Looking back on the history of video games, there was a time in the '80s and '90s where the East and West were synchronous in their love for the art form. We enjoyed the same kind of games, and we bought the same consoles.
Since then, we've drifted apart.
Japan no longer dominates the industry, and a lot of modern gamers can't derive the same sense of pleasure out of Japan's modern output. Some say Japanese game design is trapped in the past.
This divide has lead to certain franchises crossing the waters around Japan, or remaining within its borders. This is most apparent with two of the worlds most famous RPG franchises: Monster Hunter and Final Fantasy.
The Phenomenon of Monster Hunter
When you look at the desires of a western gamer and an eastern gamer, you'll notice a rather large divide. In the west, we've seen an influx of multiplayer games. Single-player games often come with their own multiplayer modes, and split-screen is slowly dying on Xbox One and PS4. Everything is moving online, but gaming is very different in Japan.
"[Monster Hunter] helped cement the PSP's popularity in Japan among the previous generation of handhelds (so much so that the PSP continues to outsell the PS Vita) as well as establish the popularity of the 3DS in the current generation of handhelds in Japan."
Monster Hunter is said to be the Call of Duty of Japan, only that its not limited to home consoles and PCs. You're likely to see a ton of individuals in Tokyo and Osaka playing Monster Hunter on the train to work, or school; it really isn't limited to a particular generation. But the platform that Monster Hunter excels on is part of why it doesn't do well in the west.
Why This RPG is So Popular
If you look at Monster Hunter objectively, the series really isn't doing anything spectacular, or different from the array of JRPGs that come out every year. It largely echoes the Phantasy Star Online quest/mission model. However, it has a great battle system, and Capcom's graphics are impressive, at least in this series. But the modern iterations also come with a free multiplayer mode.
But multiplayer in Japan is different. There's a sense of community with it. Take a look at this abstract from Toshi Nakamura's article on Monster Hunter:
Due to the nature of the game's multi-player system, particularly with the PSP and 3DS, when playing with others, you will almost invariably be playing with someone you know—more often than not, a friend. Most people seem to get their introduction to the game from the people around them. "My boss talked me into playing [Monster Hunter 3rd]" says Ryouhei, a 24 year-old clerk who would spend hours after work huddled together with his co-workers. "It's fun to work together with friends towards a mutual goal."
There's an abundance of pressure in Japanese society to fit into these communities.
"On a trip with 15 or so colleagues, everyone but me was playing Monster Hunter on their PSPs." Kenji, a 25 year-old actor recalls, "I sat in the corner playing Final Fantasy on my PSP, while everybody else sat in circles of 3 or 4 laughing and having fun… It was terrible. When I got home, the first thing I did was get a copy of the game."
This series is tailor-made for handheld consoles, and when you engage with a multiplayer game in Japan, it's a fun, and social way of interacting with friends. This is almost the antithesis of the way that most of us would interact with multiplayer games. Sure, I play games with friends online on occasion, but the way in which gamers interact with Monster Hunter in Japan is entirely different to us.
Therefore, it's clear to see why Monster Hunter isn't selling well in America and Europe, the very design of the game is catered towards a different culture. In fact, Square Enix announced that if they weren't happy with the western sales of Dragon Quest: Heroes - the latest installment in the franchise - they wouldn't consider releasing further Dragon Quest games outside of Japan. We've yet to hear the verdict on this, but can you imagine this happening with the Final Fantasy franchise?!
Final Fantasy v Monster Hunter
Looking at Final Fantasy and Monster Hunter is an enlightening experience. You can see how Final Fantasy has changed over the years to cater to western demand, whereas Monster Hunter does so well in Japan on a console that barely survives in the west, that we're almost an after thought when it comes to creating the games. It's a fascinating glimpse into modern culture, and how the gaming industry has evolved over the years.
But what about you? Do you play Monster Hunter? Do you wish multiplayer was a bit more like this in the west? Let us know where you stand in the comments below!