What’s keeping Japan?

Posted: December 24, 2010 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

Although the Sunrise Land is still known for fantastic art design and music, technologically, the once dominant Japanese are falling behind in game development.  Some Japanese developers are even starting to admit it.  Even though Final Fantasy XIII was considered to be visually impressive, Square Enix later admitted that the proprietary engine had been a huge time/money sink.  The original claims that the game used 100% of the PS3’s power were more referring to the inefficiency of the engine than it’s comparable graphical fidelity.  Other games like Uncharted 2 look just as good and feature a lot more geometry onscreen at once.

So what the hell is going on?  When Marty McFly said to Doc Brown in Back to the Future that all the best stuff in 1985 comes from Japan, he wasn’t kidding.  The Japanese used to make American tech companies look like cotton plantations.  In case you ethnocentric Westerners are wondering, no, IQs have not suddenly dropped in one of the smartest countries around.  The problems are more cultural and economic in nature.

The main difference this generation from ones before is that all 3 consoles are made of American tech.  While systems since the 80s and ending with  the PS2 were mostly designed in Japan and manufactured with Asian parts, all of the current systems feature circuitry designed in Seattle and California.  This means that in the past, the Japanese were more familiar with the tools and usually got access to them first.  Now the opposite is true.  Not only are most American developers located in the same cities where the manufacturers are headquartered, the designers of tech like DirectX, Havok, UnrealEngine and Source frequently lecture at local colleges and teach seminars on their tech.  Japanese developers need to get all of their assistance through customer service and PR reps.  Their students get lectured by dudes who made games on ARM processors and Z-80 chips.  In other words, the Japanese don’t even have the tools to compete right now.

The other thing that really holds the Japanese back is business honor and propriety.  For example two Japanese developers who were competing would have unspoken agreement of what is fair.  The same way the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi EVO have identical specs every year without anyone officially mandating it, game developers will follow a standard of competition.  It would be almost unheard of for a Japanese developer to nab a license to an exclusive technology on the sly, just to humiliate the competition.  Nintendo, for example, has made no official criticisms of Sony for the Move’s similarity to a Wiimote or that Sony filed the patent immediately after Nintendo’s.  It’s just considered the fair standard now.

In American business as well as law, “pulling rabbits” is the norm.  Trying to secure exclusive rights to a technology that could benefit everyone, or using the legal system to stunt competitors is considered to be part of the game.  American companies love nothing more than to surprise everyone at a trade show with something that humiliates the competition.  Where social humiliation is abhorrent to the Japanese and considered cruel, it’s honestly what drives American innovation.  Who really benefits from two companies like Crytek and Epic having a graphics pissing contest?  Every single damned one of us is who, when we get games that look like Crysis 2 and Gears 3.

I don’t mean this as a harsh criticism of Japan, but more as a sad admission.  All of my favorite games are Japanese, so I hope this is just a phase.  It’s not like the positions held by companies like Square Enix and Capcom are exactly laughable, even now.  They just need to go back to the drawing board and re-educate like the West had to in the 90s.  I would like nothing more than to see a world where Source 2 and idTech5 are given a run for their money by OniEngine.

  1. lagunawsu2 says:

    My two cents,

    While I agree that Japanese companies have lagged behind, by some would say almost a decade, I don’t give two goddamn !@#$’s about what companies have what tech or how shiny and new it is. What I care about is a damn good game, and while Crysis 2 and Gear of War 3 LOOK amazing, they play ALMOST EXACTLY THE SAME. I should also mention here that both of these games will make top dollar, REGARDLESS of how good they looked, though it certainly is a bonus.

    My counter to this is Gran Turismo 5. This game doesn’t have any “rabbits” that I’m aware of, and I don’t even own a ps3, but just looking at the gameplay and the fact that they advertise ONE THOUSAND different cars, I’d say THATS more the innovation and track I want developers to go down, and it benefits us a great deal more than Crytek and Epic’s graphical proccessing epeen contest. (better known as CEGPEC).

    So while I agree that Japan is behind, and even that better graphics are a natural part of the process, and no one could ever have STOPPED these epeen contest (in fact you could have seen them coming a mile away) I think they ARE detrimental to the process of creating a damn fine game. That is all.

    • ryanlecocq says:

      While that is true about Graphic engines not equaling gameplay, the whole thesis of the article is game engine tech. I’m not saying the Japanese need newer tech to make well made games, I’m saying they need more training with the new hardware and software to compete with the efficiency of American developers. If Square had just used Source, they could have finished FFXIII in half the time and it would look exactly the same. All of FFXIII’s graphical shine was art design, not the game engine. Making it just cost tons of money and time for nothing.

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