Rise of the western developer
Japanese games are awesome. There’s no question about it. During the golden age of video gaming when the NES, Genesis and SNES were king, nearly all the quality console titles were of Japanese origin. Games like Nintendo’s revolutionary Super Mario Bros and Squaresoft’s epic Final Fantasy shaped the foundation of video gaming and helped make it the multibillion dollar industry it is today. But lately things have been changing. More and more western game developers are creating titles that cater specifically to western consumers, and thereby challenging the longstanding belief that the best games come from Japan.
It only takes a quick scan of the shelves of your local game store to see that western developers are becoming more and more prominent. Sure, as you browse the rows of titles you’ll see games from respected Japanese developers such as Capcom, Konami, Sega and Square. But you’ll also find just as many (if not more) games from dominant western companies like Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Acclaim, Infogrames and Rockstar. On top of that, for every blockbuster Japanese game such as Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 2 there is a blockbuster western-developed title like Bungie’s Halo to match it.
How did a market that was dominated by the Far East for nearly a decade give up so much ground to the West? It’s quite simple really. Japanese games are, and have always been, developed for Japanese gamers first and foremost. Ultra dramatic explosions, gelled-up hairdos and an extremely heavy emphasis on style are all things that Japanese gamers clamor for and Japanese developers deliver. The rigid structure and conformity of Japanese society equates to a high demand for extremely linear RPGs such as Final Fantasy, Suikoden and Star Ocean. While these types of games are perfect for the Japanese gamers they are designed for, they often seem a bit awkward to western consumers.
As the game industry has grown in the U.S. and U.K. and spread out to reach mainstream consumers, more and more western developers have had the opportunity to design titles with western gamers in mind. Take, for example, Eidos’ Tomb Raider. It broke free of the Japanese-influenced mold by placing emphasis on exploration instead of excessive style, and it quickly became one of the original PlayStation’s best selling games (of course the busty Laura Croft had something to do with it, but that’s the subject of a different feature.). Nowadays we have plenty of smash-hit titles like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III and Bethesda’s Morrowind, which are the absolute definitions of nonlinear gaming. Titles like these have been embraced by western gamers because of their appealing open-ended gameplay and gritty realism that just can’t be experienced from the vast majority of Japanese releases.
Does this recent rise in western software quality mean that Japanese video games are destined to go the way of the dinosaur? Absolutely not. Just by looking at the incredible buzz surrounding future titles like Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Nintendo’s Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and Square/Enix’s Final Fantasy X-2 it is obvious that there is still a huge market for Japanese games in western countries. It’s just that more and more western titles like Bungie’s Halo 2 and Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV will be there to steal the spotlight away from those high profile Japanese games. Thankfully, there is more than enough room for both western and Japanese developed games to coexist on store shelves. The increased selection can only be a good thing for the game industry, because everyone from casual gamers to hardcore Otaku (fans of Japanese games, manga, film, etc) will be able to find something that appeals to their personal tastes.
Making up the very foundation of video gaming, Japanese developed titles will always have a place in the industry. But the rise of the western developer has breathed new life into once stale genres and helped video games reach more mainstream consumers than would have been otherwise possible. If companies like Electronic Arts, Microsoft and Rockstar continue to develop games targeted for western tastes, then the industry will surely continue its current trend of healthy growth for some time to come.