Gaming's Two Solitudes
Bridging the Gap Between Japan and North America
Much like house and techno, America invented gaming only to see someplace else perfect it. Atari made that initial beachhead, but by the mid-'80s, Japanese games were what everyone played whether the sun rose or set on their lands. Well, not no more.
Nintendo (which its remains own unique world-spanning category) aside, almost no Japanese- or American-made games got on the other country's charts in 2012. Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 made a dent, but only barely.
"There will always be some genres that do better over there and others that do better here," says Playstation Canada spokesperson Matt Levitan. "I don't know if that's [because] culturally we like faster-paced shooters or things that are more visceral, but that's what the sales numbers show."
The Japanese never really got into Western games, but the inverse only took hold over the past decade, coinciding with Microsoft's space-marine shooters Halo and Gears of War, Rockstar's anti-social sandbox Grand Theft Auto 3, Bethesda's open-world RPGs Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout and Call of Duty's gung-ho militarism. The Japanese preferred lithe, anime heroes to beefy soldiers, bright-coloured fantasy to grayscale realism and linear strategy to open-world action. They also tended toward experimental games that pushed boundaries of storytelling, structure and strangeness.
"We do internally struggle with an Eastern versus Western mentality," says Cord Smith, director of marketing for Square-Enix's Western group of games (as opposed to the iconic imprint's "more fanboy-type of JRPGs" like its signature Final Fantasy series). "You really have to look at the markets and get your head around what's different ― these are very different people with very different mindsets bred on very different things."
In light of Japanese games falling from 50 to ten percent of the global market during the '00s, Smith says developers are trying to make more Western-centric games they think will be more popular here. "They are not always successful," he admits, citing the failure of Mindjack. "But we have projects in the works that are unannounced that are a better hybrid of bringing in the better minds from Japan with Western developers to see what happens. Nobody knows if trying to blend the two is going to be a recipe for success. We hope it will, but…"
Maybe being made in Canada is the secret ingredient? Square-Enix published Sleeping Dogs, a Triad crime game from Vancouver studio United Front Games, because they saw an opportunity to sell one game to two audiences. Sleeping Dogs stands astride East and West by being set in an incredibly detailed Hong Kong but structured like a Grand Theft Auto sandbox.
Its blend worked beautifully. But Levitan warns about focusing too much on the end-buyer's address. "Resident Evil 6 is a prime example," he says. "It's obvious that, as a Japanese game company, Capcom want to sell to a mass audience ― and so, strictly from a sales perspective, 'We need it to be more like a Call of Duty, it's got to be more run-and-gun, more action-focused.' But you wonder, what happens when a territory starts building a game for the purpose of sales to a different territory? It kinda muddies the waters, if you will. I think it's just better if a company stays true to their vision."
In other words, gaming shouldn't be a melting pot but a mosaic. Makes sense coming from a Japanese multinational that balances Western franchises like Naughty Dog's Uncharted with Team Ico titles like Shadow of the Colossus and their too-long-awaited The Last Guardian. Not to mention Tokyo Jungle from Sony's Japan Studio, a post-apocalyptic downloadable in which you play as various wild animals fighting, feeding and mating your way through urban ruins.
It's a game that ― like Suda51's punk-inspired satires, Konami's religious-themed El Shaddai or Atlus' romance-rooted Catherine or Namco-Bandai's punishing Dark Souls ― is simply too eccentric to be green-lit by a Western developer. Same goes for setting-based games like the newly iOS-ported Shibuya youth-culture RPG The World Ends With You: Solo Remix and Capcom's updated Japanese watercolour epic Ōkami HD.
This rise in regionalism is as detrimental to the gaming world as an all-BBQ diet would be, especially with a sushi joint next door. The Japanese industry has become too insular and the Western too safe ― both need to take more inspiration from each other while staying true to themselves.
But publishers are just selling what people are playing. It's up to Eastern and Western gamers to expand our horizons with foreign fare. By playing only games made on our own ends of the sun's flight path, we all lose.
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