Capcom’s Westernisation

We all know and understand that today’s video game market is becoming more and more global.  There are still some titles that are exclusive to Japan (Yakuza 3 comes to mind, as does Afrika – until recent announcements) which might seem strange because Japan is losing its prominence as a leader in the market. The UK is now a bigger market (second only to North America) and the industry as a whole has Westernised. I remember a time when if you wanted some of the greatest games you had to import them from the land of the rising sun. Now it seems like they are importing games from western markets and trying to pitch them to a Japanese audience (Grand Theft Auto IV is published and distributed by Capcom in Japan).

Even the mighty Hideo Kojima and Konami altered the feel of the Metal Gear Solid series with the fourth instalment so that it could be played by a more wide-ranging, traditionally western audience. They made it play more like an action shooter and less like the tense, stealthy thrillers that the previous MGS games had been.

Capcom have publicly stated that they want to move their game design to a more Western standpoint but what do they really mean by that? I recently played Dead Rising on the Xbox 360 and was shocked at how little I could find to enjoy in it. I was encouraged to think about why I didn’t enjoy it (plenty of other people thought it was great) and I found a quote from Capcom’s Head of Research and Development, Keiji Inafune, in which he expressed surprise that the game’s western audience had immediately spotted its Japanese design roots. According to Inafune, they had attempted to design it like a Western game.

This is when it all fell into place with me. The reason that I really didn’t like Dead Rising (and for that matter Resident Evil 5) is because it was a Japanese game design with a clichéd and simplified set of Western characters. The menu systems, disjointed save-game points, the over-emotional character interactions and the now-infamous run-shoot mechanics are the primary things that singled out Dead Rising and Resident Evil as Japanese game for me.

Back in my PSX and PS2 days I loved Capcom design. I used to be a huge fan of Resident Evil and I still believe that Japanese game design (especially at Capcom and Konami) is the most imaginative but only in small flashes. For the most part the Japanese designers seem to have found a few mechanics that do what they need them to do and they have entrenched those mechanics in a game series.

Capcom have recognised that they need to shift their design ethos to make themselves more financially secure. The new Dead Rising sequel is being developed by Blue Castle Games, a Vancouver-based developer whose only previous experience is in the development of baseball video games. That’s about as North American as it’s possible to be and it backs up Capcom’s stated desire to put out a more Western game.

The re-issue of classic Capcom titles as digitally distributed titles (Street Fighter, Bionic Commando) is interesting. They seem to release the original classic (albeit spruced up for HD) a month or two before the new remake or sequel. This essentially serves to remind the audience why they might be looking forward to the upcoming full-disc title. It also demonstrates the differences between the old and the new versions. Capcom are attempting to evolve whilst reminding us that they have an awesome heritage.

So the upcoming Dead Rising 2 is an attempt at a Japanese publisher making a Western game but Capcom haven’t given up on their roots. They claim that Lost Planet 2 has taken cues from Call of Duty 4. That move is sure to broaden its appeal but it is still being developed in-house by Capcom. Perhaps the releases of the Dead Rising and Lost Planet sequels will show us just how much the design ethos is changing at Capcom. It will be interesting to see, through the course of 2010, which path leads to the greater critical and commercial success. Will a Japanese studio developing for the west ever work as well as a western studio developing with the backing of that Japanese creativity and innovation?