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What are Japanese Gamers Playing?

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By Nelson Schneider - 01/22/17 at 06:46 PM CT

Quite some time ago, I wrote an open letter to Japan’s gaming industry as a whole, asking, “WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” Naturally, I never got a response, but in working with Chris and Nick on MeltedJoystick in the intervening years I’ve noticed some interesting trends that might actually help explain Japan’s problems.

First of all, the top selling games in Japan and the top selling games in the wider world look much, much different from each other. Handhelds, specifically the 3DS, dominate Japanese charts, as do exclusives, with but a single non-exclusive and Western-developed game among them. Western charts, on the other hand, are, predictably, shooters and sandboxes and sandbox shooters with one sports game (soccer, because Europe) and a number of double-listings for multi-platform titles that artificially make the list even more homogenized.

What’s interesting about the lack of Western games being played by Japanese gamers is the fact that a not-insignificant number of Western games don’t receive Eastern release dates whatsoever. This hearkens back to the early days of gaming, when the Japanese dominated the market they resurrected with the NES, but didn’t localize all of their games for sale outside of the homeland. In a dramatic role-reversal, resurgent Western developers have been doing the same thing since the 7th Generation. Not only do Japanese gamers not play a lot of Western games, they don’t have the opportunity to play a lot of Western games. Hell, they’re essentially missing out completely on the Indie games movement due to the fact that localization typically isn’t within a shoestring budget.

Steam, despite becoming more dominant every year in the West, isn’t a big thing in Japan either. Part of this was explained by Steam Japan guru, {Yotsuba}, as being due to the fact that, despite the Internet being a globalizing force, Steam still plays region locking games with its digital offerings, just like physical media. Furthermore, while a beastly gaming PC and a Nintendo handheld are about as far apart on opposite ends of the hardware spectrum as you can get, recent advances in tablet computers, like the Microsoft Surface line, make it possible for many lightweight PC games that are stylistically exactly in the average Japanese gamer’s wheelhouse to be played on-the-go. Valve and Microsoft have a real opportunity here, but neither looks to be capitalizing on it. Japanese developers are even dumping more and more obscure games of their own into Steam’s library for potential Western consumption. It’s only right for the West to make some effort to return the favor!

Thus, Japanese gamers are left to play distinctly Japanese games by Japanese developers that increasingly cater to the niche interests of a bonkers pop culture. They are left with the impression that all Western games are dark, gritty, and violent, which is only reinforced by the fact that the reduced number of Western games they have localized for them are, indeed, just that. It’s a culture war between a global market that wants one thing, and a tiny, insignificant island that wants something completely different. Those of us who grew up on Japanese games before they went full pedo are left with nothing to do but mourn the loss of an entire culture’s worth of creativity in the world’s collective awareness.

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