Why We Bang Our Head Against Japan


Sometimes it seems like Western video game businesses love to sink money into Japan. From Microsoft’s well-documented and long-running tale of woe trying to sell its Xbox and Xbox 360 there, to Electronic Arts’ multiple aborted strategies for the region (including recently starting up and closing down a complete internal studio, with nary a product to show for it), one gets the sense of a lost cause that can’t be dropped. Why keep trying? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal summed it up this way: “The Japanese market is less than half of the size of the U.S. market, but Microsoft has been unwilling to give up on it because many of the top software makers are based there, and Japan holds huge symbolic value as one of the big videogame cultures.”

The first of those two reasons, having sizable market share in software developer’s own region, doesn’t seem necessary anymore, not at a time when many of the top Japanese publishers are attempting to expand internationally in the opposite direction. Capcom’s recent Dead Rising and Lost Planet are examples of financially successful Japanese titles created for the Xbox 360 even though the console has not made so much as a dent in Japan. And Activision, the other big American publisher, essentially ignores Japan as a potential market, to what seems like little or no detriment to its bottom line. It just doesn’t seem to make much business sense.

But the “symbolic value” of the article is another thing entirely, and I believe it explains a lot. There is no strategic reason or monetary sum that one can attach to this, just a sense of pride and prestige. The executives who run publishers aren’t my age, and perhaps their reasons are entirely different than my own. But I believe I know why I’ll keep banging my head against Japan.

Many people in my generation grew up playing mostly Japanese games on Japanese consoles, and early memories have a way of persisting, of becoming a part of one’s being. We wrestled with those games, wearing out our patience and our controllers, and some of us went on to become game developers. When we look back, we understand that someone (in a nondescript office building in Kyoto, we imagine) put that block, or that lift, precisely there for a reason– to test us. And perhaps the adults didn’t get it, but we did, and we tried very hard until we passed those tests.

In a case like this, it’s natural to want to speak back. We want to describe how much of our young selves we sank into those games. And if that was your puzzle, we’ll say, here is ours. They’ll understand, because it was they, so many years ago, who first confounded and challenged us in the same way. I think that’s why we dream of people in the mysterious, inscrutable, sakoku land of Japan playing our games.

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