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Made in Japan: Why Japanese games can rule the world once more

It's been a rough ride but Japan will rise again, says PSM3's man in Tokyo, Daniel Robson

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The major Japanese developers - household names such as Sony, Capcom, Namco Bandai, Square Enix, Sega, Konami and Nintendo - continue to experiment, but most of their output plays safe. Proven brands such as Resident Evil, Mario and Final Fantasy are popular worldwide; curiosities like Namco's massive Idolmaster series are big enough at home to make up for slim western appeal. The bigger the company, the tinier the innovations.
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Many of Japan's top creators are fed up with the malaise and are striking out on their own. Mikami and Inafune both blame Capcom's sheer size - it has over 1,600 consolidated employees - for their departure from the developer / publisher.

"Capcom grew so large," says Mikami. "I think it's a great company. I think it's right that a company like that should have strict rules, but as a creative person I felt I needed more freedom, and that was getting harder to find."

Most industries in Japan are dominated by a few major players that collude to squeeze out the independents. But artisanal excellence is still revered, and many breakaway developers go solo because they're after more control over the games they make. Tango Gameworks is not a standalone company, but a development team within ZeniMax.

Even so, Mikami feels that his team of 65 full-timers is more manageable than the huge teams at Capcom. (Resident Evil 6 has 600 names attached to it.) "The maximum would be about 100 people I think - I wouldn't want more than that," says Mikami of his ideal team. "For one thing, I wouldn't be able to remember everyone's names! The easiest number of people to move in a certain direction is one; with every person, it gets more difficult."

Inafune's two companies, Intercept and Comcept, share a staff of just 20, most of whom are fellow defectors from Capcom. He says he wants to keep his team small. "Being in charge of 900 people and thinking about a huge company's future, there was a lot of stress," he says. "My companies can move 100 times faster."

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"The benefits of being independent are the freedom it allows, and being able to take all the responsibility on yourself," says Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, who left Square Enix to found Mistwalker in 2004. "We only have around the same number of staff as a development team from the NES era, but it allows for greater communication of ideas through the team."

Last year, Fumito Ueda left Sony to complete his long-delayed The Last Guardian as a freelancer. No one knows how much control Ueda has retained over the game, or the full story behind his departure. But his next project will almost certainly take a radically different tack.

"I think Ueda's been through the wringer," sympathises Inafune. "It gets ever more difficult to make the sort of games you want to make when you belong to a large publisher. If you're truly creative and you want to make something special, it's very hard to see eye-to-eye with the money men."

THE GROUND OPENED UP
Japan's game industry has been on a brave new road for several years now. New studios like Platinum and Tango, a new western-styled approach to the press from Street Fighter's Yoshinori Ono and Tekken's Katsuhiro Harada, and boundary-breaking experiments like Dark Souls and Dragon's Dogma have set the stage Japan's games business to advance into the next generation.

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