Monday, July 27, 2009

Digital Distribution and Japan

Digital distribution is either the savior of the video game industry or a vile scourge, depending on who you ask. I hate it for all the reasons people tend to bring up, so I'm not going to regurgitate them here. What does interest me is a comment I read/heard somewhere, and I wish I could remember where so it doesn't seem like I'm pulling things outta nowhere. Apparently the Japanese are wary of digital downloads because they don't trust it, and would rather have physical goods. It's interesting to hear this applied, because if you try to poll America or anything else, I don't think you'd get a straight, consistent answer. It might be a huge over generalization - apparently the Japanese iTunes is also making a killing over there, although the markets are completely different - but let's for a moment say it's true. So the question is, why would that be the case?

I think the PC game market has a lot to do with it. Ever since the appearance of hard disks, gamers no longer needed their floppies unless they needed to reinstall, and usually just kept packaging around for copy protection purposes. Eventually CDs required use of the media to play the game, but within another decade or so, hard drives became so large that nearly all games just copied themselves entirely to the computer anyway, with the CD/DVD only been used for irritating copy protection. And with that has come an increasingly annoying number of disc-based DRM schemes like Securom (aggrvating but not terrible) and Starforce (The Devil in the form of a rootkit.)

It's more than just that - the packaging for PC games has become all but non-existant. In the days long past, Infocom games would come with tons of near little extras. Sierra games also usually had fun little supplemental material - Space Quest in particular had a made-up tabloid. But then as time marches on and the emerging management class wanted to cut costs, these went away. Now many PC games are in small, generic cardboard boxes, which can't even afford the decency to put the disc in a jewel case, opting instead for a sleeve. You're lucky if you get an instruction manual that's not a PDF. There are still games that cone in thick DVD-style cases, but even those are sad. Last year, Xbox 360 gamers complained about the release of Lost Oddysey, where three of its four DVDs were stacked on a single spindle, and the fourth in a paper sleeve wedged into the instruction manual. Little did they realize this was commonplace amongst PC games. Futhormore, there's no marketplace for used PC games (outside of Amazon and the like online, which are a bit shifty due to DRM), so people don't assign "value" to them like they would console games, to be traded at Gamestop or elsewhere. The long and short of this has taught PC gamers that physical media is not only a hassle, but also worthless.

Now, we're seeing the PC and console markets merging together even closer, especially with the dominance of Western games in the marketplace, so it's natural that some of that PC mentality would blend in. Japan, however, doesn't even remotely have the same PC game market. As mentioned several times elsewhere, it consists entirely of (A) Western games (B) a small selection of Falcom stuff, and (C) porn. The markets haven't merged in the same way, because that market is tiny to begin with.

I think another big difference has to do with the fanbase, and how Japanese companies (I can't think of a nicer word) exploit them. For a lot of them, their products diversify far beyond games, moving into art books, soundtracks, manga, figures, and any number of assorted trinkets. Part of being a fan is part of being a community, and with that mentality, comes a lot of collecting, which by virtue involves material goods. That, of course, includes the game itself, or any other games in the series. And with this spawned the huge collectors item releases. Take that aspect away, and what do you get? By comparison, digital distibution is remarkably unfulfilling.

(As a tangent, some of that mentality is bleeding over to the Western audience, although not in the same way. "Limited editions" are becoming more prevalent than before, but Japanese special editions are usually a lot more than a tin case and bonus disc, and are usually a lot more expensive too. The only Western game that really tried this on the same scale is the Halo 3 Legendary Edition, which performed rather underwhelmingly. You're seeing this sort of things being marketed more and more over in the US - the soundtracks from Sumthing Else, or the Capcom artbooks from Udon - but it's not nearly to the same scale as Japan, and I have no idea if they're even profitable. )

So I don't think it's a case of cultural sensibilities getting in the way. Rather, it's just the nature of the marketplaces in the respective territories that have conditioned consumers in a certain manner. I'm sure the corporations realize this, and know that change can't come overnight, and will try forcing it on us anywhere, hoping that time will sway people. I sure hope it doesn't.


Sketch brought up a point I completely neglected - compared to the rest of the modern world, Japan kinda hates credit cards and are, comparatively speaking, more of a cash-based society. Why, I don't know - it's a whole other topic - but that alone would obviously make people wary about buying little ones and zeros over the internet. It's definitely one of the main reasons for the existence of prepaid cards. (The whole ordeal also makes shopping there as a tourist extremely aggravating, and it doesn't help that most of their ATMs don't take foreign cards...)


  1. Were you thinking of Play magazine, issue 91 I believe, where they had an interview with the guy at Q-Games, which is based in Japan, and he said that the Japanese don't like digital distribution, Famitsu magazine still won't review digital download only games (which annoyed the Q-Games guy, since he said that meant they weren't getting scored and weren't getting coverage in Japan), and that the Japanese as a nation dislike credit cards, thereby making them less likely to purchase digital games?

    No idea how accurate his statements were, but that's the jist of what he was saying.

    I'd scan the issue in question, or type up some quotes, but I left my copy of the mag at a friend's house. It's a single page interview fairly on in the issue, with WET on the cover.

  2. Is there a way top edit old comments?

    I also wanted to ask... Regarding PC gaming in Japan, isn't a fairly large slice the doujin scene? Or does that fall under porn? Because HG101's coverage has been very good regarding doujin titles, and my feeling is there's a lot more which we in the west simply never get to hear about.

  3. You know, I TOTALLY forgot about the credit card stuff...lemmee add that in.

    The doujin scene does account, percentage-wise, for a good chunk of original game output in the PC marketplace, but in my limited experience you have to go into specialist shops to find them, so they're about as niche as the porn (and usually found in the same places.) I do have to wonder what kind of PC stuff they stock at a bigger chain like Yobodashi Camera, but I never thought to check.

  4. Well, truth be told, I kinda hate credit cards myself. I find it interesting that as a society they've taken that stance and so consumerism/retail outlets have had to adapt by implementing things such as prepaid cards. Europe for example has only recently gotten prepaid PSN cards - whereas it's had credit card payments from the start.

    Since they kicked the Portuguese out however many centuries ago, and probably before that, Japan has always had a way of doing it's own thing. Computers is a good example, with home grown hardware by companies like NEC, up until about the mid-90s when they started to adopt Windows compatible systems.

    Online auctions is another: the world was forced to adopt eBay after Yahoo closed down, whereas in Japan it was Yahoo which kept going, thereby creating a wholly isolated bubble.

  5. While the reluctance to use creditcards might have some influence on digital distribution (even though prepaid cards are available at every convenient store), I personally think it is due to the fact that domestic internet access isn't as widespread as it is in the US and Europe.

    Interestingly, the Japanese _are_ into digital distribution when it comes to cellphone games. Should be interesting to see how the PSPgo fares in Japan...

  6. "I hate it for all the reasons people tend to bring up"
    You mean you dislike the fact that games would go for a cheaper price, resources wouldn't be exhausted on needless packaging, and most of the profit would go to the actual developers instead of the publishers?

  7. I appreciate the fact that more of the profit goes to the actual developers, and I love some of the price deals I see on digitally distributed games.

    Personally, I can understand the fear of the game itself becoming unplayable if the company that owns the distribution service goes out of business, and that's probably a very real fear. But overall, to me, the pros outway the cons, and I love purchasing my games online and having them just download directly to me, and being able to redownload them if I ever have to reinstall Windows or delete my games for any reason.

    Oh yeah, and many many small companies and independent games wouldn't be able to even get their product to an audience at all without digital distribution.

  8. Hey, I gotta say

    I love you guys. This site, and now this blog, are always among the best sources of truly interesting and informative discussion.

    Please, go on.