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Japanese Game Development: The Path Forward

Game Developer magazine columnist and experienced mainstream (Halo, Call of Duty franchises) and indie developer Matthew Burns analyzes the hurdles facing Japanese game development, offering observations on ways to improve things.

Matthew Burns, Blogger

November 23, 2010

21 Min Read

[Game Developer magazine columnist and experienced mainstream (Halo, Call of Duty franchises) and indie developer Matthew Burns talked to Japanese creators and analyzes the hurdles facing the country's game development sector, offering observations on ways to improve things.]

There's a broad consensus in the Japanese game industry that large-scale game development in Japan -- by which I mean high-budget, "triple-A" titles for which sales must be good globally in order to recoup development costs -- is in a state of decline or "behind" that of the West. (For examples, see the sentiment as expressed by some of the industry's leaders, including Yoichi Wada, Keiji Inafune, and others.)

Furthermore, there's a strong sense of pessimism about the chances of changing the situation in the near future. The general feeling is that the factors responsible for this state of affairs are too great, too many, and too interlocked to solve in any meaningful way in the foreseeable future.

This profound sense of pessimism on the part of Japan's game creators may sound dramatic, but it is partially tied to the context of the country's thought about the future of its economy and global influence as a whole.

While the full scope of this topic is very much out of the range of a site like Gamasutra, any discussion of the Japanese game industry must acknowledge that many of its issues are connected to the complex social, cultural and geopolitical problems that grip the nation at large.

These include situations such as the country's shrinking population (which means that both the potential domestic audience for its games and the pool of future game developers is stagnant) and the rise of nearby economies that can compete on a technical and creative level but with lower operating costs.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that these challenges have produced uncertainty and gloominess about Japan's future in its own mind.

Faced with these headwinds, many Japanese developers have lately shifted focus towards reduced-scale, reduced-budget products. What would formerly be large-scale RPGs, for example, are increasingly appearing in smaller form on portable systems and mobile phones.

Franchises such as Dragon Quest and Valkyria Chronicles have switched to handheld systems for their main-numbered installments. And it is certainly no accident that the biggest exception to the rest of the industry is Nintendo, which has already ventured down the lower-budget path with its DS and Wii platform strategy, in contrast to the traditional "bigger is better" take on video game development.

Valkyria Chronicles II

But Japan's large-scale productions for home consoles have also taken a beating, not only in terms of economic viability but in their cultural relevancy to Western audiences too. As Sony Computer Entertainment President Kazuo Hirai said recently on these changing conditions, "If it's right for Japan, it's probably not right for the rest of the world."

This may be partially explained by pointing out that the domestic Japanese market for video games has shrunk while markets across the rest of the world have grown. But there is also a difficult-to-quantify but detectable sense of withdrawal and inwardness in the country's attitude -- a feeling so strong in the last decade or so that some cultural commentators have taken to calling the phenomenon a "new sakoku" (closed-country policy).

Addressing the Cultural Divide

The gap is illuminated by the state of cultural crossovers in each region. Right now, it's rare for titles designed to work within the popular culture of Japan to successfully penetrate mainstream Western markets, even when changes are made in an attempt to make the product more appealing (with the exception of Nintendo, which I will discuss later).

Many of Japan's most successful domestic titles, from Monster Hunter to Dragon Quest, have managed to attract only niche audiences here. Games based on anime tie-ins largely do not interest North American retailers, and the willingness of mainstream businesses to back any game that features strongly anime-styled artwork has dropped to an extremely low level.

There's even an entire genre of "dating" games such as Love Plus that are essentially un-exportable. In turn, Western games brought to Japan face their own bleak prospects: they have been estimated to make up only a tiny 5 percent of the local Japanese game market.

Japanese creators often mention their ability to understand Western tastes as a crucial aspect of meeting with success in its market. Unfortunately, attempts on the part of Japanese designers to make games specifically for Western hearts and minds can often come across as stilted and strange.

The numerous pitfalls faced by these teams might be evoked by recalling an American film that is set in historical Japan, such as The Last Samurai or Memoirs of a Geisha; these films seem to portray a fantasy land starkly different from how the people who live there see their own history and culture, thus evoking the feeling of something being "off" or not exactly right. In the same way, Japanese games made "for Americans" will often contain this disconnect in the opposite direction.

There is no title that emblematizes the problem with this approach better than Tecmo's recently released Quantum Theory. As journalist Chris Kohler wrote of this effort, "the thrust of the criticism around the game thus far seems to be that it apes the outward form of the popular shooter, but not its intrinsic appeal."

Players found that while the game operated mechanically in a manner very similar to Gears of War, the specific design elements that make Gears of War a fun and polished shooter experience were largely absent in Quantum Theory. Some reviewers have suggested that this game is an argument for Japanese developers to "focus on what they do best" by continuing to make traditional platformers, role-playing games, or third-person action games, instead of trying to branch out into the genres in which they have traditionally been less active.

But I disagree with the notion that the first- or third-person shooter is a kind of game that by definition eludes the Japanese game developer. The secret behind the high quality of Gears of War is not an innate difference between the brains of people who live in different parts of the world, but a difference in development methodologies.

Consider that in addition to an obvious disparity in available budgets for each game, Gears of War is built upon Epic's own Unreal Engine, the result of more than a decade's worth of continuous development, with well-understood asset pipelines and editing tools that have been in use for many years by dozens of studios. Quantum Theory, in contrast, was programmed entirely from scratch by its team. No matter how technically brilliant that team might be, it simply isn't possible to easily reproduce the many years of shooter development experience that lives on in the team at Epic or in the design of a system such as the Unreal Engine.

Therefore, even though Quantum Theory and Gears of War feature a similar number of various weapons for the player to use, only the Gears of War development tools could afford its designers the opportunity to spend days, weeks or even months finely tuning each setting on each type of gun -- the firing rate, the spread, the recoil, the reload time, and so on -- over and over again until they felt just right.

Only the Gears of War team could use UnrealEd to quickly block out levels and assess their flow instantly by playing them on their PC, then saying "how would this encounter play out if we took out that wall?" and trying it again 30 seconds later.

The attempt to reproduce the outward appearance of Gears of War without considering the system by which Gears of War came into being is what leads to a game like Quantum Theory.

With this in mind, the general form of my suggestion for Japanese creators wishing to make inroads into Western markets would be to avoid approaching the cultural divide problem as the question of "what is the sort of game that Westerners like?" and to think more along the lines of, "what is the development process used by Western developers to create these games?"

Quantum Theory

Making Use of Playtesting and Metrics

When I decided to research Japanese game development methods, the relative absence of a formal playtesting process was one of the first major differences I noticed. My own experience in the industry has led me to believe that this function is extremely important to the creation of a successful game.

For example, during the production phase, Bungie performs a formal playtest every two weeks, and Valve every single week. The playtest not only determines which parts of the game are too easy or too hard, how long it takes for people to understand the mechanics of the game, and so on, but it can also take a reading of the audience's reaction to the characters, story events, and their perception of the quality of the title.

As I've mentioned, Nintendo has emerged as an exception to the rule regarding the Japanese industry. Why is that? The recent book Nintendo Magic offers one clue, in a passage about Shigeru Miyamoto's technique "a look over the shoulder":

When creating a game, Miyamoto will occasionally find employees from, say, general affairs who aren't gamers and put a controller in their hands, looking over their shoulder and watching them play without saying anything. By doing so, he can identify places to improve. "That part's too difficult." "They don't seem to be noticing that mechanism," and so on.

Here, reporter Osamu Inoue describes what is essentially a casual way of performing playtesting. Nintendo, of course, has ample working capital to fund long development times, but game creators of any budget can get the same benefit by planning to do regular playtests from the beginning of a project and scheduling in advance a certain amount of time to make future adjustments to the game based upon the playtest feedback.

Furthermore, it is not just non-gamers who can provide valuable insight into how the game might be improved. Hardcore players are often genuinely excited about the opportunity to provide feedback to developers, especially if they understand that the software is in an early state and their suggestions have the chance to be addressed in the game before it is too late. International playtests can also serve to highlight cultural problems with character designs or dialogue that a purely domestic team may not have anticipated.

The objection that usually comes up with regard to these design methods is that they erode the role of the creative director by preempting his or her vision for that of a confused mass of opinions from many different people.

When implemented properly, however, playtests don't do that at all: the point of the playtest is not to change the meaning or the purpose underlying the game, but to allow the true character of the game to come forward. Many games with solid technical and artistic underpinnings have earned poor ratings because players were not able to connect with the game's intentions.

Finally, in order to truly be successful, the results of the playtest must be acted upon. Sometimes this can be a problem if, say, a famous character designer contributed a design that the company is obliged to use even if the design is not well-liked. I believe the path to breaking down these kinds of political obstructions lies in fostering a development environment in which back-and-forth communication and feedback between all departments is not only encouraged, but routine.

Rethinking the Structure of Large Creative Teams

Most of the big Japanese video game development projects were described to me as taking place in rigidly structured, top-down organizations where employees are divided into sections by discipline and do not feel empowered to suggest their own ideas as they relate to areas not under their immediate jurisdiction.

I feel that this method of complete control from a single section leader can work in smaller-scale productions, but as we approach the team sizes required to make a big budget game in today's market, the number of decisions that need to be made on a daily basis can easily become overwhelming and difficult to coordinate. In these cases, inter-department communication suffers as each team specializes in its discipline to the exclusion of others.

A postmortem of Final Fantasy XIII published in the October issue of Game Developer magazine describes this problem succinctly:

As the project's scope increased, the traditional development style of dividing the team into specified roles, such as character modelers or texture artists, started to present issues as well. This problem of over-specialization presented itself in each discipline. The biggest problem was that the project became bloated with the increase in staff within each department. And because roles were so specific, the communication flow became faulty and information was not being shared properly.

To anyone with experience in large-scale game development, these difficulties will seem familiar. We have all heard the typical complaints about what went wrong during a big game development project such as "the programmers didn't do enough" or "the artists didn't understand the system".

How can stumbling blocks like these be addressed? One of the promising alternative methods of team structure being explored is organization by feature instead of by discipline (this structure often comes to game developers via partial implementation of Scrum methodology).

For example, a "hero character team" may consist of a small interdisciplinary group of a concept artist, a 3D modeler, a texture artist, a rigger, an animator, and an AI programmer. These team members would be charged with ensuring the hero characters of the game looked, acted, and performed their best.

The small size of the group would enable the team to be physically located next to each other and have regular cross-disciplinary communication. For example, the animator might have ideas about how the AI programmer could handle blends between certain behaviors. Or the rigger could have feedback on the proportions of the character as designed by the concept artist.

These various concerns are more easily brought up, discussed and addressed in the smaller setting of a specialized "character team" as opposed to the typical array of large teams separated by discipline.

One of the criticisms of such a team structure is that disciplinary standards can become more difficult to maintain. If an animator is part of the "character" team, and there are other animators spread across the studio on the "enemy" team and the "cinematics" team, animation standards and direction may become more difficult to disseminate.

In this case, animation team meetings could also be held with the animation director supervising and approving all animation across each feature team. In other words, an individual animator might be understood to posses "dual citizenship" to both the larger animation team and to the interdisciplinary feature team to which he or she is assigned.

Personally, I believe this approach is preferable because it also increases the involvement and engagement of the typical rank-and-file team member. High levels of technical skill and artistic talent are certainly present on an individual basis within Japan's developers, but these qualities are not always combined in such a way as to make a well-rounded final product.

In such a case as this, structural changes are best method to go about releasing a team's true potential. Additionally, individual employees will have better morale if they feel their personal ideas and proposals are given attention and taken into account.

Improving Morale Through Quality of Life

Morale is another issue that many of my interviewees brought up. As I noted above, part of this has to do with a general feeling of pessimism in the country. But even though it may be pervasive and difficult to address, it is not a problem that can be ignored, either. Poor morale is often a self-defeating prophecy: if team members believe the situation is hopeless, then they won't try to work for a good result, and the end product will display this attitude.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to confuse "high morale" for "blind fanaticism". Many game development teams, not just in Japan but across the world, make a point of encouraging and accepting only the most extreme forms of dedication. They wear their unhealthy work conditions as a badge of honor instead of trying to do anything to fix them.

To prospective new employees, they display the attitude that "you have to want to work at our company badly enough to put up with the environment that we have here". In other words, instead of trying to create a company that welcomes all kinds of creative professionals, the grueling schedules are seen as a kind of test of loyalty to the cause.

In Japan, this combines with a corporate culture that is already well-known for placing a strong emphasis on overtime hours and having a high-stress environment. Combined with the fanaticism I mentioned above, a situation can arise where only the most obsessively devoted video game enthusiasts are the ones who are creating them.

While this may sound desirable initially, in the long term it leads to an unsustainable industry. Game creators tend to make games that appeal to themselves, so if this is the only type of employee hired by the company, the company's products will have a hard time breaking out from the world of the people who made it. Instead, they will extract ever-smaller returns from a dwindling customer base.

(A comparable situation might be found by looking at the current state of the Japanese animation industry. Conditions such as extremely low pay combined with overwork are driving talent away from the business. The well-documented difficulty of working as an animator in Japan means that skilled artists often leave to look for jobs in other fields. This in turn reduces the capacity of the industry to create truly unique new works. That diminishes the potential audience of such works, and that, finally, squeezes the industry even further.)

In some quarters, the downturn in the availability of fanatically dedicated workers has been explained by saying that Japan's younger generation is less motivated and doesn't care much about achieving success. To look at it another way, though, one could also say that it is the current prevailing style of working conditions that must change, because they do not serve the personal fulfillment and happiness of tomorrow's creative contributors.

In this case, decent wages and working hours that accommodate a healthy lifestyle would be an important part of making game development a desirable career choice for the younger generation. And in the longer term, taking care of workers to ensure they do not become disillusioned with the industry and quit should be an important consideration, especially as Japan's population ages.

Working conditions that accommodate more relaxation can also bring unexpected benefits. For example, some experts claim that the most creative ideas and solutions come to people during "downtime" when they are not physically or mentally at work but doing something completely unrelated, such as taking a walk or cooking. Therefore it is important to enable game developers to have hobbies, enjoy time away from the computer screen, and otherwise lead "normal" lives.

Looking Towards the World

In addition to improving quality of life for individual game developers, it is important to acknowledge that talent must be sourced from the whole world in order to stay competitive with other regional centers of video game development. With this in mind, several Japanese companies have made a concerted effort to become more friendly to foreign workers and integrate them onto local teams.

These kinds of workers are not always easy to find and recruit, however: the number of non-Japanese who can speak the language well enough to integrate into Japanese society and are willing to live there is already limited. Compounded by the level of technical expertise required to develop games professionally, the pool of potential talent grows exceedingly small.

Additionally, simply having non-Japanese people on the development team does not by itself solve any particular problem. Western workers laboring under a Japanese system often run into problems with corporate culture, and even if they do not, they can only really become as helpful as the Japanese workers themselves unless they are given some kind of special status, which is inadvisable.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe it is the basic structure of the team, and not any specific ratio of foreigners to Japanese on that team, that counts most.

Another strategy to take advantage of international development resources is partnering with Western studios to create new titles with traditionally Japanese properties. These collaborations are increasing in frequency, with arrangements such as US-based Double Helix Games creating Front Mission Evolved for Square Enix and UK-based developer Ninja Theory recently signing a deal to create DmC, an entry in Capcom's Devil May Cry series.

At their best, these productions can provide an interesting and refreshing new take on a long-running franchise, bringing new ideas to the table and inaugurating potential new series offshoots.

At worst, though, they can create products that do not connect with audiences in either country. Again looking to the film industry, we can see that many American-created movies based on typically Japanese properties (such as Godzilla, Dragon Ball Evolution or Speed Racer) have faced trouble connecting with mainstream audiences in both the U.S. and Japan -- even as they alienated the property's most dedicated fans.

In the announcements for such productions, often times a series original creator or director can be found saying something to the effect of, "I will work to ensure the spirit of the property is kept intact." I believe that while this is a noble goal, the spirit of a project must necessarily change when a different team takes the reins. This is because even though a certain amount of a game's spirit does come from the director, an equally important part of the spirit also comes from the team itself. And if the visions and ideas of the director and the team are not totally matched together, the final result will be confused.

Front Mission Evolved

Take Front Mission Evolved as an example. In this project, the combination of Japanese and American ideas regarding storytelling, game design and art resulted in a vague blend that does not attempt to realize any one particular strong idea. As major enthusiast site GameSpot put it in its review, the end product of this collaboration was "a very beige third-person shooter that doesn't do anything particularly well."

With a game like this, the effect on the consumer is akin to the one left by a movie-license game: not exactly bad, but nothing superlative in any respect, either. These types of games are carried by the strength of their license. Unfortunately, in the case of Front Mission Evolved, the "license" alone was not powerful enough to bring success.

It may be a better idea in situations like this to acknowledge discrepancies from the start rather than for each side to try to impose abstract, difficult-to-explain concepts on the other. By creating a product where numerous compromises are made by both sides, a watered-down game is often created.

I believe that audiences respond better to clear messages of intent, no matter what their point of origin. In other words, if a Western team is contracted to create a new game, ideally the contracting party would be willing to trust them all the way on all aspects of development. If this is not possible, it might be best not to contract the product development at all.

The Path Forward

So what is the path forward? Video games are a rapidly developing and shifting medium; a set formula that worked yesterday probably won't work today, and today's formula may not work tomorrow. Additionally, the tremendous amount of tacit knowledge at work in the process of making a video game makes it difficult to simply transplant a development processes wholesale into a different culture. Finally, the companies of Japan are quite different from each other in terms of their internal culture, their circumstances, and their goals.

In light of all this, there is simply no way I could state that a certain specific technique or way of thinking is the single key to improving the state of game development in Japan. Instead, what I have tried to do here is to help frame and further the discussion over Japan's game industry and provide some ideas for careful consideration. I hope they prove useful as the industry continues to shift and transform. With these thoughts in mind and some luck, perhaps we can witness a new generation of titles from Japan that surprise and entertain the world.


Special thanks to Yuriko Shimizu, Masaru Agarida, Jake Kazdal, and Ryan Payton for their input.

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About the Author(s)

Matthew Burns


Matthew Burns is the founder of Shadegrown Games, the author of Magical Wasteland, and a regular contributor to Game Developer Magazine. He has also written for Edge Online and Kill Screen Magazine. In over ten years in the video game industry, he has worked on various titles including multiple installments in the Halo, Call of Duty and Total War franchises.

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