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Lost In Translation

Do Japanese games just suck? Perhaps not, but the trend for Japanese studios to design games for a 'Western audience' has led to some poor quality titles, and is perhaps missing the reason that Westerners enjoyed classic Japanese games in the fist place.

Do Japanese games just suck?  To say so would be to ignore some fantastic output from Japanese studios in recent years – games like Bayonetta, Street Fighter IV, Dark Souls and Xenoblade Chronicles – but it seems that these few successes are in the minority.  The Japanese games industry is far from the critical powerhouse it was in the late 90′s, and there is a growing trend towards suck, spearheaded by previously untouchable studios like Capcom and Square.

Quantum Theory.  Lost Planet 2.  Knight’s Contract.  Bionic Commando.  I accept that taste is subjective, but come on; a lot of these games do suck.  There’s another trend in the Japanese industry at the moment, one that correlates quite neatly with what I’ll endearingly term the ‘trend to suck’; that’s the trend for Japanese developers to seek a wider audience by designing their games with a Western audience in mind.

I’ve written recently about the lack of audience understanding demonstrated by some game developers, and this rings doubly true for the big Japanese studios.  Their recent attempts, both to revitalise old franchises and to create new ones, seem to be the result of focus testing panels that are reaching to design games to appeal to everyone, and end up producing games that appeal to no one.

The Japanese and Western game cultures are very different.  We like very different sorts of games.  The recent Extra Credits serial on the cultural differences within the RPG genre gives a good introduction to some of the ways these cultures differ and why.  Games designed to fit each culture have been, in previous console generations at least, unique to their culture of origin.

Traditionally, Japanese developers have designed games for a Japanese audience (and Western developers have designed games for a Western audience).  Some of the franchises developed in Japan made their way to Western shores, and some of them became very popular.  I’d suggest the reason we, as a Western audience, loved these Japanese games was the inherent ‘Japanese-ness’ that comes from being designed for their home market.  Quite simply, they were completely different from anything Western studios were developing, and a lot of people chose to celebrate that.

In recent years the global gaming market has changed.  The Western market has ballooned massively, and the Japanese market has not.  It makes sense, in a way; the Western market encompasses the whole of North America and half of Europe, while the Japanese market encompasses only Japan.  This hasn’t stopped a lot of Japanese studios looking at the success of the West, and wondering what they’re doing wrong.

The decision, it seems, was that Japanese games would be more successful if they were more like Western games.  Motomu Toriyama, in an interview months before the release of ill-received Final Fantasy XIII stated that the design process had been influenced by Call of Duty.  Japanese developers put ‘appealing to a Western audience’ as a top priority.  The trouble is, the two cultures are so different that designing a game to effectively bridge them is an incredibly difficult task, and one few studios have undertaken successfully.

A good example is Tecmo’s 2010 shooter Quantum Theory.  The brief was clearly to imitate Gears of War in a bid for that sought-after Western lustre.  The team took the obvious elements of Gears game – chest high walls, sticky cover, a shoulder mounted camera and a roadie-run – and replicated them in what they must have felt was a pretty spot-on facsimile.

What they overlooked was the heart and soul of a Gears game, the pitch-perfect mechanical balance to every encounter, every kill, every Lancer round, fine-tuned mechanisms that could only have been developed by a team with years of experience creating competitive shooting games.

It’s not Team Tachyon’s fault that Quantum Theory sucked; they did the best they could to develop a game to the specification of a culture they didn’t understand.  Their efforts were lost in translation.

The same thing can be seen in much recent Japanese output; Binary Domain, Lost Planet, Kinght’s Contract, recent Resident Evil titles.  These games are seemingly built to fit the idea of a perfect ‘Western’ game – usually a Gears/God of War clone – and finished with a layer of Japanese aesthetics.  The results are games that miss the mark in both markets – too ugly and immediate to appeal to the Japanese home market, and too ‘quirky’ and mechanically inept to appeal to Western Gears fans.  These are games without an audience.

This response from the Japanese industry is understandable.  It does indeed appear that at one time everybody loved Japanese games, and that now everybody does not.  This belief further fuels the drive to appeal to a Western audience by designing more ‘Western’ games, creating a sort of missing-the-point feedback loop (in other words, a trend to suck).  Dragon’s Dogma, Capcom’s biggest game ever, looks like one of the producers watched a Skyrim trailer and got over-excited, and the world remains to be convinced by the Capcom-produced Ninja Theory-designed DmC.

What these studios are perhaps missing is the possibility that what Westerners liked about classic Japanese titles was their very foreignness, the fact that here was something that could never have been developed anywhere in the home market.  Epic Games could never have created Pokémon or Final Fantasy; such titles could only have come out of Japan, and we loved them for that very reason.

In their bid to appeal to a Western audience, the mainstream Japanese studios have only managed to lose what appealed to this audience in the first place.  Do Japanese games ‘just suck?’  No, but Japanese games designed for a Western audience usually do.  If Japanese studios could find the confidence to play to their strengths and celebrate the difference between the two gaming cultures, rather than treating it as something to be ashamed of, I’m positive we’d be seeing stronger games, and they’d be seeing stronger sales.

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