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Video games that get lost in translation

A tale of two cultures: Why U.S.-made video games are not as popular in Japan, and vice versa. By Steven Kent.
The relative success of "Grand Theft Auto III" in Japan may be a sign of changing tastes, but violent games are still far less popular in Japan than in the United StatesRockstar Games

Despite the success of American music and movies in Japan, Western-made video games have never done well in the Japanese market. American-made consoles such as 3DO (released in Japan in 1994) and most recently the Microsoft Xbox (released in two years ago) never seem to attract consumers in large numbers. Games such as "Enter the Matrix" from Atari, and "The Lord of the Rings" by Electronic Arts, both released last year, often vanish from the Japanese market without leaving a trace.

One obstacle U.S. game makers face is the different emphasis Western and Japanese gamers place on licenses. In the West, consumers look for games with ties to blockbuster movies such as Harry Potter or professional athletes such as John Madden.

The type of game makes a difference as well. "Doom 3," "Half-Life 2," and "Halo 2" are three of the most anticipated upcoming games among Western audiences. Don't expect them to do well in Japan, however. In fact, they will have two strikes against them even before they land on the docks. All three games are, in addition to being violent, played from the first-person perspective. Such first-person perspective shooters (FPS) are big in the West, but have never really caught on in Japan. And few violent games sell well there, either.

"FPS games have become more popular; however, most Japanese people are resistant to FPS games," said Kouji Aizawa, editor in chief of Famitsu PS, a popular gaming magazine in Japan .  "A lot of people [still] resent the idea of shooting people in games."

There are signs that Japanese tastes are changing. When Microsoft launched Xbox in Japan in 2002, one of the big games for the system was "Halo," an FPS game that sold over 1 million copies in the United States. Japanese sales of the game topped 75,000. That may not sound like much compared to the U.S. and European sales, but it is significant when you consider that only 400,000 Xbox consoles have been sold in Japan.

More recently, the World War II-based FPS, "Medal of Honor: Rising Sun," has sold more than 200,000 copies in Japan since its launch in December.

"I feel like we tipped open the door to FPS gaming on consoles with 'Halo,'" said Mike Fischer, Xbox director of marketing in Japan. "So Electronic Arts comes in with 'Medal of Honor,' and they sell 200,000 units in two weeks. I do not believe that, and a lot of people feel the same, that they would have sold any at all if "Halo" had not opened that door to that new genre."

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

But despite the relative success of "Halo" and "Medal of Honor," the gulf in taste between Japanese and Western gamers appears to be growing.

A tale of two cultures
Though U.S.-made games have never done especially well in Japan, until recently, Japanese games dominated the Western market. Companies such as Square Soft, Sega, Namco, and Sony routinely had games on the annual lists of best-sellers. In 2003, however, the only Japanese company on the U.S. top 10 was Nintendo, nabbing four of the top 10 slots with "Pokemon Ruby," "Pokemon Sapphire," "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker" and "Mario Kart: Double Dash." 

The 2003 results were even more bleak for U.S. games in Japan, where no American games made it into the top 10 for the year. Still, some games have done well enough to surprise analysts and industry watchers.

"I thought 'Grand Theft Auto' would not do well here, but it did much better than I expected," said Kiyoshi Komatsu, president and COO of KOEI, a company that specializes in strategy games. 

In fact, approximately 400,000 copies of "Grand Theft Auto III" have been sold in Japan since its release there last summer, catching the entire industry by surprise. Still, that number pales next to the 9 million copies the game has sold in North America and Europe since its release in 2001.

"Grand Theft Auto III" is played from the third-person perspective, not first-person. But its non-linear style of play has not typically been popular in Japan. Unlike a more narrative style of game, players can changes goals or objectives at will. They can chase an enemy or ignore that enemy entirely as they achieve other objectives.

“Japanese players do not like being thrown into an arena in which they are given very little instruction,” said Hideo Kojima, creator of the popular "Metal Gear Solid" games. “You can head in any direction, 360 degrees. They say, ‘What am I supposed to do? Give me hints. Provide me service instead of just throwing me into this arena.’"

"As games become more sophisticated, culture becomes more suffused," said Microsoft's Mike Fischer. "In some respects, I think it becomes more and more important to have development that is local and unique to each culture."

Different standards for violence
And then there is the question of violence. "Grand Theft Auto," in which players establish a crime empire through drug-running, prostitution, and more than a little assault, was on the cutting edge of Western tastes. By Japanese standards, however, it was down right antisocial.

Japanese gamers generally prefer fantasy, strategy, and role-playing games, while U.S. gamers prefer crime, shooters, and sports. Even when it comes to fighting games, U.S. tastes have been more violent, historically speaking.

"Violent games are not so popular in Japan," said Namco managing director, Keiji Tanaka.  "[They are] more popular in the U.S. market."

Of course, it also depends on how you define "violent."

"What is violence, really?" asked Aizawa.  "Western games tend to include more violence.  Did you think 'Street Fighter' was violent?"

Capcom’s "Street Fighter II" was a mega-successful arcade game from Japan and it raised a few eyebrows when it was released into U.S. arcades in 1991. But the game's blend of punches, kicks and fireballs looked positively pacifistic when Midway's "Mortal Kombat" arrived the next year. The U.S.-made "Mortal Kombat" included "fatality" moves such as ripping out opponents' hearts or spines.

"Mortal Kombat" outsold and overshadowed "Street Fighter II" in the United States, but when Midway introduced "Mortal Kombat" into Japanese arcades in 1993, the game did poorly.

The difference in how violence is portrayed persists. Namco publishes two very successful lines of fighting games: "Tekken" and "Soul Calibur. Both, like the "Street Fighter" games, feature full-contact fighting, but no blood.

There are exceptions, however. Capcom's "Biohazard" (sold in the United States as "Resident Evil") has sold well in Japan since the survival horror series was introduced in 1996. With its flesh-eating zombies and murderous parasites, "Biohazard" is both hugely successful and exceptionally gory.

As of last month, the highest rated violent game on Japan’s best-sellers list was #27 --Capcom’s "Onimusha 3," a supernatural samurai game that has bounced around the best-sellers list since its release on February 26.

Both in Japan and in the West, the market is the ultimate determinant. Games are driven more by consumers' tastes than that of developers, Kojima said.

“Western games have expanded in the true sense of action games," he said, whereas Japanese consumers "prefer more storytelling, more detailed settings within the game, a more narrative kind of style often with anime mixed into it.”

Encouraged by the success of "Grand Theft Auto," Japanese game makers may adopt a more aggressive stance when it comes to adult content. This could also help improve their standing in Western markets, where there has been a definite shift toward older audiences and more mature games.

Concentrating on more mature games, however, may open the door for increased popularity of U.S.-style games in Japan itself. The country that has made such an industry out of exporting video games may find itself increasingly importing games as well.