What the hell happened to Japan's video game development dominance?

Used to be all the best games came out of Japan but for the last 7-8 years Japan has put out the most tired, crappy games that only seem to appeal to Japanese gamers. Pretty much all JP devs have recycled the same plots, characters, art and game types since the PS1 days.

I honestly cannot remember the last Japanese developed game that I really loved. RE4? Was that JP? I dunno. JRPGs just suck now. Level grinding has been replaced by deeper, varying, stories in the rest of the world but not in Japan.

The overwhelming majority of J developed characters are feminine man-childs. 17 year old hero boys with the same tired stories attached.

They are terrible at representing normal humans in their games. If they don’t have purple hair and wear vests with no undershirt they just don’t seem capable of managing them.

MGS4 was a trainwreck of a story.

There are a ton of other complaints I could make but I won’t here.

What the hell happened though? Capcom? Tecmo? Sega? (Well, Tecmo had Ninja Gaiden at least)

There are still good games coming out of Japan, though on balance it is more even between Western and Japanese developers these days. I actually liked MGS4 but I seem to be in the minority on that front. Bayonetta was good, as well as the DMC games and Ninja Gaiden as you mentioned. JRPG’s seem to be going through a low point right now admittedly, but Persona 3 and 4 were both outstanding and I’m waiting with baited breath for news on 5. I liked FF12 and 13 is set to release tomorrow. That will make a splash regardless of quality, (judgments with held for the moment.) RE4 was good, and I liked RE5 as well though it seemed largely the same game, even with the co-op element.

Some random thoughts…

Japanese game development is notoriously insular and it’s only become more so as time marches on. Change comes slowly in Japan, (even slower than across the Pacific), and they tend to focus on their own market. The first concern for Japanese developers is how the game sells there, understandably I think.

Another thing that occurs to me is that the console market, over the last 10 years or so, has grown massively compared to the PC market and it’s led to Western developers focusing more on consoles. 10 years ago, and more, Western developed games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout 3, Gears of War, Modern Warfare and others would have led with the PC game and the console side would have seen a streamlined port later on, if they saw anything at all. To this day we still see a ton of games released on the PC which don’t see the light of day on consoles, mostly in the strategy and FPS genres.

I think the market on consoles has grown considerably and what we’re seeing is a migration by Western developers in that direction, to the detriment of Japanese development. Traditionally, Western development was largely on the PC side which the Japanese have largely ignored. Japanese games haven’t deteriorated over time, but they also haven’t kept up with the competition. Companies like Nintendo, Capcom, and Konami are still putting out A+ titles (and I’m sure there bottom lines look fine), but it’s just in a much larger market now.

Jihi hit the nail on the head when he said that Japanese developers just haven’t kept up. They’re very insular, and often didn’t share technologies until VERY recently. Squeenix actually started up a Japanese game union sorta thing for Japanese game devs to share technology in order to help them keep up with the Wester game developers. A big problem in Japan has always been that every game made generally had it’s own engine built from scratch. That’s very much changing these days.

Another thing is that Japanese sensibilites simply don’t appeal to the west. Japanese like the girly-boy child thing, they enjoy young heroes, that’s Japan. (The purple hair thing, interestingly enough, comes from the days of black and white cinema when actors would die their hair slightly purple so it would show up as a much darker black on camera, since then it’s just been associated with “cool” and lots of idols do it)

I have a problem with MGS myself, but I just really don’t like Kojima, I think he’s just a self-important git who hasn’t released anything of worth since MGS1 or Zone of the Enders.

But basically Japanese devs simply haven’t kept up with the changing world market. Their games are still beloved by Japanese gamers, who very often play nearly nothing from outside of Japan (in my experience), but even that’s changing. They’ll get a kick in the rear soon enough, esp if foreign game penetration continues the way it’s going in Japan.

MMOs have also taken a significant part of the development studios.

Well, just about every Hollywood movie recently is either a remake, sequel, or prequel, so Japan is hardly alone in lacking original, creative media content recently…

I personally think the ‘dominance’ of Japan’s video game makers early on was more of a fluke more than anything: the start of it (back in the early Final Fantasy / Dragon Quest days) coincided with a period in the US when developers (and gamers) were focusing almost exclusively on fighting games. You could hardly find an RPG in the US at the time - maybe Zelda or something, but that series didn’t compare very well initially to the more polished FF/DQ games.

The dirty little secret is that Japan generally sucks at software. Hardware is great - software, not so much. The example I use is: go to a Japanese website, such as for a newspaper or something. Invariable, things will be out of place. It is disconcerting at first - you expect a menu item to be here, for example. Or expect the Continue button and Go Back button to be in a specific place or order - but it isn’t.

Still, it’s not like Japan’s developers have completely lost their way - they have made some excellent games in the past, and while FFXIII sounds like a complete flop, I thought FFXII was actually quite well done in a lot of respects. Interesting story, some innovative battle features, excellent voice acting.

It’s probably true that Japanese gamers simply don’t play overseas-developed games - the only overseas games in the list of top-selling games for the week of Feb 14-21st according to Famitsu: Heavy Rain (at 7th) and Dante’s Inferno (at 13th). What’s a bit more disturbing for Japanese developers: several titles on that top-sellers list depend on overseas markets for revenue (Bio-Hazard/Resident Evil, Super Mario Brothers, Wii, Zelda/DragonQuest). And, the domestic client base is getting older and dwinding in absolute numbers thanks to Japan’s aging, falling population. If Japan’s gaming companies can’t attract overseas gamers, they are in trouble.

This. Each of the big three territories (Japan, North America, Europe) have their own tastes in games, and local developers often concentrate on making the sorts of games that appeal to local tastes.

However, Japanese developers are particularly bad about not adapting their games to appeal outside their home territories. I think a big part of the problem is that Nintendo and Sony are both based in Japan, so upper management at both companies is a bit blind to how a Japanese game might not meet overseas tastes. I work for Sony America and we feel a definite pressure to make sure our games appeal to other markets. (Sometimes we ignore that pressure … but it’s definitely there). I don’t think there’s a similar pressure on developers in Japan.

I’ve never really thought Japanese games were super great, particularly RPGs. I remember when everyone was going nuts over final fantasy (FF7 and FF8 in particular), but I was left completely underwhelmed compared to western RPGs like fallout 1/2, Planescape: Torment, Arcanum, Baldur’s gate 1/2, etc.

I blame it on an obsession with all things Japanese that seemed to be gripping the world (or at least America) around that time.

I loved those role playing games, but they’re getting way more attention than they deserve now.

It’s also worth pointing out that the big thing this generation in America is online gaming and Xbox Live in particular. The Japanese don’t care at all about that.

While I agree with the gist of your arguement, I take issue with this particular point - I’ve played lots of JRPGs in the past few years and NONE OF THEM had any level grinding. You would level up as a natural consequence of proceeding through the game, but “level grinding” implies that you deliberately have/are encouraged to stop and do nothing but gather XP/Levels in order to handle the next area, and that has been blatantly NOT the case in any game I’ve played in the past… I don’t even know how long. I think there were some early PS2 titles that required some grinding, but by and large this concept has been dead for years. What games have you played that involved level grinding?

Sega has been in the toilet since the demise of the Dreamcast. Capcom… dunno. Street Fighter 4 is AWFULLY good, but apparently not the sort of game that interests you? They also published Okami, which, I’m sorry, was awesome and bucked just about every trend you cite here.

That said, I’m not seeing the brilliance of american game design either. Yay, another grey/brown first person shooter with a stoic, butch main character? It’s no more realistic, no more varied, and no better, just…different.

Game development has been in a rut on the next gen consoles, period. There are a few gems, but by and large, no one seems to know what to do with themselves.

I was listening to a recent podcast by people from the 1up.com website, where they were talking about how a particular major Japanese game designer talked about the major Western games he was playing, and how it was interesting that this was even noteworthy, because of course all the major Western top game designers are very closely checking out their competition. Another episode talked about one of them going to a game conference in Japan, and how some Japanese designers just didn’t get why games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age were appealing to Western audiences, and were asking for explanations on what made those games popular here.

It seems like the headstart that older Japanese games got as a side effect of being released for the Japanese-produced consoles has worn off, and PC gaming makers cross over to consoles, so finally other tastes that don’t include “cute magical teen boy/girl with gravity-defying hair saves his/her friends and the whole world” can be catered to.

Portal. Braid. LittleBigPlanet. Mass Effect 2’s ability to bring in an entire game’s worth of player character backstory into the sequel. For God’s sakes, Rock Band.

No, this latest gen has seen some of the most significant game design innovations of the past two decades. A lot of that has to do with graphics having gotten good enough that poly count one-upsmanship doesn’t have the same selling power that it used to - when two guys working more or less alone can make a game as gorgeous as Braid, then the returns of pouring resources into high-end graphics diminish rapidly. Instead, we’re seeing game developers utilize their available horsepower to drive gameplay - hence games like Portal, which requires some dizzying physics programming that probably wouldn’t have been possible on previous-gen hardware.

I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of the thread (that Japanese game design is universally stagnant), either. There’s still one Japanese company out there whose game design is continually inventive: Nintendo.

Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros Wii, hell, even Wii Sports - these are hugely significant for their gameplay innovations and stellar level design, even if they aren’t exactly original characters and stories.

I don’t really count Rock Band at all, since it’s just an incremental improvement from Guitar Hero, which was a PS2 title. Littlebigplanet? Not sure I’d count that. But yeah. Braid and Portal are great. Did you miss the part about “a few gems”?

I’m fascinated that your argument hinges on the lack of poly-count one-upsmanship and then cites Braid, which could have been done just as easily a console generation ago (though the distribution model wasn’t there, so I guess there’s that.)

But you can build a platform for your argument on Braid and Portal if you want, but for every one of those, there are 5 Call of Modern Warfare Splinter Cell Battlefields. Just like for every 5 Blue Dragon Odyssey Fantasy’s, there’s a Valkyria Chronicles. You can’t paint one side of the equation with a broad brush and then point to a couple of gleaming bits of goodness on the other side and say “See? There are good games over there.”

One thing which was mentioned tobut not explained so much is that while the markets are divided a bit awkwardly, Japan really is off in its own corner. There the U.S./Canadian market which is basically one and the same, the British market which has a few specialist studios which sell globally (a big trend in British business), the Eastern Euopean market which includes German and Eastern European sellers, who also target the American market heavily. Then you have the South Korean and Japanese markets - but these are pretty different. South Korea is heavily into competitive gameplay, and Japan is almost exactly the opposite: single-player set-story games.

I guess really you have a global market in which the United States is a big centerpiece and a lesser Japanese market which aims to sell elsewhere. You could probably write a book about how this mirrors the economic integration/local-marketing model of U.S. global business versus Japan’s export-oriented/home-marketing model.

It’s a bit unfortunate that France, Spain, Italy and so on don’t have home videogame developers. Or rather, there are a few, but their output is spotty or nonexistent. French made some really amazing stuff, but mostly nothing.

Wow. Imagine that. An entire country, full of noobs.


Japanese games, particularly JRPGs, were awesome when I was growing up, but the problem was I did grow up.

Stories about pre-pubescent children with big swords and cute sidekicks/weapons fighting off evil empires and great dark lords while having silly contrived conversations just started getting old. But the story isn’t really the main problem so much as that feeling that your entire goal in the game is to get from one cut-scene story point to the next. The stories are usually so divorced from the gameplay as to be two entirely different entities.

I started out with the Final Fantasy games, but after having played the Fallout games, the Baldur’s Gate series, Arcanum, Torment, Deus Ex, etc., JRPGs just seem incredibly shallow and constricted. I tried playing Final Fantasy VII again a couple years ago, and man, I completely forgot how railroaded you are in that game, and how amazingly repetitive it is. It’s 1) Find your way through somewhat confusing pre-rendered backdrop 2) Hold down the “Attack” button , healing occasionally 3) Watch cut-scene. Oh and occasionally equip some piece of armor or a magic marble.

Western RPGs are not always the pinnacle of varied and innovative gameplay, but I at least have to think about my choices and tactics and character progression from time to time, and many have a true exploration feeling. I actually feel like I’m playing the game, as opposed to watching it.

I’m painting with a pretty wide brush, and some JRPGs do buck the trend (World Ends With You is a recent one I loved), but in general, that style has long since passed me by.

Curiousity; Have you tried any “modern” JRPGs, or are you just basing the fact that you now don’t like them on your replays of older games? (Many of which do not age well.)

Aside: I tried to play Baldur’s Gate years after it came out and found it a very unpleasant experience, so I suspect that some nostalgia plays on either side of the equation here.

This really can’t be stressed enough. The modern video game console market, (PC games are important but the overall market has shifted so dramatically in the console direction that it bears emphasis), re-started in Japan after the crash of '83. Nintendo, and to a lesser extent Sega, moved into what was an essentially a dying market in America when they launched the original NES in '85. In fact, a lot of the design decisions that went into bringing the original Famicom to the US as the NES were based on differentiating the system from previous consoles, (specifically the 2600.) The front loading cartridge bay, the subdued gray color, and that stupid fucking robot were all a part of that. Nintendo was selling a “toy/set top box”, not a video game console. It sounds strange looking back on it 20+ years later, but they were trying to circumvent a huge hurdle at the time.

A digression… As I type this it also occurs to me, in hindsight, that this might be the reason that so much game innovation in America in the 80’s and 90’s occurred on the PC. In the 80’s releasing a video game on consoles in America was a serious gamble. The market was reasonably established by the 90’s, but trends had already been established and developers may have been hesitant to buck those at the time.

A lot, (probably a vast majority), of NES games were initially designed with the unique interests and eccentricities of the Japanese market in mind, simply because they couldn’t be sure if the games would sell here or elsewhere. After Nintendo, (and, again, to a lesser extent Sega), had established what could work, from a game development perspective, others simply began to imitate those tendencies. DragonAsh has characterized the early Japanese dominance as a “fluke”. I think there might be something to that in the sense that they were in the right place at the right time with the right game plan. As Western developers have moved into the market they’ve capitalized on an intuitive understanding of what Western gamers are looking for.

Pulling this out of my ass, but isn’t Ubisoft, (Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, Tom Clancy games), based out of France? I know they have other development studios but I could have swore their main HQ was French.

Liked Enchanted Arms and Lost Odyssey. Hated Blue Dragon, with a vengeance. Baldur’s Gate I is merely OK, BG II is awesome. I was a bit disappointed by Arcanum, to tell the truth. It was merely okay, and the whole game was pretty broken if you chose to be a mage.

Ah well.