The land of the setting sun.

Spanning the breadth of the 1980’s to the early 00’s, Japanese video game developers were rightly regarded as the catalyst which spurred innovation. A combination of a strong traditional heritage and a unique school of thought encouraged wonderfully creative games. In turn, the dedication and perhaps unhealthy work ethic of the studio’s employees set the standard for aspiring game developers around the world.

Astonishingly, this often quirky game design resonated well with Western gamers, overcoming centuries of inherently different traditions. Naturally, some titles were strictly too bizarre to comprehend, however the ingenuity was ever present as Western gamers lapped up titles such as Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil, Pokemon, Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros, Tekken, Gran Turismo and Silent Hill. Naturally, all of these titles may seem insignificant and part of the norm these days; however, many of these types of games had never been seen on Western soil, particularly the ever popular Japanese role-playing game genre.

The start of something special.

It was no coincidence therefore, that all the popular home consoles originated from Japan during this time period. The effervescent Nintendo battled with SEGA for over a decade, vying for a place in living rooms around the world. Eventually, SEGA’s illustrious position in the video game market succumbed to another country rival, in the form of new boys Sony. Ironically, SEGA’s fall from grace after launching the SEGA Dreamcast stemmed from a lack of support from one of the West’s biggest publishers, Electronic Arts. An early warning sign of things to come perhaps.

Thriving off the success of these three pioneers was a variety of ambitious publishers. Companies such as Capcom, Konami, Squaresoft, ENIX and Namco, quickly established themselves as Japan’s major players in the publishing market. The output of ground-breaking titles was purely phenomenal, spawning the birth of some of our most beloved franchises and systems.

Best Of The West

The industry has changed, possibly spurred by the birth of Microsoft’s (originally ridiculed) Xbox in 2002.

Fast forward two decades or so and the reality of this once prosperous situation is somewhat worrying. The industry has changed, possibly spurred by the birth of Microsoft’s (originally ridiculed) Xbox in 2002. Many scoffed at Microsoft’s unexpected entry into the games industry with Japan in particular, who even as of today, fail to recognise the Xbox 360 as a tempting proposition. Instead, Japan is steadfast in its ways, relying on what has sold in the past and shunning the idea of attempting to cater more to Western audiences. Genres such as first-person-shooters attract millions of Western gamers into parting with their hard earned cash, whilst Japanese gamers are firmly drawn towards niche titles such as dating simulators and traditional JPRG’s (an almost now extinct genre in the West).

The Xbox failed to entice Japanese gamers. It’s successor isn’t fairing much better.

The top six games which comprise the latest video game charts in the UK provide unsettling evidence that Japanese developers are becoming less and less prevalent in the modern gaming world, even though both the Wii and PlayStation 3 are both of Japanese origin. In fact, not one Japanese developer is present in the top 20.

1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Activision, USA)

2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, USA)

3. Battlefield 3 (DICE, Sweden)

4. FIFA 12 (EA Montreal, Canada)

5. Just Dance 3 (Ubisoft, France)

6. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Naughty Dog, USA)

The past situation of games co-existing in both the Japanese and Western markets is also no longer apparent, with a distinct separation developing during the progression of this console generation. Japanese gamers have their own titles, with many popular Western titles failing to make a significant impact at retail. But it gets worse.

Yen And Now

Recent business forecasts of the major Japanese publishers have painted a grim picture, with disappointing sales, slashed profit margins and yearly declines in revenue. A number of high profile, respected developers have voiced their opinions on the state of the Japanese market with the most damning contribution coming from Capcom’s former Head of Research and Development Division, and Global Head of Production, Keiji Inafune. Speaking ahead of the 2009 Tokyo Game Show, Mr.Inafune exclaimed “Japan is over. We’re done. Our game industry is finished.” These now infamous words may have seemed a tad premature two years ago, but if you examine the current state of Japan’s shrinking market and its developers dismal forecasts, then you’d find it hard to argue with such a bullish statement. To round all this off, the next year Inafune declared that Japanese developers were “at least five years” behind their Western counterparts. In gaming terms, that’s essentially a whole console cycle behind. But what’s the reason for this?

Keiji Inafune voices his concerns.

Japanese people have a lot of pride, and clearly, it’s hurting their industry right now

It would be an understatement to state that Japanese culture is different from that of the West. It’s a country that is steeped in tradition, one that encompasses people’s attitudes and way of life. Japanese people have a lot of pride, and clearly, it’s hurting their industry right now. It can’t be easy knowing that, in some regard, their talent and previous infallible status is now questionable. Concepts such as downloadable titles, online integration and DLC are still generally dismissed by Japanese developers; areas which are implemented and part of the norm in nearly every Western title.

In an open interview with 1UP, Keiji Inafune believes that it’s time that Japanese developers “empty their glass and fill it up with what foreigners like, rather than forcefully pushing their own way of doing things.” The message is clearly one of change; however, the burning question still remains. Will Japanese developers swallow their pride and adapt their products to Western audiences, or continually focus on their own, statistically shrinking market? Funnily enough, Japan need look far for inspiration. There’s a company who has adapted and refined their products with tremendous success throughout the evolution of video games. A company which successfully converts what may seem initially bizarre ideas, into a compelling medium for gamers around the globe. Of course, I’m talking about one of the original pioneers, Nintendo; a shining example after all these years.