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The Gaijin Box

Posted by nfinit on July 25, 2007

(Submitted to The Platformers 7-25-07)

Gaijin Box
Gaming otaku don’t know how good they’ve had it.

Back in the sixteen bit days, fans of Japanese games had to go through outrageous contortions to satisfy their cravings. With more than a half-dozen console companies and a myriad hardware configurations, we had to either accept the paltry few examples of Japanese gaming genius that washed up on our shores or happily march into bankruptcy.

Sony’s Playstation made everything exponentially easier. Gaming otaku enjoyed an embarrassment of riches as Japanese developers hopped aboard Sony’s bandwagon. The result was a hobby that was not only less expensive, but meant that devotees of Japanese gaming no longer needed to dedicate an entertainment center lined with exotic consoles simply to enjoy Capcom’s entire library.

For over a dozen years, the story was much the same. Sure, Sega lingered around for a while and there was always the odd Konami or Treasure novelty popping up on Nintendo’s hardware, but Japanese game fans never needed to want as long as they owned a Playstation, and the situation only improved once Sega gave up its hardware ambitions with the arrival of the Playstation 2.

But something strange has happened. Independent Japanese developers that have long stood as Sony stalwarts are either treating the company with sudden trepidation or have jumped ship entirely. The next Katamari Damacy, a niche otaku series if there’s ever been one, has been announced as a Microsoft 360 exclusive, as has the latest Ace Combat sequel. Game series that would never have made sense on American hardware before-Resident Evil, Virtua Fighter, Sega Rally and Devil May Cry, among others- are scheduled to share appearances on both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360. And through liberal use of good ol’ filthy lucre, otaku-targeted games such as Culdecept Saga, Trusty Bell, Ninety Nine Nights and Blue Dragon will appear exclusively on Microsoft’s 360. All the while Japanese developers grow increasingly vocal in their frustration with Sony’s vision for the gaming industry.

So fans of hardcore Japanese gaming have to ask themselves– Did Microsoft steal the gaming otaku market while no one was looking? Or did they simply pick up a ball that Sony dropped and has thus far shown no interest in recovering?

Profiles in Corporate Belligerence

For Sony, the reversal is as sudden as it is bitter. Namco has throughly embraced the 360 as a development platform. Capcom, conservative as ever, has decided to split development focus on both systems. Square/Enix is sitting the next-gen fight out until 2008 at the earliest. Even Konami, seemingly Sony’s last remaining friend, has threatened to shop Metal Gear Solid 4 to “other systems”. In the meantime, most every independent Japanese developer will produce exclusives for Nintendo’s Wii and DS systems.

Observers may be tempted to cite PS3 development costs as the primary factor. But it’s not a very satisfying answer in light of the far cheaper development costs for Nintendo’s wildly successful Wii. Developers cite PS3 and 360 development costs to be roughly equal, averaging some twelve million dollars per game, while a Wii game can be developed for as little as s five million dollars.

While true there have been rumblings as to the difficulties in producing PS3 games verses their 360 counterparts, make no mistake, this is about the numbers of Playstation 3 consoles Sony has sold. Or rather, haven’t sold. It’s easy to imagine that Japanese developer, seeing the overwhelming advantage the 360 holds outside Japan, would realize hedging their bets is the safest course, and develop the same games for both systems, if not outright snub the PS3 until Sony’s house is in order.

As with all problems the Playstation 3 has experienced since release, it boils down to Sony lost touch with the console market. Sony has yet to show any indication that they are aware of the consumer rebellion against the Playstation 3, and as a result independent developers are reluctant to trust Sony and whatever misguided vision Howard Stringer holds for the gaming industry. Even if the 360 is doomed in Japan, the worldwide numbers and hardcore backlash are impossible to ignore. The market will not absorb a console at the PS3’s current asking price, and with debacles such as the three-week-long price “drop”, Sony has done nothing to regain the community’s good will.

Enter the Bridesmaid

So whither Nintendo? The Wii has dominated Japanese sales charts whereas the 360 could charitably be called a disappointment. Considering the Wii will almost assuredly overtake the 360 in North America by the end of the year, why have Japanese third parties yet to embrace the Wii, especially when, as previously mentioned, Wii development costs represent a fraction of the 360’s?

Perhaps the Japanese third parties remember the sing of Nintendo’s lash, and the consequences of being beholden to a single console maker. Back in the NES era Nintendo was so strong they could force third-party developers to limit the number of titles released each year, while Nintendo released a steady stream of their own in-house brands. While it is easily argued that Microsoft is a more predatory and monopolistic company than Nintendo has ever dreamed of being, memories die hard, and the legacy of Hiroshi Yamauchi churlish rule remains fresh.

As it stands, games on the 360 tend toward the hardcore crowd, while the Wii plays host to experimental, family friendly titles such as Treasure Island Z. In that light, perhaps the third-party embrace of the 360 over the Wii is simply a recognition of where the respective markets lay– the Xbox brand was built on hardcore college-age gamers, the sort who expect to be wowed by high technology and expect an epic gaming experience. Companies know the market on the 360. Meanwhile developers are trying to determine if Wii owners will even accept non-Nintendo titles, much less non-traditional games without the gloss of advance graphics. Perhaps this explains why the Wii’s Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles consists of a retelling of previous games optimized for the Wii’s controller while the 360 and PS3 receive the series’ true sequel in Resident Evil 5.

A Market Sundered

So what’s a gaming otaku to do? Embrace the Gaijin Box and accept that the Japanese gaming market has been hopelessly split by Sony’s gross incompetence and Microsoft’s ambition? It would not be unprecedented. Twelve years ago Japanese developers left for Sony, abandoning Nintendo’s misguided and arrogantly-conceived N64. At the same time these developers snubbed the expensive to buy and difficult to develop for Sega Saturn– Sega, crippled by this shift, never fully recovered.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from the first Playstation, it’s that game developer’s affections can be fickle– and violent.


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