Fact: There are differences between Western and Japanese games. Intrinsic differences that sometimes make it hard to bring Western games to Japan. The words, the phrases, the idioms — they're familiar to you. It's English, and chances are if you are reading this, the language is either your mother tongue or a second tongue or neither and you've happened on this page by accident. But for a segment of Japanese gamers, Western games are just not playable no thanks to the language barrier. But some of those differences arise from the background of developers.
The vast majority of Japanese devs have an arcade background, and if an arcade game is going to be a hit, it needs to work, it needs to be tight and snap. If you put in a coin in a buggy game that locks up or freaks out, you'll complain to the arcade manager, who will then complain to his boss, who will then complain to his boss, who will complain to that game's publisher. Shit's gotta work. While the arcade scene is very much alive in Japan, it's not in the States, and most developers are coming in with a strong PC gaming background. If shit's broken, patch, patch, patch! "Japanese games have very few collision problems — hands, arms going through walls, etc," says Capcom producer and former localisation head Ben Judd. "When western gamers see in-game collision issues, they don't care as long as they're having a good time. That's just not acceptable for the Japanese." Things like A.I. and programming is where Western devs really shine, while Japan picks up the slack on things like textures.
Other things that separate Western and Japanese games, points out Judd, include such seemingly small things like "Japanese player typically don't like controlling two thumbsticks are once — they get sick" and "Japanese players like a strong tutorial." Japanese players, says Judd, prefer that characters are skewed slightly younger and have more anime-style qualities, while Western gamers favour 30 year-old bald men. "RPGs are popular," says Judd. "Players don't typically like the first person point of view and want to see their character. It makes it easier for them to support that character." No wonder Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto has found a welcome audience in Japan.
While Japanese games have been localised to varying degrees of success on a consistent basis since the early-to-mid 1980s, Western games, save for the oddity here or there, haven't. This is nothing new, and Capcom has been bringing Western games over to The Land of the Rising Sun for sometime, even working with Blizzard to localised Warcraft III. "But it wasn't until GTA III that the company really saw the potential of Western games," says Judd. Even though a heavily censored GTA III was slapped with a dreaded CERO Z rating (the equivalent of ESRB AO), the game was a hit, fuelled by US hyper carry-over as well as controversy in Japan. San Andreas moved something like 500,000 copies! Just as there are Western gamers who salivate at the idea of grinding through Japan-Only RPGs, there are Japanese gamers who cannot wait to tear through BioShock or Halo 3. Thing is, there doesn't seem to be as many of these Japanese gamers...
For Judd and his team, the challenge is selling Bionic Commando, a game developed by Swedes and clearly geared for a Western audience. One reason that game is getting made is because Western journos kept harping on a new Bionic Commando during Capcom press events and interviews! The original game, Top Secret: Hilter no Fukkatsu (Top Secret: The Return of Hitler) wasn't a huge arcade or home hit in Japan, but the NES console port with its endearingly cruddy English localisation became a cult hit. "For the Xbox Live Arcade and the PSN Bionic Commando, the question has been how much to push Hitler," says Judd. "People in Japan know Hitler no Fukkatsu more than Top Secret or Bionic Commando." Then again, while releasing a Hilter game for the Famicom was apparently totally fine in the 1980's, it's not in today's world. Instead of releasing a Hilter no Fukkatsu remake on the Japanese PSN and XBLA, Capcom's releasing a re-localised version of the localised Bionic Commando remake. While Judd is fairly confident that Bionic Commando: Rearmed will do will with Western gamers, he's upfront about how it'll do in The Land of the Rising Sun. "Bionic Commando: Rearmed will have a tough time in Japan," says Judd.
"We don't really have a team in place to localise English games," says Capcom's Gearoid Reidy. "We're either outsourcing games we're publishing like GTA or God of War to be localised or trying to tie-up loose ends in-house." Capcom is staffed with a team of native English speakers like Reidy and Judd who are both fluent in English and Capcom and who have extensive experience in localisation. What about vice versa? Besides Japanese staffers who are proficient in English, there isn't a dedicated in-house team of Japanese native speakers acting as translators. That's not to say the outsourcing firm does shoddy work, that's not to say that at all. The outsourcing firm has handled most of Capcom's Japan English game releases. "The problem is that there's a delay," points out Reidy. "Since they are outsourced, it takes a bit longer than if we had an in-house team doing English-to-Japanese translation." Judd would like to create a team of Japanese native speakers doing translation work in-house. "It really depends whether these games are successful or not," he says. With Capcom publishing Grand Theft Auto IV in Japan later this year, there's a pretty good chance they will be.
Translating is hard. Translating English to Japanese is harder. "You can't do direct one-to-one translations," says Tokyo-based localiser Matt Alt, who has his own localisation company AltJapan. "You often have to capture the spirit of the original text." Programming-wise, changing English text into Japanese text can be tricky. "I've really come to hate the Japanese language," says Judd, who's not only a Capcom producer, but a licensed Japanese language teacher. "There are no breaks between words in Japanese," he explains. All Japanese words are mashed together, making breaking up in-game Bionic Commando text tricky. In English, text can easily broken up by spaces, but Capcom has had to go back and create a special program for breaking up the Japanese in-game text. "We've spent a lot of money on coding the Japanese text alone."
Some games just should not be dubbed. Besides the difficulty of matching up the character's lips, sometimes dubbing just doesn't fit. Take SEGA's localisation of Yakuza, for example. That game needed subtitles. American voice actors trying to pass off as yakuza just sounds strange! Bionic Commando will not be dubbed for Japan. "Some titles," says Judd, "the Japanese just don't want the language changed." Shit Japanese Western game dubs become the object of ridicule for the Japanese internet. Who wants to hear cutesy anime voice actors try to act like badasses? Nobody! Bionic Commando will be subtitled in English. Besides, when you're looking at selling 100,000 Bionic Commando copies in Japan (as Capcom is doing) and you're consumers are Japanese gamers with a thing for Western games, what's the point of dubbing, really?
Even if the game is localised correctly, the Japanese market is tough to crack. "Japanese companies don't even know what'll be hits here," says Reidy. "Who saw Nintendogs or Monster Hunter and thought those games would be hits?" Some publishers feel that it's a market that needs pandering to. "Consumers need to know what they're buying," says Judd. So when Crackdown is given anime-style style poster art, it's not exactly a fair description of what's in the box and reeks of 1980's style game promotion. While Western publishers take advantage of things like podcasts and blogs, those really have caught on in Famitsu-press-release-fed Japan. Bionic Commando has a Japanese blog, but it's updated only once a week. If users hav e any questions, their identity is censored by Capcom for privacy concerns and only their sterile question appears before developers to answer, creating a very sterile community interaction. Judd explains: "In Japan, we can't do community. It's considered a liability here." There are too many unknowns with community sites. What if an employee says or does something stupid? The lack of direct corporate control is dangerous. "We just waiting for Capcom to drop the hammer on our podcast," says Judd. "Lucky they don't speak English." Lucky, indeed.