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Opinion: Where's The Democracy of Game Innovation in Japan?

Microsoft's XNA is just one new Western-originated platform with the potential to democratize game development. But whither Japan for an indie console renaissance? Japanese-based game developer JC Barnett argues the country's culture may not be positioned

March 21, 2008

7 Min Read

Author: by JC Barnett

[Microsoft's XNA is just one new Western-originated platform with the potential to democratize game development. But whither Japan for an indie console renaissance? Japanese-based game developer JC Barnett argues Japan's corporate culture may not be positioned to allow such sweeping changes.] If we allow ourselves to be swept up in the hype of Microsoft's (and to a lesser but no less real extent Sony's and Nintendo's) advances towards amateur and independent game development, it would seem we are on the verge of a new era in console gaming where any person with enough of an idea and the chutzpah to work at it can create and release a title over one of the major networks. This is a situation not uncommon on the PC side of the gaming fence, and even the console world has had its dalliances with initiatives like Sony's NET Yaroze. But this time, with the release of so many free tools and cheap engines, it really seems anybody can live "the dream" and give the big publishers a run for their money in all areas, from creativity and innovation to downright niche market pandering. Though it's too early to talk of shockwaves reverberating around the globe, it has at least caused enough of a stir to be noticed in Japan too. In the wake of GDC, Nikkei reporter Shin Kiyoshi writes [in Japanese] of the "democracy of innovation" spurring on the U.S. game industry, and mentions big hitters like Crayon Physics and World of Goo. He then goes on to paint a rather bleak picture of the Japanese indie scene, despite the inclusion of an "indie category" in the Tokyo Game Show's game awards, which usually includes a mobile phone title or two. Japan - Missing Out On The Indie Wave? Shin points out that the burgeoning amateur and indie development scene is helping push the creativity and competitive edge of the U.S. market to an extent that pushes Japan's own industry even further behind the curve. And Kiyoshi is certainly not the only one to have noticed this; more and more Japanese pundits and developers are, sometimes with only basic grumbling acceptance, noticing the growing gap between the two cultures. And though there is some amateur game development in Japan, it is almost negligible: it certainly isn't allowed to encroach upon the established industry thinking that once made Japan a great nation of video gaming but is increasingly turning it towards mediocrity and obsolescence, save for a single digit number of exceptions. Much has been written about the communal nature of Japan's national spirit, as opposed to the drive for individual excellence, and it's true that there are far fewer Japanese willing to suffer the risks of independence, favoring instead the increasingly tenuous security of a full-time job at (preferably) a large corporation. But economic factors, too, help dampen the entrepreneurial spirit in Japan, which was recently ranked second worst of all developed countries with a staggeringly low rate of start-ups and new business ventures. With pretty much zero government support and the unwillingness of banks, still suffering the debts of the decades after the economic bubble burst, to invest in or lend to risky business ventures. The "terror" buzzword on Japanese television is "subprime", with countless hours of program time devoted to the massive negative effects the American economy can have on Japan, which is not helping create an atmosphere of positivity and hope. A Lack Of Startup Culture? Whereas there seem to be several new, independent start-ups for every major corporate merger in the Western game industry, in Japan we just see an increasing conglomeration of faltering businesses trying to find solace in umbrella corporations, safety in numbers, with almost no new companies to fill the gaps at the bottom. Whenever new companies are formed it is usually instigated by industry veterans who have gone the accepted route of corporate ladder-climbing, have a proven track record and start their own businesses with either a personal fortune or heavy investment from their former masters or publishers. It is almost unheard of for a group of young turks to start up and “give the establishment what for”, which perpetuates the cycle of complacent development practices which has caused Japan to lose the lead over the last few years. Aside from the cultural disposition towards individual risk, there are other factors halting the progress of young talent into their own business. Language barriers are by far the most problematic, with a lot of the tools, engines and information, so readily available to all keen amateurs in the West, presented mostly, often exclusively, in English. Is XNA Relevant For Japan? The potential of Microsoft's XNA Creator's Club also has a more obvious problem in Japan with the console's failure to win any significant market share. That isn't to say it is enough to stop the hobbyist in Japan creating games that can be enjoyed in the West, but here again the cultural divide is an issue with localization and niche game development making crossing the gap a lot more troublesome. Though a certain segment of American audiences may be very interested in scrolling shooting games, beat 'em ups or even amateur dating sims, Japanese bedroom developers would have to present the game in a language their audience can understand, which, without publishers' localization support just isn't going to happen. As it stands it is up to corporations like Microsoft and their slightly baffling and expensive (though welcome) support for the ailing Japanese market to organize XNA Creator's Club events and competitions. Though the number of entrants is low, compared to the West, the quality of the projects seems high, showing that there is talent in Japan. Yet the way corporate life is expected to unfold, people like these are slated to be hired into the machine and set to work as a junior, following the design of the established auteur until possibly 20 years of hard graft later, they might get their own shot at fame and freedom. Young talent with enough insight would probably rather move to the U.S. where their skills will be able to be nurtured more effectively and where the rewards seem more commensurate - rather than alleviate Japan's struggling and shrinking pool of suitable applicants from which companies are having a hard time finding new recruits. Conclusion - Some Possibilities For Growth? Now more reports of the status of Japan's game development industry are arising, each painting a bleaker picture than the preceding one, it comes as no great surprise that the lack of independent, bedroom developers isn't doing the community as a whole any favors. Acceptance truly is the first step towards a cure, but there seems to be little indication of any support for young entrepreneurs. As with most things, the problems are numerous and a solution will take time and a lot of effort on many different fronts. Like some Western companies possibly some Japanese developers could do their bit in fostering young talent and an aggressive economic push by government organizations could help people set up their own businesses. From the West's point of view Japanese support for engines and tools would be an immense boon, but may be more effort than it is ultimately worth. As it is we must rely on larger corporations, for example Capcom, to change their ways to mimic western development sensibilities and hopefully stretch that initiative to include a support system for young talent in much the same way Valve let a bunch of game students create the surprise mega-hit of 2007. But don’t hold your breath. In the end, Japan's corporate and cultural life simply doesn't sit well with the idea of democracy of innovation. The young play and enjoy themselves, the middle-aged work hard and long, the older, established talents rule with iron fist. Young arrogance is frowned upon, old wisdom is respected. Keen youths willing to strike out on their own will find no help from government or banks and will have a hard time being taken seriously by publishers until they've personally lead a 500 man team to making a million selling console hit. Let's hope Microsoft continues to support the Japanese indie scene, with any luck forcing Sony and Nintendo to do likewise. Japan has talent, just no real systems to nurture it properly and effectively yet. [JC Barnett is a pseudonym for a previous Gamasutra contributor and a Western developer working in Japan - his Japanmanship weblog regularly runs articles such as this.]

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