I've been diving deep into the Japanese video game scene lately, my hunger largely driven from the incredible experience I had with Persona 3, a game I probably would've never touched with a anime-level-ridiculous long pole if it weren't for peer pressure.
But yes, I've written about this and my thoughts don't matter because someone ACTUALLY IN JAPANESE GAME DEVELOPMENT... tweeted... about the subject today.
Jean Kellams is writer and International Coordinator for Platinum Games, one of the better far-east development studios. On his Twitter, Kellams suggested that the issue with many Japanese games isn't that they're Japanese, but that they're just plain bad:
Most of them aren't very good games. People don't buy those. Most games from anywhere aren't good. That's why exceptional means exceptional.
Most Japanese publishers/developers can't invest money/manpower enough to compete with exceptional Western productions. Risk is too high. It costs money and sweat to make things stand out, but it also raises the risk. Then marketing is crazy expensive after that.
I think that's a point many Western gamers fail to realize. Marketing budgets at Western publishers are CRAZY HIGH VALUES. At times the marketing budget can near the actual cost of developing the game. Kellams makes a ton of great points with a lot more insight than I have, what with him being a developer... in Japan, so I'll shut up and let him talk now. Thanks to Siliconera for the transcript:
Games today sell on spectacle. Spectacle is also easy to market. However, good ideas lie behind these spectacles. So it makes me mad to see people diss “AAA” games like they are all rote executions on some tired formula. They sell because they are good. They match great production values with great execution on great ideas. They sell on easy to understand themes. Even Western games that don’t get that right fail. Just because you make a “dudebro” shooter doesn’t mean it is a sure thing.
Japanese games can be awesome. They can suck too. It is about picking ideas and themes that you can execute exceptionally on. Then you have to communicate that exceptionalism in a way that people understand that your game is exceptional. You have to do both, and you have to do both at a high level, or you will fail. It is just how the industry goes right now.
Japanese can make a highly Western game, Westerners can make highly Japanese games. These are talented creators on both sides. However, if you screw up executing on the ideas you are supposed to be executing on… You fail. Simple as that.
Where Japanese games need to get better is reducing friction. If we have the best ideas, we need to make sure you don’t have to wonder why. Friction means you need to look at a character and identify with what that character is supposed to represent. Friction means never underestimating the intelligence of your audience. Culturally, Japanese design is about being inclusive. They don’t want anyone left behind, so they will add friction to an experience. Except then you move at the pace of the slowest one in a group. It bogs the experience down for people who already get it.
Just imagine if you had to order McDonald’s like a Japanese game’s option menu. It would be horrific if you had ever been to a McD’s before. Can I take your order. Hamburger. Hamburger is a piece of meat, two buns, ketchup and mustard. Are you sure you want a hamburger? Yes. That is friction. Western games stop when the user says hamburger. They assume that user intent is initially correct. JPN games should too.
Friction for the sake of completeness is one of the things that makes it difficult for JPN developers to make good multiplayer, I think. Other place have friction. Culturally, I think our touch stones for classic character designs introduces a lot of friction into a narrative. It takes time for a Westerner to parse the boy hero archetype from Japanese design versus the young adult Superhero in Western design. Too often, Japanese design assumes you will “get it” regarding characters and doesn’t establish them. But the touchstones are different.
We can pull off that boy hero successfully, but we have to execute perfectly on the premise behind the character and communicate it. Another place where Japanese games tend to introduce friction is in narrative exposition. So many “bad story” complaints come from this.
By the way – Nintendo games are so awesome and so successful because they are some of the most friction free games in the world.