Picturing a Black Hole: Japanese Games on Linux


We are witnessing increasing developer and publisher support for Linux. Sure, there is still a looonng wait to go before Linux becomes a standard, first class citizen of platform, but there have been huge strides of progress in the past 2 years. The only big remaining shadow to this picture is the fact that all of it is coming from the Western side of things. There is clearly one element that has not changed one bit since Valve’s official support for Linux: the lack of Japanese dev support for Linux.

And it is not going to change anytime soon. Disclaimer: I live in Japan and I can shed some light on why this is the case. And it does not bode well for the Japanese Gaming Industry. Let’s do it the bullet point way.

1. PC is Not Associated with Gaming in Japan.

Go in any store selling games and DVDs in Japan, and here is what you’ll find: console games. Mostly for 3DS, PS3, PS4, WiiU and if you are very lucky, Xbox360 and XboxOne in a tiny area just next to the toilets (I’m kidding, but barely exaggerating - most shops don’t even have an Xbox corner). That’s it. No PC. No computers. Gaming is a Console thing, and has pretty much been this way in Japan since the Playstation days. Before that, there was clearly a large MSX gaming scene, but all of this is now gone to where the MSX went. The MSX, another Japanese standard that had no following outside of Japan. Sweet memories.

There are still games published for the PC crowd, but you only find them in the electronics superstores (like Yodabashi Camera, for example) in their underground level, an area where few people go. You will find a couple of recent games there for PC, but few in numbers in with obviously no promotion. PC Gaming in Japan is also plagued with Love Simulation games and worse stuff than that (yeah, p*rn games) which is why you should probably never say in public that you are a PC gamer in Japan. You never know, you may give a VERY wrong impression. If you go to places like Akihabara in Tokyo, in some speciality stores you will find a vibrant indie scene for the PC with a number of cool productions, a lot of them being shooters, sold at 3000 JPY (30 USD) a piece or more. But you will not find those anywhere else.


So, kid yourself not, when I say that PC Gaming is almost non-existent in Japan, it is still very true in 2014, no matter what the situation is like overseas. The reason why you get conversions of Consoles titles to PC has nothing to do with the Japan PC Gaming market - it’s the US and European markets which are driving such conversions.

2. Steam is Virtually Unknown in Japan.

This is very much linked to the first point, and even more since Steam is an American product with little to no Japanese support until very recently. There are very few Japanese games actually distributed on Steam in general. That’s because Steam is unknown as a platform here. The main reason why you see some Japanese games on Steam, like the ones from Capcom, is because Capcom has grown into large international operations (hell, even Resident Evil/BioHazard is made around the clock with 3 different teams based on multiple countries) and they have marketers in Europe and in the US who are very well aware of the Steam platform.


But Capcom is a big exception among Japanese publishers. But for publishers focused on the Japan market, and for which Overseas remain always an afterthought, Steam is just completely invisible.

3. Japanese Publishers Have No F***ing Clue About What is Happening Overseas.

When I was recently at the TGS 2014, I happened to talk to developers in the indie games area, composed of a mix of overseas and domestic developers. It was shocking to see the cultural rift. Japanese developers were targeting PS4, and potentially the Playstation Vita while foreign developers were targeting Steam first, and maybe consoles like the PS4 and WiiU later., you know, as a cherry on the cake. And most of the foreign developers knew about Linux and a good chunk of them had planned support for it, or were at least considering it as a possibility. What amazes me is how oblivious the Japanese developers are about the whole PC market that’s out there, that is potentially much bigger than the current PS4 market they can hope to deal with.


But hey, it’s not just Gaming, it’s just about everything in Japanese society: Japanese people have in large majority an insular mentality that results in them not being very interesting in whatever happens outside of the archipelago, unless something threatens them. If you are not convinced, look at the History of Sega and how much cultural gap existed between the Japanese mother company and the US branch at the time of the Megadrive and Saturn. This should be a mandatory case study for anyone interested in inter-cultural relations. You may have Internet nowadays but nothing much changed, Japanese Internet does not have a the Big Firewall of China, but they have a huge cultural one which is just as efficient at preventing ideas from going in.

4. Japan is a Windows & Mac Loving Country.

I frequent “hacker” circles in Japan, and one thing is very clear locally: when you are a developer, all your education background is about developing on Windows and through Windows. Go in any bookshop and the amount of Japanese documentation for Windows development dwarves everything else by a large, large margin. Since the Iphone and Ipad took off, Japanese have become Mac lovers as well, and now Macs are the “cool” tools to show yourself around in developer circles. Because you know, Macs are inherently cool so they make you cool through the Halo effect, right? Anyway, now Japan is all about developing for Windows AND iOS, with Mac as a bonus.


Android still struggles to get recognition, as Japan is still one of the only countries where the iPhone has such a huge market share (almost 40%). Imagine, if Android has it hard, how hard it would be to make Linux something less of a minuscule niche. Yet there is still a tiny Linux community in Japan, and even a single Linux Magazine, but one wonders how large the user size is. And every time I open such Linux magazines, it’s all about foreign made software and how to use them locally. It’s never about anything made by any Japanese guy or user group. Yup, this probably means there more of a user base of Linux in Japan than an active developer one.

5. Control-freak, No-Sharing Mentality.

This is not directly related to Linux Gaming, but this also has an influence on it. Japan development is very much a closed-source thing. You almost never see old games suddenly released as open source, you do not see much Japanese activity on GitHub or similar code sharing systems. There are a few developers who follow that trend, but it is really a minority. This kind of attitude is damaging, because if companies are interested to port games on Linux but have no skills or knowledge on how to do it, they are bound to give up rather than to share their source code with a third party vendor like Aspyr or Feral (which would most likely not be a Japanese vendor anyway). This is true for Windows conversions as well, most of them are handled in-house in Japanese studios, even though most of them do a piss poor job at it, no matter how hard they try. [ KOF XIII (see below) from SNK was actually a good Windows conversion done in-house - but hey, it was done by a foreigner working at SNK! ].


So yeah. Take all these factors together, and I can tell you they constitute a very powerful force to prevent any Linux conversion of any Japanese game from happening any time soon. Sure, there will always be some exceptions (we got Hatoful boyfriend recently), but that’s just a tiny drop of software in the huge ocean of Japanese digital creations out there.