Japan is an innovator in video games, that's something that everyone for the most part can agree on. If it wasn't for Nintendo and its star child Mario, video games may not be as popular or influential as they are today. There is no denying Japan's role in the mainstreaming of video games, but as technology gets better and ideals start changing, can Japan keep up? In an environment ravaged by first-person shooters and sequels, it seems as though you must conform in order to be successful. The vast majority of people want to play something they're familiar with. They don't want to take a $60 risk on a weird title like Catherine or have the patience to play through From Software's brutal fantasy epic Dark Souls. Why spend time with these games when you can enjoy what everyone else is playing? Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 rule the Western landscape, and when these franchises pump out sequels every year, how can a Japanese developer possibly compete?
In the last few years, Japanese releases have been on the decline here in the West. Even Japanese role-playing games have taken a backseat to the likes of the Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls series. Now don't get the wrong idea, there are bright spots. Nintendo's staple franchises continue to sell and have maintained their quality, but those games alone have not been enough to resurrect Japan's standing with Western consumers.
So whats the deal? Why is it so hard for Japanese developers to look at what Western developers are doing and use that as a reference?
I happen to love the creativity that Japanese developers bring, Dark Souls was my favorite game last year, and I enjoyed Catherine and Asura's Wrath. I believe that publisher Atlus has played a huge part in getting Japan back to the forefront of the gaming industry by bringing over games that people here in America wouldn't get to play otherwise. But it seems as though the creativity and weirdness that these titles bring simply isn't enough. But what is?
Now, do I think it's possible for a game to sell on just creativity alone? Sure, but in order for this to happen, there are a few things that need to be done well. The most important element is marketing, something that in my opinion is the reason for the decline in Japanese games. Did you ever see a Catherine ad on TV around its release? Yeah, me neither. One of the reasons why Dark Souls was so successful was because of its marketing. You couldn't open a gaming magazine without seeing the words "Prepare to Die" plastered on a page or two.
In addition, new Japanese properties need to have a niche, something that will pull players in and get them interested. If gamers want an FPS they'll buy Battlefield 3. If they want an adventure game, they'll buy Uncharted. Some of the more-successful Japanese games last year had something that separated them from competitors in the market. Dark Souls had the huge difficulty. Catherine had anime stylings combined with weird block puzzles. Once people started talking about "how hard Dark Souls is" and "how you have to play it," the experience gained a huge, and vocal, following.
We are now a few months into 2012 and there looks to be some hope for the Japanese gaming industry. With people already getting excited for titles like Dragon's Dogma, The Last Guardian, and possibly even a new Souls game, maybe Japanese games will start gaining more popularity, thus giving more devs confidence in new IPs and creative ideas. It is my belief that Japan is the driving force in creativity in video games, and if some of these new releases sell well, maybe other developers will take note.
My stance on this matter lies in sort of a gray area. On one hand, I generally disagree with industry personalities like Phil Fish who say Japanese games suck. In my opinion, we've seen some quality games from Japan released over here. But on the other hand, I also agree that Japanese developers haven't really been moving in a direction of trying to please Western audiences. Instead, they've been vying to do things their own way.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I truly do believe that the Japanese game industry is headed in the right direction. Whether or not consumers are willing to buy in will be the major deciding point.
What do you guys think?