My Way Or The Bullet Train: How Asian Game Companies are Getting It Wrong
I don't remember where I found it, but several years ago, I read a piece on the difficulties Asian game developers – who had once had a stranglehold on the worldwide gaming market – were struggling. The general opinion was that Asian companies were still tightly bound to “the way they'd always done things” and were resistant to change, while Western devs had “caught up” and were more likely to produce top-notch entertainment that appealed to an American and European audience.
I read that article about six or seven years ago. Sadly, it looks like not much has changed.
Children of the '80s
When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, the video game giants were almost all from the Land of the Rising Sun: Atari, Nintendo, SquareSoft (before merging with Enix), Capcom, Konami, and so on. We lived with the odd cultural differences, the clumsy translations (“YOU SPOONY BARD!”), and the spiky-haired protagonists because we found them charming and we had no other choices. (And, maybe in my case, because I was 13 years old and figured some things were just over my head.)
Gradually, the Western companies caught on and started to make their own inroads into the Eastern dominance of the market. Companies like Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Bethesda Softworks, Valve, and others started small but evolved into global giants in their own rights. They presented characters and situations more appropriate to a Western audience, and players identified with their icons. Even fantasy worlds started feeling more European than Japanese and most players, having grown up learning at least a smattering of medieval European history and playing Dungeons & Dragons, found characters who looked like this:
More recognizable and easier to identify with than characters who looked like this:
This isn't an indictment of Asian culture or the people of Japan (or Korea, or China). It's merely a reflection of the often vast differences between East and West that have baffled people from both sides of the Pacific for centuries and will probably persist for centuries to come. Japan is as traditionally bound to the past as any country on Earth, especially among the older generation – i.e., the types likely to be in control of multi-billion dollar gaming companies.
Japan essentially locked itself into a voluntary cultural stagnation for over two hundred years; it took Commodore Perry and four American warships to force it into modernization. It's going to take more than video games to make the country change again.
As I write this, on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 26, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is in its early access period. The game is essentially live. But, unless you've got special permission – meaning you're a major media outlet who's negotiated for the right – you can't show video of it, either via livestream or upload service, such as YouTube.
There are so many people logging into FFXIV that they're having trouble keeping the servers up. The game is open to a very wide swath of the public, and those people are not allowed to fully disseminate information about the game.
In case all that seems confusing, this should only muddle things more:
So I can make videos once the game launches (8/27). But I can't make videos during Early Access, which runs until 8/29? Huh?
And... just as I was writing those last few paragraphs, the NDA was officially dropped. I'm leaving them in, though, to give you an idea of the confusion that rippled through the player base, or at least my Twitter feed, Monday afternoon. Also, the official usage guidelines state that it's dropped effective tomorrow (8/27) – which I'll assume to be related to the time differences between here and Japan, but again: confusion is the norm.
Regardless of the exact details, why restrict streaming at all? This is 2013, not 2003. Twitch and YouTube exist. Deal with it. But at least I can still make a few bucks from my uploaded YouTube videos, right? There's nothing in the official guidelines about that, is there?
“You may not monetize your video via the YouTube partner program or any similar programs on other video sharing sites.”
Well. How about that.
But wait, there's more (confusion)!
This isn't just a slam on Japanese game companies or Square-Enix, whose anti-YouTube stance sounds eerily similar to another controversial and clueless decision by another Japanese company earlier this year.
Snail Games' near-incomprehensible loot system for Black Gold Online has left people scratching their heads at exactly how it works, and it's not the first time the company's had issues with, you know, words on its website.
An example from outside the video game world: There was a time when official tournaments for the Yu-Gi-Oh! CCG were run as single-elimination affairs. A kid might play all week after school, spend hundreds of dollars on just the right cards, get his deck just right, and show up for the tournament... only to be dismissed after 15 minutes because he lost his first game.
And why was this the case? As an employee of Upper Deck, who was distributing the game for Konami in the U.S., told me, “Because that's how they do it in Japan.” After much cajoling, Upper Deck was finally able to convince Konami to allow them to run tournaments as round-robin events.
Nobody likes to be second-guessed. As a writer and editor, I've seen both sides of that equation. I'd wager that your typical Japanese executive is even less accustomed than his Western counterparts to being told he's wrong from a subordinate, and thus policies that seem good in theory are perpetuated down the line, even when evidence would indicate otherwise.
Nothing I've talked about yet even discusses the content of games. For a long time, Western gamers equated “free-to-play” with “Asian grindfest.” That's still the case sometimes, but even when it's not, miscommunication and other completely avoidable barriers make Eastern games unappealing to Western audiences.
Adapt or die
The rise of Western gaming companies and the inflexibility of Eastern developers are major reasons why Japanese video game companies are losing the battle in the West, both in terms of public relations and revenue. Three of the top four companies on this chart are American, and many of the rest, like Tencent, DeNA, GREE, NetEase, and Shanda are virtually unheard of outside of Asia.
Could you imagine any Western company surviving with these kinds of policies and horrible communication snafus? Or even a company with Eastern roots but with a strong North American presence, such as SOE (Sony), ArenaNet (NCSoft), or Cryptic Studios (Perfect World)?
Again, don't get caught up in your personal opinions regarding those companies' games. They've all made mistakes, but they've usually been related to errors or exploits or other unintentional problems. That's different from planning and carrying out policies that are confusing or deliberately detrimental to your player base.
In other words, if you like playing an MMO with a spiky-haired protagonist and a sword bigger than he is whose sole purpose in life is to kill rats in easily managed packs of 10 and do dungeon groups with a strict healer/tank/DPS trinity: that's fine. It's how you like to play, and there's nothing wrong with that. Those are intentional design decisions by the developers, who are trying to draw in a certain type of gamer.
It's the "intentional decisions" by a company that seem hostile to its players – like restricting YouTube videos, repeated poor communication, and awful translations – that no gamer, even the fanboi-est of the fanbois, should tolerate.
Once, Asian game developers were the cream of the crop, the best in the world. They won't be again unless they find a way to adapt to the changing times, put aside their egos, and accept that maybe, just maybe, we gaijins occasionally know our own people better.