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How Japanese video games made a comeback in 2017

Yakuza 0
Yakuza 0

After scouting the show floor at Tokyo Game Show 2009, Keiji Inafune came to a grim conclusion: “When I looked at all the different games on the event floor, I said, 'Man, Japan is over. We're done. Our game industry is finished.’”

The famed game designer, who cut his teeth on the Mega Man series and later launched the AAA franchise Dead Rising, realized in the sprawling halls of the Makuhari Messe convention center that his home nation of Japan, once the leader of the video game industry, had fallen. In its place atop the market — and across the venue — stood Western-made blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty.

But as Tokyo Game Show 2017 approaches, a different scene is expected. This year, Japanese video games aren’t merely alive, but experiencing something of a global renaissance. Many of the most notable titles of 2017, both critically and commercially, were developed in Japan. It actually started in late November, with the long-awaited release of Final Fantasy XV, and was followed by Resident Evil 7 and Gravity Rush 2 in January, and Persona 5Nier: AutomataYakuza 0NiohHatsune Miku Project Diva Future Tone, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild over the ensuing months.

Persona 5 shipped more than 1.5 million copies days after its global release, while Nier: Automata has sold 1.5 million. Breath of the Wild actually sold more units than the Nintendo Switch at launch: a staggering 925,000 copies in the US, compared to 906,000 units of the Switch itself. And many of the most anticipated titles demonstrated at the annual E3 games conference this month were from Japan as well, including Monster Hunter World and Super Mario Odyssey.

So what changed between 2009 and today?

The current video game crop is diverse in genre — role-playing, action-adventure, rhythm — but what unifies the projects is how they embrace many of the modern trends of Western games, without betraying the techniques that helped launch Japan’s most popular franchises decades ago: an abundance of creativity, a willingness to take risks, and a respect for the mechanics that underpin classic games. Whereas Western games often favor immersion and spectacle, thrusting players into worlds that are increasingly lifelike and trimming away “gamey” visual design, Japanese games often embrace their inherent mechanicalness. It’s not unusual to see complex menus, reams of text-based dialogue, or arcade-like action in modern Japanese releases.

Resident Evil 7
Resident Evil 7

Take, for example, the latest Resident Evil, which switches the series to first-person horror adventure, a genre recently popularized by YouTube sensations like Outlast. While the visual shift is dramatic, the game itself builds upon much of the same structure and logic as the 1996 original, a blend of slow-paced horror and cryptic puzzles. Its inventory system is distinctly game-y, requiring the player to store items within limited slots on a grid. Far more so than its predecessors, Resident Evil 5 and 6, titles that mimicked the least interesting bits of dude-bro Western shooters, Resident Evil 7 feels like a return to form.

“That’s what is appealing to people's hearts.”

Breath of the Wild, meanwhile, sees the series move into the realm of Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry, offering a vast open world for players to explore. Yet it’s unlike any entry to the genre made by a Western studio. Instead of inundating players with a map crowded with goals and quest icons, it features a more free-form structure, allowing players to explore at their own pace, and mark their own objectives. It isn’t unlike the very first Zelda, a game that in hindsight toyed with open, unpredictable spaces decades before they became de rigueur. And unlike its contemporaries, Breath of the Wild isn’t a game anchored by violence. There’s combat, sure, but the crux of the game relies on solving hundreds of puzzles and traversing huge landscapes to uncover secrets.

Of course, the idea of Japanese creators looking to appeal to outside audiences by building upon Western design trends isn’t exactly new. In the past, however, many such attempts felt less like a blend and more like a collision, often with one method of design sloppily overpowering the other. The sixth Resident Evil is perhaps the most glaring example. It pulled the series away from its horror roots, with a much greater focus on shooting and action that didn’t compare favorably to typical blockbuster releases. At the same time, it was missing the spark that made Resident Evil such an iconic series. It was indicative of a failure to grasp what audiences outside of Japan truly wanted.

“I think there was a period when what Japanese developers were trying to say with their games wasn’t getting across globally,” says Ryozo Tsujimoto, longtime producer of the Monster Hunter series. “That message wasn’t getting through. I think it’s a matter of Japanese developers learning what it means to put out a game that’s aiming at a global market. They have been increasingly learning how to speak the proverbial language of the global gaming audience.”

Monster Hunter World
Monster Hunter World

There are two other prevailing theories as to why Japan began to struggle in the mid-2000s. First, there’s the growing prominence of mobile games, which have largely supplanted the console space in Japan, becoming vastly more lucrative while being made for a fraction of the cost. Portable gaming has always been popular in Japan, and the advent of smartphones accelerated this. Meanwhile, Western developers continued to focus on big-budget, cinematic titles designed to be played on big, high-definition TVs. This shift, in some ways, left Japanese creators at a technological disadvantage.

The similarity of the Xbox 360 to the PC, a platform already popular in North America and Europe, made it easier for Western studios to create blockbusters across console and PC. “When the Xbox came out with distinctly PC architecture,” developer James Mielke told The Verge in 2014, “all these Western developers who were used to developing for PC suddenly had this uniform platform." Microsoft’s relative obscurity in Japan meant that local creators weren’t able to take advantage in the same way. This was coupled with the challenging nature of developing for the PlayStation 3’s infamous Cell processor. “There was huge performance there, but in order to unlock that performance, you really needed to study it and learn unique ways of using the hardware,” Mark Cerny, system architect of the PS4, said of the PS3’s design in 2013. This combination meant many Japanese studios were slower to adapt to modern development practices.

This has, at least in part, changed over the years. The PS4 and Xbox One both feature system architecture with a focus on ease of development, making multiplatform games a much less complex affair. The Nintendo Switch, meanwhile — which has seen strong early sales in Japan and abroad — has somewhat blurred the line between console and portable gaming.

That said, according to Level-5 president Akihiro Hino, the developer behind series like Professor Layton and the Studio Ghibli collaboration Ni No Kuni, one of the key differences today is that of mentality. He believes Japanese creators have gained the confidence to make uniquely Japanese titles while still having a greater awareness of a larger international audience. “I don’t think that by any means Japan is anywhere close to where it was when it was sort of the center of what people were going to play around the world,” Hino says. “What is contributing to the shift in perception that you might be sensing, though, is that instead of attempting to compete with AAA games on the same stage, we’re kind of shifting the focus and creating something distinctively Japanese. I think that’s what is appealing to people’s hearts.”

Atsushi Hashimoto, director at Square Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory studio, agrees, saying, “The way Japanese developers create games hasn’t fundamentally changed from that period. If there’s perhaps one change that may have created this improved reception for Japanese games, I think that we are a little bit more aware of the audience outside of Japan now. But at their core, we still make games with the same ideas.”

There’s often a huge difference when it comes to the scale of these productions. Ubisoft’s Montreal studio — where blockbusters like Assassin’s CreedFar Cry, and Watch Dogs are made — is home to around 3,000 employees who toil on games that cost tens of millions of dollars to create. A studio like Level-5, meanwhile, employs less than 300, yet manages to punch above its weight producing multiple titles popular both in Japan and abroad.

Ni No Kuni II
Ni No Kuni II

Even some of Japan’s biggest franchises are making this shift. Monster Hunter World, for instance, takes an incredibly successful portable-focused series, and turns it into a much larger console experience, coming to Xbox One and PS4 next year. Given that neither console has sold particularly well in Japan, Monster Hunter World is a game that will need to succeed in the West — something it hasn’t really done before. For producer Tsujimoto, it wasn’t necessarily a case of chasing Western gamers. Instead, it was about figuring out how to take the things the series already did well, and make them appealing to a larger audience. “We didn’t make a bunch of changes just because we want to get Western gamers on board,” he explains. “Our love of Monster Hunter made this new concept, and this new concept is something we think and hope is going to be really appealing to the West.”

Meanwhile, other developers in Japan have instead returned to making the kinds of games that have been successful for them in the past. Koji Igarashi is a longtime producer of the Castlevania series, who recently left Konami to launch his own independent studio. He became one of the first Japanese developers to make use of Kickstarter with a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $5.5 million to fund development of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. For him, the attention that Bloodstained received around the globe is evidence that there’s still a market for his style of action game.

One developer in particular has taken this concept to its extreme. Toshihiro Nagoshi, the chief creative officer at Sega who also created the long-running Yakuza series, says that he doesn’t look to the West when it comes time to make a new Yakuza. “We don’t consider it at all,” he says. “That’s maybe one of the things that makes the game particularly unique.” Despite — or perhaps because of — this attitude, the most recent game in the series, the prequel Yakuza 0, earned rave reviews when it was released earlier this year. Sega will be hoping to capitalize on that positive reception to make the series a bigger name outside of Japan; this summer will see the launch of a remake of the first Yakuza from 2005, which will be followed by Yakuza 6 sometime next year.

“We need to take things step-by-step.”

But this method seems to be rare. Most Japanese developers, in particular those who have seen some international success of late, appear more pragmatic, utilizing their particular creative strengths while also attempting to make experiences with a larger global appeal. Both aspects are equally important. “I think that awareness [of Western audiences] is good,” says Square Enix’s Hashimoto, “but certainly, as a Japanese creator, it’s good to understand what makes Japanese games distinctive and unique, and to really play to those strengths. I think that will lead to a better reception overseas, if we’re honest and try to make something which is authentically Japanese.”

Of course, there’s also the possibility that the first six months of 2017 have been a blip — it’s not a guarantee that the future is bright. Much will depend on the fate of platforms like the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. Without a strong console presence in the country (compared to years past) it’ll be tough for Japanese creators to dedicate resources to bigger experiences, especially with the constant temptation of mobile games looming. For Sega’s Nagoshi, the current wave of success is something he is approaching with caution. “Of course I want to see this positive reception continue, but we need to take things step-by-step,” he says.

Other creators remain cautiously optimistic. “There was a time when the spotlight was on Japanese games,” says Level-5’s Hino. “And I feel that — maybe not to the same degree — but that time will come again.”