Friday, October 29, 2010

East vs. West with Keiji Inafune and Hiroyuki Kobayashi

Keiji Inafune, one of guys behind Mega Man and also one of the head honchos over at Capcom, recently announced that he's leaving the company. I got to meet him a few weeks ago at NY Comic Con and got a picture with him, although it is far too dorky to post. I figured this would be a fitting time to dig up an old interview I did with him about his views between Western and Japanese game design for a 1Up article from about four years ago called Clash of the Cultures.

Inafune has come under fire for his comments regarding appealing to Western gamers. While he's said some things that are certainly questionable, and when he says things like "I want to study how Westerners live, and make games that appeal to them", I wonder how much of that was his personal thoughts or the bean counters at Capcom. But I also think too many people are misconstruing some of the things he's said. I take most of his commentary as "Japan development has stagnated and has a lot to learn from Western development, and much profit to made, because they're actually buying console games", which is being interpreted as "All Japanese video games nowadays are awful, Western games (and gamers) are superior so let's make more brown and grey shooters."

While my own article had some detractors (one of the commenters here called it "one of the most ignorant, superficial, and ultimately worst article I’ve ever seen in my life"), I think my biggest mistake came from underestimating the sensitivity regarding the national origin of people's favorite games. Some people called my article jingoistic, others called it too wapanese. My point was they both had their pros and cons, that by considering these could result in more rounded games, and that's the sentiment I get from Inafune, too. Of course, I also wrote this article before it became clear that the Japanese were having problems with HD development, which has only caused the cultural rift to widen further. Now, apparently, the only people that play Western games are illiterate gun-happy dudebros and the only people that play Japanese games are lonely otaku pedophiles. Awesome!

Anyway, the interview text is below. I wanted to interview Inafune because Dead Rising had just come out, which seemed like an interesting blend between Western and Eastern philosophies. I also interviewed Hiroyuki Kobayashi, the producer of Resident Evil 4, although I don't think I used as many as his comments in the actual article, because Inafune's comments seemed more relevant.

Q: When designing a game with the American market specifically in mind, what are some specific design aspects that are favorable or unfavorable? What about for the Japanese market?

Inafune: On the plus side of things, aiming games for the international market is smart business. It allows you to reach customers in every territory. It is also good for development teams because it broadens their horizons on understanding fun. For instance, if an American were to live all of his or her life in America, they would only be acclimated and truly understand American culture. However, if that person were to live in another country, such as Japan, that person would then also understand another culture. If they moved to another country, they would understand another culture on top of that. It is the same with games, if you only aim games at the Japanese market, you will only understand the Japanese sense of fun, but if you begin to make games for other markets, you will expand the possibilities of fun. I feel it is good for development teams to have as broad a horizon as possible.

On the minus side, since the development staff are Japanese, they must have a firm understanding of western games before they can make one with true western appeal. For instance, if a Japanese team is going to make an FPS, they must truly understand and appreciate FPS control schemes and FPS design mechanics. Another hard part is starting from a base of the unknown. Making a game with western markets in mind, there are many unknowns that simply do not exist when making a Japanese directed title because of the knowledge and expertise we have built in that area. When it comes to Japanese titles, they are easier to plan and implement because the path has already been laid out. That is why Japanese companies tend to focus on the Japanese market - what has to be done and what users expect is clearly defined, so it is much easier to start production. Making a game for the western market introduces unknown factors that make production more challenging.

Kobayashi: One of the things we keep in mind when designing games that will end up being released overseas is avoiding the introduction of too much Japan-specific content to avoid alienating an audience that wouldn't be as familiar with it. However, I don't feel that a game released overseas has to be completely different from one released in Japan. Sometimes it can come down to the details like making sure the English localization is solid or using foreign motion capture actors and actresses to perform the motion for the game to avoid it feeling too "Japanese" for people overseas.

Q: One of the big differences between Western and Japanese games is the huge visual gap. Americans complain that Japanese games are too bright and crazy and cartoonish, while Japanese gamers complain American games are too dark and generic and realistic. Why do Japanese games tend to stylize the graphics rather than favoring realism?

Inafune: From birth, you are exposed to your native culture and you view it through your own eyes. Japanese children are exposed to "manga culture" and the established aesthetics that exist in Japan. It is ingrained in our culture. Western audiences, especially Americans, on the other hand, are exposed to a wide variety of characters. From Spongebob to comics such as X-Men, Spiderman, and other superheroes, westerners are exposed to vast differences in the cultural products they consume and this is seen in the visual style exhibited in western games. I don't think this cultural difference is going to change, and to be honest, I don't think it should. As Japanese designers, we can still make games that appeal to not only Japanese, but also western visual tastes.

Kobayashi: I think a lot of the bright, cartoonish visual look in many Japanese games is a result of the strong culture of anime cartoons and manga comic books we have in Japan. The gamers here have all grown up on anime and manga, and many continue to read manga into adulthood. Since Japanese anime and manga are usually very bright and colorful, that tends to be the kind of visual style that is accepted in Japan. For overseas, it might be that with more of an entertainment background in movies and TV, realism is the type of visual style that is desired. Of course, this is not always the case as there are a lot of American and European gamers that do like the bright and colorful art style and plenty of Japanese gamers that prefer the realistic visual style.

Q: What about music? Many Western games focus on orchestral music or licensed tracks, if at all - many are simply focused on atmosphere. Japanese soundtracks tend to use a greater variety of instruments, styles, and concentrate on a strong melody. Is there a difference behind these philosophies?

Inafune: From a design standpoint, I think western designers have a much stronger background and influence from film. In film scores, orchestrated music is used to accompany a set piece and give it emotional weight. Western games implement this very film style technique much to the same effect. However, in Japan, since the days of the Famicom Japanese composers have gone about making each individual sound one by one. They created sounds using the Famicom that sounded like other instruments and layered their work. Now that technology has advanced, western designers view it as the opportunity to branch even further into the idea of film scoring, while Japanese designers continue that traditional approach to instrumentation that developed during the 8-bit era.

Kobayashi: With Japanese games, the directors and development staff want to present an experience that they have envisioned, and to do that, they often want to maintain more control over the music and how it is used in the game. With licensed music, since it is something that usually hasn't been made for the game, it may not fit the atmosphere the development team is trying to convey as well as an original piece that they design and create from scratch to fit a scene or stage. In Japan, we do a lot of promotional tie-ins with professional artists, but it usually stays at the promotional level and does not usually enter the game itself. There might also be a difference in the West where a game might become more appealing to users if it contains music and artists they recognize whereas that is not the case in Japan.

Q: Many Japanese games use fixed cameras, whereas many Western games let you directly control the camera. Is there any other potential reason for the differences?

Inafune: Japanese don't really feel the need to control the camera. For instance, Japanese gamers playing Lost Planet at Tokyo Game Show sometimes had trouble controlling the camera, and it was clear to me that they are simply not acclimated to this sort of control. In traditional Japanese games, such as a 2D side-scroller or an RPG, there is absolutely no need to move the camera whatsoever. The fixed camera controls how you play the game and you work within that requirement. Japanese people, who prefer to have a very focused idea of what must done, prefer this way of doing things because they can focus on the actual game play. Western audiences, I feel, are much better at multitasking, and adapt to the freedom and requirements of a user controlled camera much better than Japanese gamers.

Kobayashi: In general, Japanese development teams want to make sure the user experiences the game they have envisioned. To make sure the player sees what the developer wants them to experience, the fixed camera angles are more common. If the fixed camera angles are done right, the player shouldn't feel the need to constantly move the camera around, and that's part of the challenge of designing the game.

Q: The issue of save systems also struck my mind, especially with Dead Rising recently. Many Western games started on PCs, which had the disk space to save all of your data, so you could pick up right where you left off. Most Japanese games were on consoles, used passwords/battery backups, and thus had savepoints. Even though technology has progressed to the point where you can save all relevant data, many Western games use quicksaves while Japanese games still use save points. Why the difference?

Inafune: This is not a technology issue. It is an issue of differing views on game design. American designers do not view the save system as part of the gameplay experience. In Japan, the save system is viewed as part of the game. It is a feature. In previous generations, designers took what should have been a negative for the game due to technical limitations and turned it into a gameplay positive. For instance, in Resident Evil, part of what makes the game fun is knowing there might be a zombie between you and the save room. It adds tension to the encounters. If you could save anywhere in Resident Evil, it would not be the same game. Manipulating the save system is one of the many details that Japanese designers take very seriously. For instance, with Dead Rising Japanese gamers would be turned off by the save anywhere approach. They would feel that the game is not challenging, that it isn't really a game. Knowing your status, what kind of weapon you have or how far away the restroom save point is integral to the tension and fun of Dead Rising. Some people understand this and enjoy it, others do not.

Kobayashi: I agree that there is a tendency for Western games to allow saving anywhere whereas Japanese games rely on save points, but I don't feel it is an issue of technology, I feel it is an issue of gamer preference. There are advantages and disadvantages to either system. When the player can save anywhere, they can end up saving in a bad place, perhaps forcing them to backtrack to a previous save, or worse, to start over. Save points themselves can also be part of the game experience. If you can save anywhere, you lose an important gameplay element. Perhaps with the Japanese game development background being more centered around consoles like you mentioned, it made Japanese developers more inclined to integrate save points as an actual feature of gameplay and part of the challenge of the game. For that reason, even if the technology today allows saving anywhere, I don't feel it implies that save points are obsolete by any means. Another difference might also be that Japanese developers design games hoping that players would set aside at least a set block of time to play a game and keep going with the experience rather than jumping into and out of it, breaking the experience up.

Q: Do you find that American gamers tend to focus more on open-endedness and exploration? It seems like many Japanese games are pretty linear.

Inafune: Culturally speaking, Japanese culture is firmly rooted in wet-rice agriculture and its status as an island nation. Japanese want to be able to plan, they want to have guidance, they want to have focus. To put it simply, Japanese people feel uncomfortable with the unknown and not understanding the future. RPGs illustrate this well - It is your turn to attack, it is the enemy's turn to attack. You pick a magic spell and you have a predictable result. You progress through the game with clearly defined goals. Japanese enjoy having these clearly defined goals, and it progresses all the way through to the actual game implementation. Japanese game designers focus on the concept of triggering and proceeding through gameplay "flags" or "dip switches". Japanese people don't like just being dropped into a sandbox with no guidance. If you tell a Japanese person they are free to go anywhere, often times they will choose to go nowhere. Westerns, on the other hand, seem to be excited by the unknown. For instance, as a hunting and trapping society, an American may go deer hunting and encounter a bear. Japanese would be scared by this encounter, whereas the American will probably shoot the bear and go back excited that he got a bear instead of a deer. The unknown encounter becomes even better than the known. I feel this is the key difference.

Kobayashi: There are Japanese gamers out there that do like the open-ended game style and I believe there are American gamers that enjoy the more linear style as well. In general, I do agree that Japanese games tend to be more linear in nature. Part of this relates to the recurring theme of Japanese developers wanting to provide a very definitive experience for gamers and in this case, the linear story helps to keep the player involved in the story as a smooth flow from start to finish much like reading a book. A lot of gamers overseas prefer to make the adventure their own and prefer the open-ended style, which is one reason we think that Resident Evil 4 was so popular as it was more open than any Resident Evil before it. I don't think either style is right or wrong, they're just different.

Q: It seems like some games - especially Capcom titles like Devil May Cry 3 – are made more difficult for the Western audience. Why is this, and why does it seem like the Japanese tend to favor easier titles?

Inafune: There are two reasons for the difficulty changes. The first one is from a business perspective. Western markets also have rental markets. If you make a game that is too easy, it will become a rental instead of a purchase and the game's sales will suffer. Thus, those on the business side of things often request that games be made harder to counter-act the rental market. The second reason is from a design standpoint. Western gamers like to challenge things. If a game is very difficult, they view beating it as a triumph over a sort of foe. Japanese gamers will quit if a game is too hard. They want an RPG where you never die. If you play an RPG correctly, you should not die. That is the point. Most RPGs are not concerned with raising your skill, they are concerned with raising your EXP - Experience. I think that Japanese companies are slowly losing the ability to make hard games that still appeal to Japanese users, and this is evidenced by the decline in sales of action games as Japanese users lose interest in challenging higher difficulty levels.

Kobayashi: I'm not sure that it's so much that Japanese gamers prefer easier games, but rather gamers overseas tend to like more challenge. It's a slight difference in nuance, but when making a game, we don't intentionally make it easier for Japanese gamers. For years, we have always received requests from users overseas to "make the games harder" and we have been responding by adding challenge to the games we release overseas. However, I believe there is a growing casual gamer market in both the US and Japan and I think the difficulty gap is narrowing. Rather than making a game "hard" or "easy," I think an important design philosophy is to try and make sure that a game gradually gets more difficult throughout the course of it. If this difficulty curve is adjusted well, it means that a player can avoid feeling like a game is too hard but at the same time doesn't get boring either. At the end of a game, a player should feel a sense of accomplishment and be capable of much more than they were when starting a game. If a game is consistently the same difficulty throughout, it will always end up alienating a group of users.


  1. This was an awesome interview! Really broadened my thoughts concerning the division between east and west.

  2. I've often been critical of Inafune myself, but this is a fascinating article which tackles several still very relevant points.

    I absolutely 100% prefer the Japanese view on saving (having grown up with consoles). Resident Evil 4 I felt lost something when it allowed infinite saving, since it was no longer a survival game. Earlier RE games had an excellent tension due to the need tor ration saving - you only did it after making substantial progress, and even then later instalments had too many save ribbons. I always liked how in Enemy Zero you start off with limited battery power to record all future saves. Quick saving demolishes any sense of structure.

    I hope this gets its own, proper article with the next site update - it's actually one of the most candid interviews I've read.

    How did you manage to get hold of them? The usual PR channels?

    I don't want to knock this off the top of the page, so I'm going to put a couple of uninteresting draft entries up - make them live whenever you feel the need.

  3. Wow, I just used all my time to read up on some funny old drama. Gonna check out the interview later...

  4. What a great idea it was to bring up that 1UP article--very enlightening.

  5. Kobayashi comes off significantly better in this interview than Inafune does.

    I've certainly been pretty hard on Inafune for his comments, but I don't think it's unfair to be so. He recognizes issues which I feel are important to recognize. He wants to try to understand them and solve them, which is admirable. The problem is that I don't think his cultural understanding is where it needs to be. This is made worse by Inafune seemingly thinking he's got it all figured out. This leads to him going down some ill-advised paths in his pursuit of his goal.

    The problem with this is that the situation he has identified is a real issue, but by going down the wrong paths and failing, he just sets things up for the money-counters to write off the entire pursuit.

    It's all moot now anyway, but Inafune really should have studied more about Western culture instead of making "from-the-hip" assumptions about why certain things work and certain things fail. Stereotyping can have disastrous results.

  6. Good read. Both of them seem to know what they're saying.

    As much as I like Resident Evil and it's save system, I think quicksaves are needed for most games, like in FPS games of action games, where you progress by defeating a wave of enemies, and you usually don't save in the middle of a fight. Not being able to save anywhere just brings frustration. sure, unique save system are really nice for the niche games, but for the mainstream, linear games, it's just something like this:"god **** I have to go, when will that save spot pop out???"

    As for Inafune's failures, I believe that in order to change something (specially yourself) you're bound to make a bunch of failures before you actually succeed. whether the money-counters understand this fact or not, it would be Inafune's problem. :)

  7. Yeah this was arranged through the usual PR channels. They had originally told me Inafune didn't do e-mail interviews, but apparently he found the topic interesting enough that he granted it anyway.

    Someone over at NeoGAF translated his gigantic interview of why he left Capcom, and is essential reading. It makes some of his more recent comments make sense, although his views of Western development are...quite romantic, to say the least.

    I found a great counterpoint interview on Gamasutra. I love how this Squeenix CTO elaborates on what's right and wrong with Japan.
    Back on Inafune though, I remember in WAHP 009 where the guys talked about Inafune saying how Nintendo has actual game developers in their board of directors, while Capcom allegedly thinks developers know nothing about business.