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The Parable of Feudal Japan
by Robert Boyd on 02/10/12 01:41:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Once upon a time in Japan, there was a Feudal Lord who employed many indentured servants. Working for the Feudal Lord was hard but he protected his servants from the roving bandit bands and gave each of them enough rice to survive.

Outside of the Feudal Lord's domain, there were many peasants. Life was hard for most of them but a few found success and became wealthy traders and merchants.

The Feudal Lord was capricious and the standards by which he judged his servants varied as the years went by. A servant who failed to meet his standards would be exiled from the Feudal Lord's domain and forced to fend for himself regardless of how many successes they may have had in their past. Some exiled servants later found success as merchants, but many perished to the wolves and roaming bandits.

However, the Feudal Lord was not entirely cruel. If a servant found favor with the Lord, he could be promoted to the station of Samurai. These Samurai could then swear their fealty to the Feudal Lord, find another lord or become their own masters as travelling Ronin.

Many of the Feudal Lord's servants sought their Lord's favor. Yes, the possibility of success was slim, but they were different. They would be the one to succeed where others had failed.

Then one of the indentured servants had an idea. Yes, people enjoyed rice but what about noodles? The Feudal Lord claimed that people only enjoyed rice, but hadn't people also enjoyed noodles before the Feudal Lord's day? Wasn't it possible that people would still enjoy noodles if given the opportunity?

The indentured servant was clever and had gained some popularity in a neighboring town outside the Feudal Lord's domain. He went to them with a proposition - band with me and once again we can enjoy a noodle-filled life! We do not need the protection of the Feudal Lord to be happy! Many peasants flocked to his banner for freedom and noodles and the promise of more noodles. In fact, a wealthy merchant even offered him his daughter's hand in marriage.

What will become of our no-longer-indentured servant? Will he attract other servants to follow in his footsteps? Will the feudal lord change his ways and improve the quality of life for his people? Will we see more peasants become successful merchants who then turn around and help others succeed as well? Time will tell.

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Gerald Belman
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So I am assuming this is a metaphor for the game industry.

The fuedal lord is the metaphor for the large mainstream corporate game companies.

The Samurai are the few executives in these large corporate companies. The ronin are the independant contractors.

The indentured servants are the people who do all the actual work for the coporate game companies.

The exiled peasants are all the people who have been forced to try their hand in developing games outside of corporate companies. The people eaten by wolves are the ones who failed.

The merchants and traders are the someone successful indie developers.

And our hero the noodle man is a really successful indie developer. Like Notch or something.

Is that about right?

Robert Boyd
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Pretty close, except the hero is Doublefine and Notch is the wealthy merchant who offers him his daughter.

Ali Afshari
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I thought Notch and Schafer were talking about Psychonauts 2...

Dave Endresak
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As a scholar of Japanese culture, I found this attempt at a metaphor to be largely misleading. Amusingly written, I suppose, though.

I would suggest that people look at Hatsune Miku and the other Crypton Future Media Vocaloids and their worldwide success via consumers rather than any company marketing, including the success of Sega's games and concerts, as a prime example of empowerment and consumer participation as the solution to the traditional business model's problems, including most game industry companies. You can see an analogous success in Bethesda and Firaxis via the support and active solicitation of the modding communities for their products, albeit in a slightly different fashion.

Simon Ludgate
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I thought the metaphor was going to be about how the Shogun prohibited each Daimyo from communicating with any other and each Daimyo prohibited its citizens from traveling to another kingdom (with the exception of the lowly merchant caste), and how each Daimyo was required to build a palace in Tokyo and keep their family there so that if they were suspected of betraying the Shogun their family could be held hostage more easily. All this in an effort to reduce unrest, which led to a society largely resistant to change for some 300 years, so much so that it was unable to adapt at all when foreigners with guns landed on their shores, causing the entire society to collapse and radically restructure very rapidly.

Maybe a metaphor for how restrictive DRM-oriented business practices might lead companies towards inflexibility in a changing marketplace?

steven macinnis
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I was hoping robert was pimping his next game idea :)

Bart Stewart
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If this metaphorical parable was an accurate representation of the game development industry, what would prevent the new Noodle Lords from turning into Feudal Lords? (Answer: nothing.)

But the metaphor would only be usefully accurate if, like the feudal system, there was no real opportunity for "upward mobility." And that's just not the case in the game industry. New development studios are created every day, and some of them manage to do well for themselves. Many don't make it, but that's not because some external feudal lord declared war on them and prevented them from succeeding.

It's usually pretty easy to look for tiny flaws in a metaphor or analogy and use that as a hammer for knocking the whole thing. I try not to do that; what's important is the big picture, the overall concept that someone's trying to communicate.

In this case, though, I think the "feudalism" concept isn't a reasonable fit for today's game development industry. (The old movie studio system would be a closer analog.) It's just too easy in too many ways for a small developer to bypass the big guys. You don't have the same marketing budget, and of course success isn't guaranteed if you go your own way... but the big guys aren't immortal, either.

Robert Boyd
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Yes, the movie studio system is a closer comparison, but where's the fun in that?

Tora Teig
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I like your metaphor, do you prefer noodles or rice, though? I mean that both metaphorically and not.

Robert Boyd
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I'm more of a noodle fan myself, but I love rice as well (both metaphorically and literally).