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Japan's place in the video game industry.

We've all heard about Japan's plight in the game industry recently. "Their games suck, they rehash their franchises, their mechanics are outdated." A whole litany of diatribes almost entirely subjective. What is true is they used to be number one in game development and now they're not as important. I'm not going to be writing about how to fix Japan's problem in this blog, because I don't know how to fix their problem. What I'm going to do instead is give a brief bit of history and then relate my theories on why they are not the driving force they once were. My core argument is how new influences in the market have shifted western gaming tastes and how the western gaming audience has changed over time.

From the late 80s through the early 2000s Japan essentially owned the home video game market. The only successful consoles were Japanese and the most successful games were Japanese as well. What typified these games was they were accessible and they looked and played great. The games could be challenging but for the most part they were easy to learn. There were a number of successful western game studios that made games for these consoles like Rare, EA and Activision, but in the grand scheme of things the scene revolved around Japan.

After the crash in the 80s, western game development shifted to the home computer market. The games developed for these systems were often more complex than their console brethren or used control schemes that were not compatible with a game controller. Home computers were also prohibitively expensive at this time and many families did not even own one. That's not to say that this era wasn't incredibly influential. FPS games made their debut. Many CRPG franchises were born and thrived. Adventure games were a huge market. Sim games, strategy games, platformers. All had groundbreaking titles on PC but didn't really factor due to the limited audience of the system they were made for.

Things started to change around the time Microsoft released their Xbox. I don't know if it's because of the Xbox itself or if things were already headed that way but western made games really started to get noticed. Halo essentially brought the FPS to the home console crowd in a satisfactory way. CRPGs such as Morrowind and the CRPG inspired KOTOR started appearing and getting their hooks into western console owners. PS2 exclusive GTA III was an enormous hit. Suddenly Japan wasn't the only fish in the pond and actually had some serious competition. All these western PC developers had a new avenue of getting their games noticed and western gamers jumped on board.

Now where does this leave Japan? Japanese games still hold a big space in the industry but I don't believe that it will ever take the crown of game development again unless the western game market completely bottoms out. The biggest reason is because Japanese developers make games for Japanese gamers, not for the world. There is cross-cultural interest but not enough to place them at the top.

You could look at this way. How many western people read manga or Japanese novels or watch Japanese films and anime? There's a large youth audience and smaller adult audience, but by and large these aspects of Japanese culture do not fill a large space in western media. Especially for adults. Why should Japanese games if that avenue is adequately being filled by western games? Are Japan's gamers at large buying western games? Of course not. Japan enjoyed their success in the west because there wasn't strong domestic competition. Once that competition materialized Japan's dominance was over. I believe that the Xbox being a successful domestic product in the console space was a harbinger of this outcome.

Another fact that can't be ignored is that there are still a lot of people playing games that played the old Japanese games. They have gotten older and a lot of their tastes have changed. It can't be denied that the majority of Japanese games are developed with younger audiences in mind. This combined with their oftentimes anime aesthetic has limited their appeal to western adults. Many western games oftentimes portray more mature themes in a manner befitting the cultural sensibilities of their audience.

My last argument centers on the fact that the overall audience of video games has grown enormously. It is a fact that more games are sold in western territories than Japan and the rest of the world so it's not that far of a stretch that the majority of the games they are buying are western in origin. Japan is one country, admittedly a populous one, but one country to the entire west. How could their output even hope to match that? Western games are not only made in the U.S. They are made all over Europe, Canada and Australia, all western cultures. To expect one country to top that is folly in my opinion.

Like I stated at the beginning of this blog, I am not here to talk about Japan's game development directly. I still like a lot of the games that come out of that country but they are no longer the majority of the games I like. I'm perfectly fine with that. I'm not Japanese. I'm an adult of western cultural upbringing and I relate a lot better to games that were made in the same general culture as my own. If Japan has a problem domestically that's a problem they need to figure out on their own. I don't have the credentials to step in and dictate to a different culture how to make their games. Bitter non-Japanese former fans of Japanese games should realize that these guys aren't making them with you in mind. They're worried about their home market. Why should they be concerned about a foreign market where the competition is so fierce?