Platinum Games on the east-west divide: “To lump studios together in great masses misses the point”

metalgear

Atsushi Inaba has had enough. For several years, a picture has emerged of the Japanese games industry as insular, retrospective and unable to compete against western behemoths like Modern Warfare, Elder Scrolls and Gears Of War. Japanese developers are stuck in the age of arcade conversions, traditional RPGs and third-person brawlers. They’re just not competing on the world stage anymore; they don’t know how.

“I don’t like it when people lump Japanese games developers all together into one group,” blasts Platinum Games director Inaba. “Frankly, I think it’s a joke. What do these people know?”

Speaking as part of our major feature on the studio in E246, Inaba is tired of all the speculation surrounding the health of the Japanese industry. “Think about Western developers,” he continues. “There are many western developers making terrible games, and then you see one like Infinity Ward making a game that sells 20 million and everyone goes, ‘Hey, western developers are amazing!’ There are tons of terrible western developers, just like there’s tons of terrible Japanese developers. To lump studios together in great masses misses the point”.

The view within Platinum is that their own titles have always targeted the west, and have always sought to innovate. “I don’t think we could say our sales have been a breakthrough success,” says president and CEO Tatsuya Minami. “But if you look at them, the balance has been much more toward western sales than Japanese sales […] you have to look at the worldwide market, because thinking you can get away with focusing on Japan isn’t going to work anymore”.

Kenji Saito, director on Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance agrees, but is also pragmatic on the perceived divide. “I don’t really think there’s a need to be down on Japanese games,” he says. “Platinum is a company that is trying to push to the front and do big things. But I think it’s true that some Japanese developers are still making Japanese games, and trying to maintain their status quos – that’s their strategy.”

So should we avoid making broad generalisations about Japanese games development? Is Inaba correct? “I can understand his frustration,” says George Bray, a veteran games producer who has worked with Japanese publishers such as Konami to help them better reach global audiences. “In the West, we’re not as immersed as we think we are in Japanese culture. We once looked to the East very much for the next big thing, and when that seemed to wane it was a bit of a shock. We thought the innovation was over. But I keep a close eye on Japanese development and there are dozens of studios doing interesting things – the likes of Rucky Games, Neilo and Pankaku. The thing is, I’ve worked with developers all over the world and Japanese studios are the most difficult to get under the skin of. To make their audiences more global, they need to bypass cultural barriers and just reach out.”

It’s difficult because there clearly are cultural differences, and these have become more pronounced as technology has progressed. As Hideki Kamiya at Platinum puts it, “What’s happened is that western games have always been trying to approach realism. Western gamers like this realistic style. And up until the current generation of hardware, they haven’t really been able to do that well. Now you can execute that creative vision, and that’s why you’ve seen such an explosion of successful western games”.

Dewi Tanner is a freelance games producer who has worked in Japan most notably at Pa Rappa developer, NanaOn-Sha. He agrees that a diversification of cultural touch stones has led to misunderstandings between East and West. “I can empathise with Inaba,” he says. “It’s very popular these days to say that Japanese games aren’t as big as they used to be or as good as they used to be. But as he said, there are lots of very different developers in Japan. The thing is, as games become more culturally rich, we’re beginning to move in different directions; now, what’s popular in Japan isn’t necessarily popular in the West and vice versa. Games like Gears Of War don’t sell at all in Japan.”