By Ted AYALA
If any further indication were needed that Japan’s video game industry was in trouble, one only needed to see the Square-Enix booth at last year’s E3 in Los Angeles.
Square-Enix – which was created through a merger of two of Japan’s most storied developers, a union that dominated the video game landscape during the late 1990s and early 2000s and created some of the most memorable games of that era – definitely had the look of a titan that had seen better times. Gone was the brilliance that had created not only some of the most impressive installments in their long-standing Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, but also the remarkable originality that gave birth to games such as Bushido Blade, Vagrant Story, and Tobal No. 1, the confidence of artists flexing their muscle at the summit of their powers.
Instead were scanty offerings from Square-Enix’s recently acquired western branches, the paucity of what was being displayed highlighted by the generic qualities of these games. Only Final Fantasy XII-2, itself borne from the troubled reception of its predecessor, which was panned by both critics and players, served as Square-Enix’s Japanese contribution.
This fall, relevance and attention has seemingly only progressed from bad to worse, with bad news – most recently the seeming collapse of developer Cave last week – more often overwhelming any positive news.
Enter Eric L. Patterson, Crescenta Valley local and video game journalist. Patterson – who began his career with “GameFan Magazine” in the 1990s and currently writes for “Electronic Gaming Monthly,” among other publications – has been recognized as one of the most respected voices in video games journalism, especially in his coverage of Japanese gaming. His colleagues and former GameFan workmates, Casey Loe and Nick des Barres (better known as Nick Rox), host Warning! A Huge Podcast is Approaching Fast!, which has developed a strong following in its nearly two years in existence and has become an invaluable resource for news about Japan and its games.
“You have to remember that Japan is an island nation,” said Patterson. “A majority of the people there are still full-blooded Japanese so they don’t have that diversity [like we do in the west] to worry about. So they only have to worry about catering to themselves. When their developers are working on a game they’ll think to themselves, ‘What do [Japanese] fans want?’ Which is too bad because it happens a lot that if they didn’t pander to the mouth-breathing otaku that way, then their games would be really good. That’s kind of the Japanese mentality: we’re just going to carve out our niche of fans and we’re going to be okay with that, because that’s how it’s always been done.”
Patterson cited the increasing complexity of video game systems as one of the possible reasons that Japan has lost a grip on the video game industry it once controlled.
“I almost don’t think there has been a change since then,” he said. “Back then, when you had your 8-bit systems like the NES and Master System, what you were creating was a lot simpler. It was more about that core game play: jumping, hitting things, exploring, and whatever. But as time has gone on – and I really hate to say this because it may come off as a little mean – I think that as technology has gotten better, the Japanese in Japanese gaming has come out more.
“There really is such a huge difference between our two cultures as to what gamers want. When things were simpler, it was a lot easier to have universal appeal. In a way, Japanese games haven’t evolved.”
Though part of the problem is a questions aesthetics, Patterson felt that the country’s lingering recession, now looming into its 20th year, has been affecting the game industry.
Another problem facing Japanese developers is the dilemma of whether to let go of its local qualities, or reach out to a more universal fan base.
“Unfortunately for these companies in order to get this universal appeal, they’ll have to basically give up who they are,” Patterson affirmed. “Japanese gaming more and more is going to become a niche market kind of like foreign cinema. You’ll still have some people who’ll enjoy seeing a subtly told story with subtitles. But your average person is going to want that summer blockbuster movie. That’s what’s easier to consume.”
“They need some kind of spark to give them hope,” he added. “The Japanese game market can be so creative when they have that spark in them. They need that sense of hope again because they’ve been beat down so long. When you have that attitude [of defeat] you cannot make great games.”
Patterson’s outlook on their gaming scene, while hopeful, is resigned to its continued marginalization.
“I think that another problem is the power structure in Japanese society,” he explained. “The leader is always the oldest. That’s how they think. People like Shigeru Miyamoto [creator of Mario and Zelda], Yuji Horii [creator of Dragon Quest], and Hironobu Sakaguchi [creator of Final Fantasy] came up in the 1980s when the industry was still young and anyone could be a break-out star. But now it’s this huge structure of where you are in the totem pole. Even if the guy at the top of the totem pole doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s still going to be the boss. Developers [in the west] can still break out. You don’t have that in Japan. They’re not cultivating that talent for the future. That’s what’s going to kill them.”
“It’s so sad,” he added. “But it’s just going to get worse.”