[A lack of knowledge-sharing is what hindered Japan's game industry growth, says Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield. Is the West heading down that dangerous path? (Previously published in the March issue of Game Developer magazine.)
Western games have taken over the console game space, there is no denying it. It was tough to imagine this back in the late '80s and early '90s, when the common feeling was that all the best console games came from Japan, while Western companies churned out poor licensed titles and jittery platform games.
While Western companies may have struggled to match the design and vision of Japanese games on the console in those early days, they were simultaneously innovating on the PC for as long as the format existed. Quake
might not have been a huge leap over the graphics of its PlayStation contemporaries, but by the end of the '90s, the PC was far and away the most graphically advanced platform available.
And it was Western companies that were pushing this graphical revolution. Perhaps the variety wasn't there in the design and direction yet, but the tech was becoming peerless. And as tech becomes more of a solved problem, the focus turns to design. When this happened in the West, developers started to really push forward in this arena as well. Games like Halo proved that Western game design and tech had married to create a cultural phenomenon.
By the time Gears of War 3
came out, nothing in Japan could match it visually, and that country's industry has not, to date, caught up. In 1990, would you have predicted that Uncharted
would be made in Los Angeles, instead of Tokyo?
Even back then, there might have been reason to believe in the Western game industry. Starting in 1988, game developers began to meet to discuss the art of game creation at what would later become the Game Developers Conference. Developers shared their technical hurdles, and design quandaries. In 1994, Game Developer magazine was born, sharing technical knowledge in an even wider (and more frequent) sense. In 1995, the organization now known as the IGDA came to be. Then in 1996, there was Gamasutra. Western game developers have been sharing knowledge with each other in some official forum or another for 24 years - and Eastern developers have yet to catch up.
Ray Nakazato (former president of Lost Odyssey
developer FeelPlus, now at THQ in Japan) agreed with this sentiment
in an interview we conducted a couple years back. "I'm worried about technology. Japan is already quite behind, and will be more behind," he said. "A lot of good technology is coming from the States. You have [events like GDC]. I was a founding member of CEDEC [Japanese development conference put on by CESA, which is akin to the ESA in the U.S.], and I wanted to make it the GDC of Japan, but CESA saw it differently. So it became CEDEC. It's modeled after GDC, but it's very different."
"Japanese people are not good at speaking," he added. "They are afraid of disclosing things, so all the sessions are very vague and generic, and all are sponsored sessions, or academic. I think Japanese industry people want to hear a lot of stuff from people who are actually making games, but they don't speak much, so all they hear is the academia or sponsored messages."
CEDEC has gotten better, and Japanese developers do talk in a more casual sense about their problems, typically over drinks and the like. Still, official sharing of information across companies, and sometimes across teams within companies, is often frowned upon. This has led to Japanese companies solving problems individually, instead of collectively, and falling behind as a result. Western companies rocketed forward, propelled by their openness with each other.
Spring forward, fall back
Why bring all this up now? Because, for whatever reason, as indies and new media developers get more open, the big publishers are getting more tight-lipped. Though the developers of Call of Duty
, Fallout New Vegas
, and even Dragon Age Legends
on Facebook would have loved to share postmortems and technical pieces in Game Developer magazine, their publishers put the kibosh on their efforts.
Some publishers have a "no public postmortems" policy, across the board, while others are simply wary of sharing tech secrets. Others are willing to allow third-party published games to have postmortems, but not first-party. I would caution any publisher or developer that is reluctant to share (or in fact is flat-out against the concept) to learn from the above history.
Indie, social, and mobile games are making great strides, as the tools to support them get cheaper and more robust. And they actually make up a huge chunk of the market. Indie game bundles are selling in the millions of dollars, and app developers on iTunes have collectively made $4 billion (though some of those are assuredly not games). Zynga just went live with its huge IPO.
Publishers may be concerned that these burgeoning markets will encroach on their sales, as they try to buy their way into these industries. Makers of games in similar genres may be concerned that revealing the "secret sauce" will allow their competitors to get an edge. And there may be some truth to both of these. But transparency is good for the industry, and walled gardens only isolate and compartmentalize.
If big publishers (and big developers) want to succeed in this rapidly-changing market, they will have to learn what the Japanese game industry is still trying to catch up to; the more we help each other, the better we all become.
[Follow Brandon Sheffield on Twitter: @necrosofty]