JRPGs and The World
byon 01-19-2012 at 11:41 AM (4185 Views)
So, I was sitting at work, browsing some gaming blogs, and I came across another Joystiq entry in their ongoing "examination" of JRPGs, their lack of success this gen, and in some respects, comparing them to WRPGs.
There's been talk in basically every gaming site about the role of JRPGs in this generation of games. Even Japanese games as a whole. Some people say that the genre is backwards and broken and that western development has progressed while the Japanese development culture has stagnated. Japanese developers have been accused of being close-minded (perhaps ironically, by those same people). Even some American developers like Bioware have been heavily critical of JRPGs, saying essentially that they are rehashed over and over, and not changing or evolving (cue the military FPS genre's success... now). Others say that Japan's attempts to cater to 'the west' have watered-down the gameplay and made the JRPGs stale and un-original. Some say that Japan has sort of "migrated" to portable systems, and a lot of the big name games are ending up there, as the DS, 3DS, and PSP have had or are still having huge success in the country.
So, in the span of about 10 seconds, and without any previous research, I thought about a different possibility. Feel free to shoot this one down, this is basically all off of "intuition" right now and not heavily researched information. I didn't even Google anything. It came to me in a state of boredom! Consider the following at your own risk!
What if the shrinking Japanese game success - not just JRPGs - in the US and Europe and such is a return to "normalization?"
Let's look at some other mediums, which in this case, might actually have important comparisons. Movies, for instance. Akira Kurosawa ring a bell? He might. In film circles, he is legendary; by many considered the greatest film director of all-time, with a bevy of critically acclaimed and well-received films like The Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Ran, and many, many more.
And yet, to the average American or European, Akira Kurosawa is largely an unknown. Ask someone on the streets, and the best (and, to be fair, it is technically correct) answer would be "some Japanese dude."
You see, for as much acclaim as movies, not just from Japan, but Russia, India, Iran, Turkey, France, Italy, and other countries get from critics, the exportation to other markets is difficult. Foreign movies, particularly ones where the official language is not English, never fare as well in the US box office. Japanese movies don't fare as well in France as French movies do. Go to any country and this largely holds true (one exception, I'll get to it shortly).
Now, let's go back to the 70s. The Atari home consoles were The Next Big Thing. They were ushering in a new era of home entertainment. Interactive video games were finding their way under Christmas trees and into people's living rooms.
But there were no Japanese games. Well, let me rephrase that. There were very few. Some hit mainstream success - Donkey Kong and Frogger being the most well-known - but the vast, vast majority of games were US developed, all for a US made console. Foreign game making, much like movie making, had hurdles to go through to move to another country. Not only are there different cultural subtexts, but there is localization and translation to do. Heck, in the days of Pong, this was not as big deal as it is in these days of thousands of lines of spoken dialogue in current games. It is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.
And that's what it always took out of movies, too. Jokes from one culture did not translate well to others. The movie had to be either subtitled or, as most people prefer, dubbed over, bringing to light a whole new range of challenges to marketing the movies somewhere else.
And so, much like Hollywood, and much like radio (face it, when was the last time you heard a Japanese or Europop song on the radio, particularly in the 20th century?) the 70s video game industry in the US was largely US dominated. Japan didn't have much interest in it, Europe didn't, and companies like Activision and Atari pumped out many of the video games.
But the market, as we all know, did its best self-destruct mode, and a flood of cheap, poorly made games drowned the video game market that was still a bit unsteady in its infancy. The home market came crashing down, and for years, the video game phase was just that - a phase.
This sent natural repercussions throughout the technology industry, particularly in the US, where most of the money and time was put into the Atari. Video games were "black labeled" in many ways, and treated as dead in the water and a no good business venture.
And yet, there was a glimmer of hope. The "Golden Age of Arcades" persisted and hit its peak in the early 1980s, both in the US and Japan, and an enterprising company from Japan, Nintendo, saw the home console market as an untapped venue. Learning from the flood of bad games that doomed the Atari system, Nintendo took a proactive role in game quality control, and the NES was a success, a huge one, in Japan and North America.
This was a strange market to live in. For once, an entertainment medium in the US was not dominated by the US, the only country to have been able to truly market its entertainment, like movies and music, globally, benefitting from both the ubiquity of the English language, and its role as a cultural superpower.
But the wounds of the Atari era still lingered, and American developers treated the NES, at first, with cynicism. Japanese games lead the charge on the NES, and through the 90s, the big hitting consoles were made by Japanese companies; Nintendo, Sony, and Sega. At this time, American and European development teams were starting to get their feet under them, but for years, the video game scene had been largely untouched by them.
Now, it's 2012, and for the last half dozen years, the sales and prestige of Japanese games in the west has faltered. But is it really surprising? Foreign movies and music never took off because of the language, cultural, and distribution barriers. Video games were built on Japan's success largely because the US market's crash had left the US cynical regarding games development. If the Atari had plowed on as it started, Activision probably would have been the Activision we know today since the 1980s (scary thought).
These days, North America and Europe have major development studios, resources, and experience, and culturally specific games made in a specific country's language are being produced. Is it any wonder that JRPGs have fallen by the wayside in the US and Europe? Given two exactly similar games, one made in the US, and one in Japan, the one in the US has a huge head start in US sales, just from a physical distribution perspective. And the English speaking market, heck, the US alone, has always been a larger one that Japan, so it's no wonder that catering to them has become the norm.
Hollywood and the US music industry never really had to go through an all out crash that made foreign companies the breadwinners of said industry for awhile, but video games did, in part because the crash came at a time with international shipping, communication, and marketing was finally becoming possible, allowing foreign companies to assert themselves overseas much easier. It was also a new technology, not beholden to corporate tradition or standbys.
But now that the crash is a distant memory, and the US and Europe have gone full throttle, their games are selling well in their countries. It's not really a big shocker. It's been that way with movies, books, music, food, and almost everything else. British literature is most successful in Britain. Japanese literature in Japan. Chinese movies in China. American hip-hop in America. Perhaps the "failure" of Japanese games this gen isn't really a failure of Japan so much as a return to the original market spread of gaming, and the fact that even in this day of the internet and interconnectedness, an English speaking person from the US will probably find an English spoken game made in their own country hitting home a little harder.
And if not, just put in a bald space marine.