Vanquish Writer Says Japanese Games Should Stop Underestimating Your Intelligence

Here's an interesting read for anyone who loves, hates, or feels rather indifferent about Japanese games. JP Kellams, a writer for Platinum Games (the studio behind Vanquish, Bayonetta, and the upcoming Wii U game currently titled Project P100), took to Twitter today to voice some eloquent thoughts about the current state of the Japanese gaming industry.

Read the full transcript, courtesy Siliconera. (Bolded part bolded for emphasis by me.)

The problems with Japanese games aren't that they are JPN games or that they are Westernized games. The problems with JPN games are simple: Most of them aren't very good games. People don't buy those. Most games from anywhere aren't good. That's why exceptional means exceptional.

Most Japanese publishers/developers can't invest money/manpower enough to compete with exceptional Western productions. Risk is too high. It costs money and sweat to make things stand out, but it also raises the risk. Then marketing is crazy expensive after that.

Games today sell on spectacle. Spectacle is also easy to market. However, good ideas lie behind these spectacles. So it makes me mad to see people diss "AAA" games like they are all rote executions on some tired formula. They sell because they are good. They match great production values with great execution on great ideas. They sell on easy to understand themes. Even Western games that don't get that right fail. Just because you make a "dudebro" shooter doesn't mean it is a sure thing.

Japanese games can be awesome. They can suck too. It is about picking ideas and themes that you can execute exceptionally on. Then you have to communicate that exceptionalism in a way that people understand that your game is exceptional. You have to do both, and you have to do both at a high level, or you will fail. It is just how the industry goes right now.

Japanese can make a highly Western game, Westerners can make highly Japanese games. These are talented creators on both sides. However, if you screw up executing on the ideas you are supposed to be executing on… You fail. Simple as that.

Where Japanese games need to get better is reducing friction. If we have the best ideas, we need to make sure you don't have to wonder why. Friction means you need to look at a character and identify with what that character is supposed to represent. Friction means never underestimating the intelligence of your audience. Culturally, Japanese design is about being inclusive. They don't want anyone left behind, so they will add friction to an experience. Except then you move at the pace of the slowest one in a group. It bogs the experience down for people who already get it.

Just imagine if you had to order McDonald's like a Japanese game's option menu. It would be horrific if you had ever been to a McD's before. Can I take your order. Hamburger. Hamburger is a piece of meat, two buns, ketchup and mustard. Are you sure you want a hamburger? Yes. That is friction. Western games stop when the user says hamburger. They assume that user intent is initially correct. JPN games should too.

Friction for the sake of completeness is one of the things that makes it difficult for JPN developers to make good multiplayer, I think. Other place have friction. Culturally, I think our touch stones for classic character designs introduces a lot of friction into a narrative. It takes time for a Westerner to parse the boy hero archetype from Japanese design versus the young adult Superhero in Western design. Too often, Japanese design assumes you will "get it" regarding characters and doesn't establish them. But the touchstones are different.

We can pull off that boy hero successfully, but we have to execute perfectly on the premise behind the character and communicate it. Another place where Japanese games tend to introduce friction is in narrative exposition. So many "bad story" complaints come from this.

By the way — Nintendo games are so awesome and so successful because they are some of the most friction free games in the world.

I don't know that I agree with everything Kellams says (and if he really thinks Nintendo games are some of the most friction-free, clearly he needs to play Skyward Sword), but it's really interesting food for thought from someone in a position to know what he's talking about. What do you think? Do Japanese games spend too much time babying you?

JP Kellams [Twitter via Siliconera]


    This is one of the "Japanese tropes" that are part of the many-reasons that I (and many others I assume) find it hard to enjoy or get into most Japanese games.

    He posts some interesting points, and generally is right about respecting the intelligence of the player, so it's a good read.

    Unfortunately, my opinion is kind of tainted by the fact that as much as I LOVED Bayonetta and Vanquish, the writing in both of those titles was one area that i just had to let go of and accept that it was just no good.

      Yeah Vanquish was terribad. After 20 minutes, I just didnt care.

      On top of that, who builds a a super-awesome-super-cool armoured suit that can withstand bullets, rockets, drift like Vin Diesel and make weapons on demand, but CAN ONLY EXECUTE ONE PUNCH before needing to rest up!?!?!?!

      Wait a sec, we were supposed to care about the story in Vanquish? I played it for the absolutely ridiculous, over the top gameplay. Which is indeed awesome.

        action was good but the story was forgettable, this isnt just a problem in Jap games, look at CoD and Battlefield, good action games but horrible stories, Halo is the exception proving the rule.

          I'm pretty sure the story was a parody. Epic gameplay, however. One of those games that makes turning the difficulty up very rewarding

      Would you look at this long line of fallacious thinking. Bravo.

    He insulted "dudebros", he automatically gets my respect.

      Another gamer afraid of the slightest hint of masculinity. Quaint.

        I don't think being an alcoholic douche bag with low intelligence means masculine.

    I think Japanese games that are made for a Japanese audience work really well. Its when they try to make a mass market appealing game for westerners that they drop the ball. Why? because they inherently think we are all morons (and frankly there are many "Dudebro" gamers that encourage that belief) But there are also many experienced gamers that want the depth and complexity that you get more often from Eastern games. And the gamers that focus more on a group dynamic with thier games where it is essential for all charaters to combine thier strength to complete tasks and defeat the antagonists where-as western games have the "Solitary super soldier" that is everyones hero and they (the player) is all that is needed to save the galaxy.

    Frankly if Japanese gamers dropped that thinking that all westerers have low I.Q's than they would destroy many of the "dudebro" games currently on the market.

      Perfect example for a great game is Ninja Gaiden 1/2, a bad example is Ninja Gaiden 3.

      I agree with this train of thought. I also agree that it's ironic that the writer quoted would take the time to say all that when they brought out Vanquish. Fun game, but it was hardly respecting my intelligence at all.

    Skyward Sword represents exactly what he is talking about regarding underestimating the intelligence of your audience.
    For me, Skyward Sword was one of the most refined Zelda experiences to date and gameplay wise I loved it.

    It would have been perfect, had it not been for Fi constantly stopping the game and spelling everything out for you. Any sense of discovering anything for myself was dashed time and time again. And the worst part? There's no way to turn it off! You have to sit through the overbearing explanations whether you like it or not. And it's not like the game is unintuitive or anything.

      You beat me too it. This is exactly what I thought when I heard about a game underestimating and insulting your intelligence.

      Fi from Skyward Sword is a good example, she just came off as condescending and insulting especially when repeating something that was just explained to you, or pointing out the blatantly obvious.

    This reminds me heaps of the early FF US releases (which started that annoying dual number system...grr), where the titles were dumbed down because they didn't think Western audiences could handle a fully-fledged RPG. At the time this probably had more accuracy but it just goes to shows that this assumed intelligence gap has been around for a while.

    And then you have the Eastern European games that don't tell you anything at all haha

    The only Japanese games I remember playing and thinking they were awful were Quantum Theory (where someone went and photocopied the worst parts of Gears of War) and Street Fighter IV where the final boss was so insanely difficult it sucked the fun out of the whole game.

    Most others though of late have been great fun: Super Mario 3D - fantastic; Shadows of the Damned - straight into the fun and funny too; Child of Eden - completely original in a sea of shooters;

    Dark Souls, Demon's Souls, Dragon's Dogma etc are games that have the right balance between having a genuine Japanese "feel" but also not treating players like morons. They games sold quite well in both Japan and the West; they're great examples of Japanese games lacking the typical "dumbing down for Westerners". They were made in such a way that caters respectfully to both audiences. I think From Software learnt this with Demon's Souls: it wasn't developed with Western audiences in mind, but they realised Westerners loved it because it was a true Eastern game that didn't assume Westerners are all idiots. Then when Dark Souls came along they didn't feel the need to compromise it for us despite the fact that this they developed it with the intention of selling to Western players.. Dragon's Dogma is another one that I personally love and has sold well in Japan - it's somewhat Western themed like the Souls games but still has that uncompromising "Japanese feel" to it.

    If more Japanese AND Western developers took lessons from them we wouldn't see so many patronising games that compromise the experience just for the unintelligent folk. We like Japanese games because they are Japanese, we don't need or want them to compromise the integrity of their work for us.

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