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Japan used to rule video games, so what happened?

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Everyone knows video games are big in Japan, but in recent years the question has been whether Japan’s still big in video games. “Japan is over. We're done. Our game industry is finished,” said Mega Man and Dead Rising creator Keiji Inafune at the Tokyo Game Show in 2009, and five years on there’s no doubt that the country has continued to lose the grip it once held on the gaming world. Whereas the biggest games in the PlayStation 2 era came from Japanese franchises like Final Fantasy and Resident Evil, the most recent console generation saw blockbuster development dominated by Western games like Call of Duty and Mass Effect.

“The mainstream industry in Japan is like a large tree that’s just begun to wilt. It’s still standing strong, it hasn’t collapsed just yet, but it’s not doing all that well,” Inafune told The Verge at BitSummit, a Kyoto indie-games festival in its second year. Inafune himself went independent in 2010, leaving giant developer Capcom to start his own studio called Comcept. He believes that indie games are the most exciting thing happening within the Japanese industry. “Indies have just sprouted above the ground. There’s still this monolithic large tree over the industry, but indies have popped up. Whether or not the big tree will fall, whether or not the indie scene will grow into a tree itself, I don’t know.”

BitSummit opened with a man on a stage wearing a Famicom on his head. Professor Sakamoto — a musician and artist — wore a leather jacket, black turtleneck, and futuristic helmet upon which the 8-bit console was balanced. It was perhaps the best introduction for the show and its independent spirit; for the first time since the bedroom coders of the 1980s, there’s a viable route for Japanese developers to make their own games without needing to use a major publishing house to succeed. It’s a route that was forged in the West by developers such as Minecraft-maker Mojang, but Japan needs to catch up — if the Western industry is anything to go by, indie games could be the East’s best hope for regaining its creative spark.

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What happened to Japan?

James Mielke, a game developer and former video game journalist who started BitSummit after working in Japan, puts the decline down to a number of reasons, including the shift from arcade hardware to more powerful consoles like the Xbox. "Sega was able to make their games on the most powerful graphics hardware available, but then arcades started dying down and people started playing less in arcades and started playing at home because the consoles were getting stronger," he says. "So when the Xbox came out with distinctly PC architecture, all these Western developers who were used to developing for PC suddenly had this uniform platform."

As Western studios like Halo creator Bungie grew more adept at producing high-budget games on high-powered console hardware, Japanese developers struggled to adapt to the last generation; the Xbox 360 failed to make a dent in the country and the PlayStation 3’s inscrutable Cell processor proved difficult to unlock. "Japanese game development is not especially optimal," says Mielke. "They’re lacking certain disciplines and they’re just not super efficient. Western developers were just very comfortable in the environment."

Meanwhile, Japanese consumers remained reluctant to buy into new consoles altogether, with the notable exception of Nintendo’s inexpensive, accessible DS and Wii. The software libraries for both Nintendo systems were far more expansive in Japan than in the West, with developers eager to capitalize on Nintendo’s unique hardware and broader demographic. But while this led to a wealth of innovative Japanese software, few titles were big hits and fewer still made it out of the country. The PSP was another success story in Japan, cementing the country’s preference for portable games, but that was driven by the huge popularity of Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise, which never caught on in the West. "On the portable side, Japan is the healthiest market in the world, and there are lots of consumers playing games on portable devices because they use it on the train," says Shu Yoshida, president of Sony Worldwide Studios. "So the divided attention from publishers delayed the ramp-up of the PS3 generation compared to the US and Europe."

Tastes changed, too. Mark MacDonald, executive director at Tokyo localization company 8-4, says the industry’s prevailing shift in tone from fantasy worlds to gritty warfare has seen the rest of the world leave Japan behind. "First-person shooters rely on realism, but a lot of Japanese game design comes from a imaginative aesthetic where it’s not just going for straight realism. But that [realism] was kind of what people started to want."

Western games have never been popular in Japan, and as the rise of the console FPS further alienated Japanese consumers, local developers prioritized their home market even more than in the past. "I think most Japanese publishers and developers have realized that, instead of trying to mimic what's popular outside Japan, they should make what they understand culturally and what they can do best," says Yoshida. This is sensible, of course, and can even lead to unpredictable Western successes like From Software’s unforgiving action RPGs Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. But it’s a vicious circle — Western games grow more and more removed from Japanese consumer tastes, so Japanese companies serve their home market by stopping any attempt to appeal to the rest of the world, and Japan’s global influence continues to decline.

"They should make what they understand culturally and what they can do best."

As the spiritual home of video games, Japan was once the biggest source of the industry’s more far-out concepts, from the pill-popping Pac-Man to the hip-hop dog Parappa the Rapper. The PlayStation 2 in particular played host to a treasure trove of innovative Japanese games, many of which became breakout hits like Shadow of the Colossus and Katamari Damacy. But it’s hard to imagine those on store shelves today. With the cost of development rising and Japan’s triple-A studios unwilling to take major risks, the unbridled diversity of the country’s output isn’t what it once was. That’s not a problem unique to Japan; EA, Ubisoft, and Activision’s relentless drive to make their franchises an annual event is one of the less positive trends of recent years. The West has a secret weapon, though — indie games.

Indie games are one of the best reasons to buy a game console these days. As the first generation of consoles with built-in internet connectivity and storage across the board, the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii offered a unique opportunity for developers. For the first time, independent creators had a path to get their games published on consoles for a low price without overheads or retail distribution. And it worked — games like Braid and Journey became not only some of the most innovative titles on their platforms, but some of the most popular.

But Japan hasn’t kept up. Although Sony and Microsoft are courting indie games as major selling points for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, there’s almost no Japanese presence so far. It might mystify the many people who count Daisuke Amaya’s seminal Cave Story among the first indie games they ever played, but Japan’s independent scene is nowhere near as advanced as that of the West.

One reason is the relative lack of adoption of digital downloads and other online services in Japan. "Online multiplayer games are way more popular outside Japan, so that doesn't help," says Yoshida. "And the lack of smaller Japanese-developed games doesn’t create the habit in people to visit the PSN store every Tuesday, for example." And, as anyone who’s been to electronics meccas like Akihabara knows, there’s still a strong tradition of building up a physical games collection, and used games in particular remain popular in a country where rentals are banned.

"It’s not like Japanese users can’t get used to downloading games," says Inafune. "It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg problem — will people get used to downloading games because there are good indie games, or will indie-game developers make more games because people are downloading? So I think that if you put the effort in and if you make good indie games, then the users will follow." Yoshida says that Sony is doing its part to support the take-up of digital downloads in Japan by offering three free months of PlayStation Plus with each PS4, as well as a promotion where users can get ¥1000 (about $10) of free store credit by trialling various services.

But another big reason the games aren’t there yet is the country’s notorious work culture. There’s a lot of pressure in Japan to find a long-term job straight out of college, as many companies tend to pick new graduates for the vast majority of their hires; it’s a problem that’s affected Japan’s startup scene as well. "People in Japan are very conservative in choosing where to work," says Yoshida. "So, even if you are young and talented and have some great ideas to make games, when you say, ‘I'm going to start up my own company,’ your parents will say, ‘Why are you doing this? Work for a great company!’"

Ef-12

Project EF-12 is a free, customizable engine for making 3D fighting games like Tekken or Soul Calibur. It was first released in Japan last year, and its developers are keen to score a Western audience. Playism has said the engine is easy to use, and backed up its point by creating a fighting-game version of BitSummit’s BitRider mascot, which battles against an AI opponent character made entirely of floating boxes of sushi. Playism’s staff took to BitSummit’s stage across the weekend: at one point, attendees were treated to the sight of one of Project EF-12’s leads throwing a mock temper tantrum after organizer James Mielke bested him at his own game.


Nom-nom-galaxy

Nom Nom Galaxy from Q-Games puts players on an alien world teeming with weird beasts. Those beasts are there for the eating: players are asked to hop around the 2D levels, killing them to make into soup. There are obvious debts to Minecraft and Starbound — players can reshape the environment using tools and weapons — but there’s a pleasing physicality to Nom Nom Galaxy’s systems at this early stage in development. Liquids flow down hills, blocks can be dug out of cliffsides, and unstable rock formations come crashing down on players’ heads.


Modern-zombie-taxi

Voted BitSummit’s game of the show: The Modern Zombie Taxi Driver from Kyoto’s Vitei studio has obvious shades of the Sega classic Crazy Taxi — passengers must be picked up and driven to their chosen locations within a time limit — but successfully pulls the players into Vitei’s vision of an undead-infested cartoon London by using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The game is one of the best examples of a developer utilizing the Rift’s unique capabilities yet. Across the weekend, players crowded around Vitei’s stand, cackling as their zombie passengers flew out of their cab’s windows during tight turns, and audibly gasped as they looked down to see fake versions of their hands and legs.


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Declaring independence

People may have different interpretations of what a "great company" is, however. Take Yoshiro Kimura, who wandered BitSummit’s show floor with a small felt onion on his head. It’s a reference to the independent studio Onion Games, which Kimura founded last year after having worked on offbeat titles such as No More Heroes and Little King’s Story for larger companies.

Stratolith-1

Strategy game Stratolith daubs itself in foreboding numbers, dials, and a red-and-gunmetal-gray color scheme that evokes grimy early-‘80s sci-fi. It’s a game about protecting a city from incoming drones, seen from the perspective of an alien air traffic controller. Its entire universe is abstract and deliberately complex, represented by Asteroids-esque triangles and strings of numbers, but the minimalist graphics and evocative warning klaxons have a powerful ability to suck players into its bleak and industrial universe.


Galak-z-1

Galak-Z is a more visually cheerful take on spaceship battling. Developed by 17-Bit — the creators of the terrific Skulls of the Shogun — Galak-Z is a 2D shooter with the visual stylings of anime-influenced ‘80s cartoons. The game has a gloriously weighty sense of motion, allowing players to kick their brightly colored starfighter into Battlestar Galactica-esque spins, before launching missiles, juking out of danger, and boosting into the void. The game’s slated to launch on the PlayStation 4, Vita, and PC later this year, around the same time 17-Bit Studios will be shifting its operation from Seattle to Kyoto.


Kimura was first "moved by indie gaming’s power" at the Independent Games Festival in 2012, and his enthusiasm for the movement only amplified after 2013’s BitSummit. "If BitSummit is human and chatting to me, BitSummit says, ‘You can make a game like a child. Don’t you remember when you were a child? You were so free. Don’t think about money.’" The developer gathered his friends around him, and set out to make something indie; for now, though, the studio is a side project supported by contract work for larger studios.

Onion Games’ first game, Million Onion Hotel, is a simple, fast-paced iPad puzzler that plays like the anime-obsessed child of Whack-a-Mole and bingo. "Dr. Peace owns the strange hotel, but he has a nuclear bomb in his heart," says Kimura, explaining the story. "His hobby is the peace movement." It’s a weird story even for a man who directed Chulip, a bizarre take on Animal Crossing that involves kissing everybody in a village. "Million Onion Hotel is a tiny game, but I didn’t expect such a tiny game to feel like it was my character and color," he says.

Dylan Cuthbert’s Q-Games is another company breaking Japan’s cultural barriers. Cuthbert, who moved to Japan at 18 after wowing Nintendo with his 3D work on the original Game Boy, set up Q in Kyoto, and the studio has since made a name for itself with its minimalist, original titles like Digidrive for Nintendo handhelds and the Pixeljunk series on Playstation 3. "It’s surprising how early we were with [Pixeljunk] Racers and Monsters, just after the launch of the PS3. We were pushing the frontier of indie back then," Cuthbert tells The Verge. There’s a difference between an established smaller studio like Q and a bedroom programmer in Tokyo, of course, but the company’s success demonstrates the possibilities.

"You cut a lot of stuff out. You don’t fall in love with something so much that you keep it in there forever. Quite often in the West a game will have everything but the kitchen sink."

2008’s Pixeljunk Eden is perhaps the quintessential Japanese indie game. A punishing puzzle-platformer with an unusual mechanic of making branches grow beneath your character’s feet, the audiovisual work of Japanese artist and techno producer Baiyon makes it a unique, transcendent experience. Many who played it in the West didn’t even think of it as a Japanese game, despite its contemporary Eastern ambience, but Cuthbert insists the company’s location and 60-70 percent Japanese staff are crucial to the designs it produces.

"Q-Games is a Japanese company," says Cuthbert. "We kind of use the Japanese methods mixed in a little with the Western methods, but we tend to use the Nintendo style of making games. You cut a lot of stuff out. You don’t fall in love with something so much that you keep it in there forever. Quite often in the West a game will have everything but the kitchen sink. If you look at a Nintendo game, it’s much more of a minimalist style of game design. You take the core idea and you push them to the max within that minimal set of values."

Those are principles that make sense for indie games, and Inafune sees parallels in the burgeoning scene with Japan’s glory days of creativity. "I’ve been making games for 27 years," he says. "When I first entered the gaming industry, there really were no companies of any large size, so at that point the entire gaming scene in Japan did feel like an indie scene. Game developers wanted to take a risk — they didn’t want to live that safe, standard way of life, they wanted to create something interesting."

Pixeljunk_eden

Pixeljunk Eden by Q-Games

But while there’s unmistakable momentum behind the Japanese indie scene, there’s a long way to go before that translates into a financially viable environment for developers. Platform holders will be paramount, and Yoshida says that Sony has long supported local indie games, going back to the Net Yaroze development kit for the original PlayStation all the way up to recent releases like Tokyo Jungle for PS3. Although people might think of the bizarre animal-survival game as a Sony-published title, it’s the work of Yohei Kataoka and his team at Crispy’s, which Sony decided to take under its wing. "It was made by a small team and every part of the game was touched by this one creative person," says Yoshida. "But we don't hear of many Japanese creators in their 20s or 30s. Kataoka is quite a unique exception."

Instead, Sony is concentrating on enabling Western developers to get their games out in Japan, helping with issues like localization or the country’s ratings board. "The indie boom that's happening in the US and Europe is something different, because the market is healthy now," says Yoshida. "The maturity of indie games is very high. So by introducing these high-quality Western titles, we will get consumers to look forward to checking out the PSN store, talking about these games to friends, to create the market, so that will encourage Japanese developers."

That may be ambitious considering the wide berth Japanese consumers have tended to give Western games. But a video game industry without a dynamic Japan is an industry with something missing, and — just as in the West — indie games look like the best bet for a creative resurgence. "There’s no magic bullet for this sort of situation," says Mielke of Japan’s cultural resistance. "But then you will get the mavericks, the people who say ‘Yeah, that’s cool but I don’t give a shit, this is what I want to do.’ That’s where you’re going to get the guy that does the amazing thing."

Additional reporting by Rich McCormick.

The Verge
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