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.
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?
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)
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.
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.
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/
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>.