Gaming's reached a turning point. Western games have more realistic graphics and physics than Japanese games. This isn't good or bad. It's true.
There was a moment during the Tokyo Game Show, when I stood in line waiting to play the PS Vita. A trailer for Modern Warfare 3 rumbled across the big screen. It was followed by BioShock: Infinite. Those in line turned their heads and watched, all slack jaw. Regardless what you think of those games, the trailers are as impressive, if not more, than any summer blockbuster.
It's no accident that Western game development tech has surged ahead of Japan's. Western game development as we know it also has a strong a background in PC game development.
That doesn't mean all Western game developers make computer games. Many of them have spent their entire professional careers making strictly console games, and many of them, like Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski, grew up loving Japanese games. But Bleszinski got his start in computer games. These developers are able to speak both languages: computer and console. But so much of their DNA (and that of their companies) is in computer games, with their emphasis on tech. It's in the water and air they breathe.
Japan, on the other hand, has a strong background in arcade games and console games. This is why Japanese games are traditionally polished. You can't have popout and patches for offline cabinet games. Don't get me wrong, Japan holds two of the three platforms, one of which, the PS3, is incredibly powerful. But the PC, especially since the advent of graphics cards, has often pulled ahead. And unlike consoles, which don't become more powerful until the new generation starts, computers continue to become more and more powerful, keeping developers on their toes.
There are Japanese game developers more than capable of creating powerful games, but it often feels like they spend so much of their development cycle working on a proprietary game engine and then never using it again. This is a mistake.
Meanwhile, in the West, many developers either have their own in-house engines or license (and then mod) engines. The idea of modding existing engines engines is very PC. So you get developers like BioWare licensing Epic's Unreal Engine and then creating a totally different experience than what Epic offers—and doing it over the course of the hardware generation. When the next generation of hardware launches, gaming will probably see a slew of new trilogies.
How did this this happen? Japanese engine tech fell behind, because the games that were popular in the late 1990s, such as turn-based role-playing games filled with cutscenes, did not require things like complicated game physics. Many Japanese studios are playing catch-up.
I've heard stories about Japanese studios hiring Westerners to do things like translate the Unreal Engine manual or explain to Japanese developers how to use it. This was a few years back, and I don't doubt that Epic has upped their service (and localization!) for developers around the world.
When Konami states it is working on a new game engine, called the Fox Engine, that will supposedly make development easier, one can't help but wonder why it already didn't have something like that to make Metal Gear Solid 4 on? And when Konami finally does finish it, will it be able to hold its own with the next Unreal Engine?
All hope is not lost. Japanese developers design amazing characters and create memorable worlds and experiences. And no game engine, no matter how good, can do that.