Pacific Connection(英語)

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.S.'s booming software industry, American computer users are accustomed to working in an all-American environment.

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.S. Civil War general Abner Doubleday, professional baseball was established in Japan in 1934. Today, the differences between the Japanese and American versions are so pronounced that at times they seem like different games--as Americans playing in Japan have discovered. These cultural differences also affect the video game market--and that has leant unpredictabilitly to an already complex industry. Of the three biggest video game machines, only the Sony PlayStation has succeeded equally well in both countries. Nintendo's N64 has been a hit in the United States, but has not done as well in Japan. Conversely, Sega Saturn has done better in Japan than in the U.S., where it has placed a distant third.

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.S. it's still the youngest system in terms of its players." Charla says that older gamers play N64 games because they are good, despite the fact they look cute. In America, "cute" is not supposed to sell to the core audience of male players.

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.S. race tracks and other sports venues where they can collect video and audio samples--and maybe eat an American hot dog and drink some American beer. Meanwhile, Sega's Team Research Unlimited group conducts research on American fads, fashions and music--sending the results to Japan.

Tokyo-based Sony Computer Entertainment accomplishes this cross-cultural fertilization by operating internal development studios in Japan, Europe, and the U.S., with cross-licensing where appropriate. Of course, not every game will play in every country. Sony Computer Entertainment America's 989 Studios, for example, created a game called NFL GameDay '98--a top seller based on America's National Football League. But American football has not caught on beyond North America, and neither has its video counterpart.

Conventional wisdom has it that American gamers want action. "U.S. gamers want something that's faster, less repetitive, that runs longer and plays harder," says Charla. "Japanese gamers seem to care a lot more about the characters and plot." For example, consider the U.S.-developed game Crash Bandicoot. Crash's girlfriend appears in the original game, but was dropped from the sequel. In North America, Sony didn't have to explain her absence because gamers were playing mostly for the action, not just the story. But in Japan, they had to explain her fate in the manual. "Gamers in Japan care a lot more about the stories behind the game, and they want the game to fit into a consistent universe," Charla says. "In the U.S., even if there is no plot, people don't necessarily care."

Sega of America spokesman Dan Stevens agrees that U.S. gamers playing on consoles "primarily want action-explosions, full special effects, good graphics-while in Japan, fantasy-oriented games in which the players can let their imagination go, sell very well." One game genre that has not caught on in the U.S. are the so-called "relationship games" in which the object may simply be to go out on a date. Heavy on text, light on action, they remain a foreign concept to most American gamers.

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.S.--a game that involves "swimming in an ocean, looking at the fish, and not much else." And then there's Tale of the Sun from ArtDink, in which the player is a caveman trying to kill mastodons so he can use their tusks to build a tower to the sun. "By U.S. standards it's a weird game, and it didn't do well here at all. But in Japan it did exceptionally well." Perhaps the closest Americans have come to the Japanese game with its emphasis on plot and de-emphasis on action is the surreal adventure game Myst. But Charla believes that Myst was a one-time phenomenon. "No other game that followed this formula has succeeded--including Myst's sequel, Riven."

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.S., games that take a long time to play are commonly found on PCs, not game consoles, where they attract older players who have the patience to stick with it. That has left game consoles with action games, and little else. By contrast, there isn't a huge PC game playing community in Japan, so that all games, action as well as strategic, are still found on the console.

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.S. for any next-generation console, which has been about four or five to one. The appetite for games in Japan is absolutely amazing."

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.S. For example, some characters tend to use the phrase 'You shamed me' or 'They shamed me' a lot," said Stevens. We would have to find a different way of describing that feeling because a character in the U.S. just wouldn't respond that way,"

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.S. These cultural preferences have meant that some female Japanese characters dress more modestly, and that characters not be seen drinking or smoking.

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.S., Tamagotchi was successful, but mostly among 12-year-old girls, as well as us geeks who wanted to see what all the fuss was about."

New Genres Find a Home in the West

Despite these differences, more and more Japanese games are making it in the U.S.--in part because American gamers are growing tired of the shoot-to-kill genre. For example, Final Fantasy VII from Squaresoft has become the first Japanese role playing game (RPG) to break out into the mainstream. "It was the first RPG that looked really beautiful, so even if you weren't thrilled by the idea of this great epic story, you might still be enticed by the graphics," Charla recalls. "And the marketing campaign behind it was bigger than for any RPG. In fact, it may have been bigger than the combined marketing campaign of every other RPG released in the U.S."

Charla is reluctant to spell out how Japanese programmers can better appeal to the U.S. audience because he thinks Japanese games have a lot to offer. When he says that many Japanese titles are "quirky," he means that as a complement. "Sony's Parappa the Rapper is a perfect example," he says. "It's a rapping dog game that was huge in Japan and pretty big here in the U.S. People are always looking for novelties. Because the Japanese culture is different, Japanese games are novel without even trying."

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.S. reviewers. "When the game magazines saw this they were enthralled by it," said Kevin Horn, senior manager of communications for Sony Computer Entertainment of America. Indeed, Next Generation called Parappa "the most original console games seen in years. The almost surreal graphical style is like a chemically altered kid's cartoon." Having appealed to the hard core gaming audience represented by Charla's magazine, Sony was able to move the product into the mainstream.

"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.S. even knew what that meant. It's the Japanese term for the sound animals make when they chew their food, as in 'chomp, chomp.' The game features animal's heads paired with the corresponding food that they eat. There are bananas and monkeys, dogs and bones, rabbits and carrots, pandas and bamboo, mice and cheese. As pieces fall onto a plate, you have to line up the right animal to eat the right food, all the while keeping your plate as clear as possible. To some people's surprise, it sold well and we even converted it for Game Gear because it's a good one to take on a plane. The game works well for two people, and combinations of moves can earn more points. Everyone here loved it. It's very addictive."

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.S. designers have not picked up on, perhaps because people with that talent go to work for Disney rather than making games. If you look at the 'top 10' video game characters, virtually all are from Japan: Mario, Yoshi, Sonic the Hedgehog, the great fighting game characters like Sarah Bryant, and the characters from games like Tekken from Namco, and Pacman. The only successful character not designed in Japan was Lara Croft, which was designed in England."

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.S. Similarly, Sony's Godzilla struck New York City, rather than Tokyo, even though the cinematic "destruction" of Manhattan has become a cliche. On television, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were recast as American teenagers. And so, American gamers enjoying Japanese titles in their pure form is a hopeful trend. We have sent you Disneyland and Star Wars, you have sent us Parappa, Mario and a company called ArtDink. In both countries, life is that much richer.

The Pokemon invasion

While some Japanese characters have caught on in the U.S. through word of mouth, Nintendo of America is leaving nothing to chance in bringing the Pokemon characters to these shores. The move is clearly a gamble. While Pokeman is a national phenomenon in Japan, most Americans have never heard of it (or if they did, it was in connection with a fast-flickering cartoon episode that caused adverse reaction among its Japanese viewers.) Likewise, Pokeman's animi style has a strong cult following in the U.S., but has not reached the mainstream. And Nintendo has not altered the characters, or even the hard-for-Americans-to-pronounce Japanese names, for the U.S. market.

"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.S., the timing seems good. Americans have shown a strong predilection toward toys they can collect, witness the Beany Baby phenomenon. In the U.S., collectors can be ravenous. At the big E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) show, Kaplan was approached by people wanting to buy a complete set of tiny characters Nintendo had brought to promote Pokemon.

"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."