Monday, November 7, 2011

Advocating Individuality

As a follow up to my previous article about Western RPGs versus Japanese RPGs, I would once again like to look at the “Digital War” that is going on at the moment between Western game development and Japanese game development.

Well, it’s not so much a “war” as it seems to be a fairly one-sided argument, but in recent times even some major names in the Japanese game industry have come forward to complain about the state of Japanese game development; figures such as Capcom’s Keiji Inafune and Square-Enix President Yoichi Wada. Basically there is a lot of gloom and doom regarding the state of this particular side of the industry.

As mentioned, RPGs are one of the largest contributors to the gameplay schism, considering the major differences in the way the West approaches this genre when compared to Japan: Western RPGs tend to contain lots of player freedom, like character customization (visual and functional) and open game worlds, and have wildly different visual design, being generally dark, gloomy and serious.

JRPGs on the other hand, tend to be linear, have a preset main character, and take place in colorful worlds with ridiculously young male characters being generally over-emotional, effeminate and a bit loopy.

Outside of RPGs, there is a very clear distinction in the types of games people play in both regions. Western gamers tend to favor First Person Shooters, and open world action games, which have a hard time gaining any significant ground in Japan. RPGs, action games and adventure games (including visual novels etc.) are some of the most popular genres in Japan, but the kind of action game that sells in the land of the Rising Sun, as with RPGs, tends to be different from the kind that sells in the West.

Many Western gamers (and some Japanese developers, as stated) claim that they are tired of seeing the same thing coming from Japan over and over, whilst also bemoaning a general lack of technical prowess. Western games, they say, tend to look much more realistic, and be much more technologically advanced.

Despite this, Japanese developers keep releasing the same type of games, and the Japanese audience keeps buying it, leading to disappointing sales of many Japanese games outside of Japan. On both sides of the planet, players complain that they fail to find any visual appeal in games from the other side. Westerns don’t like the spiky-haired effeminate boys wielding gigantic swords from Japan, and the Japanese don’t like the testosterone-oozing gravely-voiced bald space marines from the West.

Now here’s the kicker: I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Some Japanese developers are on to this major difference, and have tried to appeal to a wider audience by incorporating character and game designs that appeal to the established fan base. These tend to be extremely hit or miss.

What’s worse about this scenario is that, basically, Japanese developers are sacrificing their individuality for the sake of money. The pressure for Japanese games to sell well in the West is forcing Japanese developers to make games in a way that they not only may not fully understand, but quite probably do not really desire either.

I’m going to say something here that is stupidly obvious, but that yet very few people actually seem to understand: Western games sell well in the West, because they are made to appeal to Western tastes. Similarly, Japanese games sell well in Japan, because they are tailored to Japanese tastes. The two are very different, and neither should try to adapt to the other, because it cannot possibly work for the very simple reason that you’re asking entire nations to change their very culture and existence.

Why, then, do people keep insisting that Japan needs to adapt to Western design? The answer is obvious: a desire to make more money. As it stands, many Japanese companies have only a small budget, and if they keep making games that only appeal to the Japanese audience that budget is not likely to ever expand very much.

On the other hand, American developers tend to have bigger budgets, and a much larger audience to draw money from (considering that European gamers have largely the same tastes as their American counterparts), which allows them to make much more technologically advanced games. See also this article in the New York Times to understand the exact problem I’m talking about:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/technology/20game.html?_r=2 

In other words: Japanese companies will stay behind, if they don’t learn how to appeal to an international mass audience. Which makes perfect sense from a marketing and economic point of view, but I have to ask myself, is this really what the industry needs?

If Japanese companies find out how to appeal to a Western audience more effectively, all I can see is a bleak future of nothing but “samey” shooting games with dark brown palettes and growling protagonists.

I’m not saying one is better than the other. I have my preferences, sure (I’m still a JRPG man at heart), but neither side is perfect, nor does either side really need to change.
I like the more colorful design of Japanese videogames, but I will admit that they could use some more mature story-telling. I think the general level of writing in Western RPGs is better, but the level of freedom the games offer often seems to bring along a rather weak main story (it’s hard to maintain a strong overarching narrative if the player has the freedom to go anywhere at any time).

There is more than enough room for improvement on both sides, without compromising individuality. Judging by attempts made so far, Japanese games with Western appeal tend to be generic stuff, with the disadvantage of being made by people who aren’t as adept at making the games as the people who made the genres popular there in the first place, so I say: why bother even trying?

Of course companies want to make as much money as they can, but I’d personally really hate to see the Japanese penchant for making quirky, oddball games (games that actually have some clever, original gimmicks, even when they fail to entertain) be destroyed for the sake of reaching better sales with something generic. A big budget is nice, but graphics aren’t everything. In fact, the insistence of a large part of the gaming populace that games NEED to have state-of-the-art graphics is one of the biggest problems in the industry, if you ask me.

So please, Japan, don’t ever change (maybe grow up a teensy bit?), because your individuality is what gives your games their unique flavor.