There was a time when Japan used to be at the heart of the gaming industry. Their culture, love for games and general attitude to everything made Japan the place to be for gaming. SquareSoft (later Square Enix), Konami, Nintendo all Japanese brands that were at the top of their game through the 80s and 90s and early 00s. However, in recent years if you asked someone to name a big name title it will, 9 times out of 10, be made by a Western developer.
Why is this, I hear you ask. Why has the influence and power Japan held over the gaming industry decreased so rapidly? Well, the simple answer is that the Japanese market and developers have yet to embrace the current-gen consoles. Take the Xbox 360, for instance. In Europe, 7 million units have been sold as of November 20, 2008. In Japan, however, only 866,167 have been sold as of December 28, 2008. That is a pretty significant difference in terms of sales. 2008, however, was a pretty good year for the Xbox 360 in Japan with a huge sales increase compared to previous years. This could have been down to the number of Xbox 360 exclusive games from Japanese developers e.g. Lost Odyssey and The Last Remnant but it has become apparent that, in Japan, it is probably better to release games for the previous generation of consoles and have more of an impact on the sales.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, created by Atlus, was released in July 2008 for the PS2 and proved very popular with both Eastern and Western gaming press. And this game was released for the PS2, not the PS3. Why? Because, as I said earlier, the Japanese have not adjusted to the newer consoles. The majority of big name titles for the Xbox 360 and PS3 are from Western developers, bar perhaps Metal Gear Solid 4. Even for the Wii, the majority of the titles that are non-Nintendo are made by Western Developers.
Nintendo and Square Enix are two of the most prominent Eastern developers to hit Western shores. The Final Fantasy series, the Dragon Quest series and the Mario series are extremely popular with Western audiences, especially in North America. The problem here is that these games are either sequels or remakes and as such these franchises are becoming stale. The lack of creativity from Japanese developers are potentially hurting sales in the West thus depleting their interest in developing more games for the West. This is a problem because many publishers now know that keeping their games console and region specific will hurt them significantly, especially if they try to release their game primarily on the Xbox 360 in Japan. The announcement that Final Fantasy XIII will be multi-platform is a definite reflection on this attitude.
The Wii is a major fighter in Japan and probably the only current gen console to actually do well in Japan, but with Nintendo trying to latch onto the Western consumer, the Eastern ones feel left on the sidelines. The Japanese have a very distinct taste, it seems. They like their RPGs very turn based ala Final Fantasy and their hack n slashers repetitive ala Dynasty Warriors. Dynasty Warriors especially shows a big difference between Western games and Japanese gamers. Dynasty Warriors is extremely popular in Japan with umpteen sequels, remakes, spin offs etc. Over here, however, they are not taken to kindly and seen as highly unoriginal. The Japanese are very conservative about their gaming nowadays. They like what they like and they want more of what they like. This is, perhaps, a big reason why Western influenced games from Japan don’t do very well. Capcom’s Lost Planet, for instance, was proof that a Japanese studio could make a Western influenced game and have it be successful.
Further proof that the Japanese like what they like can be found within Famitsu magazine’s 2006 Top 100 games list as voted for by readers. Only four of the games in that list were made in America/Europe and only one of those hadn’t been altered in any way by a Japanese studio. The top 5 consisted of (in order from 5 to 1): Machi, Dragon Quest VIII, Dragon Quest III, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X.
But what can be done to help these Japanese developers with hopes of creating a game with Western influences? Well it seems that Capcom and Square Enix are attempting to lead the way but it is hard to break through such a seemingly tight market. The Japanese don’t appear to be willing to try something different to what they’re used to but Japanese developers are hoping that perhaps the consumer will become more aware to try new things. Atlus seem to be sort of building a gateway for the Japanese market with games such as Trauma Centre retaining quirky Japanese humour and art and adding on things that appeal to both Western and Eastern audiences. The same with the Shin Megami Tensei series also developed by Atlus. Hopefully, the work of these Japanese developers will start a spark of inginuity hopefully taking us back to the golden heyday of Konami.