Recently, Namco Bandai's Japanese president came out and said he is disappointed with the way his company's games have done in the West. The company's most recent release, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, didn't sell up to expectations... or at least what Heavenly Sword sold. The company has never really broken into the Western market and I couldn't figure out for the life of me why. The games they make are generally good, receive decent scores (and we all know that's what Western consumers care about) and also receive a decent amount of fanfare. Because of poor sales, the company plans to scale back releases in Western markets from now on. And I can't blame them at all.
The Western gaming market is a lot different from what the Japanese are used to. The Japanese gaming market is more centered on RPGs and the major studios in Japan, while the Western market is based more on FPS and advertising the shit out of a game. A new game being released in the West will usually fail if it doesn't receive a decent amount of advertising... That's why franchises these days are successful. Also the Western market is all about establishing a foothold. Without a previous reputation for that franchise or a studio, a game is doomed to fail here. Namco Bandai has had mediocre success here, but nothing comparable to what other successful Western studios average. They should focus on Japan only and not set their sights on the Western audience. Other games released recently by Japanese studios have done poorly: look at Final Fantasy 13.
It's an interesting question, though, in the grander scale of things. Why do both areas favour such different types of games? Why is Monster Hunter such a success there when Call of Duty sells huge here? I think it's what console each area prioritizes. Japan has embraced Sony's products while the West has taken light of what Xbox Live is capable of. The PS3 and PSP is best for the single-player experience, hence the RPG, and the Xbox is superior in the online department, hence the success of multiplayer-oriented franchises.
It is possible for Japanese games to be a success here, don't get me wrong. The Final Fantasy series is legendary for this. Anything Final Fantasy is received with great hype here (except FF14, even though that game tanked everywhere), and Metal Gear Solid has a devoted fanbase as well. But what these franchises share is the time they've spent in the Western gaming scene. Final Fantasy started in the early Nintendo systems and MGS started on the PS1. That was fifteen years ago - a really long time. Two decades is more than enough time to establish a franchise; but unfortunately today, developers don't have time to compete. They need to keep the hits coming or there is a chance their games will be overshadowed by the next best thing and then bye-bye studio. Just the nature of business I guess.
But the real question is the complete opposite of this: will Western developers ever be successful in the Japanese market? With such different priorities and Microsoft getting their ass kicked in the console race, I don't think for a while. The Japanese studios have become institutions of Japanese culture and for Western developers to break though, they'll have to work their way slowly into the hearts of the Japanese. It's a simple formula: make a great RPG, get the attention of the Japanese, gain a reputation, and then make the games you want to make.
This is probably the most complicated conundrum in gaming today. Both environments are so diverse in the games they desire that establishing a foothold seems relatively impossible, and to some extent it is. But, with the Japanese slowly embracing Western culture - pigging out on McDonald's and the other fat things we do - maybe they'll adapt our FPS-playing ways as well. Only time will tell.
Now I am off to get a coffee and work my ass off for the next two days to get work done. School break starts Friday at noon. WOOHOO! (P.S. I hope I haven't hurt anyone's feelings in this blog post. I just wish both cultures would embrace each other because the potential is so great).