How Japan Can Win the West
Remember the times growing up with the Super Nintendo, the N64, or Playstation? The best games were always Japanese, right? Final Fantasy, Mario, Zelda, those were the ones that got you excited. Now, think about it… when’s the last time you got excited for a Final Fantasy? Now what games are everyone looking forward to? The next Call of Duty? Uncharted 3? Final Fantasy XIII was met with general apathy and disappointment, the same of which have come with Metroid: Other M (which has been disparaged for its character assassination of Samus Aran and simplistic game play) and Donkey Kong Country Returns (which has been criticized for difficult game play and strange jump mechanics). JRPG’s as a whole have been losing steam in the United States. The Last Remnant and Lost Odyssey are two RPG’s from Square Enix that have been all but forgotten. It seems with each new Japanese game, the more resistance builds up against them. Where Squaresoft would be the premier RPG developer, Bioware has taken the mantle. Where the Metal Gear Solid games were once known for their stories, their overly convoluted nature has allowed more tightly written games such as Uncharted to come along and grip the hearts of western gamers.
In the current generation of gaming, it seems as though Japanese game makers have had a harder and harder time keeping up with their Western counterparts. For every Resident Evil 5 Capcom brings out, bustling with graphical enhancements and a nonsensical story, a Western developer brings out something like Dead Space – a game with better writing, better scares, and (god forbid) controls that allow you to shoot and move at the same time. One particular genre that has been on the rise for quite some time, finally taking center stage this generation is the third person cover shooter. While it’s worth mentioning the cover mechanic appeared games like Metal Gear Solid a good fifteen years ago, the mechanic has since become the focus of the Gears of War, Uncharted, and Mass Effect franchises. It seems as though Japanese developers now see the cover shooter as a way to connect with Western consumers.
Their first foray into the cover shooter genre was a game called Quantum Theory . If you look up the reviews, the game didn’t fare well with the critics. I’d say I haven’t heard of anyone else enjoying it, but I’m fairly certain no one bought it. It’s not hard to see why. It looks like Gears of War, minus the good game play and graphics:
The next cover shooter was Vanquish. Which, to be fair, actually got pretty good reviews with the game play receiving particular praise. Unfortunately, the painfully generic presentation and cookie cutter story kept hype at a minimum. Gamers want an event. The destruction of Reach, Nathan Drake following the voyage of Marco Polo, and Ezio’s story of revenge in renaissance Italy draw excited people. An event with personality is what sells. That and perhaps great multiplayer.
Now, the next Gears of War clone to come out of Japan was just announced: Sega’s Binary Domain. From the creator of the Yakuza series, Toshihiro Nagoshi, it seems as though they’re trying to convince people they’re putting story over, well, focus testing I suppose. Check out the press release:
“When you hear sci-fi you may think of cold, clinical environments but with Binary Domain I wanted to combine this with a deep human drama,” Nagoshi stated. “The keyword we have in mind for this project is ‘life.’ I wanted to make something that will be accepted by both the Japanese and Western markets and this fundamental theme is something everyone knows, but which the full extent of can be difficult to grasp.”
The official synopsis from Sega:
Binary Domain puts players in the middle of a fast-paced and intense battle for humanity in robot-invaded 2080 Tokyo. Fighting through the derelict lower levels of the city, players control an international peace-keeping squad that soon starts to question their surroundings and the choices they made. Are the robots becoming more human, or are humans becoming more like machines?
Alright. I hope you read that. Keep it in mind when you watch the trailer:
Did you see any of what they wrote down in that trailer?
“Let the good times roll!” That’s what they came up with?
Maybe they don’t understand. Maybe Sega thinks stock lines, dirty streets, and generic characters will bring in money. Sure, Gears of War has those things, but they had it first. It’s time to do something new. Uncharted and Mass Effect manage to have exotic locations and interesting styles. Most importantly, they make you care about the characters involved.
To win back American audiences, Japanese companies have to make people care again. Americans who grew up with the games of the early Nintendo systems need to be reminded why they loved those games in the first place. Japan needs to give us what we want, not what they think we want through focus testing. I have two recommendations to win people back. The first is aimed at Square-Enix.
Final Fantasy XIII had a very disappointing launch in America. Final Fantasy XIV’s launch became a haphazard disaster and an embarrassment they’re trying to salvage through months of free to play policies. The company is projecting a significant decrease in profits next quarter. And everyone has been asking them for one thing for the last six years. It’s time to give it to them:
Remake Final Fantasy VII. Get great voice actors, real writers to spruce up the translations, and work your magic everywhere else. It will be like printing money… and assuming you don’t mess it up everyone will love you. Also? Make a proper Kingdom Hearts sequel. Stop turning out obscure side stories for handheld systems.
The second recommendation is to take risks. It might seem as though taking risks is at odds with the first recommendation, but I think it is necessary. The first step is is for Japan to retrieve the audience that has abandoned them over the last console generation, while the second is a way to keep them and expand into markets they haven’t reached as of yet. Obviously, Japanese culture is structured a certain way. I recommend this Kotaku article for anyone interested in the quirks of the culture and why it’s stagnating. However, as many sequels come out year after year in Western markets, the new IP’s really try to deliver great all around experiences. Bioware in particular is a company anyone can learn lessons from. If the American companies have done anything, it’s that they’ve looked at Japanese game design and improved upon it in their own way… so why can’t Japan do the same for American developers? If a Japanese company can look at a game like Mass Effect and take away the right lessons – namely the writing, presentation, and the daring mix of genres – then they will be able to go about making better games for a wider audience.