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The Prophet's Home Town

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.


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"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."

My point in a nutshell. We only typically see the top-tier of Japanese games here in the West; thus it colors our beliefs that since we get so many innovative titles from Japan, they must all be innovative. We don't see nearly as many of their also-ran games; we see Japan through very filtered glasses. It makes me wonder, do the Japanese see us the same way? I doubt it, since Western games don't fair well in Japan (from what I understand) but it would be a neat cultural counterpoint.

"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."

So can we thus cut out Katamari Damacy, because it is a one-shot deal and there has been no emergence of object-aggregation sims? How about Ico, which firmly slots into the existing platformer genre rather than defining a new one? Is that not counted as well? You could even say DDR fits into the same genre developed by Simon years earlier. While I fully understand there is no hard and fast and accurate way to measure innovation, I do have to question the methodology here. I would say SimAnt, SimEarth, and SimLife are just as innovative as SimCity, even though they did not see any successors in their niches; and I would consider at least three Molyneux titles as landmarks of innovativion (Populous, B&W, Fable.)

This qualification even seems to cut out some of Miyamotos games - Zelda was not the first graphical adventure. Pikmin, while certainly innovative, is just a puzzle game. Donkey Kong was probably the first recognizable platformer, so Super Mario Bros would thusly be disqualified. We could perhaps qualify SM64 since it was the first 3D platformer/collector (to my knowledge,) but by using these harsh guidelines we pare down the list heavily. Being that it is impossible to objectively measure innovation, I doubt we should try to come up with solid guidelines and rather simply intuit what titles "feel" innovative - certainly not exact methodology, but more flexible and useful than narrow guidelining, I think.

In any case, I would be interested in seeing the full list. Mostly so I can pick some more fights over what titles were picked, but all worthwhile methodolgies must be subjected to criticism and doubters ;)

On a similar note, I think we can use these points to challenge the belief that the dawn of the videogame era was more innovative. While too an extent, they were almost neccessarily more innovative since less ground had been broken, I challenge that the 70s-80s were all rainbows and sunflowers for innovation. Maze-chases popularized by Pac-Man overwhelmed the market, as did innumberable shmups. However, the passage of time has obscured the low-tier titles, and so the only memes propagated to the younger generations (like myself; people who did not play the originals first hand in arcades or on the Atari) are the groundbreaking titles like Spacewar!, Pac-Man, and Collosal Cave. I posit that in twenty years, the unknowable list of WW2 FPS games will be reduced to merely two or three, and the next generation of gamers will look back nostalgically at 2000, which they will remember as a golden age full of innovation and creativity. The also-rans of today will be forgotten and shuffled into the dustbin, and the only titles that will be remembered will be the ones that changed the face of ludography.

Some clarifications.

Firstly, I was looking at genre nucleation as a yardstick for innovation (because that was the data I had) - I am absolutely *not* claiming that genre nucleation is the only measure of innovation, nor even that it is a good measure of innovation! If you check my post, I make no such assertions... :) I am simply saying "I had this data, I thought I'd see what it said."

Secondly, the titles chosen as genre nucleating titles are absolutely *not* the first games to do such-and-such... We don't believe that being the first to do something is as relevant as being the game to spread the conventions of the form. For example, the 1973 Atari game Space Race may well have been the first racing game, but it's influence on the games industry was negligible. Similarly, the 1979 vector 3D game Tail Gunner is arguably the oldest on-rails shooter, but it did not influence the development of that genre in any tangible way. (And of course the titles chosen as genre nucleating were *subjectively* chosen - but they were the product of discussions and analysis, so there was a process which lead to them being assigned those roles).

Just to repeat: the data I cite is merely a yardstick to consider innovation in a form that would provide some numerical data. It is categorically *not* an attempt to define, restrict or otherwise objectify the subjective concept of innovation in games.

Duly noted.

What's interesting here to me, is that from what it sounds like (pure conjecture drawn from your posts) that there is a success-bias in the list - that is, titles that were innovative and sold poorly/did not make a stir are less represented than innovative titles that did succeed. I'm not really going anywhere with this, but I think its worth keeping in mind. Going back to the SimAnt or SimEarth example, I think both were quite innovative in their topic and in their way of simulating and representing it, but they did not really succeed on the scale of The Sims or SimCity (which I assume are your two Wright titles.) No titles were quite like them, then or now. Granted, SimCity and The Sims were more innovative and certainly changed the way we think of ludography to a greater extent, but it's worth remembering the 'little games that could.'

Yes, you're right - this is an inevitable bias in this particular data, because we're singling out those games which defined and influenced the development of genres. Unsuccessful games, for the most part, don't wield so much influence.

I think we all have a handful of commercially unsuccessful, innovative titles that are close to our hearts. Whether it's cult classics that never pulled in the sales, like NiGHTS: Into Dreams, or total obscurities like Road Trip Adventure, Arac and Tail Gunner (which was my favourite arcade game when I was 7 years old!), the nice thing is that we all have different games that we remember fondly as original play experiences, but which never quite managed to achieve a significant degree of commercial success.

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