I had promised to speak a bit about this in another post. First, I should start with a disclaimer. In no way do I claim to be any sort of expert of Japanese culture. My resources are from friends who have visited the country, movies, anime, and some game research. Any claims I make is pure speculation and if I am making any blatantly incorrect statements I ask any readers to please point them out so I can correct them.
But luckily this should have very little to do on Japanese culture expertise and only reflected in their games. (An expression of culture like any art form.)
I have with me a very lovely book my friend, professor, adviser gave to me (that she help write) called "Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat". (Shameless plug?) In it there is a chapter written by Mizuko Ito called "Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix". It outlines the way Japanese media (including video games) have time and again created something that crossed gender boundaries. And more importantly how various forms of media are catered to female consumers in Japan and elsewhere. (Mentioning of course the diversity of the manga genre and appeal of yaoi. Which is boy on boy love for those who don't already know.)
It's plain to see that several of the games that have come over from Japan have been popular despite gender implications. What sorts of things and games? Well, this particular chapter highlights the Pokémon craze. I remember that time. We had gameboy color, the cards, the N64 game. It was the "thing" to have and play regardless if you were a boy or girl. Why? Well, the chapter attributes some of it to the "cute" factor. There are several designs of pokémon that are considered girly and cute while others are cool and boyish. And perhaps some of the media surrounding it (like the cartoon) showcased that both boys and girls competed.
Then there's also the factor of game play (of course). The idea of collecting is something very appealing to many people. (I think it may be evolution at work here.) The "battling"/competing may be more appealing to male players but there are other aspects to the game. There are also options to "trade" or share Pokémon with friends, making it a social game which again appeals to people in general.
Winning Ideas From Japan
I have to give kudos to Japanese game companies for producing a wide range of games and particularly Nintendo for taking risks and playing with the formula. I'm not going to expound much on the success of the "Wii" experiment. Most everyone is already aware of it and I don't feel like being redundant. However, I also like to look at their general game features.
-Going for Cute: More often than not, a game features "cute" characters. Often with disproportionate features, big heads, googly eyes and very simplistic. The Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh success point this out as well as Animal Crossing. A non-threatening character appeals to a wide audience including children (usually of both gender), females in general, and parents who feel that these characters are "safe".
-Story-mode: This can be a positive feature or a negative. But there is a lot of "reading" involved and story-moded games. RPGs, Interactive Novels, and Life Simulators are all samples of genres that rely heavily on story. And why is this important? Well, easily because stories are a very basic human pleasure. Everyone likes to tell and hear stories. Whether you like playing the story or prefer that stories stay in movies and books, in the end a story adds appeal.
-Beyond D&D: Settings and themes are important to games. Many Japanese games have a fantasy setting, but it's not the same as a D&D based or Lord of the Rings style fantasy. Dark, gritty and "realistic" seem to be very appealing which in contrast to the bright colors of many Japanese RPG games. Also many of the games have you take the role of a younger character.
-Experimenting: This can either be good or bad but some of the coolest game designs, accessories and so on came from Japanese games. For example, Okami's "drawing" battle system was a pretty neat trick. Or DDR was a pretty big hit.
And some of the Weird Stuff
There is a darker side to some of the stuff that comes over and some that have not.
-Failed Experiments: Well, you get good eggs and bad eggs. Not all accessories worked well or even practically.
-Too Weird?: While some games are just too hilarious to be taken seriously, some are just too alienating. Such as games that appeal more to Japanese pop culture which hasn't really reached a level of appeal here.
-Too illegal?: The laws on pornography I believe differ between the two countries. One game I know got a lot of heat was a supposed "Rape Simulator".
-Too Anime: The style does not appeal to everyone. The androygny, silly hair cuts, and simplistic cartoon shapes is not everyone's piece of pie. Also many of the themes seem to annoy people by being too simplistic or very "Buddist". Some of the philosophy can get a bit weird.
Personally I find Japanese games much more appealing to my interest in games. The design of the characters, the themes of the stories and the brighter colors all appeal to me. (I have to admit something about me and colors...I need them BRIGHT...or at least CLEAR. That's why I LOVE 2D animation so much.)
Also I feel that Japanese companies are really PROGRESSING much more than Western companies who seem to be satisfied making Sport Games, WW2 games, FPS and gritty RPGs. I just find much more variety from Japanese companies. I really wonder if current companies will ever "get it". Sometimes graphics don't matter as much as gameplay. Stop blowing funds on epic cinematics. We get it. You created a monster console with tons of processing power.
Lots of Indie games are taking the hint and producing lots of awesome and interesting games. Like Diner Dash, World of Goo, and Winds of Orbis. When I was at the Indie showcase at GDC, there was a lot of innovation. And I feel it's the market system we have that is hindering larger companies from taking risks and making something innovative. Why fix something that's not broke right?
All things aside...Sims 3 is looking pretty cool. :3