Truths, Damned Truths and Statistics

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on December 28, 2011 at 10:11 pm

This generation of consoles has been the herald of a great many changes to our beloved past time. New concepts such as downloadable content, subscriptions, “new game” passes come alongside pre-order bonuses as a near standard, online play perfected and expected, and game development costs that have risen from around 1-4 million for a PS2 game, to 5 million for a first generation 360 or PS3 game, to today where a “next gen” title costs between 20-30 million (with big triple-A titles going for twice that).

But perhaps most startling is the shift in power and importance. A decade ago, the best games and consoles came from Japan; the idea of a gaming market without Japan was unthinkable.  Today, the United States dominates a gaming market where Japanese publishers just can’t compete with “western” games. This is a world where Japan needs the US much more than the US needs Japan. Let’s look at some statistics from our good friends at VG Chartz!

Game Sales





Xbox Grand Total





PS3 Grand Total





Wii Grant Total





Console Totals





 *software sales aggregated based upon top 1000 selling games; the Wii has a nominal number of software sales beyond their top 1000 games, but these aren’t included due to laziness and their triviality. All numbers in millions of units sold.

Game Sales





Western Consoles




Eastern Consoles

*again, based on top 1000 software sales 

Top 50 Games





Eastern Game Totals





Eastern + Wii





Western Game Totals





Western + Wii





 *for these purposes, a “western” game is made by a developer headquartered in the US or Europe. Eastern games are those headquartered in Japan. Wii is doled out separately for the sake of argument. It’s not a “next gen” console and the vast majority of its top 50 are first party titles.

Eastern in West




Eastern in East

Western in West




Western in East

*This shows how well each region’s games sell in each region.

Now, you might think there are issues with this data. The top 50 games are aggregated based upon the “global” statistic on VG Chartz, which means games with immense success outside of Japan will force big Japanese hits off the list. Fair enough, save for that no Japan-only hit obviously hit hard enough to put a dent in the top 50 anyway. That notwithstanding, the raw software sales sell the story well enough: Japanese game sales, across all three consoles, barely dent US sales, to say less of the aggregated “western” salesphere.

I’m also limiting this to just the standard consoles, no PC games or handhelds. PC stats are hard to collate, as they tend to not include digital downloads (a major, major PC distro channel) and are hard to limit by “generation.” Handhelds likewise cross generations and as with the Wii aren’t really “next gen,” even more so than the Wii.

But the raw data, even if you just limit this in this way, shows that very simply, Japan can’t support the gaming industry like the US currently is. Western developed games outsell Japanese games ten to one. Between the Xbox and the Playstation, only a handful of the top 50 titles are developed in Japan; the rest of the big sellers are made in the US, with some coming from European developers like Ubisoft.

On the flip side, western games don’t tend to sell well in Japan. Not that they need to. There was a time that the Xbox’s meager Japanese market share was cause for concern; now, the situation is just surreal as Japanese developers split their resources, releasing games on the PS3 only in Japan but cross-platform everywhere else.

They do this, because otherwise, they wouldn’t make enough money to survive. Even still, they have to work their asses off to scrape the bottom of the US sales statistics. Part of this is funding — western games tend to have larger budgets than their Japanese brethren — but it’s also a matter of skill, so to speak.

“To be honest, I think that western developers are superior to those in Japan overall,” Platinum’s Atsuchi Inaba has gone on record stating. “We’re fast reaching a stage where it’s going to be about individual developers and not about what country they are in.”

When he goes on to mention globalization, the direction seems to be exclusively towards the west. What country, indeed.

Hideo Kojima agrees with my above sentiment that foreign acceptance isn’t the key to success, but rather, broader international appeal. Western success, he suggests, stems from separating development from Japan, owing in part to the narrow appeal of certain aspects of Japanese culture.

Famously fractious Dead or Alive developer Tomonobu Itagaki adds salt to the wound: “In Japan, they are lacking not just in technology, but the important thing is the creative and ingenuity. [Developers] complain a lot, but they don’t take action.”

Some developers do, but it just takes more than just “turning eyes blue and changing the hair color,” as Capcom’s Keiji Inafune would learn between the bare effort of Shadow of Rome versus the resounding success of Dead Rising, which was tailored specifically to the west. To meet rising needs, Capcom has already begin bringing western development firms in-house for future titles.

He goes on to state that Japanese developers don’t have the social skills to sell themselves or their games. This much is true. Many people have noticed a kind of one-way street kind of attitude where you more or less get what you are given and don’t ask questions. Unfortunately, they’ve bred this into their marketplace, and Japanese gamers simply don’t demand better of their developers like western gamers do.

“Japanese developers tend to work on inspiration, not so much on a set time schedule like Americans,” Resident Evil guru Shinji Mikami has stated.

Expounding on the idea that the problem with the Japanese gaming industry may begin with its fans, Squeenix CEO Yoichi Wada wishes Japanese gamers were more open to western games. Just being a western game gets the discriminatory label “youge” attached to the title. They literally don’t like it because it’s not from Japan.

Of course, there may be more work ahead outside of just convincing Japanese gamers to give the occasional western game a chance. There are cultural sentiments unique to Japan. Some of these are easier to export than others, but they clash entirely with the import of their opposing ideas from the west. Japanese gamers like linear storylines, possibly with branching paths not from moral choices, but arbitrary decisions. Tasks in games should be well-defined and emphasize diligence and skill, rather than creatively forging one’s own path to victory. Worlds are also should be iconic and symbolic, boiling down complex and abstract concepts down to quantifiable values and functions.

So there we’ve described two major exports: JRPGs and fighting games and neither one really hits the sales charts. And in their opposing number, we’ve described a number of smash hit western games, such as Grand Theft Auto, Elder Scrolls, Battlefield/COD and Mass Effect.

Western games strive for “hyperreality“, in presenting a world that reacts to you how you might expect it to react, based upon your actions. Your set list of actions is based upon the scope of the game; you can swing a sword in Skyrim because there are swords in there. It is also very, very important to gamers that, if they swing their sword, the world react. Books should go flying. They should get arrested if it’s a guard or in town.

To Japanese gamers, this is missing something. The Elder Scrolls has always been popular in Japan the same way that visual novels are popular in the west: as in, not very, and you tend to look at such fans as having strange interests. Yet then there’s games like Demon’s Souls, which mimics the idea of an open world yet places heavy, heavy emphasis on memorization and skill in a way distinctly unlike The Elder Scrolls.

At the same time, the Souls series refrains from any overt Japanification. We can all pretend it’s a western game that just happens to be hard. This is why it’s enjoyed its own moderate success, and this openness is why it’s now multi-platform.

Given the market share difference and rising development costs, however, we may soon see a time where Japanese developers have to choose between something that will appeal to Japanese gamers and sell well only in Japan, and a more “global” westernized approach that seems off-note with their own hometown but is successful internationally. Not every game can do both, and the most successful games are western through and through.

  1. There’s no denying Japan is unfathomably xenophobic, especially with the game industry. The utter lack of success of the X-Box 360 alone is proof enough, as it’s not merely ignored or unobserved, but is an object of scorn and derision. The gaming culture, and otaku culture at large, often depends on fans who can be at worst unreasoning and childish.

    Consider the release of Tales of Vesperia, initially an X-Box 360 exclusive. The announcement of the PS3 version led to a video of a fan violently destroying the game. Idols and celebrities in general suffer terribly if any sign that they’re a real human being should leak out. The culture as a whole aims to treat each member of the audience as though they’re special, to the point that they seem to lose touch with reality.

    The development side is no better, their biggest crime often being an utter failure to adapt, or do so intelligently. Many Japanese developers spend ages and small fortunes developing their own game engines, irrespective to necessity and cost. This contributed to Final Fantasy XIII’s lengthy development cycle, as well as Versus XIII’s even lengthier one.

    More than that though, there’s just a general sense that making games in Japan often isn’t very fun. This isn’t to say that it in the Western environment on a 1:1 ratio, or that it’s always supposed to be, but the impression often times is that it never is, to the point that so many key members of Platinum games needed to “escape” the likes of Capcom and Konami in order to do their own thing; they are by repute one of the better studios in Japan and have certainly been producing some of the best third party games this side of Nintendo.

    I do disagree with aspects of your assessment of what Japanese, insofar as what they mean. I remain a fan of the JRPG formula in part because I enjoy the often superior characterization those games can offer. Western RPGs fail on certain levels because party characters are often divorced from the main plot, due generally to their non-essential status, resulting in a story that cannot be written around them. JRPGs, while more scripted, have often delivered clearer intention with their events.

    I don’t think this necessarily makes JRPGs good any more than it makes WRPGs bad, it’s just a result of the trappings. I’d be hard pressed to name many truly interesting or memorable characters in a Bethesda game, as their obscenely open nature demands minimal attachments. Bioware’s choices are often more black and white, but their event scripting and characterization has benefited for it, with Mass Effect 2 taking great strides to not merely include an interesting cast, but to place the focus on them, making them the point of half the game.

    Likewise, it’s true that many JRPGs as of late have fallen into some awful trappings. We seldom see a title that tries to do as many things as Xenogears did for its time, and there’s very little that the big developers like SquareEnix will take risk with precisely because they don’t know how (it doesn’t help that their head writer is a goddamn idiot). Still, sometimes I find myself playing something like the recent Persona entries, or this year’s Radiant Historia, all tucked away on the DS, and find the things that realize the genre’s potential.

    To that point though, you cite arbitrary decision as a sticking point with many Japanese games in general. I think there is a fine point about characterization that requires the player to empathize with and even understand a character in order to get to know them- something which people, even in real life, cannot innately do. Persona does do this a few times, with certain characters behaving temperamentally and in sometimes outright contrary ways, but the strength of these characters is that their behavior is generally explained later on in their scenario. Still, as many RPGs tend to be linear, this issue doesn’t really come up; I’ve only played a few visual novels, none of them remotely choice intensive, so I can’t comment on how often the genre is actually guilty of being truly arbitrary.

    There is a fine line in story telling as far as plausibility goes, one that Japanese games often avoid (wrapping the player up in a linear event and taking them for the ride), while Western games embrace to a fault. Even the most open RPGs still severely limit what you can do by how you can interact with the world- my jaunt in Fallout New Vegas, with Yes-Man co-opting my robot army in the 11th hour is proof enough of that (considering my plans to blow everything up were thwarted for no particular reason). Alternately, when I finished Mass Effect, my decision to leave the council’s fate in the air was grossly misinterpreted, my intentions ignored and the pressure inexplicably placed on my Shepard’s shoulders to choose a human representative to the council whose placement I didn’t even agree with.

    The former example gave me a great degree of freedom but still kept that freedom in check, while the latter let me make a big choice that I don’t think I really had the right to make. The Western game certainly makes the player more involved in being a master of their own destiny, but what this destiny means often frustrates me more than it does to find out what Cloud Strife might decide for himself based on his own decisions.

    Incidentally, I believe Call of Duty sells pretty well in Japan. I recall something about Modern Warfare 2 outselling FFXIII, in fact. Anomaly?

  2. I would hesitate to call it xenophbia just because it’s not as if they don’t take to other cultural and material imports like a fish to water — hell, the Japanese animation industry was founded on a love of Disney. Rather, I’d call it some kind of bizarre ethnocentricism, a cultural blindspot that best just assumes that games and gadgets come from Japan, and at worst, that the only games and gadgets worth getting are from Japan.

    Some analysts have tried to tack on additional reasons for the 360’s failure in Japan, owing most likely to the failure of the original Xbox, but …at this point, they’re sticking to that decade old story like their life depended on it. I think it’s more the blindspot than anything else.

    The Japanese software industry isn’t as mature as elsewhere in the world. You don’t own a single piece of Japanese-produced software, but they’re using Microsoft operating systems, cisco call systems, lotus business applications and so on. Even then, I’m not sure if it’s immaturity or a cultural thing that they feel the need to develop everything in-house, fresh and new for each game.

    (How quaint it was when the errant Japanese game licenses Havok physics, standard in every western game since 2000).

    I mean, really, all of the exciting engine tech not only comes from the US, but has been out here for years, but even the Unreal 3 engine has only really been licensed once, by Koei, in Japan.

    With that in mind, it’s not unusual to make your own game engine but you tend to do so for the long haul, for multiple games, and you license third party applications to make it easier on you.

    Take Square’s Crystal engine. Clearly an attempt to bring Square’s production values in-line with what’s accomplished in the west. In Development from 2004 to 2009. They’ve blown over half the life cycle of this gen on making an engine that will only be used, maybe five times?

    But Crystal Tools and Konami’s Fox engine both show that the big name developers know they can’t compete without using the same tech that the west is. The fact that they’re even talking about engines in the first place is a lot more than what we’ve seen from developers in Japan talking their craft in the past.

    RE: Platinum games: the west is full of game companies that were started when a big company hemorages talent. Blizzard has given rise to three development studios that I can think of in the past ten years, off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more. Just as in over here, some times the talent wants to not make the same game or be under the thumb of a creative director year after year.

    I’ve heard the comparison that individuality in Japan (especially in its relationship to escapism) is treated much differently. In short, they remove you from the picture in Japan. You aren’t Cloud. Cloud is his own person with his own story. In the west, you are the badass, you make the character, you fire the gun, everything is nominally you.

    And while these games then have much stronger linear development, both in plot and character, these worlds are theme parks designed to carry the plot. There’s n’ary a Japanese game with the width and breadth of backstory as Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls, two games that will gladly talk to you about the thousands of years before the time the game takes place. It’s a matter of perspective. We build worlds, they write stories. When I’m in the mood to fuck around, soak in the atmosphere, to be somewhere else, I play Skyrim. When I want to play a game that’ll kill me when it ends since I’m saying goodbye to my good friends.

    Everything aside, JRPGs have gotten into this awful habbit of pandering to Japanese consumers at the cost of uniqueness, maturity and a reasonable cliche factor. Xenogears. Yeah. Fei was not nearly apparently 14 enough and I Hate Gears And Fighting sounds nothing like the power of friendship. Don’t say such stupid things! I guess it can’t be helped! And so on.

    Call of Duty sold “well” in Japan “for a shooter” at something like 300k units sold. FFXIII is actually the top selling PS3 game in Japan, beating Modern Warfare 2 by about a million units.

  3. If you’re going to boil a game down to a few common elements and callously disregard everything else about it, then you’re basically condemning the entire genre for a few unfortunate similarities which, yes, are likely a byproduct of the culture. Moreover, if a particular game does a particular trope efficiently or even better, does it not deserve notice for that.

    I cited Xenogears because of what the game was as a whole. It was a refreshing tale that explored religious themes and made fair efforts to psychoanalyze the main character throughout the course of the plot. As characters who “hate fighting, ect.” go, I felt Fei at least had grounded reasons. Moreover, he left that attitude behind not far into the game after coping with his initial grief.

    Pointedly, I am goddamned tired of hearing the term “whiny” and like synonyms thrown around regarding any character who has any sort of grief or reason to be upset. It’s a sloppy term, creating an expectation that a character can’t have any trauma and still be interesting, which in all honesty tends to result in flat characters.

    Going on, I can think of plenty JRPGs more guilty of the “power of friendship” trope than Xenogears, including a fair few that I happen to like. I’m not claiming the game is perfect; in fact, it’s got a few flaws, not the least of which is the rushed back half of the story, owing more to Square’s meddling than anything else.

    I cited it however because it was remarkable for its time, it treated its audience with a fair degree of respect and it still stands out as a fairly unique game. It was just one example of what Square used to do, along with the likes of, say, Parasite Eve, and something they stopped doing around the time the PSX era ended.

    If you’re going to rebut against such a game, please do so with a concise arguments rather than flailing a few condescending sound bites around. We don’t have to agree on the game’s greater merits, but I also don’t like seeing the greater good of ANYTHING brushed aside because it used a few cliches to get the ball rolling.

    In fact, hell, if you have a better example, please offer it forth. I’ll be glad to have a discussion of what things best represent the genre.

    *catches breath*

    Okay, moving on.

    Regarding the backstory in Western RPGs, I agree there’s a greater focus, but it’s often something that can be easily ignored, to the peril of the experience. The experience isn’t defined by the backstory, but rather complimented by it; the flipside, however, is that the backstory isn’t inherently necessary.

    I would agree that “theme park” is an accurate way to define these games, moreso with Bethesda’s sort. Certainly the more user dependent experience shouldn’t be treated as a bad thing, though in my case I don’t really find them entirely satisfying. These are games that I play until I stop playing them, since there’s little real closure most of the time. I find pleasure during the experience, but less towards the end of them. The more linear fair, meanwhile, are things which I play to reach the ending and find the conclusion.

    Also, you said: “When I want to play a game that’ll kill me when it ends since I’m saying goodbye to my good friends.” Was there a game/genre you intended to cite, or am I misreading the statement?

    Going upward more, I suppose I should concede that it’s inaccurate to say the Japanese are entirely xenophobic, though they certainly seem selectively so.

    I do recall a few cases of Japanese developers using American engines. I think Square built the Last Remnant on the Unreal Engine (to poor success, as I understand it) while I recall Sega was using the Havok engine as part of 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog reboot. Probably some other examples to boot, but it’s certainly telling that they’ve had a difficult time working with other people’s software; still, a willingness to try is a step in the right direction.

    I think out of anyone, I’m most interested in what Kojima’s team will do with their Fox Engine. Eccentric though his work might be, Kojima is nonetheless fairly efficient and on the ball with many matters of development, and is still able to get games out regularly enough.

    I say this in contrast that is the mess that is SquareEnix. The only creative person I care for there, at the moment, is Tetsuya-too-many-zippers-Nomura. While most of his work is guilty of that power-of-friendship that you so seem to revile, his characters nonetheless feel genuine for it and many of the experiences he’s directed have been more memorable for it. Though Versus XIII (and trailing it, Kingdom Hearts 3) are embarrassingly delayed, his team is another which nonetheless seems to produce some consistent work.

    Still, SquareEnix of late seems to be somewhat in shambles. It’s good the people in charge are starting to realize it, but they need to find the fine line between producing steady work and producing steady work that doesn’t have to emblazon Final Fantasy on the box in order to sell.

    Regarding the Call of Duty thing, checking out a bit more, I think my specific recollections were regarding cases where the games topped the sales charts, which they did do a few times. Doesn’t quite equate to Final Fantasy numbers in the end, though a few hundred thousand units is still far from a bad thing.

  4. I wasn’t knocking Xenogears. I think it’s a great game, the writing of which was allowed to flourish partly because it came from an era when certain Japanese cultural cliches were much less commonplace (as it stands, there’s not much specifically cliche about the game or its dialog).

    Today, well… it’s rare to see a cast of RPG characters and not immediately know their personalities, in so much as how they’re going to act and what they’ll say to each other (or how they’ll say it). Persona gets high marks for sticking to a theme and letting characterization bloom from that.

    For the record, calling something “whiny” is to put an entirely subjective label on something and admit that you just don’t like it because you don’t like it. Under different circumstances, you might find a character winging about a stubbed toe to be tragic, while someone who spends the entire game dedicating each battle to the heinous death of their family to be tiresomely “whiny.” A more appropriate literarly term for such overreaching emotional reactions would be melodrama, but that’s beside the point.

    I didn’t even really consider Cloud whiny. Never got that. He spent the better part of the game thinking he was a badass from a movie poster. So color me lost when the internet told me he’s whiny.

    Very generally speaking, JRPGs tend to paint their characters with broad, broad strokes, drawing from a stock of easily recognizable archetypes and cultural standards, with the writing in the raw translation using certain phrasing conventions to get this across.

    Unless saved by really solid writing, early (and interesting) characterization or an allstar localization, I do find the first couple of hours of a JRPG to be hard to get past. FFXIII gets high marks from me for making none of the characters rely on the above conventions, and when they did — Snow the hero and all that — they immediately followed it up with something to contrast, like his utter failure to be a hero. That the immediate theme of FFXIII was inter-party conflict helped carry the game along immensly during those first twenty hours or so.

    So it isn’t that I revile the power of friendship, but falling back on such tropes isn’t a suitable replacement for writing that makes me believe and realize fully the friendships and power they’re referencing. Good example of this done well: Lunar.

    On the other side, FFXII was near unbearable until you got the grown ups in your party. For a non-FF example, Tales of Symphonia never got out of this phase. And the world certainly wasn’t compelling enough for me to carry on.

    When I say “theme park” I am expliclitly referring to JRPGs. Theme parks are as thus: you get in a car, it moves you forward and you pass by interesting sights. If you were to get off the cart, you’d find those interesting sights are paper-thin; just window dressing designed to give the impression of a world that doesn’t really exist.

    Western RPGs are then like vacation spots. You go somewhere, plan your own itinerary, and the fun you have is dependent upon the fun you’re capable of producing where you are. You can go and munch on the scenery, and as far as backstory is concerned it’ll allow you to dig as deep as you like.

    All this aside, the larger point I was trying to make is that, as a games market, Japan sucks. It is to the point where, if a developer had to choose between Japan and the west, they should choose the west because their product will literally sell several times better than Japan, magnitudes more if the game itself wasn’t produced in Japan.

    So when a game costs millions and millions to make, you begin to see where this leads to failure. Lots of top names in the Japanese gaming industry see their industry as heading towards doom and disaster. This is partly why. You might think it’s lousy that Square has to toss all of its might behing Final Fantasy, as if, if it doesn’t have the FF logo, it won’t sell, but the thing is they’re right. Stateside, unless your JPRG franchise belongs to a big name like FF or pokemon, or is a recognizable US brand like Kingdom Hearts (disney, yay!), your sales drop dramatically.

    Reminds me of an old formula Monte Cook (D&D designer) gave to aspiring RPG designers. Is your RPG not D&D? Drop sales by 75%. Not D20? Drop again.. Indie or other low budget? Forget about it.

    So if you’re not FF or Pokemon, instantly your global sales max out around 2M and average less than 1M. Not a great proposition when you’re going to blow all of your profits and then some even making the game.

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