I almost missed this article at Gamasutra, and if I had, I would have deeply regretted it, because it is absolutely fascinating. It relates to the localisation of wildly popular first-person shooter Counter-Strike for the Japanese market. If you're like me, that may not sound at first like oratory gold, but trust me, you'll want to read this.
It starts off talking about that Counter-Strike is an inherently western game, featuring "sweaty gringos" and "hairy guys in fatigues". For the Japanese version, these characters have been replaced with anime-esque "primary coloured spandex" and "anti-gravity busted women". Well, that's a whole evolution of improvement right there. 8-)
Also, they're not terrorists and counter-terrorists anymore. Now they're factions represented by obscure acronyms and pursuing vague ideological agendas. So... not really a change. Also, apparently there's now minigames in case you get bored of shooting, plus seasonal events like falling sakura blossoms in spring, et cetera. Really, that's something every game should have.
Where it gets really interesting, though, is when it starts talking about matching services, and creating a viable online matching infrastructure where previously in Japan there has really been none. Japan apparently had analog matching services using real-life people as matchers for games like Go long before there were online ones. Here, people are paying per-game, and there are clear paralells between how many games people pay for and how much they lose. Put shortly, if they're being beaten by more than two games to one, they're not enjoying themselves, and they won't come back. This is particularly important in their first experiences with the game.
Key to this experience is identifying "good players" - and this is "good" not so much in terms of their skill at winning the game, but "good" in terms of their positive contribution to the game as a whole through mentoring new players, promoting good sportsmanship, and providing constructive feedback on the state of the game. New players, wherever possible, should be exposed to "good" players, and protected from "bad" players (the ones who join a server, and everyone on that server who knows them immediately quits). The Japanese Counter-Strike features multiple systems for players to give feedback on other players, such as a "Good Job!" button, plus also a bunch of game balance measures designed to discourage "non-fun" behaviour like camping and shooting people in the back. (I'm not too sure on these last; I have a fairly good idea what Sirlin might have to say about them, but I'd have to play them to make up my own mind.)
Then it goes into what makes communities good on the whole (which seems to be a kind of balancing line - not so disparate as to not form social connections, but not so close as to be insular).... and, well, this is just fascinating stuff that has massive implications not just in matching services but in MMOG design, website design, forum design, workplace design...
I love a good article which really gets me thinking, and this feels like the sort of thing I'll be referencing a lot for a while.