Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My Thoughts on the Game Industry Going into 2012

So here we are going into a whole new year of gaming. 2011 damaged my excitement for videogames pretty bad; I realized that fighting games are becoming stale, that "big name" games are full of old ideas, critics will love just about any game that has a lot of money behind it, and Japanese developers don't release games nearly as much as they used to. I knew several of these things before 2011, but it just really became apparent last year.

So, let's just jump in here: what are my thoughts on the game industry as it is right now? The answer: it's like it was the past couple years, but to a higher extreme. By that I mean: the focus on big-budget western developed games, the focus on selling to the US market, the lack of creativity and risk-taking, the focus on creating the "summer blockbuster" equivalent to videogames, and Japanese developers trying to appeal to the Western market, which were all things seen in past years, have been taken to a higher degree.

I won't go into all of the little details that all gamers already know; rather I'll focus on what I believe is happening to games, and that is a shift; a shift to a "new phase" of sorts.

The shift is separated by two regions: the east and the west, by which I mean the game industry in Japan and the game industry in the US and Europe. Before a few years ago, games were just games; nobody really thought about who developed them or where they came from, but nowadays, it feels like games might as well have big labels that say either "Made in Japan", "Made in USA", or "Made in Europe" on them. More and more the consumers, critics, and even developers themselves are becoming focused on where videogames are being developed, and, in return, create these expectations about the games before they even play them. All of this is creating a rift between the different regions, and this rift became so much more apparent to me in 2011.

I'll skip talking about the US and EU industries and just focus on the one industry I care about: Japan. So, this shift in the game industry and the rift between the different areas created one realization to me: in Japan, the game industry is basically becoming the anime industry. Japanese games do not sell like they used to. At this point, Nintendo is the only game developer spending a lot of money on their products and turning out a profit; however, even Nintendo is having problems, as the sales of their more complex titles like the Zelda and Metroid series dwarf in comparison to the sales of their more simpler games like the Mario and Wii Sports titles. So what's the result? Nintendo threatening to end these series if they don't turn out a profit. This shows me that even Nintendo has become all about business. This is shown even more-so in their games, which have really lacked passion lately.

Speaking of Nintendo; they're reluctance to localize games like The Last Story, Xenoblade, and that one tower game (the name escapes me) show me that Nintendo just doesn't have confidence in the sales potential of Japanese-developed games anymore. And rightfully so, in my opinion. After all, Japanese games just don't sell like they used to; casual gamers in the West always lean toward shooters, that's it. There used to be a time when casuals tried all types of games, but not anymore. And with the rating of games not meaning anything anymore, kids lean towards shooters as well, and just skip over the Mario and Final Fantasy games. Nintendo's situation can be put in for many developers in Japan. They understand that there is an audience in the West for their games, but just not enough to warrant the money that goes into a localization. This is where the reflection of the anime industry comes from. In the past, tons of anime would get dubbed and come to the West, but nowadays, that really isn't happening, because the Japanese industry just doesn't feel its worth the time. This is the source of that "rift" between markets. The Japanese game market is becoming isolated from the other markets.

Japan herself is getting her game industry in check within her own borders. There, the game industry is becoming like the anime industry as well. Big-budget, high caliber games just aren't getting made much anymore, and the developers who are making them are starting to regret it. Case-in-point: Square -Enix; a giant of the game industry with a huge following, and yet their games are not selling nearly as well as they used to, with less-than-stellar sales within Japan for both Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XIII-2. Eventually, Square might not be able to make such high-budget games anymore. Japanese developers have caught into the declining interest in games in Japan, and thus have begun to either focus on creating lower-budget, niche titles, or appealing to the West in their game design. Examples of the former include Level-5, Marvelous Entertainment, and Arc System Works, while examples of the latter include Capcom, PlatinumGames, and Square-Enix. The focus on lower-budget, niche titles greatly reflects the anime industry and how it also focuses on creating short (12 to 26 episode) series with subjects that are not universally loved, but have their own niche fanbase, and the developers focus on that niche and give them what they want with the budget they have. Examples of this niche execution include games like Senran Kagura, Hatsune Miku, and Gundam Extreme Vs. Not everyone will love these games, but the developers sell enough to make a profit by focusing on a niche. The developers that appeal to the West often try to give their games a broader appeal, but this often backfires, especially for deveopers like PlatinumGames and Square who just can't take the Japanese out of their games no matter how much they try. To these developers I simple say: please stop thinking about the Western market and make the games you want to make. Capcom, however, has done well in selling their souls to the West and making games that look like they could have a "Made in USA" sticker on them. This has worked out for them so far, as they're the only Japanese developer to see such high profits. They may not be the same Capcom as they used to be, but that doesn't mean they aren't successful.

Overall, I don't know what to think. Japan is beginning to find its own groove in this modern game industry, but it feels as though the West isn't really going to be part of it. The fact that Square-Enix initially developed Final Fantasy Type-0 without any thought on a Western localization shows me that Japan may just start focusing on themselves and forgetting about the Western market. This is a huge disappointment to myself, but, in reality, the majority of the Western consumer market couldn't care less, and I think Japan is starting to recognize this. And thus, the game industry in Japan is slowly becoming the anime industry; a focus on strong niche titles with the Japanese fanbase solely in mind, and complete neglect of the Western market unless specifically called upon by them.

Of course, there is some love to the Western consumer who loves Japanese-developed games. PlatinumGames and Kojima Production's Metal Gear Rising is trying to be the start of bringing Japan back to the forefront of the game industry worldwide, though I don't really see it succeeding. Some niche titles still make it to the West courtesy of Atlus, XSEED, and Nippon Ichi; who still have a good business strategy of manufacturing over only a few thousand of each title so to still have profit. However, the amount of titles that these niche publishers bring over is nowhere near what they used to do. Hopefully, they don't go bankrupt.

So, yeah, 2011 was a disappointing year for videogames, and 2012 doesn't look to really change things. For me, as a fan of videogames, I think I just need to focus on the games that I can actually play, rather than the ones I want to play. I have to understand that there may be a point where a Vanillaware or Square-Enix game simply won't see a Western release. I also have to come to terms that change is not something the game industry strives for anymore; it's really about sales now. As far as creativity goes, that comes from niche Japanese developers whose games I probably just won't play.

I am excited for several games in 2012, but I don't think any of them will restore my love for the industry after 2011 killed it. I want to go back to the magical days before this console generation, a generation where developers still don't seem to know what they want to do.

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