Monday, August 27, 2012

Why Japan is Doing it Right

Nowadays, it seems that complaining about the Japanese Game Industry is the “cool” thing to do. Browse along the major gaming sites, or read industry magazines and there are likely to be legions of commenters complaining about how the East is lagging behind the West and how they need to step up their game if they want to be able to compete.

And why shouldn’t they, if even outspoken developers from the East (ex-Capcom employee Keiji Inafune being one of particular note) are more than eager to point out that Japanese game companies radically need to change their modus operandi lest they be crushed by the giants of the West?

But I think they are wrong. In fact, I think Japan is on a much more viable track of game design than the West and, in fact, I would even go so far as to say the entire industry may be doomed if the game industry keeps “evolving” the way it is now.

You see, when people say Japanese games are not as good as Western ones, they tend to equate graphical prowess to design quality. These are not the same things. It’s a pity that there is such a big emphasis on pretty graphics nowadays, especially since it results in a lot of people not giving certain wonderful low-budget games an honest chance simply because they think the games look like they were made in the last generation, or just because they do not match some personal arbitrary standard of what a video game should look like.

Some of my favorite games in this generation have been criticized of having sub-par graphics despite presenting intelligent and deeply emotional experiences (most notably games like NieR[1] and Deadly Premonition[2]), and it is a worrisome trend in the industry (undoubtedly fueled by Hollywood) that games are being primarily judged on their visuals and not on their actual merits anymore. So worrisome in fact, that I think this trend is steering the industry in a possibly fatal direction.

The symptoms we’re currently seeing aren’t all that different from the big North American Video Game Crash in 1983. Again, we’re seeing a market with an overabundance of consoles and big budget games that have to struggle to break even, even if they sell millions of copies. The reason we’ve ended up here is because the cost of creating video games keeps rising and rising, mainly because there is far too much emphasis on “mind-blowing graphics” and special effects extravaganzas.

Compare that to the relative success of “humbler” games (not only Indie games, but also lower-budget games from bigger companies) and it seems obvious that we need to start thinking smaller, rather than bigger, lest the entire industry collapses under its own weight.

Recently, the boss of 2K games, Christoph Hartmann, stated that “Until games are photorealistic, it'll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now,” stressing the importance of photorealistic graphics for the future of video games.

Now I have tremendous respect for 2K and their games: BioShock[3] and Borderlands[4] rank among my favorite FPS games of all time (both of which contain bright colors and cartoonish design, ironically), but it is this exact mindset that is going to harm the industry rather than nourish it.

The creation of photorealistic graphics is only going to increase the production costs of video games, and if the developers still actually want to make money on their products, they are likely going to have to raise the prizes as well. As it stands, it’s quite common for a new game to be priced close to $60 which a lot of people consider a hefty sum of money. (Now I would personally argue that this is nothing new, since video games have always been expensive, especially in the cartridge days, but that’s a story for another day.) The fact remains that in the current global economic situation, for many players $60 is already a lot of money, and further increasing the average price of video games is more than likely going to scare off a lot of potential customers. It is very much a downward spiral, albeit one that looks increasingly pretty as you get closer to the inevitable end.

The key to the survival of the medium then, is not to strive for photorealism and Hollywood-style blockbuster video games, but instead to take a step back, cut down on production costs, and deliver quieter games (who knows, maybe even cleverer ones?) with lower budgets, which is exactly what many Japanese companies are doing.

Of course, in many cases, this is a necessary evil rather than a personal choice, but the fact remains, and Japanese games are a prime example of how the quality of a video game is determined by the ideas behind them, not the horse power. In fact, one might even argue that having to work under more restricted circumstances is a catalyst for the creative thought and fresh ideas that so many of today’s high-tech blockbuster titles seem to lack.

The major video game publishers have created an industry that runs on appearance rather than content, and they’re about to find out that more polygons do not necessarily build a stronger foundation.

[1] NieR (Cavia, 2010) is an Action RPG for the PS3/Xbox 360 in which you play a middle-aged man trying to cure his daughter from a disease. The game was ousted for its outdated graphics but found a solid fanbase among people who enjoyed the emotional plot, humorous dialogue and satirical elements. Interestingly, both console versions in the West featured the father figure (a rarity in JRPGs in the first place), whereas for the Japanese PS3 version, the protagonist was replaced with the girl’s older brother.
[2] Deadly Premonition (Access Games, 2010) is an Action/Adventure game heavily inspired by the TV drama Twin Peaks, starring FBI special agent Francis York Morgan, who visits a small rural town in the US to solve a murder case. Again, the game was ousted by many review outlets for its lackluster graphics and wonky controls, but it also found a very vocal and adamant fanbase for its unique narrative, hilarious dialogue and off-the-wall humor.
[3] BioShock (2K Boston, 2007) is a first person shooter (FPS) taking place in the fictional underwater dystopian city of Rapture. The game was critically acclaimed for its atmosphere, political commentary as well as its now-famous plot twist that questioned the nature of video games.
[4] Borderlands (Gearbox Software, 2009) is a first person shooter with some light RPG elements. Featuring cell-shaded graphics (quite unusual in this genre), the game was well-received mostly for its unique system of randomly generating weapons, which allowed for an unparalleled variety in guns.