Gaming Literacy: The Fall of Japan

Microsoft's Xbox 360 in Japan, the noble failure

Ever since I was young, gaming and Japan were synonymous. I wanted to go to Japan because that’s where videogames were made. It was the age of the mascot, with Sonic and Mario ripping up the sales charts and acting as brand ambassadors for their parent company’s gaming systems (for the record, I owned an NES, then switched sides to Genesis).

The power of Japan as a the center of all things gaming continued well into the PlayStation era. The PlayStation 1 came out in the mid-90’s and reaffirmed, through incredible third-party support, that Japan had put its best minds to making the best possible games. Namco released the superb Tekken series on the PS1, while Squaresoft (now Square Enix) jumped ship from supporting Nintendo so they could release Final Fantasy VII on Sony’s platform. This release in particular was seen as a real game changer. FF7 was such a huge game that it required three compact discs to contain it. Nintendo, who had plans to release the Nintendo 64 as a cartridge-based system (which, in turn, possessed far less memory than a CD), had no practical way to release a game of that size.

Final Fantasy 7 raised us as much or more than our parents

It was something of a rare sight these days. A Japanese company was making a game that was founded on hugely ambitious, ultra-modern technology. They needed the best possible hardware to run it. In North America, the PC gaming market was humming along just fine, and European game console developers were making a mark of their own, but they didn’t have a voice with the big kids when it came to triple-A console development. The game console was king, and Japanese were lords of the realm.

The PS2 rolled out in 2000 and continued Sony’s – and hence, Japan’s – dominance of the home console market. The system has since gone on to sell somewhere in the region of 160 million units worldwide, and it continues to sell remarkably well in developing markets. I think back on the PS2 with great fondness; it was the first super high-tech item I ever bought, with allowances saved for nearly an entire year. I got one on launch day, which was practically impossible, as only weeks before Sony had cut the initial launch shipment from one million units down to a paltry 500,000. It took my dad ages before he could even find a memory card on store shelves (8mb for $50). I still vividly remember taking that navy blue box home and sitting on my bed with it, slowly removing the system from its satisfyingly-snug Styrofoam fittings. I turned it over and around in my hands, awed by the weight, the industrial design, the possibilities…

I get all misty-eyed thinking of that time, because the market today has been changed irrevocably. And not by Japan, but by Microsoft.

While the PS2 may long be remembered as one of the best game consoles around, it’s truly the first Xbox that has come to define what we expect from our game platforms.

Microsoft's comically massive Xbox, released in late 2001

Released in 2001, the Xbox carried with it an impressive array of long term goals, alongside practical plans for achieving them. It was built from what’s termed ‘off-the-shelf’ technology; that is to say, it was made by sourcing existing parts from PC computer parts manufacturers. The graphics chip was made by NVidia, the processor by Intel. It came with a built in hard drive for storing downloaded content from the internet, which was unheard of at the time, as well as for ripping CDs to the system so that they could be listened to while you played your games. It came standard with an Ethernet port.

These things seem like small details, but they were revolutionary in regards to how people viewed their game console. Suddenly, taking a game system online was a practical occurrence and not just another piece of the Sony hype machine. PS2 would eventually support online as well, but it initially required the purchase of a separate, overpriced hard drive, and there were few games to support it. Microsoft had Halo 2. It had gamers in headsets cracking off headshots three years before the masses got their hands on Call of Duty 4. They made the notion of online play seem normal, while Sony – and furthermore, Japan – played catch-up.

The original PlayStation in all its grey glory

It was an interesting dilemma for Japan, insofar as it seemed that industry-leader Sony didn’t have any urgency to get their system online. It’s a known fact that online gaming has never had a strong foothold in Japan. In general, Japan’s gaming market has been a huge supporter of handheld gaming platforms like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, systems wherein groups of friends can cluster together on the subway and play wirelessly with each other. This type of local wireless play has no traction in America, which is thought to be due to a comparatively small population density. I always got the impression that Sony never thought that online services would catch on as quickly as they did, as the only thing that ever motivated them to get their platform moving was Microsoft.

With the Xbox built around PC hardware and program languages, a huge raft of North American PC developers were able to bring their games to the platform. The PS2 was built at great cost by Sony’s Japanese R&D department. Their custom built processor was called the ‘Emotion Engine’, while their proprietary graphics chip was called the ‘Graphics Synthesizer’, which together created ‘Emotion Synthesis’. It took Sony years to craft these pieces of hardware and they cost a fortune to manufacture. The system ran at 300 megahertz and had 32 megabytes of RAM. A year later, Microsoft would use off-the-shelf tech to build the Xbox with a 700 megahertz Pentium 3 processor alongside 64 megabytes of RAM. They even threw the hard drive into the mix, as well as a component cable port, anticipating the imminent rise of HDTVs.

These specs were achieved at a comparatively low cost, and the programming language required to build games for Xbox was industry standard. PC game developers and everyday software programmers had been using it for years. Finally, PC game developers could bring their skills to the home console table. Whereas PS2 developers struggled with the system’s obtuse programming language, the rise of popularity in the Xbox market allowed BioWare to release Knights of the Old Republic, Bungie to release Halo, and Lionhead to release Fable, all of which were franchises which aligned perfectly with American cultural values (namely, Freedom and Star Wars).

Infinity Ward, creators of the Call of Duty franchise, were also able to move into the console market at this time as well.

Xbox Live, the service that changed the industry

By the time the current console generation began, Japanese developers were still on board with the Sony model: limited online play, a focus on linear gameplay, consoles as hardware devices designed to play games. The Xbox 360 came barreling out of the gate a year ahead of the PS3, once again using a well-known programming language and off-the-shelf PC tech. It was the first system in which a press of the Power button would launch you to a fully featured User Interface. There was a Friends List and a store to download demos and purchase games.

It was a quiet revolution. In the past, game systems were turned on to play games. Nowadays, your 360 and PS3 will happily stream Netflix and hook into your Twitter account.

Microsoft courted a vast stable of Western development houses, including many in Europe, and made content for the market it best understood: American. We, the gamers, continued to age and Microsoft aged with us, providing us with an ever-evolving platform of content that appealed to our changing tastes.

Back in Japan, Sony was forced to play catch-up, not having acted upon its long-term online plans with the expediency necessary to keep the lead. Nintendo, after years of languishing in second and third place, gave up the fight for the hardcore gamer and released the Wii for lonely soccer moms. The PS3 launched with a pitiful array of online features. The PSN – Sony’s answer to Xbox Live – is still seen as playing second place to Microsoft’s platform, despite the massive growth it has achieved. The Japanese market watched in wonder as Western gamers ate up Dungeons & Dragons-esque content like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect, scratching their heads at the popularity of endless headshots in Call of Duty’s online multiplayer. It stuns me that there are still no Japanese developers making open-world games, the genre which best represents the Western values of choice and freedom.

For them, gaming is and always has been a pastime for the young. Even adults who are into games are branded as otaku, a generation of man-boys with embarrassing anime pictures covering their walls. As Western gamers demanded more from their games – better graphics, more features, more player choice – Japanese gamers were asking for, and receiving, more of the same. Their market has stayed stagnant for nearly an entire generation, whereas the ‘Western market’ (everyone else) has grown and grown, roping new players into the mix.

Edge Magazine in late 2009, asking how much life Japan had left

Seeing the future of games as social environments, Microsoft single-handedly brought the gaming market into the mainstream, in a way Sony never could have managed alone.

Even as the PS3 stands poised to overtake the worldwide sales of 360, the content makers of Japan still don’t seem to be ‘getting it’. The recent year in game releases contained a number of spectacular experiences. It’s very likely that some of you received some of these games as gifts over the holidays. It’s unlikely any of the games you received were made in Japan. The big Japanese games were generally founded on outdated design principals and were aimed at ten year olds.

As a fun exercise, power up that game console that’s sitting near you in the room, head online, and download two recently released game demos from PSN or Xbox Live. One is called Asura’s Wrath, the other Final Fantasy XIII-2. Both are high-budget, ‘triple-A’ efforts from two longstanding powerhouses in Japanese development, Capcom and Square Enix, respectively.

As you play these demos, think about the recent Western games you’ve been playing, and really dig down about the things you like about them. Visual design, player agency, even the marketing materials that were used to release them. Keep these things in mind as you play these brand-new Japanese games. The differences are startling.

And perhaps a bit sad. Because as much as Sony seems to have gotten the message, the major houses of Japanese development have not. The next generation of consoles is fast-approaching, with new systems expected in 2013. It will undoubtedly be Microsoft who once again defines the terms on which success will be measured in this market.

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One Response to Gaming Literacy: The Fall of Japan

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