The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Fish
Earlier this month the 2012 Game Developers Conference (GDC) took place and game devs from around the world came to give and hear speeches on game design. One such panel included indie developers featured in Indie Game: The Movie. It was there that a Japanese developer from the audience asked the panel what they thought of modern Japanese video games. According to Develop, the reply he received from Phil Fish was a short and rather unsweet, “your games just suck” followed by a barrage of criticisms aimed squarely at the developer’s home country. It’s what some people would consider rude and makes Mr. Fish look like a complete ass. Yet there seems to be a large group of people that regret the way in which he replied to the question, and yet do not necessarily disagree with what he was trying to say.
The antics of Phil Fish have reignited talk of the recent Japanese video game decline. When discussing this the outspoken high-profile Japanese developer, Keiji Inafune, is often used as an example. Immediately after reporting the incident at GDC in the previously-noted article, Develop quotes Keiji Inafune, who had previously pleaded for change within the Japanese gaming industry. They do this in a way that almost confirms Mr. Fish’s statements. This ignores landmark releases this generation that happen to come from Japan–games like Super Mario Galaxy, Demon/Dark Souls, Bayonetta, Street Fighter IV, and Lost Planet.
A year prior Inafune predicted that Japan would be left behind if they did not adapt to the new worldwide market. He has often been critical of the current situation but has said his intentions were to inspire Japanese developers to do better. In a NY Times interview, Inafune clarifies what he sees as the problem of the Japanese gaming industry and it comes down to bureaucracy & audience. Many Japanese games are made only with a Japanese audience in mind. It's natural to do so–we do it ourselves. However, Inafune explains in a NeoGAF translation of a 4Gamer interview:
Japan's game share is only 10 percent. The numbers tell the story. As long as you're making high-budget games, which you can't finish overnight, the only way to make any income is by selling overseas. However, no Japanese games other than Nintendo's get into the top 50 on the sales charts. So I absolutely want to make Japanese games accepted on a global scale; that's my mission.
Japan's video game market has been on a steady decline for years now, even while handhelds have risen in popularity. Unfortunately, the popularity between portable and home console is reversed in the United States and popular genres between the different platforms do not necessarily align. The trend of first person-shooters in the U.S. does not resonate well with the a Japanese audience. They simply don't want it; it's a difference in taste. They enjoy the umpteenth sequel to Dynasty Warriors as much as any Call of Duty player enjoys theirs. But the U.S. audience can be self-sufficient in regards to large scale games.
Selling Japanese Games
So, how do you sell a Japanese game to Westerners? Do you simply make the main character look more familiar to Western audiences? Do you change your franchises to a more popular Western genre? Do you mimic the most popular Western games? Or do you simply make your great games for a worldwide audience?
In the previously mentioned interview with the New York Times, Inafune confesses “Japan only has 8 percent of the global gaming market.” The writer is quick to note that this excludes Nintendo. Why exclude Nintendo? It's simple really. Because they are currently enjoying a large amount of success and it would skew the numbers the wrong way. Nintendo seems to be doing just fine with their Japanese software in overseas markets. They do this not by trying to be more Western but by filling a void that Western software simply doesn't and doing it spectacularly. Maybe its time to take a page from their playbook.