Cold rain drizzles outside. Inside, everything is pink, round, and frilly. The first floor of this otaku (geek) retailer is plastered with release info for new PC games—adult PC games. A young clerk in glasses near the 18-and-up section taps away on a computer, probably checking inventory. I approach, excusing myself for asking a sudden, if not seemingly random question: "Why is PC gaming in Japan so niche?"
The shop is located in Den-Den Town, Osaka's geek and gaming district, on a street known as "Ota Road", short for "otaku road". It's easy to stumble into shops like this and find an array of dating games, some of which are erotic. The vast majority of these games are not exactly mainstream in Japan, but their presence is palpable in a geek neighborhood like this. But what Western gamers think of PC games—the games from developers like Valve and Blizzard—aren't. It's not that those Western PC games don't exist; they just don't smack you in the face.
When many Japanese gamers think of the country's PC gaming industry, the kneejerk reaction is to think of either dating or Western games. "The image of PC gaming with many Japanese gamers is first-person shooters," the clerk replies, agreeing that it is niche in Japan. "That," he continues, "and they think PC gaming is expensive."
It's not only the perceived price, but the notion that game consoles are dedicated to gaming—that you don't have to worry about things like specs. Then there is the 42 year-old manga artist who loves video games, but tells Kotaku via email, "I don't play computer games at all. I use my computer for work, so I don't want to cause it unnecessary stress by installing a bunch of software."
PC gaming wasn't always niche in Japan. During the early 1980s, the PC was the only game in town—literally. Even after Nintendo's Famicom caused a sensation, games like Metal Gear were still being created for the home computer throughout that decade. Nintendo's decision to call its home console the "Family Computer" and release a keyboard and floppy disks for it shows just how much the computer dominated at that time (likewise, so does Sony's decision to name its console arm "Sony Computer Entertainment"). Electronics makers reappropriated the word "computer" for home consoles, and in the process left PC gaming behind.
With multiple domestic players—Nintendo, NEC, SNK, Sega, Sony, etc.—all making hardware in Japan for Japanese players, consoles eventually took over. Video games became inseparable from either arcades or consoles. Meanwhile in the West, game developers worked both sides of the aisle, whether that was game consoles or PC. Today, studios like Washington-based Valve Corporation and California's own Blizzard Entertainment are some of PC gaming's biggest developers—and champions. Yet, game makers of this stature turn up blanks in Japan.
"I have never played a single PC game," 34 year-old factory worker Maki says. "And if you compare to Korea or China, they have many more PC games than we do here in Japan." He notes that elsewhere in Asia, there was a Dragonball game for PC, which didn't make it to Japan. That isn't the only example of Japanese creations ending up on PC outside the nation's shores. For example, Ghost'n Goblins was released on PC in South Korea, a country where PC rules. This week, Namco Bandai announced it would be co-developing a Naruto game for China.
Traditionally, the most popular genre in Japan is role-playing games. With the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games, that genre has largely flourished on consoles. So when Japanese gamers think of video games, they most likely think of the default: the most famous or most popular games. And those games have appeared on consoles.
Spearheading the role-playing game charge is Square Enix. Square Enix is a remarkablable company. Even with a safe, successful run on consoles, Square Enix has branched out to massively multiplayer online role-playing games, such as Final Fantasy XI and more recently, Final Fantasy XIV. In the past year or so, Square Enix has released more and more browser games. Likewise, Sega has found success with its Phantasy Star Online games.
The Enix arm actually started out making erotic games in the early 1980s. Like many developers at that time, erotic games were a gaming experience players could largely get only on PC. But as Enix developed as a company, it stopped making erotic games and focused on role-playing games for consoles. And since consoles locked out much of the adult content, the PC remained a bastion for erotic games, offering players experiences they could not get on home consoles.
There's definitely an audience for online gaming in Japan—it just doesn't feel as palpable as in the West. "Now, I only play browser games," says Shima, who works as an artist in Tokyo. She has played MMOs, something that isn't always easy to do in Japan. "In Japan, Diablo was only in English," she says. "I don't understand English, but the game has a style you don't find in Japan, which makes it so cool."
"I don't understand English, but the game has a style you don't find in Japan, which makes it so cool."
Thus, unless you are hardcore into Western games (and increasingly, dedicated Japanese gamers are into Western games), there isn't much motivation to venture beyond the mainstream. Sure, these players might be missing great experiences on PC, but loads of Western PC gaming isn't localized in Japan, so what they are missing doesn't even show up on their radars much of the time.
Trawling through Akihabara or Den-Den Town, it can seem like the only PC games you can find are of the ero variety. It's not only Kotaku writers who feel this way: "For the longest time, I thought the PC gaming floor at retailers in Japan was the porn floor," says Mark McDonald of Tokyo game localizer 8-4 via phone. "It was the PC gaming floor."
Steam, while it exists in Japan, hasn't hit a wide audience. There's a bit of a chicken and an egg situation: the game titles are listed only in English, and the prices are only in U.S. dollars. Out of the 1,700 or so games Steam has for sale, only 105 of those can be played in Japanese. None of this makes a welcoming experience if you speak only Japanese and carry only yen.
So against this backdrop, it's not totally unexpected for a big name game developer like Bayonetta designer Hideki Kamiya not to be up to speed on, say, what Valve is doing—even if Kamiya's producer, Atsushi Inaba, is very familiar with the company. That's because in Japan the PC gaming scene is still niche compared to gaming on consoles or mobile devices. You walk into a Japanese game shop and, save for a few notable exceptions like Final Fantasy XIV or Phantasy Star Online 2, PC gaming as it exist in the West doesn't have much of a presence. Ditto for online.
Why does this matter to Westerners? As Mark McDonald from 8-4 points out, without a widespread delivery mechanism, that means fewer Japanese indie game developers can get their cool titles to a larger audience. It gives them one less platform.
That means that talented bedroom developers, like shoot'em up maestro Kenta Cho, must rely more on word of mouth. For years now, Cho has been well known for his freeware games, so he already has a sizable following. With a smaller indie scene in Japan and fewer developer mechanisms, that means it's harder to find the next Kenta Cho—or, perhaps, it confines more of their work to mobile platforms. It ultimately has a knock on effect that might mean fewer young developers are willing to strike out on their own and go indie.
I'm back in the porn floor, where everything is round and frilly, and the clerk is still checking inventory on the computer. In the West, some gamers might turn their nose up at these types of games, deriding them as simple pornography. But these games are part of the pulse of the PC gaming scene, however niche that might be, and they provide experiences, albeit adult ones, players cannot get on consoles.
I ask the clerk what games he likes. "Me? I like role-playing games," he says. "I also like playing first-person shooters on the PC. But not many of my friends play those kinds of games." They play role-playing games on consoles, he adds. I thank him for the chat and make my way through the shop.
PC gaming does have its diehard believers in Japan. There are those making games, guys like Keiji Inafune of Dead Rising fame, Final Fantasy XIV director Naoki Yoshida, and, of course, numerous staffers at Bayonetta developer Platinum Games, who very much believe in PC gaming. They see it as a way forward and a way to connect their games to the world. The walls that get thrown up for so many Japanese players are years of being accustomed to getting their games through closed platforms and even the English language, which enables World of Warcraft guides to spring up across the globe, but might make some Japanese players unsure about their own ability to communicate.
I think about this as the rain lets up momentarily, and I duck out from underneath the awning and head out onto the street, into a sea of manga readers, anime watchers, and gamers. Most likely, console gamers.
Toshi Nakamura and Richard Eisenbeis contributed to this report.
Culture Smash is a regular dose of things topical, interesting and sometimes even awesome—game related and beyond.