Siliconera Sounds Off: What Makes A Japanese Game Successful In The West?

By Ishaan . December 6, 2009 . 4:02pm

While poor Nick takes some well-deserved time off to reclaim the pieces of his soul that we devoured (he’s probably out questing for the sacred tears of light that will enable his enchanted sword to seize them from our clutches at this very moment), we caught hold of Ken Berry from Xseed — keep your pants on, people — for a nice, long chat about bringing Japanese games over to the West and working with developers to increase their global appeal.


It was fairly long and we covered a lot of ground, so we’re splitting it up by topic. This week: What most influences how a Japanese game will perform in the west?




Director of Publishing, Xseed – Ken Berry

Siliconera – Spencer Yip

Siliconera – Ishaan Sahdev Ken: Really hard to put a finger on any one aspect of what makes a Japanese game popular in the west. There will always be a small core group of gamers that like anything from Japan, but there’s definitely a couple factors that can limit the wide appeal in the west; the artstyle (too anime-ish or too cute), and the battle system (turn-based).


The main difference in the US market over the last few years has been the abundance of new titles across various platforms. In the late nineties you may have been looking at a couple new RPGs released per month on the original PlayStation, but now you could be looking at over 20 RPGs being released in a single month across multiple platforms like Wii, Xbox 360, PS3, plus the handhelds of Nintendo DS and PSP. It is much harder to get a game noticed and stocked on store shelves these days, especially if it’s tagged as being "too Japanese" and "too niche." Ishaan: It’s interesting that you mention RPGs being available across such a wide variety of platforms nowadays. As you said, back in the PS1 (and even more so in the PS2) days, role-playing games were associated with Sony’s consoles and the fanbase was concentrated largely around those systems. Once this generation kicked off, it seemed like it wasn’t easy for Japanese developers to settle on a [home] console to publish their RPGs on for a while, which led to a degree of segmentation, what with them being scattered across five systems.


Now, it seems like the PS3 could very well be the go-to home console for those kinds of games in 2010 and beyond. It’ll be interesting to see if having the majority of these games on a single console creates some sort of synergy that boosts demand for them in the West, especially considering that a lot of them don’t seem excessively moe. Ken, I’m curious; which Xseed game has performed best out of all the ones you’ve published in recent times, and what do you think set it apart?


Ken: Of our recent titles, I would say that Rune Factory: Frontier (which we published together with Marvelous Entertainment USA) has done fairly well. It being an offshoot of the popular Harvest Moon series, and already being an established franchise in its own right on the DS, had a lot to do with it. Little King’s Story, despite being a Game of the Year contender on Wii, hasn’t performed up to expectations. I think the "cute" factor really hurt it as uninformed gamers could write it off as looking too "kiddie", while younger gamers may not catch all the references and humor that earned it its "Teen" ESRB rating.


The PS3 does seem like a natural fit for where many RPGs may land given how the PS2 dominated the genre, but even the Japanese RPGs on there will likely evolve to a certain extent. Demon’s Souls is a great example of a Japanese RPG that incorporated a lot of Western-style elements such as action-based fighting, medieval (non-anime) artstyle, and great online gameplay, and it’s experiencing a lot of success in the US market because of it. Spencer: Artstyle sounds like a critical factor since it’s the first thing people see and will judge a game by. A few years ago anime was growing in mainstream popularity, but now it seems to have gone into its own niche again. Perhaps, that blunted general appeal of anime-style games too. Maybe not established franchises, but for new IPs someone outside of the core audience may think, “oh, another anime RPG.”


I like the “cute” look in Little King’s Story, it made the game charming. I also agree that it was a reason why Little King’s Story was overlooked. When I tried to explain why it Little King’s Story was unique I typically heard comments like “this is too cute.” The title with “Little King” in it sounds like it’s geared towards a younger audience too, even though it’s not. (No spoilers!)


Next week: Working with developers and translators to make the investment worth it.

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  • When Little King first showed up, even I was guilty in thinking “what Ubisoft game is this?”. To make up for it (kind of), I always recommend it to people at my work (and RGC…!).It seems what a new game has to do to get decent amount of attention (besides being fun) is to have something garner a discussion. Something that people talk about weeks after release be it controversy or something that really stands out about it – both being very risky.Just look at Love Plus.

    • Well, I suppose you’ve atoned, matty. You have to buy 4 copies of PSP Lunar, though.

      Nice conversation, guys.

  • jj984jj

    I always wondered why XSEED added the “Little” to the title of LKS. Maybe it made sense for Europe but I thought it was an odd decision for our market. Anyway, I do agree with Ishaan about the segmentation of titles on all 5 platforms. I don’t think it’s getting much clearer for Japanese publishers to decided which way to go though. Handhelds are dominating the market in Japan right now and that isn’t changing. PS3 still has the Gamecube to hit has a landmark in sales over there whereas the DS and PSP are well beyond that (granted it might finally hit that soon). Wii isn’t doing any better even though it had a great launch, new IPs and most spin-offs from 3rd parties aren’t selling well on the system, and really the success it did have was the most unexpected thing for most publishers this generation. The 360 launched first and most software released on the system has had great software sales here and in Europe, but they had no luck in capturing Japan. So there still is this huge segmentation and Japanese publishers are still looking at each platform carefully when deciding where to put something. The segmentation makes it even harder for US publishers to pick up Japanese games as well, due to the difference in the market (especially the portable market) and what the publisher can do to promote a game. I think it hurt Japanese titles more than anything else this generation.

    • This is a good point. Looking back, the “Little” in Little King’s Story probably did little to help its perception. It had the exact same problem Zack & Wiki did. The name sounds very childish and at the same time, isn’t indicative of the game’s content either.

      Market segmentation has been a problem. However, the reason I brought up PS3 is because most big-budget games from Japan are already on the PS3 this generation. Granted, this is because a lot of them were in development well before publishers even knew what the Wii’s position in the market would be, but because PS3 is home to all these big franchises already, I see developers sticking it out on that platform since that’s where the fanbase is gathering. It’s easier than trying to tap into the Wii audience this late into the generation, especially with the Wii HD rumours floating about.

      • jj984jj

        Except developers are already moving, they’re moving to the handhelds as much and as quickly as they can due to the fanbase and a constantly expanding larger audience than consoles in Japan this generation. Valkyria Chronicles and Disgaea 3 was on PS3 but Valkyria Chronicles 2 and NIS have now moved to PSP. What publishers aren’t moving are mostly titles they think they can sell in the west because those titles are going multi-platform instead. Like I said, PS3 is still behind the Gamecube in terms of install base in Japan and from the looks of things it’ll take the release of a mainline Final Fantasy game to push PS3 over its LTD, it has become a landmark for the PS3. Publishers are going to continue to move around as the market demands it if new handhelds or Wii HD is introduced, but there’s nothing that really even hints that the market is becoming less segmented than it already is or that publishers are “sticking it out” on the platform as they wait for it to pick up steam. If PS3 continues to sell well in 2010 I’m sure they’ll gladly throw more support on it, but if it doesn’t they’ll continue to do whatever they have to do to bring in what they need.

        Are you just ignoring the fact that the handheld market is dominating in Japan just so you can say that there is a “go-to home console”? I think that’s a bit silly.

        • I fully understand what you’re saying when you mention the PS3 having to yet catch up to the Gamecube, but I believe that the Playstation reputation is strong enough in Japan for developers to still make plenty of games for it. It’s true; probably several of these will be multiplatform going forward, but of all the home consoles in Japan, I expect PS3 to see the most support.

          Portables are important, too. Companies like Level-5 have built their entire reputation around portables in recent times and no one’s arguing that they aren’t dominating the Japanese market. Due to development times and costs being far lower for portables, obviously we’ll see far more games released on DS and PSP than on home consoles. My point was, of all three home consoles in Japan, I expect PS3 to receive the most support and as a result turn into the “go-to” home console for role-playing games in the future.

          • Kris

            I hope you’re right, Ishaan. I’m worried that the JRPG market has moved primarily to handhelds and that we’re going to have less great console JRPGs this generation than any other. I hope that after FFXIII and Resonance of Fate we start to see a PS3 JRPG boom.

  • BlueBlazer

    Also, one of the factors that’s killing the japanese games is the 2D :S some of us-intelligent people- like 2D artstyle but now, every teenager that wants a FPS with 3D graphics and blood says “this is too gay”. The other day I was playing Super Robot Taisen OGs for the PS2(the best game on earth ^_^)
    and one of my twin brother friends said “those graphics suck ass, the look like a NES game”, obviously my reaction was “O.o!” and I wanted to kill him because he was simply too stupid to get the fact that 2D takes much more time and much more attention than 3D.

    So now as we all know, people NOW tend to like more 3D than 2D and games like Muramasa are dying because they don’t take as much profit as a Halo(even though Muramasa took a big amount of time to be made and Halo ODST just had to get a change of script and ta-dah new game =_=)
    I say that we have to kill ’em all ;) Now I’m getting really bored with all those FPSs with online play :/ Thanks god DS does have lots of 2D games ^_^

    • Yeah, 2D art is becoming much more of a niche, which is disappointing. I don’t think it’ll go away though. Arc System Works is keeping it alive wonderfully, as are plenty of DS developers as you mention. I think the people with a “3D is everything, 2D sucks” mentality represent more of an unsophisticated, flavor of the month set as far as gamers are concerned. If it’s not easily recognizable space marines, or something along those lines, they usually won’t touch the game. Probably the same people whose only exposure to music is top 40 radio.

    • Devonian

      To be fair, SRW is up there with Dragon Quest in the “painfully outdated graphics” category…

      • Kris

        But the animation is so fluid!! I think SRW looks gorgeous.

      • I’m not sure which games you’re referring to with DQ. Do you mean the remakes? In my opinion, DQVIII was not “painfully outdated” when speaking of graphics. As a matter of fact, I’d say they were a step in the right direction. =)

        • BlueBlazer

          He could have mistaken the SRW with SRW OGs remake :S because for me it looks gorgeous and if it was ported to HD it would be easily mistaken by a next gen game:o

    • Moriken

      Regarding the 2D vs. 3D thingy:
      Both styles lend itself more for different kinds of games (ever tried to make a FPS in 2D? hahaha).
      The sad thing is, that most of the genres where 2D excelled seem to have retreated to the underground – shmups and classic 2D-fighting games, which do play differently from 3D-fighters, became a real niche for hardcore fans, compared to the huge number of new IPs that got released during the 90s. And even the new Street Fighter got rendered in 3D, or the Castlevania remake for PSP…or the Megaman remakes for PSP…how do they call this 2D-gameplay with 3D-graphics? 2,5D?
      The sad thing is, most 3D games use the same handful of engines and most developers are too lazy to customize them, instead using them as-is. In the end, many games look kinda samey, with only a handful standing out visually, which is one of the reasons I stopped being interested in western developed PC games (the other being the genres…FPSs, RTS? Bah!)
      …and although nowadays, the new hardware allows for really beautiful spritework – high resolutions, many colors, decent amount of RAM – (BlazBlue, Muramasa prove this), it’s almost never being made again.
      So I think the advent of 3D is connected with a shift in genres that are dominating the market (being “popular”), combined with a general trend towards a new *mainstream*-aesthetic.

    • ShinGundam

      To be honest , a lot of DS 2D games not that gorgeous or beautiful to me
      I mean the last beautiful 2D game on DS was Megaman ZX but other 2D
      games looks little cheap to me . IMO , The Best 2D game is Blazblue

  • True, art is a big factor, as well as graphics (unfortunately). I won’t claim to be big in knowledge on the differences of preferences between East and West, but I think the West is very critical of games that don’t have top-notch graphics, such as those often seen in PS3 or XBox360 games. This automatically puts many Wii games at a disadvantage (not to say there aren’t any with great graphics). I’m not sure if this is the case in Japan as well. As for art, I can see the Japanese being used to anime art and accepting it as their culture, whereas the US sees it as something “different,” but one that was used (too) many times. One of my friends I talk to mentioned that this was one of the reasons he hesitated trying out the Tales of games despite all the praise given to the series. What would be considered mainstream in America nowadays anyways?

    • ShinGundam

      Nope . Demon’s Souls don’t have great graphics but ranked 89 at Metacritic
      same thing to Blazblue and Valkyria Chronicles .

      • Kris

        All three of those games are gorgeous. Or were you being ironic?

  • Ugh! You guys didn’t tell me that the Soul of Light shattered into fragments and I have to collect them all before I can forge it into the Enchanted Sword of Respite in order to reclaim the pieces of my soul…

    *takes a breath*

    Art style is important, but for a lot of consumers, they don’t dig around and look up videos or screenshots of games. They go into stores and look at the box art. Yes, the box art and that little blurb on the back of the box. Those are powerful tools, in my opinion, and it’s tough to get a great piece of art on the box, along with an interesting blurb, while still maintaining a certain artistic angle. Something to grab people’s attention. It’s just a matter of whose attention you want and what your competitors are doing to get that attention already.

    • This is an awesome point. Agree 100%. Box art and the summary on the back are your very first impression of a game, and if the cover doesn’t catch someone’s eye, they won’t give it a second look. Just like book publishers have learnt to make the most of them, we should, too.

      • First off, great “S.S.O.” so far! I agree that the box can speak worlds when you first pick up a game. I won’t even mention some of the bad slogans I’ve seen on great games. In my personal opinion, one of the other unmentioned evils out there that can be a double-edged sword: People who review games for a largely published website/magazine. Their simple poor score, bad grade, or thumbs down could spread negativity among your typical gamer like a wildfire in dry plains. This, in turn, easily curbs sales on a monumental level. Half the time(not always), a regular gamer can see through their cloud of BS and tell that they either don’t know what they are talking about or are reviewing a game in a genre that displeases them. Unfortunately, your normal consumer buys into hype and popularity. If you’re not buying something with a high score or “in the now” you’re basically setting yourself up for ridicule from friends and online game pals alike. This entire “Circle of Life” for your normal gamer is something I have hated over the years and it’s a damn shame if you ask me. Before I get too far off base here, I’ll stop.

        • Thanks! Yea, it certainly can hurt a game’s reputation when reviewers “miss the point,” so to say. I’ve seen several reviews for visual novel adventures on DS where people complained about how all you do is read text and click around. Flower, Sun & Rain was another one that got low scores because people missed the entire point of the game.

          This is why we don’t (and probably never will) indulge review scores. I think the best thing we can do for a game in this regard is to cite examples of how the game is unique or what it offers that other games don’t. If every review or playtest or article turns into a feature comparison, it limits any actual in-depth discussion of games as a whole.

          • fuzaku5

            >What Makes A Japanese Game Successful In The West?

            The answer is: Being Japanese.
            We’ve already got enough American games over here, the last thing we need is Japanese games pretending to be American games.

            That said, individual game quality has already started declining after some Japanese developers decided to see the West as an additional target market.
            You can see it happening in the Anime business as well.

            As so often, sooner or later the marketing scum ruins the fun in everything.

  • mooncalf

    Having different home consoles winning popularity in East and West doesn’t help matters. If Microsoft hadn’t made a big push into Japan with the 360 I’m not sure where we would be with Eastern games in the West.

    I’m not sure what would guarantee success for a Japanese game these days. Except for the franchises that made big headway in the late 90s (FF, MGS, Pokemon) nothing seems like a sure bet.

    I just hope that the Persona’s and Ar Tonelico’s of the gaming world are selling enough for the publishers to keep translating them, because if anything western tastes are solidifying into generic military/realistic themes(though I suppose you could make the same argument that Japan has let anime become so intertwined with their games it’s hard to think of one that hasn’t been influenced by it).

  • MisterNiwa

    Well to have an instant bonus in the western market, you need to be Hideo Kojima, Shinji Mikami, Suda 51 or Hideki Kamiya.
    But thats just my opinion, these guys just know how to attract the market!

    I think, every good japanese game, could get successfully in the west, if you make a lot of advertising, commercials and such.
    Final Fantasy Style.

  • Marketing, marketing, AND marketing.

    I swear, that’s the sole reason why Namco Bandai is OVER 9000 times busy with Dragon Ball, while simultaneously neglecting Super Robot Wars and Tales, especially.

  • Pichi

    Someone brought up Ubisoft, and seeing how their “Imagine” games are doing well with some of those titles being Japanese. I was going to brush to brush off a title until I saw screen shots and videos & looked like it was very deep and realized they were localizing a title here.

    Sure, its “shovelware,” but with the right marketing(like putting a real figure skater on the cover) and include it with their other brands like this, you still have a successful Japanese game.

    But when it comes to “hardcore” Japanese titles, those can be very tricky to get it right here.

  • First of all a japanese game to be successful in the west has/had to be successful in the east or it wouldn’t even release here, and wouldn’t attract the niche fans that always are looking for japanese games.
    One of the most intelligent tactics( i dun know if successful) is as atlus and NISA do with their forums asking which game someone wants localized this leads to at least not big bombas, as atlus has stated that it prefers to send to retail a number of copies they think will sold instead of risking a sleeper hit and lose profit if it bombs.

    Japanese games and every nichie game in general should be handled as nintendo do with their games which doesn’t sport a strong brand( sin and punishment, captain rainbow, takt of magic, etc, those games with no marketing that were let/made for people like us which go after news about games so we know what we can look after for our hobbies…).

    Maybe as said with this new face the market got with wii, 360, ps3 is making us discus sales as something new since for two whole generations there were one to rule it all and now which this crazy thing we all are trying to make a “mathematical equations” to understand the market

  • superflat

    I see Facebook and other social network sites as the other huge portal for Japanese developers. Cute is king on these sites, and the limited scope and technology of the games suit the Japanese development style, who are great at doing more with less. The #1 game on Facebook is essentially a paired down Harvest moon, complete with cutesy graphics.

    The key strategy for home console Japanese releases, I think, will be concentration on the PS3. It’s really too bad for Sony that they didn’t manage to secure FFXIII — such titles can serve as “gateways” for system sales among the niche Japanese fan base, which is actually quite large.

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