Innovate or Die
Whether we would like to admit it or not, Japanese game development isn’t what it once was in terms of sales or critical acclaim. From Nintendo’s seeming annual now release of another “new” Super Mario Brothers game and Square Enix on their soon to be third release in their Final fantasy XIII universe, it looks stagnant from either side of the niche to wide audience spectrum. There has been a lot of talk about how they have not evolved to be able to compete in the modern era of the global market. It begs the question as to what they are doing differently to western developers and why they are so staunch in their ways.
Over the years there has been a major shift in terms of what the majority of players want from their games and, more importantly, what they think is fun. Perhaps the Japanese really were chasing a vision of fun that only existed prior because they didn’t know any better. This fundamental flaw in turn based role playing games, the bread and butter of most video games coming out of that country, could be a key understanding why peoples tastes have changed. Since I don’t believe that people change over time, perhaps the reason for the success of Japanese games was really more out of a lack of choice than a conscience thumbs up by the general public.
That’s not to say that all Japanese developed games are aggressively bad or even average, it’s just a potential reality that may have been an outcome because of the lack of competition. Competition is a really important idea when dealing with a open market because it allows what is truly great to rise to the top based on its own merit and not because there is some massive entity behind it buying up every possible competitor and tolling them in to its existing business or shutting them down. It’s something that the US has always needed to have laws over. However this form of lack of competition seen in the early games industry was really born out of a lack of experience from western developers than something fundamentally wrong with the people.
In many ways the types of games Japan developed, and still to a large extent do, have always been focus on long in depth mechanics without the usability or attention paid to a new player or one that just wants to get into the action. As more and more western games try to become movies and vice versa it’s increasingly harder for me to see a path out without accepting that global tastes have changed and if they are not will to react to that, I fear for the development community at large.