Japan's "Quirky" Video Games Making Inroads in the U.S.
In California, Japanese influence is not hard to find. In San Francisco, you can eat at a sushi bar for lunch, buy a guide to Kyoto from a Japanese bookstore at the Japanese Trade Center, buy manga, lacquered chopsticks, and calligraphy--and drink sake at a karaoki bar. Japanese cars, televisions, and electronics goods are everywhere. But in general, Japanese culture does not extend to software. With the Microsoft juggernaut and the rest of the U.
But there is a multi-billion dollar exception. On video game consoles, Japanese game software is succeeding in America. Game characters like Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog are almost as recognizable as Mickey Mouse and the McDonald's arches, and have spawned a licensing frenzy that ranges from canned pasta to lunch boxes. Other lesser known Japanese titles have become favorites among American hard core "gamers" for whom this industry is a passion.
In some ways, the video game market as it spans our two countries resembles that of professional baseball. Invented in 1908 by the U.
Why do some products succeed better in one country than the other? "Nintendo did not do well in Japan for a lot of reasons," says Chris Charla, editor in chief of Next Generation magazine, an authoritative source on the game industry. "When the system was first released there just weren't enough games to sustain the momentum you need to have a really successful platform. Also in Japan, the age of Nintendo users is really young--mostly pre-teens. In the U.
As for the Sega Saturn, observers here blame everything from bad marketing and weak distribution channels, to poor relations with American game developers. In addition, the Saturn's reliance on Japanese arcade games made the characters more familiar in Japan than they were in North America. Sega will try again with its new Dreamcast machine, and in the mean time has worked hard to impart an American flavor to some of its games, even when they are developed in Japan. The company has sent Japanese developers to U.
Tokyo-based Sony Computer Entertainment accomplishes this cross-cultural fertilization by operating internal development studios in Japan, Europe, and the U.
Conventional wisdom has it that American gamers want action. "U.
Sega of America spokesman Dan Stevens agrees that U.
Japanese players are also more interested in simulation games than their American counterparts. Charla cites Aquanauts Holiday as an example of a game that did well in Japan but not in the U.
The preference for action over plot is only the most obvious differences between the American and Japanese markets. Here are some others:
PC as game platform : In the U.
Number of games sold : Japan gamers buy more games. "In Japan on Saturn, the tie ratio was as high as 24 to 1, meaning 24 games were sold for every console," says Stevens. "That's huge compared to the norm in the U.
Different ways of speaking : Japanese and Americans don't always express themselves the same way. "There are specific phrases and situations that just don't work in the U.
Different ideas of what's appropriate for children : Here in America, our Puritanical heritage is still very much evident. We try to control what kids and teenagers can see on the Internet, and worry over how cigarettes and liquor are marketed to young people. The more explicit scenes in Japanese manga involving nubile girls tied up with rope would cause book-burning bonfires in some areas of the U.
Different demographics : Brian Goldner, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Bandai America, says that Japanese toy sales skew younger in America. "If something is appropriate for 8- to 12-year-olds in Japan, it tends to be more for 4- to 8-year-olds in the States. That's a broad generalization, of course."
Different ways of interacting : Goldner notes a big difference between how people go about their daily lives. He says that Tamagotchi has succeeded in Japan by word of mouth because Tokyo is primarily "a commuter culture, a train riding culture, a bus stop culture. By that I mean there is a lot of opportunity for people to interact. In that respect Tokyo is much more analogous to New York City than it is to Los Angeles. People see what other people are doing, what they are reading. There is much more of an opportunity to look at the seat next to you and see what somebody is interested in and what they are talking about than it would be in a suburban community where people can't see what's going on in the car next to them."
Indeed, the popularity of Tamagotchi has confounded people in both countries. "I thought that Tamagotchis were going to fail miserably here and they seem to have done pretty well," said Charla. "In Japan, where Tamagotchi was launched, Bandai thought it would appeal to 12-year-old girls and it turned out to appeal to the entire population. In the U.
New Genres Find a Home in the West
Despite these differences, more and more Japanese games are making it in the U.
Charla is reluctant to spell out how Japanese programmers can better appeal to the U.
Parappa the Rapper is also a clear example of how American and Japanese cultures are intermixing on the gaming console. It has the traditional role playing game element of trying to impress a girl. But doing so involves rap songs, a music invented in urban America whose popularity has spread to the suburbs. While the game still requires the kind of hand-eye coordination skills preferred by American gamers, it is in the context of music.
The game's success in the American PlayStation market was in part due to its distinctly Japanese approach, which made it refreshingly different to U.
"Of late the biggest consumer demand is for new kinds of content," says Sega's Dan Stevens. "Consumers are now saying they've had enough of the driving and fighting games. And that has opened the way for some marketing surprises." Stevens cites a game introduced from Japan last year called Baku Baku. "No one in the U.
American gamers are not only beginning to appreciate the fresh approach of Japanese games, but the craftsmanship and creativity of Japanese developers. Japan has succeeded admirably in introducing new characters--the creature you control with your joystick. "The characters that come out of Japan are the best designed, best conceived, and best executed video games for the characters they create," says Charla. "It's not that they are realistic, because they are often 'cartoony.' But the way they are designed is something U.
Charla also likes the way Japanese characters move. "For example, there is a game called Bomberman from Hudson, who when he hits a block can go either up or down. If you hit a block one pixel above half way, you will automatically go on the top of the block. If you are one pixel below half way, you will automatically go below the block. The player never notices, but it's the kind of thing that makes play intuitive. Japanese developers are good at that. Their attention to detail is fantastic."
Another example of Japanese craftsmanship is Sony's Gran Turismo, which is selling well in North America and Europe. The title features 166 "real" cars whose handling, horsepower, torque and suspension are comparable to their real life counterparts. The game has succeeded outside Japan despite the fact that most of the cars are Japanese, including many models that are not available overseas.
This willingness to accept at least some Japanese games on their own terms demonstrates an opening of the American spirit. Usually in popular culture, all we see is ourselves. Back in the 1950s, Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai was transformed into the American western Magnificent Seven-on the premise that cowboys, not Samurai, are what sell tickets in the U.
The Pokemon invasion
While some Japanese characters have caught on in the U.
"It's an absolute risk," says Perrin Kaplan, corporate affairs director for Nintendo of America. "All of us sat around scratching our heads asking: will the American public engage in this the way the Japanese have?"
The American Pokeman invasion is not modest. It will include two versions of the game for Game Boy, a nationally televised series, and a Tamagotchi-style virtual pet--Pokeman Pikachu--that can calculate how far its owner walks. Nintendo named Hasbro Inc. the licensee for Pokeman products worldwide outside of Asia. Terri Bartlett, a spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, could not recall another instance of an American toy company licensing a Japanese character property.
Pokeman certainly has momentum. In Japan, the franchise has sold 8 million video game units, 1 million CDs, and 600 different consumer products. "One Japanese airline has painted the outside of some of their domestic planes with Pokeman characters, with stewardesses dressed in Pokeman aprons," says Kaplan. In the U.
"For years, the trend in games has been to improve the way they look on the screen," she says. "But beyond that, what's the thrill? Nintendo has embarked on a concept of collecting, nurturing and trading." Kaplan says that Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi has wanted to see the company go in this direction for some time. "To him, what's important is how people spend their time, not how pretty it looks."