Friday, November 4, 2011

Five Things with the Power to Change the Japanese Industry In the Near Future

Even without the unanticipated disasters which have, and are still, wreaking havoc upon Northern Japan and across the rest of the nation, the economy didn’t very much favor the games industry in Japan over the last year.

While “games” may be taking a backseat to other more primary needs for some time to come, the Japanese games industry has to be looking ahead for opportunities to rebound, while also seeking avenues through which to make headway into new and emerging markets, leveraging the Japanese industry’s strengths while simultaneously pioneering. With the near future of the games market in Japan being somewhat uncertain, the importance of seeking opportunities in overseas markets suddenly feels all the more urgent.

Although just about any Japanese developer or publisher possesses the talent needed in order to produce a game or game-related service capable of finding success in an overseas market, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few Japan-based services, trends, companies, products, and initiatives in particular which stand out as having the potential to stir things up overseas in comparison to their Western counterparts.

Next Generation Developers:Over the past couple of years, a select number of studios have managed to establish (or reestablish) themselves as having both the talent needed in order to produce world-class titles, as well as place themselves in a position to create entirely new intellectual property, including the kinds of titles that could only be “made in Japan”, leveraging strengths not only as teams of skilled developers, but as skilled Japanese developers. Some of these include Tango Gameworks, Image Epoch, Grasshopper Manufacture, CyberConnect2, and Platinum Games. These studios do – as opposed to other traditional developers in Japan – focus on different game concepts, seeking new and unique gaming experiences and levels of satisfaction, something that is in the West very much represented by the indie game scene.  
Notable in the West are developers such as Supergiant Games and their title Bastion, or Crytek and their title Crysis, which have spiritual counterpart  in the East with titles such as No More Heros or Bayonetta. We’re likely to see the fruits of these Japanese studios’ labors in 2011-2012, and these will likely become teams responsible for ushering in the next generation of highly skilled, pioneering, Japanese developers who also possess a new kind of awareness surrounding the nature of the international games market. An presents us with an exciting future.

Cooperative Organizations:  A theme guiding successful, sustainable game development operations for the next generation will likely be one emphasizing “cooperation” as a way to stay competitive.
Supportive organizations or events  have already operates  successfully in the U.S. and parts of Europe for  a number of years. These include The Hand Eye Society in Toronto (one of the West’s rapidly emerging game hubs), Ludum Dare, an initiative supporting innovative game creation and carried out over a 48hour period,  or similarly the Global Game Jam, an annual event in which participants design and create digital and non-digital games over the course of one weekend (which, has nodes operating in Japan.) Our last example is an initiative being run by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and in 2011 was held in 169 cities all over the world, gathering 6500 game creators.
Groups actively spearheading this movement in Japan are GFF (Game Factory’s Friendship - Fukuoka), GIPWest (Game Innovators Portal West - Kansai),  and of course the Japan chapter of IGDA; should they manage to establish new cooperative models within their organizations and amongst one-another, will undoubtedly be able to have the same kind of impact on the industry as any of the larger individual developers or publishers in operation today.   

Catherine:  It might seem a bit odd to select an individual title here, but this particular game happens to exemplify a very significant opportunity for Japanese developers to explore a high-in-demand, largely untapped area of the games market.

Games deemed appropriate for users over the age of 17 in North America by the ESRB (the North American rating system similar to that of CERO in Japan), receive an “M” mark signifying the word “Mature”, a word suggesting that the game content associated with the rating has been created with an adult audience in mind, capable of offering content compelling to those with world views and interests typically associated with adults. However games receiving this rating, while maybe enjoyable to ‘play’ irrespective of age, most often offer content of a level of sophistication more appropriate for the early-teen market, then sprinkled (or drenched) with audio and visual content which shouldn’t be viewed by children (i.e. vulgar language, graphic violence, etc.).

Catherine, on the other hand, directly tackles themes which resonate with a “mature” audience in the true sense of the word. Attempting to create works of this nature largely replaces technical barriers with creative ones – an area in which Japan flourishes. Creating truly “mature” content would also allow the developer who manages a success in this untapped, high-in-demand market to establish a firm foothold in growing the “genre” in the future – a whole new variety of games truly designed with the mature, adult audience in mind.

It is for these reasons that Catherine can be seen as an attempt  at a new and unique approach in creating games for very specific audiences – something that is not unique just to Japan, but is rare for developers world-wide. Even among indie developers in the West it is hard to find a comparable example, however within represented genres, Braid  or Portal 2 could be seen as analogous. It is very exciting to see whether this barrier-free thinking has an influence on other studios or game concepts.

PLAYISM: A gaming portal that offers the opportunity for game creators to craft the kinds of games that they want to make and expand beyond established norms and experiment is essential in order for the medium to see healthy diversification and growth, as well as for games to reach new players. Games inherently exist as an agent for learning, artistic expression, as well as entertainment. The financial risks and rigid structures associated with game development worldwide have made it incredibly difficult for creative, original works to get made.

But, thanks to more openly available technology, more opportunities for open information sharing, and proactive industry veterans and young spirited creators working in more flexible small teams or in small to mid-size studios, we seem to be entering an era of new creative works utilizing “games” as the medium of choice.

PLAYISM gathers games from independent creators across the globe into one place, presenting them to a broad audience across the web in a manner more digestible for the average consumer utilizing a presentation different from what’s currently available on the Japanese market. The incorporation of “crowdfunding” features to support new game development lowers the barrier for both Japanese and foreign developers looking to bring new original content overseas, and vice-versa. As an entirely new type of service, funding, and distribution model for games and their development in Japan, this could be the wild card of 2011-2012.

However as for now “crowdfunding” in Japan is still in its infancy, not like in the West where smaller studios successfully fund their game development fully or partially by donations in advance through sites as Kickstarteror 8-Bit Funding. One popular example is the recently fully funded second part of Octodad, a free thrid-person puzzle adventure game and franchise. The advantages of this financing model are not only easily apparent for developers, but also provide gamers with a new and unique opportunity to  be involved with and support a game of their choosing .

PlayStation Vita: While many of the finer details still remain a mystery, the success of this portable device could be very telling as to the nature of the future handheld market. Sony is spreading its portable entertainment tendrils out into the mobile phone and tablet market with PlayStation Suite integration, allowing for at least PlayStation legacy content to be accessible in some form across all devices. However the PlayStation Vita remains the only piece of hardware constructed with the potential to offer game experiences which span the breadth of forms in which handheld game entertainment is available, from compact, low-cost downloadable titles, able to utilize a touch-screen interface and always-online connectivity features, to full-blown games of the traditional nature which are (currently) only possible on game-dedicated hardware with the processing power and physical control layout needed to handle any level of complexity that a developer might conjure up. The success of this particular piece of hardware could serve as an interesting market indicator: In an era where a gamer’s time is now fragmented by a multitude of social and entertainment tools always on-hand, does the ability to play “games” justify the purchase of a piece of hardware for a large enough audience in the current marketplace?
However it is very unlikely that any other handheld console – especially from the West - will be able to hold a candle to the PlayStation Vita, assuming any new entrant would even try –unlikely given the strength of incumbents and historical difficulty in carving out even a sliver of market share.

The five items above certainly don’t summarize all of the excitement worth keeping an eye on in the Japanese game industry this year, but for the armchair analyst or game aficionado, they’ll undoubtedly serve as an additional form of entertainment.