Not so long ago, Japanese developers absolutely dominated the console video game market. As time went on, though, developers from other nations started chipping away at that massive market share, particularly as consoles and PCs become more similar to each other in performance profiles.

In particular, Japanese studios haven’t responded to consumer demand for first-person shooters. Franchises such as Electronic Arts’ Battlefield and Activion’s Call of Duty are practically a license to print money, with incremental, near-annual updates that open the floodgates on huge revenue streams for their publishers.

But could the reason Japanese video game makers haven’t embraced the first-person shooter have something to do with Japan’s history?

At the most recent iteration of the Infinity Ventures Summit for technology professionals, moderator Yasufumi Ono reported that the market share of Japanese companies has shrunk to just 30 percent in North America and Europe, and to a paltry 13 percent worldwide. There’s no denying that this is at least partly due to Japanese developers not offering the types of titles gamers internationally want to play. Grittily realistic, military-themed first-person shooters regularly top sales charts, but Japan has yet to produce a single standout hit of this type.

One could argue this is a case of Japanese studios, as a whole, failing to accurately predict where consumer tendencies were going, similar to the crushing blow dealt to Sega when it hedged its bets by not going all-out on the polygon rendering capabilities of its 1994 Saturn system. Some professionals, though, feel there are deeper historical and cultural issues at play here.

“If we’re talking about games for casual users, there isn’t much difference from market to market in what makes a hit,” said Harunori Satomi, president of Sammy Networks and Sega Networks, speaking at the summit. He cited the international success of titles like Candy Crush and the puzzle games designed for use with the Line social network system.

But as you move into content for hardcore gamers, Satomi argues, differences start to emerge, much like how different countries favor different sports. “Europeans and North Americans like strong people, so the main character has to be a fully-grown, middle-aged man.”

“On the other hand, in Asia, people like stories about middle or high school students growing up or becoming stronger,” Satomi continues. “As you make games for more dedicated players, I think you have to be aware of those differences.”

Would Final Fantasy XIII have had higher domestic sales with a younger central character than over-the-hill, 21-year-old Lightning?

If true, Satomi’s supposition is a telling point that goes a long way in explaining the resistance towards first-person shooter in the Japanese market, and thus why the country’s top developers are reluctant to work in the genre. The most consistently popular first-person shooters are visceral action titles with heavy ostensible parallels to real-world militaries and conflicts, and dropping a cast of teens into one would steer the narrative into some pretty heavy, fun-sapping issues regarding the psychological plights of actual child soldiers.

That’s not to say war isn’t incredibly psychologically draining for adults, but sidestepping such discussions, in favor of getting back to gameplay, is a little easier when your protagonist is a grizzled combat veteran just stepping onto the battlefield once again. That’s exactly the sort of main character Japanese gamers aren’t interested in assuming the role of, though, the Sega exec believes, and not just necessarily for age-related reasons.

“Only the countries that won World War II play war-based video games,” Satomi asserts.

Kenji Kobayashi, who represented fast-growing mobile game developer DeNA at the conference, voiced his agreement. “Whether in movies or TV or whatever, I think that at some point, there’s a delineation between the entertainment tastes of people in countries that are used to consuming war-themed entertainment and those that aren’t.”

Military-based first-person shooters weren’t the only place in which Kobayashi saw such a divergence. He also pointed to the difficulty American comic books have had in finding a foothold in Japan, as well as a general disinterest in movies and TV focusing on American street gangs. “They just don’t click, as far as entertainment goes.”

Of course, Japan already has plenty of domestic comics and stories about street gangs, so this may have more to do with market saturation than cultural differences.

Kobayashi’s comments also lent support to Satomi’s theory that Japanese gamers often value seeing the characters and story develop, even at the cost of freedom from a gameplay standpoint. “Japanese companies can’t make a game like Skyrim he feels. “In an open world game like that, you can spend 30 minutes playing and still not have any idea what you should do next. I think Japanese gamers prefer having a more defined route to the story for them to follow,” he concludes.

As someone who’s spent a ridiculously long amount of time hunting Skyrim’s pseudo-walruses for sport, I have to admit he’s got a point.


Sources: Jin, Yahoo! Japan