Matt Alt on: The era of Japanese video games dominance drawing to a close
With kids in basements out-designing the likes of Sega, the titans of gaming appear increasingly adrift
By Matt Alt 11 November, 2010
I love video games. From hours spent on quarter-munchers like Space Invaders in the 1970s, to the Nintendo era of the 1980s, to the "console wars" of the 1990s, I spent much of my youth in virtual worlds created by Japanese designers.
In fact, you could say video games practically define Japan for my generation.
Which makes the current state of affairs in the world of gaming so surprising: the Japanese game industry just can’t seem to catch a break these days.
It's sad but true. Japanese consumers lament the industry’s lack of competitiveness in online forums, while its leaders lambaste it to the foreign press.
“Japanese gaming is dead,” declared legendary game creator Kenji Inafune at this year’s Tokyo Game Show.
"The Japanese game industry is in trouble," echoed wildly successful director Hideo Kojima in a recent interview for Aera Magazine.
Once Japanese games ruled television screens around the world. Today, however, international bestseller lists are increasingly filled with non-Japanese titles. What happened?
The argument is an old one: that Japanese creativity flourishes amid restrictions. Japan's designers shone in the "8-bit" era of the 1980s and early 1990s, in which shoehorning a video game into the limited technology of the day meant composing the equivalent of a programming haiku.
In today’s age of high-powered consoles that make nearly anything possible, however, they're finding themselves increasingly adrift.
It's a thesis bolstered by the appearance of a pair of anonymous foreign whippersnappers who grabbed headlines earlier this month for producing their own unauthorized version of an iconic Japanese game. They created the "Sonic Fan Remix" for what one can assume was a minuscule fraction of what Sega spent developing the official sequel, "Sonic the Hedgehog 4," released early October.
Here's the kicker: more than a few fans are saying the game captures the spirit of the series far better than the real deal. While Sonic 4 is undoubtedly a well-designed game, what does it say the uniqueness of the Japanese approach when a pair of kids working out of their basement can duplicate -- and arguably exceed -- it?
So why is the industry struggling abroad now?
Some point to the declining birthrate. With fewer children around, companies are forced to cater to an older population with increasingly peculiar tastes.
In what local pundits call the "Galapagos effect" -- a term borrowed from Japan's equally peculiar cell-phone industry -- the tastes of domestic consumers have diverged so far from those abroad that formerly strong international sales suffer.
For some perfect examples, look no further than the archaic turn-based role playing games still popular here -- or the "dating simulator" genre, created for love-starved otaku who can't interact with girls other than on screen.
Then there's the fact that the technologies used to create cutting-edge video games are increasingly similar to those used in blockbuster films, another genre of entertainment in which Japan traditionally has lagged behind the West.
But I’m far too fond of Japan's myriad characters and creations to count this country out yet. This tiny island nation has an ability to influence on the outside world that belies its size.
If Japanese companies can break out of their complacency, if they can resist the urge to go for the easy buck by catering to "core" audiences at the expense of average consumers, if they can start thinking beyond their borders and remember their otherwise tiny country's aptitude for achieving mindshare around the world, they'll reap the benefits -- just as they did back in the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s.