The problem with Japanese video games is that they take too damn long to make.
The gestation periods are absurd. Sure, Western games also require time to make, as do films, but some Japanese game studios take way too long. There’s a reason for it, and it’s not simply that Japanese studios are slower than their Western counterparts.
Many of the big Japanese developers toil away for several years on their games. Both “Gran Turismo 5″ and “Final Fantasy XIII” took over five years to develop — excessive by Western standards. Sure, there are also American and European games that languish for years, but this lengthy development time is a malaise infecting so much of the Japanese game industry.
What’s the difference? Why can American developers such as Epic Games release sequels every other year while big Japanese studios seemingly get lost in game development hell?
There are a couple of reasons, and the first one comes down to the “game engine.” The engine is the software that powers the in-game graphics and physics and varies from game to game. It’s like the motor in a car, but built from code and complex math instead of metal and plastic parts.
Many American developers come from a PC game background. That doesn’t mean all of them make PC games only, but since PCs are constantly evolving — unlike consoles, which have a hardware life cycle of several years — there is a “tech first” influence that resonates throughout the industry. This pushes even console-only game makers to produce better-looking worlds with more realistic physics.
Epic Games, which makes the ubiquitous Unreal Engine, started out as a PC game maker. Ditto for id Software of “Doom” fame, which makes the id Tech engines. Western studios typically take one game engine and use it on a string of titles, and many license ready-made engines such as Unreal or id Tech and then modify them to suit their purposes.
Thanks to hi-tech game engines, Western developers are able to churn out new sequels almost every other year. Take BioWare, which specializes in sprawling role-playing games (RPGs) and released its space opus “Mass Effect” in 2007, followed by sequels in 2010 and 2012. The “Mass Effect” engine is a modified version of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. These are dense games with hi-def graphics, lengthy cut scenes and fully explorable worlds that offer dozens of hours of gameplay.
Western developers went into this generation of game console with a game plan: They’d build an engine, and then use that for a new series of games, releasing frequent sequels. Japanese developers, however, seemed to put all their energy into big-budget sequels from the previous generation. They didn’t strike when the iron was hot, and they ended up flatfooted.
That’s why in the space it took Sony development unit Polyphony Digital to release “Gran Turismo 5″ for the PlayStation 3, rival racing-game studio Turn 10 was able to release “Forza Motorsport 2″ and “3.” This fall, Turn 10 will release yet another sequel, while Polyphony Digital is merely releasing an update for “Gran Turismo 5.”
Japanese developers, many with backgrounds in home console and arcade gaming, create and use game engines just like Western developers do. The key difference is that genres traditionally popular in Japan, such as RPGs, didn’t require complex physics and powerful engines. Instead, these games relied on beautiful prerendered cut-scenes, so the engine was made to suit the game. Even now, many Japanese studios end up building the engine while creating their game, losing valuable game development time to engine creation.
Take Square Enix, the Tokyo-based game maker famous for its RPGs, which appeared to spend a considerable amount of time working on Crystal Tools, the engine that powered “Final Fantasy XIII.” At first glance, Square Enix appears to have learned a lesson: Once that engine and the game were finally finished, it has been able to turn out “Final Fantasy XIII-2″ in a timely fashion, for release this December, by reusing the engine.
But another game, “Final Fantasy Versus XIII” — first revealed in 2006 — still isn’t out and doesn’t even have a release date. Apparently, Square Enix is using another engine for that game’s lighting sequences and an entirely new engine for its gameplay. During the course of development, Square Enix has even changed engines for the game, which undoubtedly has dragged out the development cycle.
Konami created an engine to power 2008′s “Metal Gear Solid 4,” but then didn’t use that same engine for any sequels. Instead, Konami revealed at the E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles in June that it was working on a new toolset called the Fox Engine, which should shorten development time. The problem is that Western game developers already have a plethora of game engines — and they are already developing and getting ready to sell engines that will power games on the next generation of home consoles, too. So, unless Fox Engine takes, say, the next PlayStation and Xbox into account, it will soon look dated when compared with its rivals in the West.
But there are other causes for the delays, too. Sometimes it’s just planning. In early September, Square Enix held a “Dragon Quest”-themed event in Tokyo. The series has long been a fan favorite in Japan, where it sells millions. Young and old alike adore the “Dragon Quest” RPGs.
The game will be a subscription-based massively multiplayer online RPG, like “World of Warcraft.” But when “Dragon Quest X” was first announced in late 2008, there was no mention of this.
Soon after September’s “Dragon Quest X” event, former Square Enix developer Takehiko Hoashi tweeted that the game has been in development for the past six years. If that’s true, it’s far too long.
This lack of planning is what causes Japanese development cycles to drag on and on — whether it’s caused by the decision in the case of “DQX” to change the game to a subscription-based online RPG or the decision to create a new game engine rather than fully exploit one that already exists.
Sony’s “The Last Guardian,” a puzzle game about a young boy who befriends a massive creature, uses a full physics engine. The game was first revealed in 2009, but it was noticeably absent at last month’s Tokyo Game Show. At TGS, Sony said its in-house developers are still working on the game, which should be out in 2012. No doubt the game’s physics and back-end tech have gobbled up precious development time yet again.
Nintendo does a solid job of powering its own games and churning them out in a timely manner, while Sega is another Japanese studio that has been smart about the tech that powers its games. Sega uses the engine that powers its “Yakuza” gang epics to full effect and is able to release a new “Yakuza” game almost every year. The engine itself doesn’t provide dazzling in-game physics: You can’t “feel” the weight of the characters, and their movements are not always realistic. However, the engine does the job.
Japanese studios’ desire to create their own game engines increasingly gives off a whiff of pride. The point of creating an engine is to power and make games, but in the States there is also an aim to sell the engine to other studios. It’s at the point now where Western games look better than Japanese ones, because the tech that powers them is simply better.
Instead of worrying about how to out-tech Western studios, Japanese game makers would be better served by licensing Western game engines and using them to do what Japan does best: create memorable worlds, fantastic play experiences and flat-out great games.
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.