Sunday, November 11, 2012

JRPGs and the Japanese Gaming Industry

Over the last year (2011-2012) there seemed to be a bumper crop of gaming articles about the death or decline of the Japanese gaming industry.  A few Japanese game developers even said their own industry was dead and the Western media seemed to pick up on that like a bunch of vultures circling a crawling man in the desert.
Megaman / Tostzilla
On this subject, I definitely think:
  • The Japanese gaming industry has shrunk.  They don't produce as many traditional console titles, but they seem to be jumping on the mobile gaming platforms pretty good.
  • Japanese gaming doesn't dominate gaming like it did at the peak of the Nintendo Gamecube and PS2 in 2006, some 6 years ago at the moment. The next generation consoles hit them hard.
  • The Xbox, Xbox 360, the first person shooter (e.g. "Halo") and the massive amount of innovative game design in the West did overwhelm them. But it is one island nation versus the world.
  • Japanese game developers follow their own tropes and memes.
  • Japanese games didn't keep innovating in general like games being developed in the West.  They have tried and tested franchises that work for them.  e.g. Are you still playing Megaman, Mario, Resident Evil, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest?
  • Japanese BIG game development budgets are smaller than Western BIG game development budgets.
  • Japanese games are well, "Japanese."
  • I think you either like Japanese games or you don't for some people too.  I like all games in the genres I play.
With this in mind, I don't think Japanese gaming is "dead."  The industry certainly isn't the same international powerhouse it was, but it still produces games that satisfy and entertain.  I can believe that Japanese developers are now developing more for the Japanese market first - after all it is their strength.  This certainly doesn't help them compete internationally with what sells best now, but nations rise and fall all the time.  Their games are still relevant to their primary audience and it was lucky that all of us overseas got dragged along for a fun ride.

Japanese game developers could certainly innovate more, but getting kicked in the head is a good wake up call for change.  So right now, they maybe behind, but they have tried both successfully and unsuccessfully to break out again.  Best of all it is certainly early in the game as everyone is getting kicks to the head.  I think the entire gaming industry is undergoing a massive change right now and we have front row seats or maybe a few rows back in the old theater where the view is better.

Traditional game sales everywhere have been pretty much declining and mobile gaming is expanding like crazy.  The Tokyo game show this year showed that Japanese game makers are starting to make big moves in this space.  Apple has killed traditional gaming and Nintendo with cheap or free game apps that reach out to millions.  I have to admit I've been playing a number of games on the iPad and really liking it and the free to cheap price point.  I like JRPGs too but I can't say that I've played every one of them or even a large fraction.  In fact, the longer the game, the less likely I am to finish or start playing it now - I can't afford the 40 or more hours and grinding is a waste of time.  After all I need to write the next installment of Exocrisis Blue too and enjoy life in general.

Note:  I've never even finished Final Fantasy VII, but I finished  Final Fantasy XII and XIII (part one).  Most of the JRPGs I've played are on Gameboy or Nintendo DS systems (Pokemon is great!).  The PS2 had a lot of my favourite games on it from Katamari Damasi, Persona 3 & 4, Dragon Quest VIII, etc.  I did buy a Playstation III just to play Valkyria Chronicles which was an awesome tactical / story-telling game. I was also a hobbyist level designer for Half-Life myself with a number of level sets and I pretty much played more western RPGs on my PC prior to buying consoles. 

Like the boom in anime that died out in 2008-2009 all things change.  Japanese soft power has peaked in its cultural exports of video games, pop music, anime, and manga.  However, the cultural artifacts are now part of our culture.  We create based on these ideas and they are still relevant to fans and people who don't even realize it (see Wreck-it Ralph as an example). In a way this is good as the true fans still appreciate a Japanese product and the Japanese will innovate in their own way and time.  They are not dead, just resting with their eyes closed, while building mobile games which are cheaper to build.

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