Friday, October 3, 2014

Why the growing Japanese indie scene is good news for small western developers

By Nayan Ramachandran
(PLAYISM Marketing Manager at Active Gaming Media, Inc.)

The western indie scene has been thriving and growing for several years now, and the number of enthusiastic and talented indie developers has ballooned in size. The western gaming industry has been going through a miraculous metamorphosis throughout this entire time. Events like PAX have a huge indie presence, and many attendees attend the show just to see what new indie games are on the horizon.

Indies have enjoyed quite the renaissance in the last few years, and it’s benefitted both gamers and creators alike. The story has been quite different in Japan. While Japan has a rich hobbyist culture surrounding both comics and video games, a sense of community has never quite developed. Rather than having a heavily manicured and curated community where creators have come together for a common cause, creators have instead grown into the venues available.

The Fractured Scene

This has made for a particularly fractured community. Some developers sell a small number of physical discs at events, while others distribute their games for free online. Developers don’t communicate extensively with each other, trade programming techniques, or swap members to work on different projects.

The byproduct of this fractured and largely closed system was that no indie culture developed outside of the most hardcore of Japanese gamers. The fanbase was small, and making money in the space was difficult.

This also made it nearly impossible for western indie developers to break into Japan. Without a central digital hub like Steam to distribute games, and with physical sales being the prevailing distribution method, it was impossible to get western indie games into Japanese gamers’ hands without a physical presence in Japan and a knowledge of the Japanese language.

Many western developers and gamers didn’t even know an indie scene existed in the first place. And they were right. While plenty of “doujin” games were being developed and sold, and plenty of fans to buy them, there was no cohesive scene. There was nothing to point at and say “This is Japanese Indie gaming.”

In La-Mulana director Takumi Naramura’s GDC 2013 talk about Japanese indie gaming, he lamented the lack of community. He posited that the only way for Japanese indie games to survive in the long term would be to join together and create a “scene”. Without one, it would never move beyond its small, but admittedly rabid, fanbase. Such a fanbase could never hope to sustain the rapid growth he was already seeing in the Japanese doujin scene.

There was another reason he felt a scene was important: exporting. While Naramura loves his home country and believes its capable of amazing things, he recognized the limited market it provided in comparison to the rest of the world. With PC being the most common platform for indie games in Japan, the market was severely limited, and releasing the game worldwide was the key.

Without knowledge of overseas markets or language, though, developers would need partners. Before that would happen, they would need to build a scene, and show that a viable scene existed that would attract interested parties.

Since Naramura’s talk last year, the Japanese indie scene has changed and grown rapidly. One of the major contributors has been the Bit Summit event. Bit Summit is a yearly indie-focused game event held in Kyoto. Run by game development alum James Mielke, Bit Summit has been an incredible force in bringing developers together. The event touts an avant garde and hip motif that made it “cool” to be part of the indie developer crowd.

One Japanese developer at BitSummit suggested that the term indie, and everything it carried with it, was far “sexier” than the doujin space. Instead of being an insular hobbyist community that served its most hardcore fanbase, indie events like BitSummit welcomed one and all to a family friendly and clean environment that suggested that gaming was indeed still for everyone.

Throughout the three days of the event, 1000’s of attendees filtered into the event hall to see what “indie” had in store for them. Some who attended were not even avid gamers, but came by out of curiosity. A casual segment of players that might otherwise never come close to a doujin-centric event, due mostly to its related stigma, were drawn to the idea of indie, despite the difference being largely semantic in nature.

It was clear that image and presentation were paramount in drawing in new users.

Additionally, Nikkei, the Japanese corporation in charge of Tokyo Game Show recently started an Indie Game Corner where developers can show their games at a booth so close to greats like Namco Bandai and Sony Computer Entertainment.

Sony themselves took over the Indie Game Corner at this year’s Tokyo Game Show, paying for the booth space and offering free booths to all indies accepted. Suddenly the barrier for entry dropped, and the indie flood began.

A booth with a capacity of around 60 games received over 500 applications. There was certainly no shortage of indie developers excited to show their games to the immense TGS audience. Tokyo Game Show 2013 cited an all-time high attendance with roughly 270,000 attendees over four days, and while TGS 2014’s numbers are still not public, trends suggest that TGS 2014 put that number to shame.

Knowing that many of these attendees came solely for big budget Japanese titles, Sony strategically placed the Indie Game Corner in one of the highest traffic areas of the show: between Capcom, Square-Enix, and Sony themselves. It was a masterful stroke that forced attendees to see what indie is capable of, even if they never strayed far from their most anticipated booths.

Additionally, Sony had a number of indie titles running on PlayStation 4 and Vita prominently displayed in their own booth, allowing for fans of the PlayStation brand to happen upon titles they might not have even known about otherwise.

All of these sat below a huge banner you might have seen over the last year: “Playstation Loves Indies”. It may have sounded like Sony was playing catch up in the western space, as indie games had already taken hold, but it was a powerful statement at BitSummit and Tokyo Game Show. Sony was legitimizing indie gaming. Suddenly, indie was a real thing in Japan, and no one could deny it.

Taking advantage of early exposure

As venues for Japanese indie developers grow in number, so too do they benefit indie developers overseas. None of these events bar foreign developers from attending, and it offers a low risk option for breaking into a brand new market. Events serve as a perfect opportunity to grab mindshare early, and serve as a venue to meet potential partners for publishing opportunities in Japan.

This undeniably softens the blow for western indie and casual developers looking to break into the Japanese gaming space. Where it had once been difficult to fathom where to start, now lay a roadmap of events to attend, people to talk to, and potential partners to market your game. Japan is no longer the market mystery it once was for smaller developers.

Developers looking to release their indie or casual title in the Japanese territory should seriously consider first showing the game at at least one event to maximize mindshare prior to release. BitSummit occurs earlier in the year around February/March, and takes applications up until the previous December.

The Indie Game Corner at September’s Tokyo Game Show is only in its second year, but is shaping up to be a regular fixture. Information about participating in the Indie Game Corner is usually posted on Nikkei’s website several months before the event. The best way to find the information is to search “Tokyo Game Show” on Google. Nikkei’s website will likely be the first result.

Reducing Distribution Overhead

Digital distribution has started to take hold slowly in Japan as well. For years, the biggest problem with trying to break into the Japanese market outside of mobile was the lack of digital distribution options for Japan. Japanese gamers have always favored physical distribution over digital for most games, which significantly limits the ability for many foreign indie creators to bring their games to Japan.

While iOS and Android adoption has been healthy in Japan for quite some time, developers looking to hit other platforms as well were faced with a market that valued physical products over digital purchases, which made distribution in Japan largely impossible without a large scale publishing deal.

We have been making a reasonable amount of headway in the Japanese market with Playism, our indie-focused digital distribution platform. After three years of slowly expanding our userbase, we’ve started to find that digital distribution in the PC space is starting to slowly take hold. With Sony opening the floodgates for indie publishing on PlayStation 4 and Vita in Japan as well, the avenues open for small foreign developers to engage the Japanese audience have exploded.

Additionally, Sony has already shown that Free to Play gaming is not out of the question on the Playstation platform. Titles like Judas Code and Samurai & Dragons on Vita, and Digital Extreme’s highly popular Warframe on PlayStation 4 have shown that the console gaming crowd is accepting of a “freemium” experience, as long as the monetization is fair, and the core gameplay is fun.

Distributing in Japan

It’s good sense to partner with a distributor for foreign markets, especially for a market as unique as Japan. While it may seem more cost-effective to try and self-publish in Japan, your title will likely flounder without proper marketing support and online store visibility.

If you’re a PC developer, Steam is not the silver bullet in Japan that it is elsewhere in the world. Releasing a Japanese language version of your game on Steam without localized marketing will probably not equal the level of success you expect.

The Japanese side of the Playism store has found a lot of success with its stable of exclusive content. We’ve localized a wealth of western indie titles in Japanese, and sell them to the Japanese audience at a reasonable price. In addition, developers are able to publish through Playism with little to no risk, and Japanese specific marketing is handled by our internal marketing team.

Looking to publish on PlayStation? Unlike America and Europe, SCE Japan/Asia still requires that you be incorporated to publish your indie title. For smaller creators, this can be a problem. Playism works with Sony as a middle man to make sure getting your game on the PlayStation platform is as easy as possible.

For developers looking to develop in the mobile space, Playism provides localized marketing designed to target the region you wish to release in. Japanese marketing is a very unique beast, and simply translating English sales copy into Japanese isn’t enough. Working with a distributor with marketing experience in Japan is far less painful, and far more rewarding.

Releasing a western indie or casual title in Japan outside of the mobile space is now more a reality than it ever was before. Events have not just introduced indie gaming to the Japanese gaming audience, but these events now provide the opportunity to show off your game, no matter how small, at some of the most popular gaming events in the country, months before release.

Distribution is equally easy to follow through with indie-focused options like Playism, eliminating the headache of physical distribution overhead, and opening the possibility of publishing on multiple platforms. The future is bright for western indie and casual publishing in Japan, and it’s only going to get easier.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Big Gender Debate—Guys and Girls and the Games They Play.

It’s long been a norm, so to speak, that guys play video games and girls, well, they don’t. Why would girls be interested in video games? They’re all about killing things, violence, obscenities, and that tricky hand-eye-coordination, right? Why on earth would girls care anything about that? Even when it started to become apparent that girls played games as well, it was usually only games that were somehow “girlier,” i.e. not as intense, violent, or strategically-inclined. In other words, games for boys were “hard-core” while games for girls were “soft-core.” But is that really how it works? Do girls only play the softer games and leave the strategy-based, violent shooter, button-mashing games to the boys? Or are male and female tastes not as different as they seem. Perhaps deep down, everyone’s looking for the same thing in their games… they just view them through different lenses.

Over the years, the number of girls playing video games has steadily increased. Even now, it’s close to approaching the 50/50 mark with male gamers, something which would have been almost unheard of ten to fifteen years ago. More and more girls are playing games, despite the fact that the concept of a “girl gamer” still seems so surprising to many current gamers (though why they would need an separate label is another story entirely, as men certainly don’t get called “boy gamers”). Being both female and a gamer myself, I grew up playing video games, and no, not the games made specifically for girls, like Barbie or other educational soft-core games, I played the same games everyone else did. I wasn’t this strange entity to the wayside of the gaming world, I played Mario, Star Fox, Final Fantasy, and Chrono Trigger, and as I got older I got into other genres such as fighting games (Soul Calibur and Guilty Gear come to mind) and one-person shooters (I had a period of time where I went through every Medal of Honor game). I of course had series and types of games I enjoyed more than others, but I was willing to give anything a try, and I had a vast assortment of series I was fond of. Yet somehow, even taking this into account, I would forever be an “outsider” who didn’t deserve the title of “gamer.” My inclusion in the gaming world had to be preceded by the word “girl” simply because of my gender.

Where does the concept come from that girls should inherently dislike the quote-unquote “hard-core” games? Is there something about the female mind that prohibits it from enjoying puzzles, strategy, or even a good old-fashioned ass-kicking? I suppose it’s the same stereotype that disallows women from liking action and horror movies—I can’t even begin to count the number of rom-coms I’ve been forced to sit through—or even “heavy” music like metal or grunge—of course, women would be simply aghast to hear swearing in songs, right? But those kinds of stereotypes are beginning to dwindle just as the line between “male” and “female” games is growing more vague.

Just what is it that makes a game attractive to men? To women? It’s often been said that men prefer more action-based games—that they don’t care much about stories and would rather blast things away or mash buttons. But this statement is just as sexist as saying women don’t like these things. Men and women alike enjoying playing RPGs, games with epic storylines, relatable characters, sweeping music, and strategy-based gameplay. If men didn’t care about stories, then why would they play RPGs? Likewise, if women didn’t like strategy, then why would they play RPGs? You could say that either party “puts up” with these gaming elements to get to the things they like most, but if they truly disliked either stories or strategy-based combat, then they wouldn’t be playing the game to begin with—who’s willing to put 100+ hours of their life into something they only “kind of” enjoy?

Yes, it’s true. Women like stories. Women like playing things with interactions, relationships, complex back-stories, emotions, and all that other jazz that girls are commonly associated with liking. But just like men don’t have to like nothing but shoot-em-ups and bloody fighting games, women don’t have to like nothing but sweeping romances. I’ve often found that the games supposedly “geared” for me to enjoy don’t pull me in as much as the games that just do their own thing. The whole point of games in the first place is to find something in it you love, to connect with it, and to use it to entertain yourself. Whether that connection is blowing up and shooting things for stress relief or losing yourself in a limitless world is your own choice and differs based on your mood, the day of the week, or your current mindset. Do I like to play life simulators? Yes. I enjoy games like the Sims, like Harvest Moon. But even the Harvest Moon series was originally geared towards men—why else would there have been only a male protagonist who had to woo a wife? But that game became so popular with girls, that by the third iteration of the series they were coming out with “for girls” versions, and not long after, all games came with a “male” and “female” option and courtable romance prospects for both genders. 

What most “girl gamers” want is not games specifically geared towards them, they simply want to play what everyone else is playing. That being said, there’s any number of things that can turn them away from what would normally be enjoyable games. Rampant misogyny is one of them, both from the games themselves and from fellow gamers. A girl who loves action games and lives for giving baddies a good ass-whooping might not be so quick to pick up the next big title if it features scantily-clad women with enormous breasts barely held in by her skin-tight garments—same as most guys would no doubt be turned off by a game with gratuitous crotch-shots of a man wearing nothing but a tiny speedo. The only difference here is that the latter description rarely happens, but the first description seems to happen in one out of every three games produced. Games don’t need to be gender-specific, they just need to respect both genders. Games that can bring in both girl and guy gamers will foster the biggest fanbases, and that doesn’t mean that games necessarily need both male and female protagonists either. Girls have long gotten used to playing as male characters despite the fact that many men wouldn’t be caught dead playing a female character. In fact, many girls prefer playing as male characters as it gives them a chance to escape life and truly exist as somebody else throughout the course of the game. Either that, or they simply play a character they enjoy watching, such as in fighting games where many guys will play as the big-chested women to watch them dance around on the screen, and I will typically play as the male character who delights me the most, such as Terumi from BlazBlue or Shino in Naruto: Ultimate Ninja. Another example would be the Summon Night series. Though never released overseas, it offers choices to gamers about various aspects of the plot and characters, allowing you to choose the gender of your player and the partner who will follow you around. I, myself, chose males for both, as that is how I preferred to play the game, but different types of gamers prefer different types of combinations—some girls might prefer to play as a female with a male partner, and some males might prefer to play as a male with a female partner.

The most popular games have all found some way to make themselves more or less neutral, either through design or through choices. Many of the classics, though featuring male protagonists, at least don’t go out of their way to be misogynistic, and of late, have even made roles for their female characters more prominent. Princess Peach of the Mario series, though often kidnapped by Bowser, has not only been a standard playable character in most Mario spin-off games since the first Mario Party games came out, she’s also a capable fighter in the Super Smash Bros. series, and has her own playable appearances in “canon” Mario games as well, from the new Super Mario 3D World, to Super Mario RPG, to her own title, Super Princess Peach. Final Fantasy games always contain a wealth of female characters that hold their own in parties, and Lightning, the first female lead, has become one of the most popular recent characters to date despite her lack of a large chest and revealing clothing. Fighting games like Arc’s Guilty Gear and BlazBlue might have a multitude of women wearing less than adequate clothing, but they offer eye-candy for the ladies as well, even tossing in trap characters and matching their loli characters with shota characters to keep the playing fields more or less even. It’s not about creating “games for guys” and “games for girls,” it’s about creating a game that everyone can enjoy, a game with options for everyone, and that’s what will give a game longevity in the first place, as it’s the games with the biggest fandoms that will be remembered and played long after they first hit the shelves.

In any aspect of life, people want to be respected. They want to feel like they belong and are accepted somewhere. Girls who play games, and anybody who plays games, really, feel this same thing. A guy who happens to play games wants to be able to talk to others who play games without being rejected, so it would only make sense that a girl would want the same thing. Girls don’t want to be treated “differently.” Most “girl gamers” don’t want games made especially for them, they want to play the same things that everyone else is playing—they just don’t want to feel attacked or uncomfortable due to misogynistic themes while they’re playing them (which isn’t so much to ask for, really). More and more companies are starting to realize that this line between what male and female gamers want is not so definite. The same way a company hoping to eventually localize their product overseas might need to make a few changes to broaden their audience, so too can a game company make a few tweaks, a few additions, to make a game that will draw in a much larger fanbase and thus create more revenue for them down the road. Which is why both men and women need to be in charge of making games, as how can a company hope to create a story and characters loved by both parties without input from both parties? It takes two to tango, and more and more companies are beginning to realize this, but the gaming world in general is still a ways off from being entirely welcoming to female gamers. Hopefully at some point down the line, there won’t be “gamers” and “girl gamers.” There will simply be “gamers.” But until that day, girls will fight for their right to play.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Video Games as User Interface Fine Art

Flat design has been all the rage as a recent user interface. Normally it is only a hot topic in the web design industry, but rumors have been spreading that the next version of iOS will also incorporate flat design, and, for end users, this is a topic in which they should be interested as well.

“What constitutes ‘flat design’?” This topic has been thriving in blogs as of late. One obvious origin of flat design is the Xbox 360’s dashboard. For the average Japanese, the Xbox 360 is probably the only hardware with which they are unfamiliar, so it is unfortunate that hardly anyone has been able to experience the design.

The Xbox 360 dashboard, which was updated in Japan on December 6, 2012, is known as the “Metro User Interface”. There are rumors floating around that another update will be made soon, but I am quite fond of this current dashboard design. The Metro UI became the original design for things like Windows 8 and subsequent Windows phones, but as a result of Microsoft’s slight mismanagement, they are currently using the designated name “Modern User Interface”.

Skeuomorphic vs. Flat Design
There have been mixed reviews about flat design, but these are usually more about personal preference than anything else. The Repercussions of apple pressing forward with the overdone skeuomorphic design (a design that imitates reality) has flat design advocates complaining about the simplicity. On the other hand, because of its resemblance to real objects and equipment, advocates of the skeuomorphic design are complaining about its convenience and ease of use.

Since I am skeptical of the very idea of applying the cognitive science affordance argument to a computer UI, I just can't see how skeuomorphic design would make it more convenient. Additionally I describe below why, ultimately, I think that user interfaces of modern OS and applications do not solely exist for convenience and ease of use.

A lot of the flat design critics find fault with the “evilness of ease of use” but as a result, considering recent OS and applications that have skeuomorphic design, wouldn’t having ease of use be a good thing? This is a constant problem. For ease of use, I think that familiar icons and familiar user interfaces are ultimately a good addition.

Even if they had an excuse, like the skeumorphic design that Apple has pressed forward with was easy to use, etc., it seems to be the majority of this simple trend. Displaying an image like the condensed mic in the iPhone record application is, of course, fresh, but I have never felt that it is convenient. Taking advantage of the shadows and gradients in order to imitate this realistic feeling may have a chance to show artistry in the design, but honestly it still feels like its lacking.

I have a personal anecdote where I felt that the skeuomorphic design was out-of-date. Instagram, the popular camera application, had changed its icon. This update in 2011 changed Instagram’s icon from the calming brown flat design to the skeuomorphic design that was like a camera jumping out at you.

This change was probably the decision of the investors and the marketing department. Now when I look at it, personally I feel that this regressive change made it nerdy. The “photograph” application Instagram – the one that reinvented media in the smart phone era - is a marvelous thing I think, but the personal experience that Instagram gives me should have been a much more “light” and “flat” thing rather than the experience of photographing with an old, gaudy camera.

For me personally, in 2011, I lost interest in the skeumorphic design and at the same time I was charmed by the appearance of the Windows Phone user interface, and I am relatively optimistic for Windows 8 as well. Of course, when thinking of functionality I am probably unfamiliar with this part, but the new interface will provide a new experience. At any rate, using things such as personal smartphone devices and tablets for office use will be a fresh experience that I desire.

Video games dragging behind the UI trend. It is a very different story for video games, and there is a chance for the recent flat design to spread, but for now let’s take a look at this design on the Xbox 360. (While it is unfortunate, I cannot say that Windows phones have become popular.) Without being concerned with a daring flat design, the Xbox 360 was accepted by a lot of people probably because this was for games, and the user interface was for the sake of entertainment. The flat design in the Xbox seems to have become successful and as an entertainment platform it could produce a fresh experience that is beyond mere convenience.

Just as clothes do not exist solely for the purpose of convenience, OS and apps are also not created solely for the purpose of convenience. In the App Store, if you think about the quantity of games and entertainment applications, naturally people look less for convenience and more for entertainment and freshness. Moreover, video games are an art and even in applications like these there are extremely few restrictions where they can freely create whatever they want. Therefore from now on, video games will be an extremely important application for personal computers’ and mobile computers’ user interface.

Without being slaves to “functionality” and “convenience” we can freely experiment with user interface. Of course, I know while trying to incorporate common applications there are also a lot of stupid applications as well. Like in the high fashion world where fashion design influences commercial design, I think video game trends also influence user interface. User interface and web design have become unrestricted, and I think an age where people can decorate according to their own preferences is not far away.

Crushing Fans’ Dreams: Why Some Sequels Work While Others Run Aground

Have you ever wished that your favorite game could go on forever? Have you ever wished for a sequel? Limitless sequels? Prequels?! Everyone wants more. Whether you’re waiting in line at the Starbucks and wondering if you should go for the grande or the venti, or you’re a die-hard Super Mario RPG fan who’s still waiting for a “legit” sequel to be produced, you want more. More of the same characters that you’ve come to know and love. More of the world that you’ve explored every inch of until you know it like the back of your hand. More of those stellar, or not-so-stellar, graphics that pulled  you into the game and allowed you to forget about the A.P. European History test that was waiting for you the day after tomorrow that you hadn’t started studying for yet. You get hooked on a game, and then you never want it to end. It’s the same as a book, movie, or TV show. Just like Lord of the Rings fans couldn’t sit still between movies one, two, and three, Kingdom Hearts fans can’t sit still as they wait for the latest information on the newest game in the series. It’s a world of adventure and familiar faces, and a place you can belong—but only as long as the story continues. If this is all true, however, why do some sequels succeed, while others… go up in smoke?

There have been any number of hugely successful sequels and franchises in gaming history. The most basic, and easily most famous example, is the Mario series. In fact, many early Nintendo games became long-running franchises that kept fans happy for years to come. Other genres have their own famous franchises, from the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty franchises in first-person shooters, to Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Kingdom Hearts games as previously mentioned for RPGs. The fact of  the matter is that a successful franchise will pull in a hell of a lot more players and fans than a simple one-shot game. Even if successful, a sequel-less game will be forgotten as more and more time passes and popular franchises keep popping out more games. Okage: Shadow King, released in 2001 by Zener Works, was an innovative, fresh RPG that had a decent following and earned the praise of a number of different gaming entities, but now it’s nearly unheard of, a tiny speck in a sea of early 2000 games. Jet Force Gemini was a gem of a first-person shooter on the N64. Developed by Rare and released in 1999, it received a number of praises and was even on IGN’s list of Top 25 N64 games, but as no sequel was ever produced for it, it now remains nothing more than a memory in many of its fans’ minds.

Compare games like these with their franchise brothers and sisters—games, sometimes even very similar games, that keep on living through the years through new instalments to the series. These instalments could be direct sequels, or simply games that take place in the same world, games with similar types of story lines developed by the same publisher, games based on the same concepts as their predecessors. No matter what type of connection games in a franchise may have, the fact that they are related in some way, shape, or form, makes them more appealing to many fans. Fans of the SNES  game Chrono Trigger from way back in 1995 rushed out to buy its sequel Chrono Cross when it was released, despite the fact that its characters, storyline, and basic premise were entirely different from its predecessor. Fans of the original Arc the Lad series games were quick to snatch up the PS2 sequel, Twilight of the Spirits, when it hit the shelves, despite it being so far removed from the original game,  it barely warranted the franchise title. Franchises and sequels will always carry that initial “oomph” that  stand-alone games can’t achieve—fans that will buy the game whether it’s related to the original, or even good, or not. Stand-alone games have to work harder, and unless they’ve been marketed heavily, will take considerably longer to get good sales, as it will take more word of mouth than a big-name franchise game. This could be why so many sequels and franchise-based games are developed today. There are still a number of diamonds in the rough that pop up every now and then and make it big, but even those are few and far between (and many of them will eventually start their own franchises as companies try to bank in on the popularity). It seems as though companies care less about making a truly good game when they have a franchise name behind it that will bring in good sales no matter what, while the innovative, off-the-beaten track stand-alone games that have the heart and souls of their developers locked away inside gain nothing more than a small, devoted following. Of course, that’s not to say that all franchise games are lazy messes, just that they sometimes rely too much on tried-and-true (and now old and cliché) methods, story lines, and characters that now proliferate the gaming shelves. Try comparing some of those old 90s game characters with the ones popping up in games today. It’s amazing how back then every single character wasn’t a young adult and didn’t look like they were straight out of an idol group or otaku’s body pillow collection.

That being said, there are some sequels that just don’t work. There are also some franchises that seem to be flopping as their fans drown in nostalgia and refuse to accept anything new. Which brings me to my next discussion—why some sequels hit rock bottom. There is always the worry when making a sequel to a beloved game that the new game will not live up to the hype of the old. Games which are near and dear to their fans’ hearts are hard to replace, and even harder to extend in a way that fans will see fit. The creators of a game series might have a much different plan in store for the franchise or characters than its fans are hoping for (see: the aforementioned Chrono Cross), or the new game will be too different, too dark, not dark enough, too cartoony, or too realistic (see: every new Zelda game). The truth of the matter is that game fans are horrifically annoying and self-righteous.

They’re impossible to please and will never be satisfied. Which is why sometimes game developers simply have to break off from what fans want and make the game as they see fit. If you release a brand new game in a franchise, but all your fans can ask about is whether or not you’re going to remake that one “really awesome super great game” from 16 years ago (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy 7), it’s clear that you’re never going to please them with anything new you could ever put out. They’re too stuck in nostalgia and can’t move past their childhood fantasy worlds.

Of course, there are also the sequels that make people scratch their heads and wonder why they were even made (or at least why they were released as part of the franchise). Star Fox Adventures of the Star Fox series wasn’t even going to be a Star Fox game at first, developed as a stand-alone game called Dinosaur Planet. At some point in the development process, it was manhandled and transformed into a Star Fox game despite it having nothing to do with the franchise and introducing new characters that most of the fandom would end up hating in the end. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the least favorite games in the franchise. A sequel that will always exist as a sort of cruel joke for me is the PS2 sequel to the Squaresoft action-adventure RPG Brave Fencer Musashi. Entitled Samurai Legend Musashi and released seven years after the first game, it had little (if anything) to do with the first game and replaced the colorful, diverse cast of characters with a harem of teenage girls. Needless to say, I’d felt cheated out of an actual sequel (and I would rather pretend it didn’t exist). Developers need to be careful when they handle sequels and franchise installations. While it’s true that it’s better to take risks and incorporate new, innovative designs, eliminating what made the original game what it was will alienate fans. Yes, many fans will disagree with your choices no matter what, as some of them cannot be pleased, but if the essential elements of a game don’t transmit to its sequel, then you’re going to anger all of your fans, rather than just the extremely persnickety ones. For instance, as I mentioned before, taking the “Star” out of Star Fox with Star Fox Adventures was a bad decision. It would be like putting Link in a fighter jet and calling it the Legend of Zelda: The Barrel Roll of Time. There needs to be some sort of happy medium—enough of the original flavor of the game that it deserves to be in the franchise, but enough originality to give its fans a new adventure and keep them from getting bored. There also needs to be research—find out what made the original game tick. What is it about the original game that fans loved so much? Was it the characters? The world? The playing style? Whatever it was, the new game should retain it. If the draw of the first game was its lovable cast of characters, a sequel following those same characters will no doubt draw more positive reactions. If it was more the world or gameplay, however, a game with new characters set in the same world, or following the same semantics will find the acceptance of fans. Of course, there are also many other factors to consider as well, but it’s always best to start from the basic building blocks and work your way up.

Sequels and franchises walk a thin line between success and failure, but then again, so does any game. While a sequel will gather more attention, and no doubt sell better than an unknown stand-alone game, it will face harsher criticism if it doesn’t live up to fans’ expectations, perhaps ruining chances for further games in the series (or games from that company in worst case scenarios). With stand-alone games, there is more freedom to introduce entirely new playing styles and themes, but that doesn’t mean that sequels should just keep recycling the same concepts again and again either. There is a balance to be found between old and new that will make for a strong sequel and keep the fans happy
at the same time. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and finding that perfect balance can be a
difficult task, which is why so many sequels end up disappointing dedicated fan bases. Whether we like it or not, however, sequels and franchises will keep going strong as more and more games get released, so it looks like we’ll have to keep living with them as the years go by, but perhaps developers will pick up a few pointers here and there that will help them form the more perfect sequel and rock the gaming world on its axis.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The 90’s J culture

Since the 90’s and throughout the 2000’s, a number of the various subcultures of Japan have gradually become more domesticated trends. Teens listening to Western music are now the norm, and people who have an interest in foreign culture such as movies and literature are no longer considered to be in the minority. With the normalization of Western culture, there are a series of “J” words such as “J-pop” and J-culture” that have appeared. 

While some of the terms have been forgotten, some have become completely conventional. In industries where original Japanese products such as manga, anime, and also games have always been produced, however, the “J” character was never added. In other words, because items such as manga and anime are inherently “Japanese things” there is no need to deliberately call them “J-manga” and “J-anime”. However there is one exception to this example. That is “JRPG”.

Similar to the “J” series, in the JRPG industry it can have a derogatory, neutral, or positive meaning, depending on the situation. However, an interesting point for the word “JRPG” is that it gained popularity faster than any other “J” term, such as “J-pop” or “J-literature”. In other words, before the name arose many Japanese thought that, similar to manga and anime, “RPGs” were naturally a “Japanese thing”. In contrast, the popular term “JRPG” implied that “there is a difference between original RPGs and Japanese RPGs” and awareness of this began to sprout in Japanese gamers.

JRPGs flourishing in the niche market

What exactly constitutes a “JRPG”? This alone can be argued till daybreak when two or more gamers come together to discuss the topic. Historically speaking, before table-talk RPGs (derived from the English word tabletop role-playing game) were adequately introduced as the origin of RPGs in Japan, the fact that RPG video games became a major genre was a huge deal. From analog RPGs to the recent open world system, when grasping the flow of RPGs as a “natural evolution of history,” the “JRPG” seems to have become a branch that is undoubtedly in a difficult position.

However, the way of perceiving the trend of recent computer RPGs as being based on table-talk RPGs is nothing but a historical perspective. Actually, in the English version of Wikipedia, the articles “History of Western role-playing video games” and “History of Eastern role-playing games” explain the respective origins of each in two separate categories.

There are a lot of JRPGs that have been criticized for having anime-like visuals, unrealistic stories where young people (children) save the world, and a turn-based battle system that lacks dynamics. But on the other hand, Western RPGs are criticized for having weak stories, one-sided characters, and a seamless battle system that loses the strategic capabilities that a table-talk RPG has. Overseas there are also a lot of deep-rooted JRPG fans and people who defend the JRPG genre.

In fact, the difference between both the aesthetics and value has been strongly influenced by Japanese RPGs that found its success in console platforms and the Western RPGs that evolved in the PC platform. Recently, since console systems’ capabilities are approaching PC capabilities, the Western RPGs - which developed in the PC platform - reign supreme in the game market. For this reason, JRPGs and the Japanese game culture that was born are, if anything, outcasts, or tend to be treated like bastards.

In reality however, games that are released on high-performance consoles are restricted to AAA titles. If you focus on things like the indie games on the various platforms such as cell phones, smart phones, feature phones, and even PC platforms, JRPGs are much more popular and also have an abundance of new products. Even though Western RPGs’ open world system is dominating the global market, JRPGs in the niche market are continuing to flourish.
  
Particularly within recent indie games, the personality of a creator raised on Japanese games stands out and is strongly demonstrated in “foreign-made JRPGs.” Therefore in conclusion, we want to look inside the fan-funded Kickstarters and introduce a few projects, especially those that emphasize on JRPG components.

The expansion of overseas JRPG projects in Kickstarter

Rival Threads: Last Class Heroes

This is a side-scroller RPG created by Studio Kontrabida. Currently, this game is being developed for the Ouya console - which is based on the Android OS – as well as smartphones and PCs. Originally, the game was intended for a release on iOS and a sequel was also planned because on Kickstarter they managed to substantially surpass the target amount of $5,000 and actually acquired $20,000 in donations.

If you look at things like animation and artwork, you will be able to understand that it is a side-scroller game that is very conscious of its 2D visuals which, for recent RPGs, is an extremely rare thing. It seems to be heavily influenced by the popular Atlus series “Persona” since the game’s universe is set on a school campus where characters can manipulate marionettes and battle each other. Studio Kontrabida is expanding into multiple countries and is staffed by indie developers, but they have yet to show any major accomplishments. This project has been thriving in game media across the globe.


“Vacant Sky” is an indie game series that was created in the program known as “RPG Tkool”. Although RPG Tkool is popular in Japan, overseas it is popularly known as RPG Maker and is widely used by developers whose abilities vary from amateurs to indie. “Act I” and “Act II” of “Vacant Sky” have already been released to the public free of charge. Writers have also tried it to see what it’s like but the dark outlook of the world and the so-called “8th grader sickness” (a Japanese term meaning “immature, self-conscious, and pretentious, characteristic of junior high school-age children) setting really gives it the distinct feel of a JRPG.

In this Kickstarter project, table-talk RPG components are being adopted but the influence of the Japanese Persona series is also recognized and acknowledged. They exceeded their goal of $8,000 and successfully collected a total of $14,000. They also have international projects which will be released across the US and England, and setting off from amateur game production via Kickstarter, they will also be undertaking a commercial product as well. This project is set to be released on multiple platforms, including PC.


CRYAMORE! 


“CRYAMORE!” is an action-RPG project that contains steampunk components. Recently, on Kickstarter they are conducting a campaign to raise funds. For a project of this scale they are looking to raise over $60,000. They have already surpassed $10,000 in donations and afterwards it will be interesting to see how many additional donations they will obtain (in reaching $117,000 we know that a Japanese version will be released, and I myself contributed $120).

As expected, this project’s staff consists of pros from the game industry who have developed famous games such as Ubisoft’s “Scott Pilgrim: The Game” and the indie fighting game “Skullgirls” (which is finally set to be released in Japan) as well as animators Kinuko and Mariel Cartwright. The staff of Udon Entertainment, which publishes manga and art books in Canada, and illustrator Rob Porter are also participating in this project.

You can see from the video animation that the contents of this action-RPG have been strongly influenced by Japanese works such as the Legend of Zelda and the Legend of Mana. The characters also have a mix of anime-like design and a Disney-like flavor which provide the finishing touch of an extremely charming and eclectic Western-Japanese feel. They are currently looking for contributors and people that feel inclined to contribute to the cause.

Like the above-mentioned indie games, in the niche market JRPGs are gradually becoming more popular and this culture is by no means diminishing. Recently the presentation of 2D animation has been evolving into different forms (I still want to write about this), and I want to stress that this game is by no means being produced in only a retrospective sense.

The current problem for me, being that I am Japanese, is that although I wish to support these projects, generally there is little hope for a Japanese version release. It is extremely unfortunate that JRPGs, which are on the rise overseas, will not be available to Japanese gamers. I hope that in the future these games will be localized.

Below is a link to an interesting column about JRPGs.

They still like turn-based JRPGs.

What is a JRPG?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Living in a Glass Cage of Emotion Or What the World Would be like Without Language !

Imagine a world without language. You wake up in the morning and glance at your clock, only it’s blank. The numbers are gone. The only thing you have to inform you of the time is the position of the sun in the sky. You fumble around in the dark (because electricity would no longer exist), and reach for your favorite chocolaty cereal, only to find it missing. The company that made your cereal no longer exists because the technology used to create it was never invented. You decide to have a glass of water instead, except that you have to go outside to the rudimentary well dug in the ground outside your abode. Then it’s time to go to work. Where did you work again? A cashier at the local grocery? An office worker at the marketing firm down the road? A car salesman? A mechanic? Forget those. None of those professions exist—you can’t even communicate with those around you.

Nothing today could have happened without language. Language is what makes us human. It’s what allows our species to advance, succeed, invent, and create. It’s a part of everything that we do. What are you doing right now? You’re reading text on a screen—the ramblings of someone organized in such a way that those who look at it can take in, understand, and respond to. Look around you. How much text do you see? What sounds do you hear? What objects are you using and interacting with that were created using manuals, ideas from someone’s head that were communicated to others in order to make creation possible. Language is more than just symbols, words, and sounds—it occupies every part of our life. Without language, our world as we know it would cease to exist.

Think about it. What exactly is language? How does language actually work? The human brain is an amazing and complex computing machine—we feel with it, think with it, conjure ideas with it, process with it, train it, and understand with it. How does one actually “think?” Do you think in words? Do you think in images? Emotions? Strange thought processes that you can’t quite describe? Everyone uses their brains in different ways to process thoughts, usually through any variety of different methods at any given time. As I write this article, I process some sentences in my head before I type them on my keyboard, but still others seem to manifest themselves from my fingers with almost no thought at all. As you’re reading this article, are you sounding the words out in your head? Or are you simply absorbing the information silently? What kind of voice does your brain read words in?

All of these are questions that no two people will have the same answer to. In fact, the same person could give different answers from one hour, minute, even second to the next. Our brains process, create, and respond to information faster than we can imagine, which is why it can be so hard to deliberate on one topic without our brains wandering off to this and that before we realize it (five minutes later you remember what it was you were supposed to be thinking about and wonder how you ever got off-topic). Now imagine you had all these thoughts in your head but no way to communicate them. You could think about the day’s weather but have no word to describe clouds, rain, the sun. These concepts would exist as nameless entities in your mind, defined only by the emotions they make you feel. No longer would clouds be “gray,” or “dark,” instead they might give you a sense of foreboding, of loneliness. You might come to associate them with being unable to see (as “dark” itself wouldn’t be a concept either). And what about rain? Try to describe rain without using words. Try to describe the feeling of being wet without using words. Language shapes the very way we speak, the way we comprehend things, and the way we see the world around us. Once language is taken away, we have to rely on other senses to help us comprehend what certain ideas and concepts are. Clouds are no longer a concept we can describe—only a concept we can feel. A picture, an emotion, perhaps even a color in our mind.

Think about it like music. Music has no language. It can be enjoyed, felt, and understood by people from all over the world and all walks of life regardless of language. So much of music touches our emotions. A bright, lively song can lighten the mood and make us feel happy, while a slow, dark, somber tune might weigh on our minds and trigger sadness. These are concepts that have nothing to do with language and words, rather our hearts. Try describing a song using words. There are standard terms that have to do with music such as fast or slow, major or minor, melodic or atonal, and adjectives by the dozen, but can you really describe what a piece of music does to your emotions? It’s impossible, made even worse by the fact that everyone who hears a certain song will interpret it differently. Now try using music to describe to someone how to change a lightbulb. No lyrics! That’s cheating. You only have melodies, chords, rhythm, and harmony. How would you express twisting the old lightbulb out of its socket? How would you express making sure the light is turned off first? This is what it would be like without language. We’d have no concrete words to express concepts, only vague emotional states, and how could the lightbulb have even been invented without being able to describe it using words? How could cities be built? How could food be found, processed, and packaged? How could we have any form of government?

The answer is, we couldn’t. None of this would be possible without language and a way for us as humans to communicate with each other. We wouldn’t be able to do much more than construct rudimentary tools for ourselves. We’d understand concepts like food and hunger, like warmth, comfort, fatigue, and pain. Our lives would be centered on these concepts and the way they make us feel. We wouldn’t be able to make plans for the future, but simply focus on the tasks at hand. We might not even understand the concept of time. We wouldn’t be able to interact with those around us. Only the most basic ideas could be communicated, such as love, happiness, sadness. There are many things that we already communicate to others without words even today. Gestures and body language, of course, but even emotions such as gloominess, excitement, disbelief, and exhaustion, to name a few. Now imagine that these were the only things you could communicate to others, and how difficult this would make even a simple conversation about the weather.

Language is something that we take for granted. We use it every day, in everything that we do, whether it’s interacting with the people around us, reading about current events, ordering a cup of coffee at the café down the road, or using the toaster that was designed, created, shipped, and sold using the ideas of people that had to be communicated to others. Language can make us feel—can play and feed on our emotions. Different combinations of words can be strung together to form stories, books, games— all of them based on the ideas of someone somewhere who was trying to get a message across. Once those words enter your brain, they become your ideas, your own thoughts, ready to be manipulated by however your brain should so choose. There’s a great deal of power behind words. Words can be inspiring, hurtful, heart-breaking. They can make us feel emotions we would never have been able to feel otherwise, and can help us understand concepts that were once incomprehensible. Language is an amazing tool that shapes everything around us and tells us how to think. Without it, we’d be lost in seas of obscurity and unable to describe the world around us not only to others, but to ourselves as well. It would change the way we live.

The next time you read a book, tell a story to a friend, order the soup of the day, check your Twitter feed, or perform one of the other countless activities which requires language in some way, shape, or form, think to yourself how you would handle the situation without language. Would you be able to communicate? Would you be able to understand what’s being expressed? Would you be able to make yourself understood? It might be much more difficult than you would think. Though hundreds of languages exist all over the world, they all have one thing in common—they allow thoughts, ideas, and concepts to be communicated between people.

And they allow us to live.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Future of Android as a Gaming Device

At the start of 2013, information about the release of the PlayStation 4 in the year ahead swept through a number of news outlets. Suddenly the game industry was bustling with rumors that a full-scale announcement would be made at the PlayStation Meeting 2013 which took place on February 20th. Last year, the Nintendo WiiU was announced, rumors of the next-gen Xbox began to surface, and once again everyone’s eyes were on the resurgence of new gaming consoles.

In this year of up and coming next generation consoles, my attention is focused towards the “Android as a gaming device”. As you may know, there are three game consoles with Android loaded as an OS that were put on the market this year, and they are already becoming a hot topic; the GameStick and Ouya (which raised an impressive amount of donations through Kickstarter), as well as nVidia's ProjectSHIELD.

In addition to game peripherals and controllers, there are heaps of Android-related gaming devices. Although I don’t know how it will all turn out, the fact that such a wide variety of gaming devices are being created is frankly quite exciting. (Although I’m sure that some of this hardware will end up simply becoming rare items for display on collector’s shelves.)

This abundance of “Android-equipped gaming devices” was anticipated to some extent. Android, a fundamentally open source mobile OS, has displayed development similar to IBM PC compatible machines that have taken the market by storm through open architecture. In other words, Android devices are to Windows as iOS devices are to Mac. (Although on the other hand, I still can’t really tell exactly what Windows Phones are shooting for.)

Apple made an appeal for the idea of the iOS terminal as a gaming device, but Google has also been trying to sell the Android terminal as a gaming device as well. Nevertheless, now in 2013, the charm of the Android terminal as a gaming device is significantly lower than that of iOS devices. The following summary will go into more detail about this reasoning as well as why I would like to think that the “Android equipped gaming device” known as ProjectSHIELD can overcome these problems along with the Ouya and GameStick.


Fragmentation!

The word “Fragmentation” has been blatantly expressed as the number one shortcoming of an Android terminal as a gaming device

On March 9, 2013, a blog article written by Mika Mobile entitled “Withdrawal from the Android” made news even in Japan. Indie developer blogs like Mika Mobile, which was originally started by a high school duo, made international news on topics like reflection on the ideals of the Android market, however the situation is quite different now.

At this stage, where “fragmentation” is becoming a problem in the Android market, Mika Mobile grieves over the fact that coping with different OS’s and GPUs does not fit the profit margin. Moreover, in the Japanese Android market, native game applications are steadily on the decline and “name-only apps” used solely for playing social games are popping up at an exponential rate.

Recently, iOS and device diversity also means advancements in Android “fragmentation”. This, to some extent, is unavoidable in regards to the Android as an open source OS. However, something like Ouya, which is a device exclusively for Android games, is a different story. Games intended for Ouya, ProjectSHIELD, and its users should be released. If this happens, they will probably be able to concentrate on game development without having to worry about other versions of the device operating systems and different GPU’s.

Of course, the short coming to this solution is that the majority of potential users that has an Android will be lost. However, these “potential users” also include customers from the “evil gamer” side of things who pirate the games to the casual players who do not pay to play. Developers would probably be happier to entertain users of an “exclusive game device” who are paying customers rather than doing business with the crafty old Android users.


Google Play - a Shabby Market

In the eyes of a developer, “fragmentation” is a major Android problem, where as in the user’s point of view, the main problem for an Android gaming device is the fact that the market is insubstantial. Even when looking on Google Play in one’s spare time for something to play, the possibility of finding something genuinely interesting is considerably small.

When doing game reviews, I realize the imperfections of Google Play. The rankings are not straightforward, it is difficult to understand the difference between “new arrivals” and “popular new arrivals,” and also in order to mobilize the users in social games there are a number of low quality applications available.

At least in iOS, when just looking at the ranking of store applications, you can find one or two of your favorite games. This is not the case in Android. For example, even if you find exactly the game you want, at this time it is blocked by “fragmentation” and your device or OS probably won’t support it.

Of course, because of such things like Google’s worldwide search engine, in the future search engines will probably be equipped with a function similar to Genius on iOS with high performance interest matching that will reflect users’ preferences. Still, if Android’s ecosystem infiltrates the market, users can probably obtain information from places like their favorite review sites. (On the other hand, in this shabby market there are still business opportunities for Android game review sites.)

Even so, if you are truly a gamer, buying a device exclusively for games equipped with Android rather than searching for a game through Google Play is probably more efficient. From big named developers/publishers to indie developers, there are some appealing titles already lined up on Ouya. Even the truly unknown titles that will be released from Ouya probably will not be like the browser-based social games that overwhelm the Google Play market.


The Possibility of Android as a Gaming Device

In the sections above we were able to easily see the problems of Android as a gaming device from both the developers and users prospective. Android equipped gaming devices seem to partially resolve these issues.

However the fundamental problem of “Do you want to go so far as to play an Android game?” still remains. As for game exclusive consoles, a number of gamers seem to choose things like the fresh-out-of-the-box WiiU, the PlayStation 4 - which will be releaseded this year - or the next generation Xbox. Experts actually anticipate that game devices exclusively equipped with Android such as Ouya, GameStick, and ProjectSHIELD will probably remain in the niche market.

Compared to other major consoles, the merits of Android devices are well known. As far as Ouya and ProjectSHIELD are concerned, this billing model (the name has changed from F2P to free-to-try) supports things like Windows games. Besides, the greatest merit that Android has as an open platform is that there are few barriers for developers who want to enter the market.

When looking comprehensively, these devices that enable Android to be seen as a gaming device look attractive to gamers who actively pursue indie games. We will warmly welcome any device which allows you to play both popular and unknown titles without puzzling over the OS version and which has a market that has not been eroded by low-quality applications. (In that case, there is no reason that Android couldn’t compete with PC game platforms such as Steam at this time.)