Can Japanese games rule again in the West?

Name a hit games franchise from the 1980s or ‘90s and it’s bound to be a Japanese creation: Mario, Final Fantasy, Zelda, Pokmon, Pac-Man.

Recall one from after 2000 and it’s instead likely to be a product of the West: Halo, Call of Duty, Angry Birds, Minecraft, Assassin’s Creed.

It’s an anecdotal sign of Japan’s falling presence in the Western games market, reinforced by cold statistics; you’ll find no Japanese IP in the Top 20 best-selling games of 2014 in the UK. The highest-charting effort from the region was Super Smash Bros in 28th place.

That’s a far cry from the biggest-selling titles of the 1990s, where 15 of the Top 20 games were Japanese.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about why the popularity of Japanese games has fallen over the last decade,” muses Mark MacDonald, executive director for Tokyo-based localisation firm 8-4.

It’s a combination of a lot of factors: one of the big ones is that the West actually got good at developing games and was better at making titles for its own market.

There’s also been a shift to genres that are just being done better in America – less character-focused, platform and action games are waning and Japan has traditionally been strong in those.”

"Japanese developers are trying to make games for America and failing."

Mark MacDonald, 8-4

From the launch of the NES in 1986, Japanese games set the stage for the Western games industry, defining what gaming was for almost two decades.

But the 3D era of the PlayStation heralded the emergence of shooters and action games as key sectors in the UK and US – a trend that Japan struggled to keep up with, despite its best efforts.

Back in the day, Japan made games for Japan and they were the best games, so the West ate them up,” recalls MacDonald. Now you have the market getting bigger in America, so Japanese developers are trying to make games for America and failing.

Whenever Japan has tried to outright make a Gears of War clone or a Halo-type game, and tick off the boxes of what a successful Western title is, those kinds of games have not succeeded. It’s not playing to its strengths – it’s just trying to do what someone else already does better.”

Nobuo Tomita, producer at Japanese developer Access Games, says that this genre divide makes it hard for many Japanese firms to strike a chord with Western gamers outside of a niche audience.

We come from different backgrounds, so it’s difficult to fill both gaps,” he observes. But looking back on the history of game culture, we’ve acquired fans who have gotten used to the artistry and appearance of our games. If we can keep drawing them in to enjoy the various artistries behind our games, then we’ll see positive results.”

Alan Costa is PR and marketing manager at NIS America, the Western arm of Japanese publisher Nippon Ichi Software.He retorts that players outside of Japan can still be enticed to try something different from the proven game types in the West.

The key is offering new experiences,” he advises. A lot of the success of Japanese games in the 1990s was because they offered something very new or least different in terms of story, character development and gameplay for most Western players.Nowadays, we are seeing Japanese gamers enjoying the likes of Call of Duty and GTA for the same reason.

People who love games will give the benefitof the doubt to a well–made game, even if it seems like itwouldn’t be something up their alley at first blush.”

Costa points out that more esoteric types of Japanese game have found a passionate following in the West.

We are seeing the previously thought-of ‘Japan-only’ visual novel genre really take off,” he says. This trend will continue in the future, with more games of the purely story-driven, minimal gameplay type being brought over.”

MacDonald offers examples of games that have combined the innovative aspects of Japanese development with the mainstream appeal of Western genres.

What’s interesting about Metal Gear Solid is how happy people are to not have a game that is maybe not one person’s vision, but is way more influenced by one person than most Western games are allowed to be these days,” he posits. It’s almost like counter-programming; there’s a danger that you would lose that stuff trying to copy the West.

Splatoon is another interesting example. You could, if you had a passing glance at that game, be like: ‘Somebody at Nintendo said they must make a competitive third-person shooter.’ But it doesn’t feel that way – it feels very much the game that those guys wanted to make, they just grew up in a world where Call of Duty has been popular for the last ten years and that’s affected them passively. It’s uniquely different. It’s not a game that would’ve been made anywhere else but at Nintendo and in Japan.”

"Japanese publishers are just starting to warm up to the idea of PC ports, and that is simply because one cannot argue with the staggering success of titles on certain PC gaming platforms."

Alan Costa, NIS America

The birthplace of the modern games console, Japan has traditionally relegated PC to the sideline of its games industry.

Yet, recent years have seen Japanese firms transition to platforms such as Steam; long-running franchises such as Dead or Alive, Disgaea and Tales of have all come to PC in the West for the first time in an effort to capture a bigger user base.

Digital downloads are just now helping to open up the Western market for Japanese games,” says MacDonald. Sega did Valkyria Chronicles on Steam. It’s a genre that makes sense for PC; it has the anime look and hadn’t previously escaped its small console niche. It did extremely well. The Dark Souls series is another one you can point to that’s been really big on PC; ten or even five years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.”

He adds that Japanese developers have seen success on crowdfunding platforms thanks to the concentrated PC audience:

A lot of the big Japanese Kickstarters – Mighty No.9, Bloodstained, La-Mulana – are PC-based because the dev costs are low, the overhead on dealing with submissions and things like that are also low, and you have this big potential foreign market.”

MacDonald continues by saying that the lower cost of digital encourages Western players to take a risk on more obscure Japanese efforts.

Digital games have proved that you don’t have to sell things for $60,” he enthuses. So that weird idea that didn’t make sense as a $50 game before can just be put out for $20.”

Tomita similarly praises PC’s digital-focused marketplace as a boon for Japanese studios looking to expand their audience without the cost of physical retail.

It isn’t that Japan hasn’t looked seriously at the PC market so far, it’s simply that console games have always had the larger user base,” he says.When

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