Contra. Final Fantasy. Donkey Kong. Street Fighter. Metal Gear. Dragon Quest. Chrono Trigger. Space Invaders. Zelda. Pac-Man. Mario. Mention any one of these titles to a gamer old enough to remember where they were when the Challenger exploded and gauge their reaction. Their ability to conjure up memories of Saturday-morning and late-night sessions rival that of any other experience in our collective public consciousness.
There's at least one other feature of their commonality that, under the present circumstances, we must consider: their origin. These and many of gaming's other greatest franchises hail from Japan, the same land that produced the katana, the bullet train, and the pocket-sized calculator, not to mention the directional pad, the analog stick, and force feedback.
Ten years ago no one would have guessed that in just a short period of time the same developers that had given us Mega Man, Sonic, and the Konami code would be struggling to break even and keep the doors open. However, such is the case, and any self-respecting gamer has to ask himself why. What is behind the falloff in market share experienced by so many Japanese publishers and developers?
I recently put that question to a number of Japanese developers, including Sega, Capcom, Konami, Namco Bandai, and Square Enix. To say that the response was tepid would be generous. With the exception of Sega of America and Sega of Europe, none of the aforementioned companies returned any request for comment, not even to state that they wouldn't comment. Who could blame them? No one wants to be a whistle blower. Of course, it isn't exactly a simple problem either, as is evidenced by the state in which some developers on both sides of the pond find themselves today.
As reported by Chris Morris at CNBC.com, hardware sales were down 13% in 2010, according to the NPD Group. For December alone software fell 8% at retail, while hardware fell 16%. The overall decline in growth has been much more far-reaching in Japan, however. From 2007 to 2009, a period that saw 10% growth in the U.S. according to NPD, Japan's market saw a 20% decline according to Enterbrain.
As a result, recent years have seen the rise of western-focused content from Japanese studios, yet few of them have sold on the level that their western cousins seem to achieve. Consider Vanquish. On the surface this game appears to have all the makings of a hit, especially in western territories. It has a hulking armored soldier as its main character, impossible weaponry, and more robot explosions than you can shake an Augmented Reaction Suit at. On top of that, it has a metacritic score of 84, which, by any measure, is good. Yet, according to vgchartz (*complimentary grain of salt*), after ten weeks it had only sold 174,354 copies on the Xbox 360 and 231,502 on the PlayStation 3 for a combined total of 405,856 copies sold worldwide.
Other Japanese publishers and developers have obtained similar results upon attempting to offer up a decidedly more 'western' product than what they might produce traditionally. Both Resident Evil 5 and Final Fantasy XIII suffered from fans' dismay at what was a decidedly different experience than what they'd become accustomed to. As a result of being neither 'western' enough nor 'Japanese' enough, both these and other similar titles have faltered.
The few factors that we might be able to pinpoint could include a few of the following: to make a fairly successful game for the western market you'll need a brooding marine/space marine/ex-space marine with a mild backstory, a conflict that he/she (she, haha) reluctantly joins or conversely joins to avenge his family/hometown/dog, guns, guns with chainsaws, guns that fire alternating explosive chainsaws and flaming puppies, epic boss battles, some vehicular combat thrown in for good measure, co-op, and a healthy dose of online multiplayer through which the player can be milked for downloadable map packs.
Although it may seem like superficial fluff, it takes real talent to consistently deliver a high caliber product like Gears of War II or Halo: Reach. Western developers are practiced at that sort of thing. They'd know exactly how to flesh out my impromptu list for any given project while making it feel just new enough.
To put it simply, generally speaking, Japanese developers aren't in possession of the cultural understanding necessary to successfully imitate western developers. To be sure, that's not exactly a bad thing. I can't imagine we would have received Ico or Shenmue from a western developer. I'm perfectly fine with that. Different developers specialize in different types of gameplay.
However, according to Keiji Inafune, formerly of Capcom, there is a distinct disconnect between those in charge of making business decisions and those who actually understand games, at least at Capcom, one of Japan's largest publishers. In an interview with 4Gamer, Inafune revealed what must be an embarrassing truth for Capcom:
KI: But for a company whose whole business is making and selling games, you've got to think that development would be the key point. If you ignore development, the company can't stand, so that's the way things currently are.
I can't say that I haven't been able to make lots of different things, but I would've liked for the development side to be more trusted in making games.
4G: It isn't?
KI: No. Not a single member of the board of directors understands games. I didn't ask to be a board member, but if you don't have someone who understands games in the position of making those final decisions, there winds up being a business side that doesn't understand games and development side that wants to make games. I feel that's the biggest problem Capcom will be facing. (You can read the full translated interview at neoGAF.)