Game Over? The End of Japanese Dominance in the American Console Gaming Market

by Lauren Klaasse

Almost every gamer who was around in the 1990’s and 2000’s nostalgically remembers their first time playing what is critically regarded as some of the greatest games of all time. Super Mario Brothers, Final Fantasy VII, Ocarina of Time, and Pokémon, among others, that went into forging these childhood memories all hail from the Land of the Rising Sun. For years the Japanese have dominated the gaming industry since it took off in the 1980’s cementing their creations in the childhood of so many Americans. Talk to American gamers now however and you hear talk of much different popular franchises (Halo, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto to name a few) originating from across the Pacific Ocean in none other than the west itself.

 

2000 vs. 2011

Left: Top 5 Games by Sales of 2000; Right: Top 5 Games by Sales of 2011.

Where have all the Japanese games gone? Has America simply lost its taste for these games or have Japanese developers simply lost their mojo? There is no one simple answer but in just ten short years the top 10 selling games went from being saturated by a pantheon of Japanese developers to being represented by only a mere few. This is an alarming statistic for a country who already is economically wavering and subsiding off a good deal of its cultural exports. The  global video game industry is incredibly profitable and despite a global economic slump it is projected to draw in over $48.9 billion globally in 20111. For Japan to lose out to foreign competitors in America is a huge blow to an industry they helped to pioneer. So then what can be blamed for this trend?

International Competition

Throughout the 1990’s and the beginning of the 2000’s Japanese game developers and console makers had almost complete saturation of the gaming market. Looking at the list of the top games from 2000, it is almost impossible to see a developer that is not Japanese in origin. A keen observer would notice however that a good number of these developers have since vanished. Gaming’s seventh generation was gearing up to become a real, pardon the pun, game changer. Japan saw for the first time a console that was developed by a non-Japanese source and a technology giant in its own right: Microsoft. It brought with it an influx of international third party franchises that pushed the boundaries of game creation both in terms of gameplay and, even more importantly, finances. Grand Theft Auto IV, created by the United Kingdom’s Rockstar, managed to set a Guinness World Record for the highest video game production cost topping at $100 million dollars and crushing the $70 million record held by Japan’s Sega Corporation for the development of Shenmue. It ended up making over $500 million. That number is just child’s play though compared to the American produced Call of Duty: Black Ops, who as of 2011, has become the best-selling video game in history, making over $1 billion in sales2. To cope with these higher development costs and skyrocketing profit competition on newer generation consoles several companies either folded from the console market (Sega) or merged (Square-Enix)

Tired Franchises

There is a saying that all good things come to an end. Some would like to say that Japanese game developers never got that message. Companies like Nintendo and Square-Enix have hedged much of their profits on the endless expansions of popular franchises that once defined the gaming landscape. Mario, Nintendo’s flagship mascot, has been a part of international pop culture for going on 30 years. The Legend of Zelda: 25 years. Final Fantasy: 24 Years. Sales still remain strong but with franchises that run this long, it is hard not to overlook the fact that long time fans of these series might find the newer incarnations not up to par. No other game in the Legend of Zelda series has been able to meet the high standards set by the 1998 release of Ocarina of Time which itself has been re-released four times and slated for its fifth this year on the Nintendo 3DS. The most recent title in the Final Fantasy series (Final Fantasy XIV) was critically panned, receiving a rather damning score of just 49 out of 100 from Metacritic. Compare that to nostalgic favorites such as 1997 release Final Fantasy VII and 2001 release Final Fantasy X, both garnering a 92 out of 100.

Smartphone Gaming

A recent phenomenon however could prove in the near future to be another blow to the Japanese game industry in America: the rise of the Smartphone. Generally Japanese gamers are attached to their handhelds like the Nintendo DS or Playstation Portable where games can cost $30-$40 dollars and it has been exported into to a lucrative business State-side as well. Then along came Apple, its iPhone/iPod Touch, and the App Store. Development for this platform is drastically cheaper than its console counterparts, encouraging the production of small scale indie games that sell from $0.99 to a few dollars; a far cry from console gaming’s steep price tags. Rovio Mobile Ltd’s Peter Vesterbacka (the game developer behind the immensely popular Angry Birds with over 100 million downloads) recently touted that mobile gaming will be the downfall of consoles and the expensive blockbusters that come with it3. According to Bloomburg, mobile phones capable of gaming are set to rise 11.4 percent to 1.27 billion while the shipments of portable game systems produced by Nintendo and Sony could drop 2.5 percent to 38.9 million4. The mass market is there for mobile gaming to take off. It could just be a matter of when.

These arguments for Japan’s decline in the gaming market are as much as you can garner from hard data that is published but left out is a distinctly human element. To people who would not consider themselves regular gamers, what nation produces the games might not matter as much so long as they are entertaining and affordable. But to those who have played video games since practically childbirth there is a distinct nostalgia factor attached to Japanese produced games, especially those produced in the 1990’s and 2000’s. When recent Japanese games start to lose out to its western competitors or even to nostalgic expectations it brings about a great deal of disappointment. Let’s just hope it is not the signs of a Game Over for the birthplace of the industry.

Discussion Questions:

Do American/western produced games nod to their Japanese roots or are games becoming distinctly “Western” and “Japanese”? Does this decline in Japanese game influence in America reflect a greater drop in “Gross National Cool”?

*Updated 3/16/2011* Further Reading:

Hiroko Tabuchi. Japanese Playing a New Video Game: Catch-Up. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/technology/20game.html?_r=1&ref=business

Interview with former head of global research and development and global head of production at Capcom: Keiji Inafune. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/one-on-one-keiji-inafune-game-designer/

Sources:

1. Scanlon, Jessie. “The Video Game Industry Outlook: $31.6 Billion and Growing.” BusinessWeek. 13 Aug. 2007. Web. 12 Mar. 2011. <http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/aug2007/id20070813_120384.htm?chan=search>

2. Whitworth, Dan. “BBC – Newsbeat – Call of Duty: Black Ops Is the Best Selling Game Ever.” BBC. Web. 13 Mar. 2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/12734749>.

3. “Angry Birds Dev Declares Console Games “Dying”” IGN. 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <http://wireless.ign.com/articles/115/1155372p1.html>.

4. Kjetland, Ragnhild. “Apple Eats Into Nintendo, Sony Sales as the IPhone Plays to Gamers.” Bloomberg. 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-09-08/apple-eats-into-nintendo-sony-s-console-sales-as-iphone-plays-to-gamers.html>.

Comments

  1. granzini says:

    Good writeup! I’m definitely with you on the ‘beating a dead franchise’ angle; after all, rereleasing a game three or four times seems to have become the Nintendo way of doing things. Yeah, I’m nostalgic for the good old days too, but remaking Doukutsu Monogatari again, with polygon graphics and stereoscopic 3D, no less, and expecting me to pay for it is just sad. On the matters of Western competition and smartphone gaming, however, I would like to suggest a couple more angles to pursue. Would you allow me to persuade you that the trends we’re seeing right now are less indicative of the coming failure of the Japanese videogame industry than they are of market fragmentation in the west creating conditions that are, for now, more favorable to specific Western companies?

    For a start, the rapid and parallel innovations of the First Person Shooter and, more recently, the Third Person Cover-Based Shooter in the West seem to have established a paradigm to which Japanese developers are just now beginning to adapt. Successful companies such as Id Software and, more recently, Bungie have, by codifying the modern FPS, seized hegemony in a sector of their creation. A similar effect is to be seen in the success of Epic Games’ Gears of War, and its ‘waist-high-walls’ conceit. Just because Western companies got to this genre first, however, does not mean that Japanese game companies are locked out. Instead, by adapting to demand for certain ‘Western’ conventions in shooters, a market opportunity remains for Japanese developers. They may even enjoy some advantages from this outsiders’ position in coming years, unburdened, as they are, with the ingrained formal conceits of Western shooters. Note, for instance, the difference between the paced, stop-and-shoot gameplay of the Resident Evil series and Mikami Shinji’s more recent project, Vanquish, which plays like Gears of War on an amphetamine binge. Vanquish’s clever integration of elements borrowed from Japanese-style danmaku, or ‘bullet hell’, shooters into the cover-based genre suggests that there remains room for innovation and success: as Japanese game companies start to reinterpret these Western conventions for shooting gameplay, we might potentially see a return of producers such as SEGA to the forefront.

    Similarly, the roleplaying-game market has, for decades, been bisected between Western ‘CRPGs’ and Japanese ‘JRPGs.’ Recent innovations in CRPGs, especially regarding nonlinear, open-world gameplay, have yet to filter completely over to the JRPG market. The consequences of this gap can be seen, for instance, in the relative successes of Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 3, a critical darling, and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV, which, as you noted, was panned in large part for its overly linear gameplay and storyline. Again, however, I don’t see this divergence as necessarily spelling the death of the Japanese videogame industry. After all, the Fallout series’ characteristically surreal humor owes a lot to Nintendo’s Mother series- borrowing is a perpetual reality of videogame development. If Enix has learned from the failure of the current generation of Final Fantasy games, we can likely expect a more marketable product in the future. That, or they might just expand out of the RPG genre entirely and try to find a new niche elsewhere, as they are presently doing with their Dissidia series.

    Although Western videogames are currently experiencing a bit of a Renaissance, due, in large part, to the successes of Valve, Infinity Ward, Bethesda, and Ubisoft, I do not expect Japanese producers to go quietly. After all, Nintendo continues to all but print money while Activision, as evidenced by their recent double-cross of Infinity Ward, mismanages some of its most critical properties. No one is unbeatable. Nintendo’s gradual descent into an ‘echo chamber,’ in which it rereleases and recuts its oldest properties in pursuit of its diehard fanbase, is regrettable; however, one videogame company does not an industry make. Even if Nintendo were to fail, which it almost certainly will not, its death would not put an end to influential videogame development in Japan. Quite the opposite, in fact: unburdened by Nintendo’s market dominance and recent creative stagnation, new developers would likely rise to fill the gap. When a giant tree falls, the underbrush flourishes. Broadly speaking, there exist two routes for the modern Japanese videogame industry: to adapt, or to innovate. They can incorporate, appropriate, and alter successful Western videogame paradigms, such as the FPS or the open-world RPG, or they can bank on the expectation that Japanese games will defy Western conventions and go in another direction entirely. (Think, for instance, Katamari Damacy…) Most likely, we will see a lot of both in coming years.

    Cultural lines are not, however, the only way to dissect the videogame market. I would submit that a more useful way to define the sector is in gradations of gaming ‘casualness’ that represent distinct sectors of consumer interest. On the extreme low end, we have the mobile market, with Western companies such as Zynga, Rovio, and PopCap carving out a following largely from otherwise non-gaming people through the lucrative, if existentially repugnant, notion that they have no attention spans. This market’s genres, such as the Tower-Defense game, 2D pattern puzzles such as Bejeweled, ‘Physics Games’ such as Angry Birds, and what can only be termed ‘Skinnerian Conditioning “Games”‘ such as Farmville, do not seek devoted and interested followings; rather, they try to position themselves as a substitute for boredom. We do not yet see a significant sector of the population that would consider it fulfilling to sit on the couch and play Plants vs. Zombies for three hours straight on the big screen. Heaven help us if we do.

    The upshot of this expansion of the videogame market is clear if we examine the other extreme: the $60.00 retail box market. This represents a fundamentally different demographic of gamers from the Farmville zombies. If an analogy is to be made between the two, it is one of Hollywood movies versus network television: casual games, like many television programs, are inexpensive and all but disposable, while AAA titles, like films, vary in quality but are consistently substantial, infrequent releases. In general, the cineastes prefer the movies. Likewise, self-described gamers are not going to jump ship and replace their PS3s with iPhones. For this reason, the big name developers, both in the West and in Japan, are, for the most part, insulated from the presently Western-dominated casual and mobile gaming market. The big exception is Nintendo, which anchors a sector right in the middle of the ‘casual’ scale, with its widely successful, extremely accessible, deliberately inoffensive, and aggressively priced offerings. This position between the two poles positions it to suffer attrition from both directions, as the DS competes with more versatile, phone-based mobile gaming platforms and the Wii competes with more capable, less gimmick-driven consoles. As long as the successors to the Gameboy remain lucrative, however, and the Wii continues to dominate the under-15 console market, Nintendo will likely see little incentive to budge from this niche. Should the 3DS prove anything other than a routine Nintendo blockbuster success or Sony and Microsoft’s belated attempts to enter the motion-gaming market make significant inroads we might see some change, but all indications so far point to Nintendo having roundly shaken off the legacy of the Virtual-Boy.

    All in all, therefore, I would suggest that, rather than prophesy the decline of the Japanese videogame industry, we should reconsider our monolithic characterization of the videogame market. That the expansion of the mobile sector has largely passed Japan by in recent years has little bearing on the wellbeing of the console gaming market- the two products cannot be considered to be direct substitutes. Look again at your sales chart for 2011: while only two of those titles were developed by Japanese companies, three of them were produced for a Japanese console and an additional one represents an attempt by Microsoft to imitate the success of a Japanese console. Only one is a Western title on a Western console, and it’s in fifth place. If you want to find a tragedy in this chart, don’t look for Western market hegemony; rather, observe that four out of five of these titles are second-rate, gimmicky motion games either developed for, or playing ‘follow the leader’ with, the Wii.

    Also, on an unrelated historical note: you hold that with the Xbox, “Japan saw for the first time a console that was developed by a non-Japanese source and a technology giant in its own right.” I would argue that Japanese market hegemony only really kicked in with the videogame crash of 1983, which killed or crippled almost all of the major American console manufacturers and game developers. (When was the last time Atari made a game that anybody cared about?) The introduction, that same year, of the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) by Nintendo squelched Western competition from the Third Generation onward. Let’s not remember, however, that for the first decade of videogaming, the Japanese were the underdogs.

  2. Charles Fliss says:

    Lauren, your post strikes near and dear to my heart. I certainly look back with a great deal of nostalgia to the days I’ve spent with Mario, Kirby, and Link. You bring up some really cool points in your post that I’m eager to hear more about. I had no idea that Japanese games and game producers were falling behind in the gaming market; I even thought that with the advent of the Wii the Japanese were pulling further ahead! Do you know if any Japanese company executives (say , those at Nintendo) have made any statements regarding the fall off in success?

    Smartphone gaming is really in its infancy right now, but how much threat does it really pose to established lines like the hand held final fantasy games? Your point about franchises getting tired out is well taken, but will these franchises continue to sell on their names alone? I believe that the console based Final Fantasy XIII was a commercial hit. I’m also curious, though this strays from your focus, if American producers are achieving the same kind of non-video game product success that Nintendo has.