I’ve always been fascinated by two things; video games and culture. As a gamer, I’ve been able to dive into the world of gaming, explore the many genres, attitudes, and tendencies of gaming with the added bonus of having an avenue to write about them. On the culture front, it's been more a hobby of observation and study, trying to understand how cultures have developed over the years, what makes each tick and how each interacts with others.
At this point, you're probably asking your self, “ what is poor old Matt rambling on about and is he really only fascinated by only two things in his life?”. The answer to the latter is no, I’m also fascinated by jellyfish and how they manage to float together without getting entangled but that, good friends, is a discussion for another time. In relation to the former, it all stems back to my recent visit at Nexon for their review of the Global release of AxE: Alliance vs Empire.
As a quick refresher, AxE is a mobile MMORPG that was developed and published by Nexon. Originally released in South Korea in late 2017, Alliance vs Empires has been just celebrated the release of its global version which is currently available on the Play Store and App Store. You can even check out our review of the title here.
While attending the event, a common theme that kept coming up was that of culturalization instead of localization. When asked to elaborate, the team at Nexon was eager to explain that when bringing the game to a global audience the goal was not simply to translate text, voice work, and UI into various languages. Instead, they were focusing on trying to adapt the core game both in look and feel to make sense to a global market. An interesting concept, one that humans have been trying to do for years when transitioning to a new place and culture.
The team went on to give two specific examples of this in the context of AxE. The first was the reworking of the Mage Class. In the image below you can see two distinct designs for the class. On the right is the original South Korean design with a heavy anime influence. In an effort to make the class more culturally relevant Nexon has done a complete redesign of the character to adapt to a global market.
These changes aren’t just cosmetic either. The way we play games changes from region to region, each valuing different aspects of the gaming experience. According to the developer, South Korean gamers focus primarily on creating the most powerful character that the game can offer. The grind to get there is simply the cost of playing the game.
Whereas here in North America, we are far more interested in the leveling experience. The end game is great but if the journey itself isn’t rewarding and exciting we rarely stick it out to the end. This, of course, creates an interesting challenge for any developer wanting to release on a global scale. In the case of Nexon, their solution was to rework some of the core mechanics of AxE to offer more ways to progress as well as reward players as they progressed. Essentially changing the game from a big reward at the end of the title to smaller rewards along the journey to incentivize people to continue on.
These are but two examples of how a company is working to try and move beyond simply localization. It does raise some interesting points of conversation, however. The point that has been on my mind that I wanted to bring to you was the point of identity. In an effort to reach a broader audience, companies tend to remove or adapt aspects of their title to draw in a larger crowd. In some cases, it's an aesthetic change with a character model variation or UI update. In other cases, the changes are a bit more dramatic such as rewriting of a story or changing the core game mechanics. As a result of some of these adaptations players of different regions end up experiencing a different game.
The question that I wonder is whether, in an effort to be relevant on a global scale, if we aren't losing the very things that make our games unique to our culture. JRPG’s, for example, require serious time commitments, focus on massive story and character arcs and an attention span that far exceeds my own.
However, in recent years we’ve seen several traditional JRPG titles adapt to a much more North American style of play. The best example in recent memory is Final Fantasy XV. With its quick combat, streamlined gameplay and shorter story experience (relative to other titles in the franchise) it seems logical to conclude that it was designed from the ground up with a global audience in mind.
For some this has been the game changer they needed to finally enjoy the experience. For others, they have been discussed by the departure from some of the mechanics that make a Final Fantasy game a JRPG. Either way, we are seeing a shift in how developers make games. The reality of the situation is that what was once a very region specific artform has expanded to the global village and developers now have to contend with a much broader audience.
I throw the question out to you, my good readers, do you feel that culturalization is necessary for developers to stay relevant in the ever-changing market of video games or is there a call to get back to the roots of what made genres and regions unique in their approach to game development? Or perhaps there is a middle ground in all this that has yet to be achieved. Let me know in the comments section below.