Why are the Japanese Superior to Western Game Developers?

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20 replies [Last post]
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006

The Japanese have long dominated the videogame industry. It started with Space Invaders in 1978 and has not slowed since. Nearly every major breakthrough has hailed Shigeru MiyamotoShigeru Miyamotofrom Japan, including Donkey Kong, Super Mario, Metroid, the Street Fighter series, Pole Position, Final Fantasy, Zelda, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Now that's not to say American developers haven't chased after them, trying to copy and sometimes improving on their ideas (such as Mortal Kombat or Microsoft's Kinect), but let's face it...the Japanese have kicked our ass and continue to dominate.

Why have the Japanese annihilated our best and brightest? I don't pretend to know, having never been to Japan, not knowing Japanese, and generally not giving a damn. But if you asked me to speculate, I would indulge in some hasty generalizations and stereotypes, such as that the Japanese have been culturally trained to be very particular and careful. I read, for instance, that the used games you can buy in Japan are immaculate; the tiniest scratch on the disc or ding on the box and it's worthless. The typical Japanese gamer would go into shock the second he walked into a Gamestop. I'm sure this translates well into coding; that's probably why something like Fallout: New Vegas would never have been released in Japan. A few hundred coders would have politely committed Seppuku (along with their families) if they had dared to release a game with a bug.

Another vicious rumor is that in Japan, it's okay to make good grades, even in math. In fact, you can even be a good student AND have a girlfriend at the same time! (Imagine that, smart people breeding...) It's really a horrific thought, if you think about it, which you probably didn't because you already stopped reading to yell "Waaazzzup!" at a friend who just knocked on your bedroom door (or basement door of your mom's house, but we're not being picky here. Loser.) Americans are too stupid and lazy to become good coders or designers or pretty much anything but beer-guzzling, tractor-riding, bible-humping Republicans who hate deer and gay people.

Oh, well, they might beat us at math, but at least we got Engrish lol hey stfu!

I have also read (boy, reading does a boy good), that Japanese popular culture is much more welcoming and universal than it is here, where we tend to have more fragmentation (i.e., American girls hate videogames, old Americans hate videogames and cartoons, etc.) There you could be an 90-year old widow and love you some Pokemon, manga, and videogames, and nobody would look at you strange. Well, they might if you tried cosplay, but maybe not even then. Do you want to be over 100 and buy a cute, fuzzy robot to do stretch routines with you? Move to Japan! My point is that the Japanese can see which of their games work well in Japan, and cull only the best and most popular for sale outside the country. So, by the time you are playing a Japanese game on your PS3 or Wii, it's one that's been cherry picked. There are probably a million shitty Japanese games that you never see because no one is stupid enough to bring them over here.

Why do *you* think the Japanese are so much better at game design and development? Don't worry about actually knowing anything about the topic, please.

hornCync (not verified)
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AmigoMike's picture
Joined: 10/06/2010
First hand experience

Hi all.

Felt I should chime in here since I live in Japan and moved here from the US 9 years ago.

Perhaps Japanese game companies approach the game production process a bit differently. The work ethic here is very serious. That's not to say folks have it easy in other countries but is there a specific word in English for death from overwork? There is in Japanese. For many people, the job is the most important aspect of their life and being apart of a company or project is the end all be all for them. In this cultural atmosphere the motivation to produce a quality product is foremost.

Also, the Japanese have a history of adapting foreign technology and in some cases enhancing it. One famous example of this is the transistor radio and you could argue that the Japanese were able to do this with the video game as we know it.

Nowadays, I think Japan makes very good games for people looking for a specific type of game. Most of the big sellers out here are turn based or action RPGs with a unique anime art style. To be honest, I never got into the art of games such as Final Fantasy but appreciate the traditional turn based combat mechanic.
Oddly, most of my (male) Japanese friends who game are really into Call of Duty and other very popular games produced by Western developers. They are great fun to play online with and very polite. Yet, by far, the PSP is king with most hardcore gamers. There could be many reasons for this but I think it has to do with limited privacy due to small housing space and the necessity of traveling by train or bus in this country. It is very common to see people using their PSP on the train.

Also, Matt was right about the used game shops selling immaculate condition games. Not one scratch. It is amazing.

Joined: 01/21/2009
I think its the life in japan

I think its the life in japan more than anything. I have never been, but have friends who have. They are never alone, live in small effecient apartments go to school all year or if old enough work. How us Americans view work and how they view work are complete opposites. They view it as how good they are, how far they go is important, and they do it by doing there best. We on the other had view jobs as required, we step on others to get ahead, and if any of the studies I read on office jobs are true, do about 2 hours of work a day.. Yet when it comes to money we want top dollar. Quite simply they have more stress, for REAL reasons, there performance is alwasy being evaluated, how they act is always a concern as they are never alone.

I have said this about movies, I get my reality every day, I want my Movies fantasticly over the top, I dont want to see a guy living a real life. I think they have the same issues, they work more thant us, while at work or home, so when they have free time they want to be entertained in the most over the top way. You can tell they fit entertainment in every spare minute, bus rides, train rides, etc.. that is why handhelds and phones are king (not PC and consoles) over there.

I think both sides are pretty stagnent.. I like them, and still play them all, but good god, when is somebody in the USA going to do something other than a FPS? The GOW type games seemed to be taking a small hold, but I think with so many in such a short period those are wearing thin already. The game makers in Japan ALWAYS come up with something quirky, succesfull or flop, they still try.. katamari, Jumping Flash (yes its OLD),etc.. they still try to change it up a bit instead of GUNS, Blood, ammo search, and wall hugging, man I HATE HATE HATE the trend to sucction cup cover systems right now, what was wrong with a kneel key and useing the cover yourslef, instead of the game doing it for you? NOw i get stuck trying to jump over something, I velcro to wall I dont want when trying to move, etc.. LET ME use cover, not a button to grab the nearest rubble pile or column.. I dont need the game making any descions for me.

One thing, i dont think either side makes a better game, but I do think one side tries harder (but thats a work ethic thing and nothing elsse, not creative). I love JRPG's but they are even getting gimicky.. Last Star Ocean with its fighter game combo system... I couldnt play it for more thane couple minutes, never been in my system again. Dont add crap to make it differnt, add it to make it more fun.

Joined: 09/05/2010
Makes sense to me Rowdy Rob,

Makes sense to me Rowdy Rob, with the exception of Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil franchises. Maybe Metroid in that bunch as well (Super Metroid in particular).

By and large I prefer the mature styled game like Planescape or Dragon Age, but I will miss the 16 bit Shakespeare for Kids JRPG's of the 1990's. I've said it on here once before that despite the graphics and penchant for whimsy, some of the older JRPG's are quite dark and tragic. Once again though, they feel like exceptions to the rule. All the games I buy now feature hard nosed misanthropes and lots of blood. Well except Duels of the Planeswalkers...

I don't mean to derail the topic too much but something has been on my mind lately. That being too many characters are made to be "hard boiled" and gruff these days. It seems like ever since God of War came out big money developers have been trying to one-up each other in manliness via increasingly boring main characters. Realism + Manliness is starting to = boring. Instead of characters like Duke Nukem or Sephiroth, who are now legends, we get guys like Marcus Fenix or Cole (forgettable loser from Infamous) or we get a guy like.... whoever the meat head in Black Ops is. I would say realism, with all the fun and immersion it brings to the table, is starting to strip away interesting characters from games, but I'm reminded of the greatness that is the character John Marston from Red Dead Redemption.

Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
Joined: 09/04/2006
Japan's decline as game developers
Bill Loguidice wrote:

A very good article from IGN of all places: http://ds.ign.com/articles/114/1144368p1.html

Cool article; I've read at least one other like it before.

I wonder if Japan's insular culture is turning around and biting them back in this modern (and future) era. Back during the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, the Japanese, being culturally adept at fantasy cartoon-style imagery aimed at the youth market, were able to make a big splash on consoles. The limited graphics capabilities of these consoles were well-suited to cartoonish imagery, and they were able to capitalize on this with many whimsical games.

The article you (Bill) linked to seems lay fault over the fact that the Japanese developers were late to the "HD gaming" table, but I think it's much more than that. I think that Westerners, particularly Americans, like "hyper-realistic" fantasy, whereas the Japanese apparently like a clearer delineation between fantasy and reality.

For example, let's look at the fighting genre. Japanese developers put out cartoonish games like Street Fighter II and Virtua Fighter, clearly cartoon-styled games. The Americans respond with "Mortal Kombat," with digitized, photorealistic fighters splattering blood and guts everywhere.

This can also be seen in the CRPG genre, which has been discussed many times here on AA. There's even a popular acronym for Japanese games in this genre: JRPG's. When you say a game is a "JRPG," everyone knows what's to be expected, stylistically.

I remember when Bill posted an advertisement for a JRPG here in AA with a silly, anime-looking creature juxtaposed with gritty warriors, and he exclaimed "what the heck is THAT?!?!?"

We Westerners (particularly Americans) seem to like our fantasy delivered in a "mature" fashion, probably in an attempt to "legitimize" them for older gamers. To a Japanese mind, this might seem weird. "Elves, faeries, goblins, talking trees.... isn't that kiddie stuff????" To a Japanese mind, the above gritty warrior/silly creature image might seem strange for opposite reasons: what's that gritty warrior doing in a FANTASY picture???

We seem to like things "real" over here. GTA, Call of Duty, EA Sports, etc.... the big-league games seem to go for "gritty-real" over here. The only major exception I can think of is "WoW," and it would probably take a gritty-real MMO to topple that one.

Apparently, as evidenced in Japanese entertainment, the "kiddie" stuff doesn't need to be grounded in realism - just be a kid at heart and own it! We, on the other hand, even have to ground movies like "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers" with some level of adult sophistication. When the Japanese go "adult" with their fantasy products, it seems to result in "tentacle rape."

Where it all turns around is that Japan's tastes have now isolated it, since most of the West seems to want more mature-themed games, but not perversion, and Japan isn't delivering them en masse at this time. Most of our kids who grew up on NES and Genesis are now adults, and want more "real." And the average gamer is now in their 30's over here. And to come to think of it, I can't think of any major realistic sports game produced by a Japanese company.

I think this is why the XBOX never caught on over there. It's not (in my opinion) because of "nationalism," it's about cultural appeal. The XBOX has "hyper-real" games, and they don't find that appealing over there. We Americans don't know how to market to the Japanese (in general). Now, the mysterious "Western" mind is not buying their games as much, and it turns out that they don't get us as well as they thought.

These "cultural delineations" I've proposed here are of course not cut-and-dried. There are many examples of crossover in both cultures. But on the whole, that's how it appears to me. The Japanese = simple fantasy. The West = mature fantasy.

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Japan's Decline as Game Developers

A very good article from IGN of all places: http://ds.ign.com/articles/114/1144368p1.html

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Indie development is huge in the West

Of course Western and Japanese gamers have different tastes due to their differences in cultural background but software houses/publishers really put their own stamp on things - only allowing commercially successful games to be published in certain areas. This leaves quite a favorite gaming genre 'the SHMUP' quite inaccessible or Japanese/only - even on modern consoles. I am not the only Westerner who likes these games and whilst they could sell more they won't due to licensing / localisation costs.

A solution to the hegemony 'INDIE GAMES'. Indie games on the PC have my PC gaming hearth throbbing with pleasure!
Indie development and creativity is huge in the West. There's also Japanese developers creating wonderful stuff.
On consoles sadly not all these are able to experience the games as they are not available in all places (localisation, licensing - xbox 360 shite in Europe) but there is a huge number of very creative games out there. Oh and look at the small games for iPhone and Android that are being developed by relatively small teams. Great stuff. And not all is casual gaming!

davyK's picture
Joined: 05/21/2006
It is odd to think what

It is odd to think what happened to all that creatvity that was prevalent in the early 80s. Atari was an ideas boutique - although even then Japan was gaining traction - for every Tempest and Missile Command there was a Pacman and Donkey Kong.

The West hasn't really got over Doom yet which is a big problem in my eyes - we are still playing it albeit with nicer looks and online features.

One insight I found interesting to read (think it was in the venerable Edge magazine here in the UK) is the way Miyamoto is supposed to make teams work. Before any game dev begins the hardware is trialled to the hilt - the dev team knows what it can and can't do from the off (the Mario 128 demo for example) then a game is developed. Ideas are added in and taken out as they go along. When its finished, Miyamoto will quite often scrap the game and right the spec from scratch - using the just completed game as the source for that - and they start all over again. This means the desired design is built in from the start which helps quality assurance but more importantly - in essence - many Miyomoto games are in fact a sequel to the 1st version built in-house - which probably explains why everything usually fits together so well.

Mark Cook (not verified)
Long time reader, first time

Long time reader, first time commenter.

I think Japanese games having fewer bugs is partly a function of developing for consoles where patches cannot be pushed out, while western developers historically tended to work on the PC. This is changing now with modern consoles expecting an always-there 'net connection, but the culture is already in place.

It's also partially a mirage - unless the launch is simultaneous, the localization time to bring a Japanese game to the west gives the developers an opportunity to fix bugs and otherwise polish the material. Bigger games are launching simultaneously now, which is why even from Nintendo we now see things like the Other M and Twilight Princess bugs. Plus, as you say, there are probably a million terrible games that we never see - and only using the good stuff biases the results, and thus does not imply better development processes for an entire nation. There are badly developed, reasonably high profile Japanese games out there - an example is Tales of Graces for the Wii, which was so buggy Namco recalled it.

As far as design goes - it depends what you look at, although I believe that in general, Japanese developers are behind western ones at the moment - the breakthrough designs in vogue currently are things like the Sims, and Grand Theft Auto (European), and Gears of War, and World of Warcraft, and Starcraft, and Farmville. Even Guitar Hero - if Final Fantasy (originally a mashup of D&D and Dragon Quest, which is in turn inspired by Wizardry) is a breakthrough, Guitar Hero certainly is as well, despite highly regarded predecessors. Otherwise, some really ridiculous arguments arise: "Zelda? No. ADVENTURE was first."

Additionally, innovation appears around the edges - so console-centric Japan is hurt by two big things:
1) the barrier for an indy designer to build a console game is so much greater, so you lose a portion there, and
2) console budgets are so high that it's hard for a big company to take a risk on innovating (something affecting Western developers as well).
Obviously some companies still take risks, and still innovate (see Nintendo). But Japan is hardly dominant in 2010, and I find it difficult to argue that even when they were generally better than the west, they were dominating (outside of hyperbole).

Joined: 07/21/2006
Quirky is the key

I would say that Western game developers dominate the FPS and non-arcade racing games.

I think it comes down to Western publishers (and possibly the typical Western game buyer?). There are a lot more quirky titles available in Japan. It seems as if commercial viability is viewed differently in Japan. This creates an environment where a developer can experiment with game play, rather than simply rehashing or copying last year's best selling games.

The quirky games are starting to show up, in the West, on platforms like the iPhone.

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