Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
When Capcom's Keiji Inafune told journalists at the Tokyo Game Show last year that the Japanese games industry was "finished", his comments were widely, and in some quarters gleefully, reported. Perhaps a little miffed at how little context or nuance was present in that reporting, Inafune felt the need to clarify his comments this year - now, he claims, the Japanese industry isn't dead as long as Capcom is still around.
Spinning a bit of a PR gaffe into a nice bit of corporate self-promotion is a good day's work for Inafune, and as gaffes go, this one also had the benefit of supporting his own oft-stated world view - that Japanese developers need to work more closely with Western counterparts and think about the global, rather than local market.
Despite the breathless reporting of his comments from a year ago - which still pop up on a fairly regular basis in news stories about the Japanese industry - his sentiments have never entirely stood up to scrutiny. Certainly, Japan's developers have needed to adapt and change, to learn new tricks from the West in order to tackle the challenges of an increasingly diverse global market - and many of them still haven't quite made that transition.
However, would any developer in the West argue that their own skill-sets and processes have stood still in recent years? New platforms, new distribution methods, new audiences, new territories... All of these things come with growing pains, regardless of which country you're in, and even the biggest developers have fallen foul on occasion - witness Blizzard's rather public bout of growing pains in the Chinese market, for example.
Meanwhile, Japan's home market remains quite a unique one, supporting a host of products which may not have the slightest bit of international appeal, but whose existence is more than justified by large local audiences. Even today, when vastly more Japanese games are rapidly translated and released abroad than was ever the case during the SNES or PlayStation generations, shelves at Japanese game retailers and the pages of magazines like Famitsu remain full of games which no western publisher would ever dream of releasing, and few western gamers have ever even heard of.
Although they may have overstated the case, in one regard at least Inafune's comments have been helpful. They have widely been interpreted as throwing down the gauntlet - an open challenge to Capcom itself, and to the Japanese industry as a whole, to prove him wrong.
What's fascinating to watch at this year's TGS is the variety of different ways in which companies are attempting to prove him wrong. Inafune's own firm is going down the path which he himself ordained, for the most part. It has handed off the Devil May Cry franchise to British developer Ninja Theory for a reboot - a move which has enraged fans (despite the fact that most of them agree that the franchise was dead in the water) but is almost certainly the right thing to do with it. Simultaneously, it announced that it has acquired Canadian developer Blue Castle and that the team is working on another instalment of Dead Rising 2.
This mixing of Japanese and Western talent, IP and production is, based on his various statements over the past couple of years, exactly what Inafune has in mind for "saving" the Japanese industry from itself. That said, it's worth noting that Capcom is hardly about to abandon Japanese-only development. The company also announced a fresh collaboration with Japanese developer CyberConnect2 - and for all that the Japanese industry may be "finished", it somehow seems pretty unlikely that the reins of cash-cow stalwart franchise Monster Hunter will be being handed over to a Western team any day soon.
Capcom's approach isn't the only game in town, however. An even more fascinating approach to the future of the Japanese industry could be seen at EA's press conference a few hours earlier in Shinjuku, where the company announced a new game in a manner which the film industry would find routine, but still feels startling for a videogame.
Grindhouse-style action title Shadows of the Damned was revealed in a trailer which, rather than focusing on features, focused on the talent. Where in the past a game trailer would have bullet-pointed its essential statistics, instead we were given a trio of names to roll around - Shinji Mikami, Goichi Suda and Akira Yamaoka, director, producer and composer respectively.
Only a handful of developers in the West ever get their names particularly closely associated with their games. Sid Meier does, of course, as do Will Wright and Peter Molyneux, and perhaps more curiously, American McGee. But does anyone outside of the most hardcore, website-reading, forum-trawling fanatics know that Cliff Bleszinski is the man behind Gears of War, or that they have Ken Levine to thank for BioShock?
Things are improving in this regard, of course, but many companies are still wary of attaching named talent to their games - after all, wouldn't BioShock 2 have been a harder sell if the general public was aware that the creator of the original had moved on to new pastures? (The answer, of course, is to do as Hollywood does on occasion - when Ridley Scott doesn't want to direct the sequel to his hit film, get James Cameron on the phone instead.)
Yet Japanese creators have seemed more willing to seek the limelight, and their companies more willing to indulge them - so much so that their names resonate even with a western audience and provide cachet to Western companies who work with them. Perhaps it's simply that they seem a bit more exotic for Western audiences; perhaps it's that they're a bit more willing to wear tight leather trousers in public and sunglasses indoors, striking a "too cool for school" image that, amusing or not, works a lot better for PR purposes than the Western developer jeans and t-shirt uniform.
Either way, not only EA was seeking this kind of cachet this week. Microsoft's keynote at TGS on Thursday morning turned into a lengthy love-letter to Japanese game development - Suda was trotted out once again to talk about another title, alongside a number of other Japanese industry legends such as Masaya Matsuura (he of Vib Ribbon fame), Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez) and, er, Keiji Inafune (he of "earlier in this column" fame).
On the face of it, Microsoft is looking for success in Japan with these deals, hoping to boost sales in a territory which continues to be broadly disinterested by the Xbox 360 - and not just "because it's American", as some fans like to claim dismissively, ignoring the enormous success of products from American giants like Apple and Dell in this market. Certainly, a sales lift in Japan wouldn't hurt, but the real driving force behind Microsoft's Japanese deals has less to do with Japan and more to do with fans in the West.
It's that cachet - that credibility that comes from working with auteurs. While the reality of Japanese game development is every bit as corporate and money-focused as the reality of Western game development (maybe even more so, if you believe half the stories about the dirty money which underlies some of Japan's biggest game companies), this is a nation which has perfected the art of producing people who seem like credible game auteurs.
It's a kind of cachet which, in EA's case, helps to cement its burgeoning reputation as one of the good guys of the industry, a creative powerhouse rather than a lumbering, franchise-churning gorilla. In Microsoft's case, it's a direct body blow to rival Sony - an acknowledgement that a part of the PlayStation's appeal to its core fans is the kind of Japanese titles which the Xbox has struggled to attract in the past, but fully intends to play host to in the future.
Is this an industry in crisis? On the one hand, we have Japanese publishers reaching out to the West - Capcom, SEGA and Square Enix being the most obvious of examples. On the other hand, Western publishers race to collaborate with Japanese talent. The home market remains strong, if diversified - the glory days of the past decade, when one home console could rule the roost, are probably gone forever, replaced by a dizzying array of platforms ranging from home consoles through handheld devices to mobile phones and the PC, but the money is still flowing, by all accounts.
All of this before we even talk about Nintendo, a company which does not exhibit at TGS but whose presence looms large. The 3DS is all anyone wants to talk about, and every major company seems to have something big in the works for the device. Microsoft's glee at getting Professor Kawashima's name onto a Kinect title is just another sign of the sheer muscle Nintendo wields not only in Japan, but globally - muscle that can turn an obscure (and not particularly respected, academically) professor into a gaming mega-brand which rivals swoop in to poach.
The Japanese industry, like every other branch of the games industry around the world, faces huge challenges in the coming years. It shares many of the challenges of the Western industry, and has a few unique ones of its own as well. But is it "finished"? Is it all over for Japan? I don't know if Inafune ever really believed that - I doubt it - but few at TGS this week seem to share his sentiment.
Just as Japan itself once had to, the Japanese games industry has had to throw itself open to the world, absorbing new ideas and practices at a rapid pace. It's a tough, imperfect process - but one which is well underway. It would be a brave or foolhardy person who bet against Japan being a major force in game development and publishing for many years to come.
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