Are Japanese video games developers more innovative than those in the West? Or is it just that the Japanese games which are shipped over to the US and Europe are those unusual and interesting titles that stand out from an otherwise undifferentiated crowd? And is it the case that what we interpret as 'innovation' is merely the unfamiliar from our own cultural perspective?
I have for some time had it in my head that the Japanese development community is more prone to innovation than the Western developers. Games such as NiGHTS: Into Dreams, Jet Set Radio, Mr. Moskeeto, Dance Dance Revolution, Ribbit King, Animal Crossing, Warioware, Graffiti Kingdom and of course, Katamari Damacy all seemed to scream innovation... But am I merely the victim of cultural bias?
After a recent post here, James O has been engaging me in some rousing debate on the subject - it's been very enlightening to have a contrary perspective. (See the comments for here for details). Like all good friendly debate, it got me thinking.
Obviously, there is no objective measure of innovation. I can't take out my Newometer and take a reading of the originality being emitted from a particular game... It's completely subjective, but that doesn't mean we can't explore the issues with some data which, if not empirical, is at least interesting.
In the later chapters of our new book (it's at the printers even as I write, so our publisher says - I'm strangely excited!) there is a study of game genre. For each genre, a "nucleating game" was identified - that is, the game with which we can associate the genre term. As it says in the book:
Rather than discuss which game was the first example of a given genre (an entertaining but fruitless task), the game which nucleates a given genre term is given conceptual precedence. The point of this rather abstract exercise is to create a yardstick by which to measure terminological slippage within genre terms.
Anyway, I was able to process the data from the nucleating genres into a spreadsheet and look at some (very) rough data on innovation. The assumption at work here is that the titles we identified as nucleating genres are innovative titles, broadly speaking. Although this isn't a given, it's a fair approximation - certainly sufficient for an informal investigation.
The results were as follows. Of the 52 nucleating games identified:
- 24 games (47%) were made in Japan. Of these, 5 (10%) were Shigeru Miyamoto projects
- 20 games (39%) were made in the US. Of these, 2 (4%) were Wil Wright projects and 1 (2%) was a Sid Meier project
- 7 games (13%) were made in the UK. Of these, 1 (2%) was a Molyneux project
- 1 game (2%) was created in the Soviet Union. No prizes for guessing that this was Tetris, the second most successful videogame ever made (we think).
Although this is not hard data by any measure, the results of this informal investigation is clear - the West is just as innovative as Japan, in terms of the nucleation of new genres, at least. (Although in terms of game designers, Miyamoto-san crushes Mr. Wright into the dust, and Molyneux and Meier are at best 'Also Rans').
The more I think about it, the more I believe that James O is absolutely right in suggesting that the claim that the Japanese games market is more innovative is the result of cultural bias. From the West, the Japanese games we tend to notice are those rare and interesting titles that are worth bringing over - but in the Japanese home market, the majority of titles are hum drum Japanese RPG titles and the like. Just as in the West we often fail to see the innovative titles because we are inundated with an endless supply of lacklustre FPS games and the like. We mistakenly believe the Western games market isn't innovative, because we are blinded by the way the market feels as a whole, struggling under the weight of its conservative production line mentality.
It is as they say: a prophet is never welcome in their home town. So also it seems that we tend to see what is from outside our own cultural perspective as innovative and new.