Do Japanese Games Now Occupy the Space Between Indie and AAA? | Gaming News
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Yakuza Producer Daisuke Sato and Nier: Automata Director Yoko Taro believe so.
If you ask someone who grew up in the 90s to describe their childhood, there’s a good chance they’d begin listing the epic worlds and stories they experienced in video games and animated series from Japan.
In the era we’re talking about, you had the sprawling world and memorable dungeons of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the sudden murder of your party member and main healer Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, Psycho Mantis hauntingly reading the save data on your console in Metal Gear Solid, and encountering your first undead in the Spencer Mansion in Resident Evil. Elsewhere it was watching Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion late at night, or tuning in early before school to catch the adventures of Goku, Ash or Naruto.
Simply put, Japanese pop culture had a powerful influence on this generation – on my generation. It was what inspired me to learn Japanese and study Japanese pop culture at university, but more importantly has influenced how I perceive Japan as a nation that exports its culture. A nation overflowing with artists, creators and storytellers.
This era is what many, including writer Chris Kohler in his book chronicling the history of Japanese gaming culture, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, describe as Japanese pop culture in its prime. When cult classic animated series like Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Pokemon were first unleashed; when the famously bold and ever-evolving Harajuku fashion was a force to be reckoned with; and when Sony and Nintendo were creating games, hardware and characters that not only dominated pop culture but are still beloved to this day.
There have been significant challenges since those glory days, however. Yakuza Producer Daisuke Sato and Nier: Automata Director Yoko Taro believe that the Western appetite for Japanese entertainment began to fall in the early 2000s as blockbuster media took over the market.
“I feel that [the state of Japanese games is] kind of similar to the situation with Japanese movies and director Akira Kurosawa[‘s films],” Sato explains. “Japanese movies in the past were renowned around the world and had a certain level or quality position within the international fandom. Then came big budget Hollywood movies which were something the Japanese movie industry couldn’t compete with. Hollywood movies took over and Japanese movies became more of a domestic .”
“Similarly, Japanese games were the top level, worldwide phenomenon back then, before a lot of companies started bringing out AAA titles [with] big budgets,” he continues. “Western games became the big boys of the industry.”
“Japan is no longer able to create AAA titled games – unlike the Western games industry.” – Yoko Taro
“I believe this reality is due to cost,” adds Yoko Taro in a separate interview. “Japan is no longer able to create AAA titled games – unlike the Western games industry. At the same time, I feel that Japan was able to shift into the mobile gaming genre faster than anywhere else in the world so I believe they’re evolving in their own way.”
“So right now, as you might know, there’s a lot of people who laugh at gacha contents – those are the pay to win [elements] in mobile games,” Taro continues, alluding to games such as Fire Emblem Heroes and Fate GO. “But, I think this is wrong. I feel funny how they’re laughing at gacha content in games. Isn’t this how adults back in my days laughed at the existence of the Super Nintendo? Isn’t it just the same?”
As Taro and Sato tell me, after the success of the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, the dominance of Japan began to crumble. Unlike the Western consumerist obsession with having the latest iPhone or 4K TV, game otakus in Japan didn’t feel the need to constantly upgrade. When the Western gaming world began focusing on games in HD resolution, the Japanese games industry followed a similar philosophy to their fans, not seeing any immediate necessity and sticking with Standard Definition. This then allowed Microsoft to swoop in with developer-friendly, HD-focused Xbox 360 console. While the mid-late 2000s saw some hugely influential and original games from Japan, the nation’s developers largely stumbled in the transition to HD while Western studios – thanks in part to experience with higher resolutions in PC development – pushed the graphical capabilities and limitations of the hardware.
Okami on PS2 was Tech’s Game of the Year in 2006. It’s since been re-released a couple of times in HD.
By the time Japan began to look to HD gaming, it was too late. People were more invested in the epic space operas of Mass Effect and the rich fantasy roleplay of The Elder Scrolls; Western roleplay experiences had taken over. Square Enix and Capcom recognised this and attempted to appeal to the West with the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy and Resident Evil 5, disappointing fans and critics alike, and leading many to question whether the Japanese development community had forgotten what made their games so special.
For this reason, Taro and Sato argue that the downfall of Japanese game development at the turn of the 21st century is linked to the rise of Western game development. Small Japanese teams that had originally been designing for the Japanese populus, were now tasked with competing against teams of hundreds with budgets significantly greater than theirs.
Some simply continued making games largely for Japan. Sato’s Yakuza, for instance, is an unapologetically Japanese open-world action game series about members (and ex-members) of the famous yakuza gangs. It is character-driven and culture-driven, from the drama of its storylines to its comedic sensibilities and on to its many mini-games, which are both banal and bizarre. The first game was released in Japan in 2005 and made its way to the West the following year to little commercial success. Meanwhile, a PlayStation 3 and Wii U remaster of the first two was never localised.
Atlus, which localises all of Sega’s Japanese content, kept bringing out new additions to the series, but it didn’t gain much traction until the release of Yakuza 5 on the PlayStation store in 2015, three years after its physical release in Japan. The release of Yakuza 0 in January 2017 marked the first time in a while that fans saw it being sold physically at local game stores, and since then, Atlus has enthusiastically been releasing a new localised game every six months. Yet, for Yakuza Producer Daisuke Sato, prior to the success of the series now, Sega believed that it wasn’t something that would entertain fans internationally.
It’s never too late to discover this series.
“There was a time when we thought that maybe Japanese games were meant primarily for a domestic Japanese audience,” he explains. “So we started focusing more on our domestic audiences. We’re only coming to a point now where maybe the Western audience is still interested in Japanese games and we can do something about this.”
The amazing range of Japanese games in the last 18 months have most definitely found a huge Western audience. Within the first few months of 2017, we had the release of Resident Evil 7, Nier: Automata, Persona 5, Yakuza Kiwami and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Resident Evil 7 saw the return of a genre-defining franchise suffering from a near-ten-year-long identity crisis, while Nier: Automata told a powerful metafictive story of humanity, morals and human complexity through the lens of android protagonists.
A modern classic.
Many of these titles were nominated for various Game of the Year awards, rivalling bigger budget Western productions, and selling well beyond expectations. Since release, Nier: Automata has sold three million copies worldwide, Persona 5 has sold two million worldwide, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is – ignoring re-releases – the best-selling game in the series. And international interest in the Yakuza franchise has grown significantly.
In July this year, Nintendo and Square Enix’s Nintendo Switch homage to classic JRPGs, Octopath Traveller, surprised fans with a lovable party of characters, rich storytelling and an engaging battle system reminiscent of past loves of the genre; and quickly became the highest selling game of the month. With the release of Dragon Quest XI earlier this month, a wonderful epic return to the 90s-to-early-00s era of Japanese role playing games, and the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts 3 early next year, many see this current period as a sign that the formidable Japanese games industry has returned. Yet, according to Yoko Taro, this is merely a coincidental and miraculous event.
“Directors around me, including myself of course, were very happy to be in all those Game of the Year awards, and other awards with these titles which appeared in 2017,” recalls Taro. “Yet, at the same time, we all shared the same thought that this is just a moment of glory for us and we are once again going to be put in a tough situation.”
“Games such as Nier: Automata and Persona 5 are what I believe… is more like a single A.” – Yoko Taro
“Since Japan is no longer able to make AAAs,” he states matter of factly, “games such as Nier: Automata and Persona 5 are what I believe we’ve decided to make as a game which is more like a single A. The Western gaming world is [made up of] indies and AAAs, and there was this empty space in between. That’s where I believe games such as Nier: Automata and Persona 5 – which I would like to call single A – have struck and met the market requirement.”
“As successful as AAA titles have become, as well as indies, in the Western gaming community, they can’t escape that frame. AAA games will always be AAA games limited by their AAA limitations and indies will be the same. They can’t create something which is not those two genres.”
“As much as Japan is successful in that single A title market, there’s a lot of Western single A titles coming out now. Ultimately the single A title [market] will be taken by the Western gaming industry as well. From what I honestly think, this rush of great games, such as Nier: Automata and Persona 5, was just a miracle, and it was a coincidence they all came out in the same time.”
“We definitely don’t think we’re at the level that Japanese games were in the past, when everyone was playing them all over the world,” comments Sato. “We’d definitely like to get there and we see that there’s more Japanese games that are coming out and people are paying attention to that, but it’s still not quite where it used to be.”
“We definitely don’t think we’re at the level that Japanese games were in the past.” – Daisuke Sato
When asked what members of the Japanese games industry can do to improve the reception of their games in the West, both Sato and Taro shrugged and admitted to being uncertain, yet positive.
“The budget problem is still there – Western game development budgets are something we can’t really compete with at the moment,” says Sato. “There’s not really an answer at this point about what we can really do but something is changing.”
“If I knew that, I’d be rich by now,” laughs Taro. “I currently do not know [but] I ultimately think locals will end up being the strongest market for each game scene. The Western games industry would make a game targeted at a Western audience and I think that the Japanese gaming industry will make more Japanese games which are intended for a Japanese audience.”
“Games are going to continue to come out – hundreds of them – and as more games come out, people are just naturally going to choose games which they can relate to more, and that will ultimately cause them to lean towards games which are made in their country or habitat. It’s weird to say this but thanks to the Western gaming industry making all these AAA games and technically stopping Japan from being able to make AAA games, I believe the Japanese gaming industry is now sort of ready to search for this new area where they can shine.”
Japanese pop culture and its reception in the West will certainly continue to evolve. As a Western fan, what draws me to Japanese games is the richly unique and distinctly Japanese experiences they offer. I love seeing the Japanese take on, say, tactical combat in the Fire Emblem series, or the lovably goofy character designs of Final Fantasy party members. They’re unlike anything I’d expect from a Western game.
Strong story and tremendous style.
Shortly after my interview, Sato’s colleague and Fist of the North Star programmer Shunsuke Miyake, who had been sitting in on the interview, asked how I as a Western fan wanted to see Japanese games localised in the West. The answer: keeping them as distinctly Japanese as possible.
“The reason why I ask is that though we are creating something that only we can create and are not trying to be any other culture, we definitely are thinking about localising and we want to accommodate internationally,” Miyake explains.
As seen by the newfound success of the Yakuza series and similarly localised games, an inherently Japanese perspective can be a major strength. Many fans want to have that culture shock – that sense of coming to grips with another way of seeing the world. Once you start trying to appeal to a different group and change the original source material, you start to lose what made that piece of art so distinct. Simply put, if Japanese developers are making games for the Japanese market, it’ll work for many players outside Japan, too.
“I believe there’s still endless possibilities for what could come in the gaming industry,” Taro concludes. “I’m not saying they will all become gachas, but there are still many different roads for each gaming industry to take and new fields of gaming industries to grow.”
Julian Rizzo-Smith is a freelance writer reporting on Japanese pop culture, games, comics and animation. You can follow his work on Twitter. And be sure to check out the companion piece to this feature – our in-depth look at Japan’s revival.