The land of the rising sun has long been viewed as the spiritual home of the games industry. Many of gaming’s major players are based in, or originate from Japan, as do some of the most beloved and commercially successful franchises in history. Mario, Pokémon, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Street Fighter. It is a country which has given life to experiences we revere and cherish.
Gaming moves quickly. It isn’t that long ago that Sega and Nintendo stood as two titans, trading blows at the forefront of the industry – competing through their games and technological advancements in much the same way PlayStation and Xbox do today. Similarly, consumer tastes change. This is often to do with the limitations of or advancements in technology relative to the time. The proliferation of 2D side-scrolling platformers in the early 90s and the abundance of open world titles over the last decade are direct examples of this.
I feel, however, both as a result of the commercial evidence that exists and my own engagement within the wider gaming community, that Japanese made games, and in particular Japanese centric titles with their unique flavour and cadence, have grown exponentially in popularity and relevance in the western sphere.
In the not-so-distant past it was understood and accepted that many prominent games would launch in the west sometimes many months after their initial Japanese debut. This is now exceptionally rare, with major IP’s not only coming to the west but doing so day and date with Japan, often as part of a simultaneous worldwide release. Franchises like Dragon Quest and the ‘Tales of’ series were notorious for either not coming at all, or doing so in some cases years later, a state of affairs which inevitably did little to nurture their growth in western markets.
There is no clearer example of this ideological changing of the guard than the journey the Yakuza series has been on. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that it was a niche series with a cult following, rustling together modestly supported petitions to try and encourage Sega to throw its fans in the west a bone. With Yakuza 0, the series’ popularity exploded and what has followed has been an ever more rapid series of localisations which have culminated with the latest titles like Yakuza: Like A Dragon & Lost Judgment launching simultaneously worldwide as well as being coveted by Xbox – a clear sign of their new-found relevance and weight in their primary markets.
Notably, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life sold almost as many copies in the west as it did in Japan, with then Sega president Kenji Matsubara stating in 2018
“Thanks to painstaking efforts to create a game that Japanese fans will appreciate, the title has become popular not only in Japan but also won over fans overseas who praise the refined game sense of the title. I believe this is why Yakuza 6: The Song of Life has become such a popular hit around the world.”
Essentially confirming that far from trying to adapt to the perceived tastes and requirements of the western audience, it was in fact the pure engagement with its Japanese heart which led it to be received so warmly in the west.
Quality of content will always drive growth, and this has clearly been a factor with the popularity of titles like Persona 5, Nier: Automata, Dragon Quest XI, and Monster Hunter World. Sega stated in a 2020 financial report “Persona 5 Royal began selling in the U.S. and Europe on March 31st, achieving record sales…” and in June 2021 Square Enix confirmed that Nier: Automata had sold through over 6 million copies worldwide, bolstered by the IP’s warm reception and surging popularity in western markets.
These are not series that have found their groove overnight, however, and whilst their undeniable excellence is an obvious driving factor in their critical and commercial success, I feel that it is also indicative of the evolving palette of gamers in the west.
In the mid 00’s, Xbox partnered with Mistwalker to launch a pair of exclusive JRPG’s in Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon. The intention here was to try and infiltrate the Japanese market, to wrestle away even a small piece of mindshare from a pair of entities in PlayStation and Nintendo who were dominant over it. As excellent as those games were, it didn’t work.
Fast forward to today, and Xbox is again pursuing elite Japanese content, only this time they are doing so to entice western audiences that they have recognised are hungry for these types of experiences. Take, for instance, their association with Sega bringing Phantasy Star Online 2 to the west over 8 years after its initial launch in Japan as they attempt to compete in this area with PlayStation, who traditionally have, and to some degree still dominate Japanese content. ￼
The top three grossing video game Kickstarter campaigns are Shenmue 3, Bloodstained and Eiyuden Chronicle; all titles developed by the creators of iconic Japanese franchises (Shenmue, Castlevania and Suikoden) who, unable to source the required resources in the franchise’s traditional homes, have instead sought to engage with the hunger of the western audience, with obvious success. It is no coincidence that Xbox has struck a deal for Eiyuden Chronicle to launch day one on Game Pass.
A stir was caused at the beginning of the year when Hideki Yasuda, a prominent economic analyst, stated that “Sony is not taking Japan seriously” and that the PlayStation brand was “in decisive decline” in its home country. While somewhat hyperbolic in nature, these statements still feel indicative of a broader shift in focus. The creation and delivery of the finest Japanese content has never been more regular, yet a picture is developing where the country of its birth is ironically becoming less of a priority when selling to consumers.
Source: Kojima Productions, Kojima Productions.
It has been interesting to follow the rumour and speculation regarding the future of Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions. Depending on who you believe (and how much stock you put into Phil Spencer’s shelving arrangements), there may be a tug of war of sorts going on over the future of his games. Kojima, a relative deity in Japan who produces the kind of innovative, bizarre and creative content which is inherently Japanese, has possibly become a prize to be paraded far from his homeland.
The industry will continue to sway towards where the culture is leaning, and wouldn’t it be ironic if the competition on western shores is won and lost based on who can monopolise Japan’s finest exports.