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I’ve been playing a lot of Game Dev Story lately which fittingly has brought up the subject of game development. The old-school games being made within the game seem a stark contrast to the types of games that have been populating the iPhone of late. Game Dev Story is a unique title that has garnered a lot of buzz lately, but it’s decidedly non-modern in some respects. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t tell whether it was a Western or Japanese game when I first played it.
Why I thought it came from the West
To be frank, Game Dev Story is a popular iPhone game (it’s currently on the App Store’s “Top Grossing” list) and the lion’s share of games that find success on the platform are from countries where the platform is much more ubiquitous. I can certainly see why it’s caught on, since the game’s 8-bit visual style is an unabashed love letter to old-school Japanese games, which (oddly enough) are the forte of Western developers. Games like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Super Meat Boy, and the Bit.Trip franchise have presented new perspectives on the visual and gameplay elements of old and the premise of making a game about making games is as unconventional as they come. Game Dev Story’s retro style helps marry the traditional simulation style with the outrageous premise in the same way that the developers of the aforementioned titles have eased players into platformers and brawlers with new elements by keeping the visual style old-school.
Game Dev Story was a surprise hit—coming without any pre-release fanfare. We rarely get pitched with iPhone game demos here at GamePro, but on the rare occasion a company comes by with one, it’s traditionally been a Japanese publisher showing a portable iteration of one of their most popular franchises. With many of the West’s most popular iPhone games dropping at $1, the companies creating the titles have little to no budget to promote their wares ahead of time. Instead, they rely on word of mouth as iPhone owners engage in regular app comparison and recommendations. Over the last two weeks since the game has launched, I’ve encountered at least a half-dozen other video game media members tout the game at press events.
Why I thought it came from Japan
One of the most striking things about Game Dev Story is how insular and self-contained it is. Since I’ve purchased the game, I’ve yet to see it utilize any online features, nor has an update been provided for it. It reminded me a bit of how many of how Square Enix’s iPhone RPGs (especially the Final Fantasy ports) have existed as entirely non-social games. The few Japanese games that lend themselves to being social have been slower to the take.
One of things I’ve pondered about Game Dev Story since it’s become something of a cult hit is how the game is perfect fodder for some sort of social network. The most popular Western-developed games have been quick to jump onto the likes of Game Center and OpenFeint, knowing the services serve as more than just a place to compare scores and play online—they serve as ways for gamers to see what their friends are playing. Essentially, they provide word of mouth when you’re not around other people.
iOS 4’s Game Center, in its current incarnation, probably isn’t the place for it, as the app provides little insight into what your friends are doing. (You can’t see their achievements, for example.) Every time I discover a friend who’s played Game Dev Story, we immediately discuss our company’s name, the games we’ve made, and the developers we’ve hired and fired. Those personalized facets aren’t the kind of things you see in Apple’s nascent gaming social network (I must confess a lack of OpenFeint experience), but it could be something you could express with a secondary method of social networking—publishing updates. I’ve become aware of new players picking up Words With Friends thanks to the game’s Facebook and Twitter integration, while game-published Facebook wall posts used to be my unofficial scoreboard for Halfbrick’s Fruit Ninja before the title added Game Center support. The “high-score” option on Game Dev Story’s title screen consists of listing just two of your stats – your best selling game and highest amount of cash on hand.
For the Western games that have seen overnight success, fast and frequent updates have been key. Whether it’s fixing major bugs or adding social features to the game, the games have changed quickly to adapt to the requests of the customers, sometimes packing only one or two additions into an update. While the Western-developed Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds jumped on the Game Center train shortly after the service was established, Namco’s i Love Katamari and Pac-Man Championship Edition only saw their updates land this week. Fortunately, both came with a variety of additional content and gameplay tweaks. With no updates in its first weeks, I gathered that Game Dev Story wouldn’t see one until a laundry list of new features were ready.
That’s not to say there weren’t any positives to assuming the game was developed in Japan. Almost all of the franchise titles that have been ported or created for the iPhone—including Street Fighter IV, i Love Katamari, the two Final Fantasy games and the upcoming Dead Rising-have been almost console-level in terms visual quality or feature sets (and sometimes both). While Game Dev Story doesn’t exactly raise the bar for graphics in an iPhone game, the variety of things to do with your company in the game make it a title that you can invest hours in without performing the same move over and over.
Game Dev Story was made by a Japanese developer.
However, the reason it eluded my deduction was that it wasn’t put out by a major Japanese publisher. Ultimately, the game seems to represent the best of both worlds. Game Dev Story is the first U.S-translated title from veteran Japanese cell-phone developer Kairosoft. The relatively small team works with the same constraints as many of the burgeoning iPhone developers, but the company’s adeptness at creating a deep and involving simulation speaks to their development pedigree.
Do I wish the game was a little less insular and quick to respond to what the fanbase wants like western iPhone developers? Of course. But as a Japanese company with limited resources, I can respect the fact that Kairosoft isn’t going to have the ease of updating their game on a non-native platform, since the initial product was already feature-rich. With the Japanese cell phone market way more fractured than ours, I can only hope that the continued success of the iPhone in the country and experience that Japanese companies garner from the platform will mean that all territories can soon approach development on an even playing field.