Japan video game

A mosquito can become a video game hero in Japan

By Jessica Xieyang Qiao
Medill Reports

A lone mosquito patrols the Yamada family to stock up on blood for the coming winter. You are Mister Mosquito, an uninvited guest who pesters the hapless Yamada family. They want you dead. You want to bite. The battle is on.

Quirky as it sounds, Mister Mosquito is a Japanese video game released by ZOOM Inc. in 2001. Unlike U.S. video games that depict  post-apocalyptic journeys or commando attacks, Mister Mosquito allows you to experience the hardship of a mosquito’s life.

“In Japanese video games, there are craftsmanship and culture that you don’t see in other countries,” said John Davis, co-founder of BitSummit, an annual Kyoto indie game festival. “Japan never shies away from having anime, strong female protagonists or other types of subjects in games. There has never been a cookie-cutter approach to game semantics.”

However, Japan’s curious attitude toward game design is a double-edged sword. Yutaka Sugano, operating officer of Arzest, a video game development company in Yokohama, said because “photorealistic shooting games” are mainstream in the US, certain genres of Japanese video game have never seen commercial success in the West, despite their clout in Japan.

“A lot of Japanese developers aren’t really sure how to translate their games to a global audience,” Davis said. “And whether or not they’ll actually make it, they typically develop video games under the very Japanese lens and the sense that we make this game for ourselves and for Japan.”

This culture of disconnect and homogeneity was particularly evident about six years ago – when there was a lack of “tech and knowledge sharing” in Japan’s video game industry,” Davis said.

“In Japanese game industry, companies used to be very insular especially when it comes to the business and technical sides of it,” Davis said. “Japanese developers used to write their engines for their games from the ground up, whereas western developers were quick to adopt engines – like Unity and Unreal – to make their games.

About a decade ago, however, Japan shifted away from an insular mentality to allow for more enthusiasm and collaboration between developers.

“There is more accessibility now for everyone and we have also seen a lot of AAA developers leave big studios to go and work on independent games,” Davis said. “But localization and marketing – how to get Japanese video games published worldwide and which platform to use – are obstacles that Japanese developers ran into and still run into.”

Within companies, a management system based on seniority rules instead of merit is a deep-rooted cultural practice in Japan, rendering the game design process less agile.

“In western culture, decisions are made via consensus among the [corporate] team,” Davis said. “But Japan has a top-down management style. The majority of the team may not agree with a decision, but you just listen to your elders and the process is very stagnant – we did it this way before so we continue doing it this way into the future.”

Because Japan’s personal computer (PC) game market remains comparatively small, Davis said mobile games and hand-held consoles will continue to gain traction in the next five years.

“Video game development in Japan mirrors the global trend for the exception of mobile gaming, which is pretty dominant in Japan now and will continue to be a driving force,” Davis said. “With the proliferation of Nintendo Switch, Japanese developers will also shift their resources toward this gaming console, which is designed for players both at home and on-the-go.”

Due to the large success of Splatoon, an Nintendo action shooting game, and the next wave of 5G wireless technology, the multiplayer game industry will gain momentum in Japan as it has in the U.S., Sugano said.

“Because 5G wireless data communication is going to start and allows players to cooperate or fight with other players, I think multiplayer online games will also be a trend in Japan,” he said.

Photo at top: Founded in 2012, BitSummit is a Kyoto indie video game festival and Japan’s second-largest annual gaming event, paving the way for global exposure of Japanese independent developers. (Courtesy of John Davis/BitSummit)