On Wednesday night at the Tokyo Game Show, Capcom creative guru Keiji Inafune insisted that his company needed to do a better job of listening to “the West.” On Thursday morning, Microsoft Game Studios vice president Phil Spencer took the position that Microsoft had to do a better job of broadcasting Japanese developers’ message to the world. You might think that these two guys were pulling at opposite ends of the rope.
The fact is, though, Inafune and Spencer are coming from a shared perspective: They realize that the aesthetic conversation between major game makers in Japan and in the United States has been stalled for a while now. This week, they laid out their plans to do something about it.
Inafune’s self-effacement and disregard for political correctness make it easy to believe him when he says that he’s drinking the global-togetherness Kool-Aid. His joy is infectious. Spencer, however, is the anti-Inafune. Throughout the Microsoft keynote, he proclaimed his enthusiasm for Japanese developers with such a well-rehearsed, executive-suite smile and intonation that I’m sure he could recite colonoscopy reports and sound just the same.
The instinctive—and maybe correct—conclusion would be that Microsoft was pandering to its Japanese audience. The substance of what the company presented on Thursday, though, makes the cynical stance somewhat less convincing. Look at some of the names that headlined Microsoft’s keynote announcements this year: Treasure, NanaOn-Sha, From Software, Suda51’s Grasshopper Manufacture.
And the names that didn’t: Konami, Namco, Square Enix…you get the idea. (Yes, Konami did make a sidelong appearance by way of a Metal Gear Solid: Rising technology demo, but that was a brief sideshow.)
If Microsoft were really trying to snow us, they would have dazzled the keynote attendees with familiar games from the big-budget juggernauts. Instead, the company showed off odd, hard-to-categorize titles by smaller teams, like the dragon-riding Kinect game Project Draco. Suda51 and From Software are hardly anonymous nobodies, but they still represent a second tier of Japanese development, where smaller, tight-knit teams prevail—and more personal games are produced as a result.
It’s a canny move for Microsoft to ally itself with these developers, because that’s where so much of the excitement is on this side of the Pacific. While the game industry in Japan may seem at times to be mired in tapped-out genres, that’s only because the mega-studios dominate the discussion. The umpteenth Street Fighter iteration is going to drown out the latest Half-Minute Hero-type curiosity every time (yet the quirkier game might have more influence on the medium in the long run).
I’m under no delusion that Phil Spencer has turned Microsoft into an indie, hippie, free-love company that showers resources on the little guys out of pure appreciation for their art. Spencer’s division recruited a group of independent-minded developers because they believed it was a sound business decision—one that could make their products, Kinect in particular, more distinctive to consumers.
Monetary concerns don’t preclude artistic merit, though. Profit margins or not, the fact remains that if you were making an honest effort to bring the best of Japanese development to a wider audience, many of the creators on your shortlist would be the same people who featured in Microsoft’s TGS keynote. So when Phil Spencer claims that the support of inventive Japanese producers is key to Kinect’s success, it’s a great line to spout for a Tokyo crowd. It may have the added benefit of being the truth.