that lent itself surprisingly well to combining first person shooting and lightning bolts, just as most japanese games boil down to choosing something from a menu to see a combat animation (being reductive, but still). Just because Dante or Bayonetta occasionally pummel vaguely angel shaped creatures doesn't mean that their games seriously deal with religion. Just because Nier features a hermaphrodite doesn't mean that the game deals seriously with sexual and gender roles.

We can walk all games down the Asperger's trail toward ignoring everything but rule sets. All that comes down to is that we're ignoring aspects of the game. Regardless, that's a tangent from this more interesting conversation:

theditor wrote:
Duoae wrote:
1. Interest, wonder and exploration of deities and organised religion
2. Exploration of and less strict gender and sexual roles in society (expecially wrt men/males)
3. Questioning of authority structures and leading cultural and social rebellions
4. The use of characterisation (specifically self doubt) to show that protagonists don't necessarily believe that what they're doing is right but that they must do it anyway to achieve change.

Another problem that I have with the whole list is that it implies that japanese games are somehow more intellectual than western games.

I think this plays into the concerns I mentioned before, namely: "I'm concerned about the long-term intermingling of cultures and values with outside perspectives, and about the long-term depth and health of games as a medium." Japanese games can seem more intellectual because they often deal with different issues and approach topics from directions than we're accustomed to. But publishers tend not to export (or tend to heavily localize) the games that would be less familiar. Something similar happens in looking at what games get ported across systems, and which make it to print as $60 console titles instead of free Flash games.

wordsmythe wrote:
I think this plays into the concerns I mentioned before, namely: "I'm concerned about the long-term intermingling of cultures and values with outside perspectives, and about the long-term depth and health of games as a medium."

Are you saying that the Japanese game makers should just take their ball and go home? Or that it's a good thing?

More importantly, I don't understand why this is such an issue. Mixing and experimentation like this has been happening between genre lines for quite some time, and on the whole, it's been very successful.

So why does this bother you when it's across nationalities? It can't be that different.

To me it seems like the whole Western games vs. Japan games debate is steeped in ideas of Orientalism. The notion that the West innovates while Japan is slower to change (or changes by stealing from other cultures) has been around since the late 1800s. The Wired article, as an example, associates high resolution graphics with advancement in games as a medium, and in this way implies that Japan is backward for seeming to ignore them. But really, isn't Halo just Doom with a bigger budget and a few million more transistors?

The lifestyle of most Japanese gamers is probably very different from that of Americans. With less leisure time and more public transit time, it seems to make perfect sense that mobile platforms are a big deal. I'm sure there are additional good reasons why Dragon Quest is a more popular long form game in Japan than Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer. I am not so sure we can make any useful judgments about the quality of Japanese games vs Western games with respect to innovation, because they're really innovating in different directions to fit different contexts of play. Is it so surprising that Japanese gamers will only buy things that say "Dragon Quest", "Final Fantasy" or "Monster Hunter"? How about Guitar Hero, Call of Duty, and Halo?

theditor wrote:
Duoae wrote:
1. Interest, wonder and exploration of deities and organised religion
2. Exploration of and less strict gender and sexual roles in society (expecially wrt men/males)
3. Questioning of authority structures and leading cultural and social rebellions
4. The use of characterisation (specifically self doubt) to show that protagonists don't necessarily believe that what they're doing is right but that they must do it anyway to achieve change.

Another problem that I have with the whole list is that it implies that japanese games are somehow more intellectual than western games. It's like saying that Bioshock has as much intellectual weight behind it as a high level critique of randian philosophy. Ultimately, Bioshock was a game with a slightly more interesting narrative then most that lent itself surprisingly well to combining first person shooting and lightning bolts, just as most japanese games boil down to choosing something from a menu to see a combat animation (being reductive, but still). Just because Dante or Bayonetta occasionally pummel vaguely angel shaped creatures doesn't mean that their games seriously deal with religion. Just because Nier features a hermaphrodite doesn't mean that the game deals seriously with sexual and gender roles.

What are you talking about? I listed what i saw as some concepts common in Japanese culture. It doesn't devalue or negate the concepts of any other culture or country.....

I get that people get offended by defining something and their insecurities in themselves can come out and manifest themselves in this way.

"I say the woman sitting across from us is beautiful and you say i prefer her over you."

I could list what i see as common cultural concepts for America if you like? I can't really do it for the UK though as i'm too close to it.

cube wrote:

More importantly, I don't understand why this is such an issue. Mixing and experimentation like this has been happening between genre lines for quite some time, and on the whole, it's been very successful.

So why does this bother you when it's across nationalities? It can't be that different.

I may be wrong in my interpretation but i'm pretty sure Wordy wants more cross-pollination of cultural ideals. His quote was saying that he's concerned about a lack of this sort of thinking by every game becoming homogeneous...

Aaron D. wrote:
I don't know if I'd call it sour grapes, but on the whole I tend to agree with you. The fact that many studio heads from Japan have said much the same over the past couple years (being outpaced by Western developers) is very telling, imo.

I wouldn't call an inferiority complex the same as J-games actually *being* worse.

Things are cyclical - it's trendy to bash Japanese games right now (though notably, stuff that everyone likes, like Street Fighter IV, seems magically immune from criticism.)

A lot of the criticisms seem based culturally based because people who play Gears and Halo don't want to play anime characters.

A few years from now, we'll be talking about the big renaissance in Japanese gaming and how J-games are suddenly great again, when they've been no better and no worse than W-games all along.

cube wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
I think this plays into the concerns I mentioned before, namely: "I'm concerned about the long-term intermingling of cultures and values with outside perspectives, and about the long-term depth and health of games as a medium."

Are you saying that the Japanese game makers should just take their ball and go home? Or that it's a good thing?

More importantly, I don't understand why this is such an issue. Mixing and experimentation like this has been happening between genre lines for quite some time, and on the whole, it's been very successful.

So why does this bother you when it's across nationalities? It can't be that different.

I think you radically misinterpreted me there, and I regret that I wasn't clearer. I think it's good to mix cultures and find new perspectives on ourselves, and it's a shame that shorter-term business considerations get in the way of that.