My Way Or The Bullet Train: How Asian Game Companies are Getting It Wrong

Asian game companies must adapt or risk becoming irrelevant to Western gamers.

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.

Final Flummoxing

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.

Featured Correspondent

Jason Winter is a riddle wrapped inside a burrito, smothered in hot sauce. Mmm... burrito...

Published Aug. 27th 2013
  • Ashley Shankle
    Associate Editor
    It's very easy to forget that North America has a much larger player demographic today than it did 15 years ago. The market for Japanese-style games is still very much there, but it pales in size in comparison to the type of games your average Western gamer look for.

    The fact of the matter is, you can whine and bitch and moan as much as you want -- it's the American way -- but the types of practices we've seen from Japanese companies (and to a lesser extent Chinese companies) are not going to change because they work in those markets, and there are people in the West willing to deal with those practices to get the types of games they want.

    Japanese companies are aware they need to change in order to swim in the West, but the business culture over there isn't easy to change and it won't change for quite some time. I mean, that's not something that can really be debated, but their lack of flexibility only affects fans of Japanese games in the west. This demographic, as stated, is willing to deal with it.

    Anyway, having wandered to MMO Bomb and seen another article of yours I can't help but wonder if you're on some sort of warpath on a topic that those it actually affects don't really care about.

    Continuing on this (the topic of your other article), the overall goal of FFXIV is to last for a decade just like FFXI has. XI, being the company's most profitable game of all time, proves that a longtime sub model on a Final Fantasy MMO can work and it will work again. I don't like the $14.99 price per month, but considering the heavy losses on 1.0 it's expected. The goal is stability, as with most other Japanese business decisions. It's all about stability.
  • [[Deleted]]
    Contributor
    "True Strike" (Bonus points if you get the FFXI auto translate joke implied.

    Our friends across the sea have already stated when asked about the subscription line was that since they were internally funded, they wanted to focus on creating a stable environment for the game to grow, even reaching out and doing crossover content with the other Final Fantasy teams. They are more interested in the long term of the product rather than trying to get as many initial sales to pay back investors.

    Now I love me some Guild Wars 2, I have a nice guild that does WvW twice-ish a week and overall I think its a great game, and its Free To Play, granted I've dropped an extra 50 bucks or so on Gem Store stuff... but that aside I find one thing lacking... every 2-4 weeks Guild Wars 2 sees "New Content"... however most of this content is just a re-hash of existing content. For Example, we just had the "Queens Jubilee" which in turn everyone piled into one area and farmed high level mobs in a never ending chain of events.... now we have "Clockwork Chaos" in which.. every hour a world map is designated and people cram in there to ... farm high level ("Champion") mobs in a chain of events lasting almost a full hour... the twist is that at the end if you complete the chain of events you face off against the Scarlet chick and winning gives you some more bonus loot.

    ... so these events are basically... the same... go to area... zerg chain of events and hi level champion mobs for loot, lather rinse repeat.

    Square-Enix's goal on the other hand is to produce fruitful expansion content and events that are unique and fresh from each other. ... they seemed to succeed for many years at it with FFXI ... so hopefully they can with XIV as well.

    To the Original Poster... these games are coming from a place on the planet where yes... they have different ideas, different business mottos, and a different CULTURE, their games are produced targeting their market not ours, they have found success in entering our market as well however as much as they may (or may not to) want to bend to our ways... first and foremost they have to appease their target market which is significantly different than our own.

    As for the You Tube blockage and such... although perhaps going a little far, I see the point, you pay extra money, and/or pre-order in order to get early access to the game, is it fair to those people for some jack-hat to go streaming his play for everyone else to see, its taking what was supposed to be an exclusive event and making it more or less... public. Granted those watching arent' playing but their still getting... some form of experience from what... pulling up you-tube, again how is that fair to the other people that jumped through the hoops in order to get on early?

    Its more or less a slap in the face... just like the guy that lined up a week early, bought two PS3's, took one out and sledged it in front of everyone else in line, then took the second one home and sold it on Ebay.

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