Cultural Diversity and Ethnocentricity

Last month saw the release of a number of significant titles from Japanese designers and developers, most notably Child of Eden and Shadows of the Damned. For a long time gamer like myself they represented hugely significant titles marking (in Eden) a spiritual successor to a classic (Rez), and (in Shadows) a collaboration of some of Japan’s greatest talents. Yet while my excitement was nearly over flowing at their release, the gaming playing community at large responded with a near inaudible, ‘meh’.

Child of Eden

For all of my protestations and despite having bought it before huge price reductions, I am not enjoying Child of Eden.

The 360 timed exclusive Child of Eden, the first ‘core’ game for Kinect, shifted 90,000 worldwide, while Shadows of the Damned mustered even fewer at 60,000 despite being aimed more at a Western market and releasing for PS3 and 360. This is all set against the sales of the critically panned Duke Nukem Forever, which has (at the time of writing) had sales totaling of 750,000. I say these figures represent worldwide sales but in fact these games have only released in Europe and America, despite their Japanese roots. Interestingly in the same time frame the PS3 exclusive, Yakuza: The End, released in Japan and has managed sales of 400,000 units, proving Japanese games can sell to the right/home audience.

But should this be a surprise to anyone? Having followed gaming in both the East and the West it is becoming increasingly clear that games do not transcend culture as some once believed. There was a time when the limited number of games (and a focus on the pure mechanics of play) allowed sales of ‘good’ games to cross cultural boundaries. Yet with the market and range of games growing, a title’s ‘dressing’ has becoming increasingly important.

Shadows of the Damned

Shadows of the Damned lack of success in the West is a mystery to my, let's put it down to poor advertising.

In much the same way that all entertainment media struggles outside of its cultural home, games are now finding that the environment they are created proves an increasingly limiting factor. A fact that can be clearly demonstrated with Call of Duty: Black Ops, which sold a total 10,300,000 units, only 300,000 of which came from Japan.

The natural conclusion to this for companies will be that they should only release massive games, or those deemed able to cross cultural boundaries, outside their of home territory. In other entertainment media this would leave it to small, specialised companies to bring a title to foreign audiences, but in gaming the cost of translation and distribution are considerably higher, increasing the risks involved. Even endeavors such as fan translations are faced with the struggle of media that is hard to alter, and so doggedly protected by its owners that even purchasing a legitimate foreign copy is often frowned upon and expensive.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Attempts to bring Call of Duty to Japan have always been half hearted in the knowledge sales will be limited.

It is hard to admit, but the reality is that the market for translated foreign titles is not present, making doing so an unattractive proposition for companies. It is a sad truth for long time gamers (like myself) to accept that despite the affection we have for Japanese titles it isn’t enough to convince a company, whose main focus is profit, to localise them for us. We are lucky to have companies like Atlus importing niche titles, and even more fortunate to have had EA sponsor a title like Shadows of the Damned, but if sales continue the way they are such projects will become increasingly rare. When that happens we can only hope that holders of their copyrights will be willing to loosen their grip and allow fans to find some (at least vaguely) legitimate way to experience their games.

(All figures courtesy of VGChartz.com)

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