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'Gitaroo Man' creator on Japan's cultural iron curtain

Making music

Gitaroo Man
Gitaroo Man
Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

The developer of Elite Beat Agents, Ouendan and Gitaroo Man discusses the challenges of going global.

Keiichi Yano doesn't seem to like the term "quirky." When asked to describe the sort of games his company, INIS, makes, he pauses for a moment before answering.

"We think about that a lot," he said in an interview with Polygon during Tokyo Game Show this past week. "We ask ourselves that internally. What's an INIS game? What do people expect out of that? The conclusion we've come up with is two things. One is some bit of quirkiness, differentness. I hesitate to say quirky because we actually don't try to be quirky. Sometimes it just happens. But also some bit of originality."

Quirky or no, there's little doubt that INIS games have plenty of originality. The company's first breakout hit, Gitaroo Man, features gameplay like this. Another big hit for INIS, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan starred male cheerleaders helping people accomplish things in their daily lives to the beat of J-pop.

That sort of originality comes at a price. Many of INIS's early games were designed for maximum cultural relevance in Japan. Unfortunately that often means that those same games have zero cultural relevance anywhere else.

"I would say Korea and China are closer to the United States and Europe than they are to Japan"

"I tend to think that Japan is the only country in the entire world that is separated in terms of cultural relevance items," Yano explained. "I would say Korea and China are closer to the United States and Europe than they are to Japan. Japan's in its own little bubble. We have our things that work well. That generates a lot of flow, which is cool, but when you start taking that globally, it becomes a different ball of wax."

Yano believes that much of that cultural relevance develops at childhood, so a Japan-educated child will grow up to appreciate very different things from an American-educated child. This makes finding a middle ground extremely difficult.

"We want to be successful in both markets...and I'm not saying that can't work. Obviously Nintendo has been very successful in creating global content. But they are one of very few, as a development company, that has done that. They haven't really done that with new IPs. I don't count like Wii Fit or Wii Sports. Have they been able to create a new Mario or a new Zelda? They haven't. I think it's just that difficult to do. We're in a day and age where it's very difficult to create a new Mario. I would say that Angry Birds has done that more successfully than any of us to create something that's culturally relevant everywhere in the world."

In the past, one of the solutions for INIS was to totally revamp a game for a market outside of Japan. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, a game about male cheerleaders, became Elite Beat Agents, a game about men in black traveling the world, righting wrongs. The gameplay was essentially the same, but the track list and presentation were totally changed for a western market.

"We're in a day and age where it's very difficult to create a new Mario"

Recently, though, INIS has run into some globalization issues beyond their control. The company just developed Demon's Score for iOS, published by Square Enix. The game, which Yano describes as "Final Fantasy meets Ouendan," was released in Japan for 1500 Yen (about $20) while, in the US, the game was released at $6.99. The big difference? The US version blocks off much of the content as in-app purchases (buying all the levels in the game costs about $50) while the Japanese version comes with all of this content unlocked up front. It was a decision made by the game's publisher, Square Enix, but INIS is feeling the brunt in the US App Store, where the game is currently rated two and a half stars out of five.

Making a game that can appeal to a single market is hard enough. Making a game that can appeal to all markets? Despite the challenges they've experienced, INIS will keep trying. When asked if he has a plan in mind, Yano says they do. What's the plan, I ask? He smirks. "I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you."