Irony has a sense of deliberate timing and to be honest, nothing really demonstrates it better than the games industry, circa 2017.
Japan, long been the punching bag of games development over the years and criticized often for its’ “regressive” tropes by western developers has constantly been looked down upon with attitudes ranging from gentle mockery to snarky condescension to what the usually mentally stable, totally reasonable , completely classy game developer Phil Fish calls “Sucking”.
We’ve been bombarded with article after article about how these games are too niche, too weird and too obtuse to ever be consumed by reasonably rational people and just how archaic and backwards they are design-wise (their words, not mine). People have long mocked their industry for being stagnant and resistant to change and according to them there was little hope of them ever overall catching up to, let alone surpassing their western brethren.
That was then. This is now.
In 2017, where Japanese games have not only made a grand comeback (both artistically and financially) but have exposed the sheer poverty in thinking and creativity of the west and for the first time in years, the west has nothing to back up their talk and braggadocio because they themselves have been ‘sucking’ for quite a while
The last few years for the west have been a disgrace and that’s putting it mildly. As all of us have been subject to game after game crashing down spectacularly, developers making promises they fail to keep and outright lying, incomplete and incompetent games filled up to neck with micro-transactions, horrendously designed & repetitive ‘open worlds’ that bore the player to death and absolutely lame storytelling that is terrible even by 90’s television soap opera standards. Western games are now boring, dumbed down and a chore to play and if declining sales numbers are an indication, are not bringing in as much money as they’re supposed to.
Make no mistake, all of it is well-deserved.
No one has been as shameless as major AAA publishers in willing to shorthand and scam even its’ most loyal fans in terms of making a quick profit and to be frank, no one has been even dumber than them in thinking that this facade could last forever, as well. When we talk about the upcoming ‘great video game crash’, we’re talking about western game development and it’s complete failure to understand the market (and its needs) and instead trying to rig the game in order to make a quick buck on the side.
The fact that several extremely well-paid individuals higher up in the food chain completely failed to grasp the fact that anti-consumer practices will eventually lead to exhaustion and declining sales or the fact that they just chose to ignore it, is something that will be revealed over time, but the fact that the west is not even able to ship a polished, functional, finished product anymore speaks volumes about what sort of mess they’re living in it at the moment. One where they have driven almost every major franchise to the ground:
Call of Duty is an industry wide joke, Bioware has driven both Dragon Age and Mass Effect into the ground, Ubisoft has become slow poison that is eating the medium from inside, Bethesda has gotten even more incompetent with time, Double Fine’s dubious kickstarting fiascos, EA’s continued dumbed down, incompetent products etc. have all contributed in their own ways to ensure that most gamers not only actively mistrust the Industry now, they borderline look down upon it. Contrary to the belief, gamers don’t buy games to hate or snark (It’s too expensive a hobby to ever invite deliberate irony), they buy games because they want to love them and have fun. And the continual terribleness of said games have left them poorer in their wallets and having a huge sense of resentment that has led to said anger.
So many major AAA titles under-performing over the last year (Gears of War 4, Watch Dogs, Dishonored 2 etc.) should have been a warning shot for devs to get their act together, instead 2017 proved to be even more of a cluster, with high-profile titles like Ghost Recon: Wildlands , For Honor and Mass Effect: Andromeda crashing and burning (at least on an artistic level) and further driving the reputation of their respective companies into the ground. Putting its simply, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for western games and at this point, it’s fruitless to deny that it’s scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Japan on the other hand, is floating at the very top.
In a move that no one expected, the country has put out a succession of stunningly high quality titles one after the others that have left gamers amazed and the industry stunned. It all started with YAKUZA 0, a great entry into the long running franchise that turned out to be one of its’ better ones and kept on building momentum through NIOH, GRAVITY RUSH 2, TALES OF BERSERIA , DRAGON QUEST 8 (3DS port), NIER:AUTOMATA, BREATH OF THE WILD and PERSONA 5. Japanese games seem to not ever miss the mark this year. In fact, most of them exceeded all expectations. Some of these games are genuine classics that won’t be forgotten after the year and will be played for years to come. Absolutely no one expects this sort of thing from the gaming industry in 2017.
And the best part is that it’s not over. There’s more coming.
Titles like YAKUZA KIWAMI, TEKKEN 7, the PS4 port of FINAL FANTASY 12, DANGANRONPA VOL. 3, ACE COMBAT 7, NI NO KUNI 2, SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY and finally, SHENMUE 3 still to go. And everything so far indicates that all these titles will also end up exceeding expectations and further consolidating the country’s ever dominant hold of gamers this year. And to be frank, the high sales numbers also indicate said fact, with even PC gamers having jumped into the fray (it’s traditionally an unfriendly platform for Japanese games and yet AUTOMATA sold more there than GHOST RECON: WILDLANDS at launch on Steam, though Wildlands did eventually surpass that number due to more hype.)
To be frank, Japan seems to be emulating the period of extreme high quality that the west used to play around in the late 90’s-early 2000’s, where there seemed to be nothing but greatness around. 2017 has been a landmark for them not only in terms of content but willingness to explore and commitment to delivering polished, fully featured products that do not scam or misuse their users’ trust in any way. A lot of these games are content heavy, have fun mechanics and seem to be reaching for genuine greatness, instead of just market penetration.
And they sort of seem to be moving on a polar opposite direction to the west, where the sequels to a franchise are actually improving on its predecessors. So while, ANDROMEDA and WILDLANDS were the worst in their respective series, TALES OF BERSERIA, YAKUZA 0 and PERSONA 5 represented a significant step up from their previous iterations, proving that sequels can be not only great but vital to the growth and sustainability of a franchise (and its’ fan base). And especially after the disastrous Industry (and overall) year that was 2016, such a surge in quality was needed very badly. In many ways, this stellar 2017 showing so far, has saved the industry from imploding under it’s very own existential crisis (or at least delayed it).
After most AAA games underperformed and franchises stagnated, the market still needed an active consumership in order to sustain itself. And that was under the warning signs of a decline until these games showed up. The fact that even niche titles like YAKUZA are over performing are proof of just how badly saturated the consumer market is and how they have partially built a sort of resistance to the over-advertised, hyper-marketed, annualised product and will gladly go for more ‘dispurtive’ options (sorry) that break the common routine. People are so tired of the same old s%#t, that they’ll gladly go out and buy a game where the characters don’t even speak English, if it means that they’ll not be bored.
And the proof is in the pudding.
And that pudding is made up of an enviable lineup of successful Japanese titles. Be it a gritty, hyper-demanding title built around skill and reflexes (NIOH), an esoteric mixture of hack and slash and ‘art’ games (AUTOMATA) or the latest entry in a long line of Niche turn based JRPG’s(PERSONA). These are games that ended up performing way past expectations and attracting all manner of new fans not because they are weeb games but because they’re good games. People who played them had nice things to say to their friends and word of mouth spread. As a result they ended up even outselling western AAA games from last year and now, that cost much more money to make.
There’s a lesson to be learnt here and I’m not sure that the industry is willing to learn it.
Do not take consumers for granted all the time. At some point the levee will break and no Aisha Tyler- led E3 press conference is going to be enough to get people to buy WATCH DOGS 3. Declining sales across the board and little to no water cooler talk (remember Ghost Recon: Wildlands? Me neither) about your product is a bad sign, no matter what the product is. AAA gaming gets nothing but condescension and mockery across the internet and that’s because it has done nothing to earn anything else, to be frank.
If the mass market is addicted to pure product, then at least make a good product. That’s all. A complete, fully functional, service oriented one. If you can manage to make a great game somehow though, all the better.