By: Francis Guese
Say you’re playing the new Fallout game. As you loot and shoot your way through, is there ever a thought as to why certain enemies, NPCs, and game mechanics are designed that way? Compared to Dragon Quest XI the experience is completely different. There are many reasons why.
First: Programming Language
The first thing, that brings game developers together more than it sets them apart, is the programming language and tools they use. Most of the widely used programming languages, like C++ use terms in English. Contrary to the fact that 70% or more of these languages are developed by non-English speakers. It allows for a universal understanding of the process behind making games.
Second: Gameplay Difference
There is a stark contrast between JPRGs, role-playing games made in Japan, and Western RPGs. Games like The Witcher, developed by Polish indie company CD Projekt Red, and Skyrim, made by Bethesda, an American Company, have similar mechanics. Both are set in medieval/fantasy settings, have action-based combat, and are open-world sandbox games. Shooters like Metro Exodus and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 represent the cornerstones for WRPGs: bombastic, with semi-direct narratives.
Across the sea, tells a different story. JRPGs focus heavily on stats and menus.Turn-based combat is a specialty with games like the titular Final Fantasy series. The story of the “Hero’s Journey” and coming-of-age tropes are common in these narratives. While the plot can be engaging, the real draw is the party building and character growth. Classics like Final Fantasy Tactics emphasize building an army of specialized characters that level-up from each encounter. This niche may appeal only to certain gamers, but that style has popularized itself in Japan and internationally.
Each genre caters to audiences that love what they offer. But trends have begun crossing country lines. The Dark Souls series by Japanese publisher From Software, blends action-focused gameplay with menu-based equipment and item management. Along with Nioh and Sekiro, the souls-like genre serves as a mark for Japanese developers to make in the Western market.
Third: Cultural Differences
Culture can vastly affect how the game experience goes. Story heavy games can be dependent entirely on cultural norms. Many visual novel type games like Steins; Gate and the Fate/Stay series can have deep cultural roots in history that might be lost in translation. But one thing publishers can do that can ease the gap is localization.
When foreign games reach popularity overseas, there is a chance that the publisher will push for a localization to give to English audiences. This allows them to achieve a wider market. But localizing a game is different from translating it. A direct translation is efficient. But some references and jokes can go right over player’s heads. Localizing is what studios do to make the game more familiar to the target audiences. A great example is the Phoenix Wright series. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a game about a defense attorney dealing with wacky cases and similarly boisterous people. But it is also a game steeped in Japanese culture. What the localization team at Capcom decided to do was move the setting from Japan to America. That meant rewriting every joke and quip to make it more relatable to American audiences.
Capcom risked the entire series sinking on its debut. It paid off. The series succeeded to multiple entries and spinoffs which would not have seen the same popularity had it been directly translated. It comes down to how much time and money a publisher is willing to spend to make these kinds of games easier for foreign audiences to consume.
Video game development is universal. Almost every developer uses the same tools. But the result comes to life dripping with the maker’s personal history and culture. Even Tetris features Russia’s St. Basil’s Cathedral and the theme music is based on a poem by Nikolay Nekrasov. It’s hard to avoid this kind of cultural bias when making games. But diversity in markets is not a bad thing. Try something new. Maybe you’ll find your new favorite game from a developer living hundreds of miles away.