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Can the next Sony and Nintendo consoles break free of Japan’s stifling cultural baggage?

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by Grant Brunner, 18 Nov 2012Features
Can the next Sony and Nintendo consoles break free of Japan’s stifling cultural baggage?

Japan has long been a dominant driving force in the video game industry. Decades ago, western brands like Atari and Coleco did well. After the video game crash in the 1980s, Japan really stepped up. Nintendo, Sega, and Sony were really the only companies with successful video game consoles from the late 80s until Microsoft launched the original Xbox in 2001.

This current generation of consoles with the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii has been a very interesting seven years, and it is becoming clear that Japan isn’t the force it once was. The western world has made a huge comeback in this industry, and it seems like it has a lot to do with Japan’s strange relationship with electronics and digital content.

I’ve been a user of Nintendo consoles since I was able to hold a controller. Some of my most vivid gaming memories have been with Japanese games on Japanese hardware. In the past few years, my gaming life has shifted heavily towards western developers and western hardware. It’s incredibly frustrating to see companies and franchises that once ruled the roost slip into a niche role. While the Nintendo Wii has sold over 97 million consoles compared to the Xbox 360’s 70 million, the Wii missed out on third-party AAA games for its entire lifespan. That’s due in no small part to Nintendo’s reluctance to use the latest technology in visuals and connectivity.

While games from Nintendo and its second-party developers did well both financially and critically, the Wii became pigeonholed as a device for parties and light mini-games. The Wii U is launching with three big AAA titles: Assassin’s Creed III, Mass Effect 3, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. None of these are exclusive to the Wii U, but Nintendo is trying to change the perception of what its consoles are. At the same time, it’s sticking with “Wii” in the title. Clearly, Nintendo is trying to have its cake and eat it with the Wii U, but it seems half-hearted at best. Warmed-over ports aren’t exactly a great indicator of future support.

The Verge has an interesting article about why Japan excels at some things like mobile payments, but fails miserably at others – such as its continued reliance on fax machines. Japan’s relationship to content and devices is confusing to me as a westerner, and that makes me think that there is a disconnect that is putting the Japanese at a disadvantage in Europe and the US.

We live in a world of 10Mbps internet connections, smartphones, and tablets. The western world has expectations about what a game console should be, and that is why Microsoft has been able to come into this market and have a runaway success with Xbox Live on both the original Xbox and the Xbox 360. To this day, Nintendo and Sony have lagged behind Microsoft enormously in the realm of online gaming, and that can be chalked up to cultural expectations being very different.

The Wii U launches at the end of the month, and Nintendo is just now trying to make its online offerings competitive with Xbox Live. It boggles the mind. Sony, on the other hand, might just be in a worse position. While it hasn’t suffered the same fate as Nintendo as far as online gameplay and lack of compelling third party titles, it isn’t in the position of strength it was during the last generation.

The PlayStation 2 was outstandingly successful, but the PS3 has been lagging behind the Xbox 360, certainly in North America. Even worse, Sony would appear to have a case of the “me-toos” as it seems to flail about as it chases the Wii’s motion controls and the Xbox’s far superior online experience. Unless Sony can pull something out of its hat for the PS4 that blows the world away with its innovativeness, it will undoubtedly continue to lag behind.

If we don’t see major gear shifts in Japan during the next decade, they could lose their grip on an industry they once owned outright. Nobody wants that. It would be a huge loss if Japan became a nominal influence in games. Their unique tastes and styles are their biggest strengths, but they might also be their undoing. The clock is ticking for Japan to get their heads together for a multicultural market. Let’s just hope they can evolve quickly enough to survive.

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