It may seem like a rather ridiculous question at first, but consider that this question has been posed by a major Japanese game developer, who himself believes this may be the case. In an interview with videogamer.com at E3 2010, Capcom Producer and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune stressed that he’s dismayed when he looks over the show floors of major events now and sees less and less of a Japanese presence, and the more prominent, attention-grabbing games largely coming from the West.
This was not the first time Mr. Inafune had made these remarks, as he expressed a similar sentiment during last year’s Tokyo Game Show. So just how true is it? Are Japanese releases becoming less prominent, and fewer and farther between? Perhaps you’re even asking yourself why you should care, after all, games are games, does it really matter where they come from?
Is the PS4 Doomed to Failure?
Well, this issue does of course have prime relevance concerning the PlayStation 3, and even more so, the PlayStation 4. Sony of course is a Japanese company, and while this generation has seen a greater mingling of games among the PlayStation and its main rival Xbox than the last generation did, with less console exclusives, there’s still the general perception that PlayStation is more for those who enjoy Japanese developed titles, while the Xbox caters to those who enjoy more Western-style games.
A severe drought in the Japanese gaming industry (or a retreat to the relative financial security of handheld game development) could greatly affect Sony’s success in the next generation console war, which will likely be a direct battle with American giant Microsoft again, while Nintendo skirts the edges of the battle with a less powerful, more family-oriented system. The snowball effect that could result from weaker Japanese representation, which could result in weaker system sales, and even less development support as a result, could truly herald the beginning of the end for Japan as the dominant player in the games industry, and leave many fans of Sony and Japan’s games wondering just what went wrong.
I made mention of the handheld industry above, and I wonder whether or not part of the problem lies in the fact that handhelds are more popular in Japan, making handheld development far more profitable for Japanese developers, leaving them with limited aspirations to tackle big-budget console releases. This trend was perhaps most strikingly exemplified by Square-Enix, who released Dragon Quest 9, a cultural phenomenon of a series in Japan, for the Nintendo DS rather than a home console for the first time. The game sold over 4 million copies in Japan, nearly reaching the entire install base of the PS3 in Japan as a result, and will be released in other territories later this year.
Japan is One Handheld Loving Country
When you look at system sales, you can see why Square and other Japanese companies have ramped up their handheld production. The Nintendo DS and PSP have sold just over 45 million units, while the 3 home consoles, the Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 have sold about 17 million, a sizable difference. To put that in perspective, the numbers outside of Japan are handhelds – 143 million, home consoles – 130 million. Nearly 3-1 sales edge for handhelds in Japan, yet almost even outside of the country.
You have to then ask yourself, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are Japanese developers flocking to handhelds because of these system sales, or do the system sales reflect the fact that more games, and specifically more Japanese games, are now on handhelds than on consoles?
What about sales? Surely the Japanese can’t be doing all that badly with Nintendo dominating the sales charts every week. And as far as Nintendo goes, there’s no doubt that they’re having little trouble selling games. In fact Nintendo is all but dominating the sales charts in 2010*, with the top 5 selling games of the year so far, and 12 of the top 50. After Nintendo though, things aren’t quite as rosy for Japan saleswise.
Inafune-san Just May be on to Something
In fact, not counting a couple of Sony-published games which weren’t actually developed in Japan, the SCE Santa Monica developed God of War 3, and the French-developed Heavy Rain, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy 13 and Dragon Quest 6 are the only other Japanese games besides Nintendo’s offerings to crack the top 20. 21-30 is yet more of the same; 2 more Nintendo games, a Square-Enix Dragon Quest game, and a Sony game that was actually developed in America, Zipper Interactive’s MAG. Konami’s Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is the only other exception to the trend.
The top 50 is nearly devoid of several major Japanese developers. Capcom has just one entry, Namco Bandai comes in with just one, and Sega manages just two, while Konami also has just a lone entry. Meanwhile, several Western companies hit the list multiple times, including Electronic Arts, Activision, THQ, Ubisoft, and Microsoft.
Whether this shift in global gaming power will continue is hard to determine. There’s no doubt game development is flourishing abroad, and that’s eating into Japan’s market share. The bigger question is, can Japan get out of its handheld funk, and back into prominent game making? And if it can’t, how much will this affect the PlayStation 4?
So is Japanese gaming dying? What reasons do you see for the current dearth of major console releases coming from Japan? Let us know your thoughts below!
*Game Sales courtesy VG Chartz (http://vgchartz.com/)