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Chris Kohler from WIRED ran an editorial pointing out all the visionary, household name Japanese developers that had either left the companies they made a name for themselves under, or simply left game development altogether. We’ve seen Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi leave Konami, Devil May Cry creator Hideki Kamiya leave Capcom, Dead or Alive creator Tomonobu Itagaki leave Team Ninja, Mega Man-producer Keiji Inafune leave Capcom, the extreeeeme producer Tak Fujii leave Konami; the list goes on.
While this is an ongoing and noticeable thing, I wanted to write a response to his claims, beginning with the sensationalist headline that he used: “The Era of Japan’s All-Powerful Videogame Designers Is Over.” This is disingenuous and designed for a simple purpose: the clicks. This is indicative of an ongoing trend I’ve seen happening in the gaming press, where the Japanese industry, and its developers, are an easy target.
“How many Western game designers from 90’s still in role?,” said Tak Fujii, who is known for working on Ninety-Nine Nights II and No More Heroes. I think this is a great response, and I want to build upon it in my defense of the Japanese gaming industry. Visionary, big-name developers leaving, quitting, or being fired is nothing new in an industry known to have revolving doors, atrocious hours, absurd production costs, and so on.
Here’s the thing – this isn’t a Japanese thing, it’s a games industry thing. Many big-name developers have left the companies they built franchises and big, multi-million dollar games in. A not-so-surprising number of developers have grown tired of pumping out the same games over and over, which naturally develops into them wanting to do new things. The most recent example of this is Hideo Kojima, who is rumored to be clashing with the management at Konami, which may lead to his departure from the company.
You could say that Kojima-san is trapped within a cage of his own success, considering that all the Metal Gear titles that he’s overseen have been commercial successes. Kojima has expressed his desire to return to older games like Snatcher, Zone of the Enders, and more. In comparison, Kohler mentions Square Enix, who is making a huge attempt at alpha testing Final Fantasy XV via the playable demo which came with Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, followed by a worldwide poll to see what players thought.
Kohler says that this is in comparison to the Square we saw in the 90’s and 2000’s that generally kept their cards to their chest. While I agree with his point in that it’s a bit awkward to see Square doing this now, it makes sense in a business sense. Square Enix isn’t Activision, or Konami for that matter (who has non-gaming assets to live off). Final Fantasy XV is a gigantic, bloated, much-delayed project that Square is trying to chalk up into some kind of financial success. We’ll probably never know how much money Square has burned on the game, but we’ll certainly know if it sells well or not whenever (if it ever) it releases.
Does this mean the era of giant, AAA Japanese games headed by legendary Japanese creators is over? Yes and no, but again, this is an industry-wide topic and not isolated to only Japan. Allow me to shed a ray of hope into your weary eyeballs, dear reader, as I think there is still much talent in the Japanese gaming industry.
A good example of big-budget and profit focused publishers butting heads with “old-head” developers that want to simply make “core” experiences is the story of Koji Igarashi, who I mentioned left Konami. As the Castlevania series, a series that he aided in building into a worldwide success, was handed off to western developers, Konami put him to directing mobile/social games, because profit. Development costs are continually rising while the cost of games remains the same – thus publishers get more scared of taking risks. I would venture so far as to say having a “big name” developer like Kojima, Igarashi, et al within control of a major franchise is a threat to said publisher.
Some of these developers’ names have become synonymous with excellence, if not perfection. These creators made their reputation on consistent, rewarding, fun and possibly even challenging games. A big name like Koji Igarashi being tied to a new Castlevania game could easily mean the game has that much prestige attached to it, simply from his pedigree. Once Konami handed the franchise off to Mercury Steam, a good portion of fans considered the series dead. While not all of their stories are like Igarashi-san, you better believe that a change in the gaming enthusiast market in Japan to the embrace of portables and smartphones has essentially caught veteran developers, studios, and publishers with their pants down.
We’ve seen this happening over the course of the sixth-generation of home consoles right into the seventh, with the rise of powerful smartphones that can produce near-console quality graphics or gameplay experiences. Despite this shift and the chasing after it by developers and publishers alike, a holdout group of Japanese developers are still trying to make the games they really love – and some of them are even succeeding.
Look at the burgeoning success of Marvelous’ huge boob producer (pictured above) Kenichiro Takaki and his multitude of ongoing projects right now – Senran Kagura: Estival Versus, Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson, IA/VT Colorful, and finally a massive trans-media project with Valkyrie Drive, which is getting an anime, a PS Vita game, and a smartphone/social game. You could say that his unabashed love for the female form and female breasts is his shtick, but I’d tell you that it’s working.
While Dead or Alive creator Tomonobu Itagaki is no longer working on the bouncing-breast fighter, the series carries on under the helm of Yosuke Hayashi, who has worked on several new projects recently, Hyrule Warriors and Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, to name a few. Itagaki-san is working on an exciting looking action game, Devil’s Third, which Nintendo picked up to co-publish as a Wii U-exclusive. It’s worth mentioning that Itagaki is also very open and vocal with his fans, as many of these creators are becoming these days.
Alongside the rising international fame the Senran Kagura series has been garnering is an independent Japanese studio known as Platinum Games, led in part by the aforementioned Devil May Cry creator, Hideki Kamiya. In case you’ve been living under a rock, their sexy and highly-rated action game series, Bayonetta, has only aged well like a fine wine. The original game was scored quite well, while its successor, Bayonetta 2, has near-unanimous praise across the board.
I think Kohler’s argument on hardware manufacturers like Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft “buying out” exclusives by co-publishing them is somewhat of a cop-out. This sort of phenomenon has happened for most of the home video game console’s existence – this is nothing new, and it is not a problem exclusive to the Japanese gaming industry. Whether or not you like platform-exclusives like this doesn’t really matter when sometimes it could mean the game being developed, or quietly put back onto the shelf, like in the case of Bayonetta 2.
These big-name developers parting ways are not exclusively evident of the Japanese gaming industry at large, whose indie (doujin) scene is starting to explode, thanks to the translation and publishing efforts of the folks at Playism, and indie-focused Japanese conventions, like BitSummit. I’m not saying the indie scene is going to save the industry, but I am saying the Japanese indie scene is one to watch as I believe it will begin to regularly surprise and blow people away. Downwell and Astrebreed are examples of this.
Between more and more Japanese doujin game developers having their games receive international attention and new, up-and-coming heads of larger Japanese developers coming into their own with bold new IPs like Senran Kagura, and Bayonetta, I honestly think it’s an insult to say that independent Japanese creators and developers are on the downfall. It’s especially saddening to hear someone say that Japanese developers are trying to “alienate as few people as possible,” when games like Senran Kagura and Bayonetta exist, games that are designed for a particular, niche audience.
What are your thoughts on the Japanese gaming industry – are big name creators disappearing?