About a week ago, give or take a jet-lag-lost half-day I was at an EA event in Tokyo participating in such ancient Japanese traditions as playing Dante's Inferno and killing some virtual undead, while McWhertor searched for a chainsaw.
There wasn't much that identified this EA showcase I attended at a Tokyo art museum as a Japanese event, other than the presence of an interesting DS game called Tsumuji and of a man named Rex Ishibashi. Rex runs EA Japan. I needed to find out what that's about.
Western games aren't big in Japan. Activision's not even there. But EA does have half of the market of Western games in the country, Ishibashi told me shortly after we sat down to chat. "We're looking to grow Western penetration of content in this marketplace from single-digit to double-digit," Ishibashi said.
Part of the push will be games like Dante's Inferno, if it can clear the ratings board, and Dead Space Extraction for the Wii, which has (That's concept art of DSE atop this post, by the way). The first Dead Space didn't make it to Japan. Why not? "To oversimplify, dismemberment [in video games] is a big issue in Japan," Ishibashi said. "The levels of innards and gore that you see is an issue, and killed bodies is an issue. There's a clear distinction between what happens to humans and what happens to aliens, even when the aliens look human. It's a, frankly, tricky landscape."
Dead Space Extraction got EA's backing in Japan in part because some of the Japanese developers working with the EA's Partners program liked the original. "Guys like [Grasshopper Manufacture's Goichi] Suda, [Ex-Capcom developer Shinji] Mikami and others were just raving about the game," Ishibashi said. EA Japan worked with the rest of the company to ensure that the new game would meet the standards needed for a Japanese release, touching on the aforementioned sensitive issues.
Dead Space for Wii will make it. Brutal Legend, despite the proliferation of young Japanese people in the shopping district of Shibuya sporting hair metal outfits, won't. "We're not releasing Brutal Legend in Japan," Ishibashi said. "It's too western. It has much more to do with the game fiction and the characters... No slight on him, because I'm a huge fan — but if you ask most of the Japanese people in this room about Jack Black, they'd say 'Who?' [As for] the heavy metal-connected humor and storyline, while there is a niche and you may see people dressing like that, it's not broad. It's pretty narrow."
Aside from bringing games over from the U.S. and Europe, EA Japan has tried to cultivate some projects locally. EA used to have a studio in the country and used it to develop Sim City on the DS. It's since been shut down, for reasons Ishibashi didn't explain. The new approach, Ishibashi said, is to tap into what he sees is a new-found entrepreneurial spirit in the Japanese development community, a spirit that has motivated Japanese industry veterans to branch off to start their own smaller studios.
Ishisbashi said the relatively recent rise of Softbank in Japan — the rare big company in Japan started by a hotshot entrepreneur — helped inspire workers to break away from their big companies. He said the spirit he's seeing now is from people saying, "I don't want to wear a suit and work for a big company. I'd rather be small, independent, nimble, make my own decisions, maybe manage one or two small projects — maybe something I feel i can control — rather than be a cog in a big machine."
In Japan, the pitch is that EA isn't the big machine. It could be the right partner for the little guy to hook up with. "It's not to take anything away from the big companies," Ishibashi said. "They do it very well. But Grasshopper Manufacture probably wouldn't have existed 15 years ago. You would have never gotten funded or maybe [Suda] would have been afraid to make that leap. We have this whole vibrant class of entrepreneurial developers we can tap into that don't just want to do projects for Sony or Square-Enix or whoever. "
The results of this new approach are games like Tsumuji, which EA Japan's small management team is helping to create in conjunction with the Osaka-based start-up Neuron Age. EA Japan is also assisting in managing the development of Suda and Mikami's EA Partners project.
In Japan, EA is the little guy marketing those oh-so-exotic games much of the rest of the gaming world considers the mainstream. And they're also another connection for Japanese game creators to the Western market. The company still has much to achieve in the one gaming-crazy territory where it is not yet a giant. They're trying.