Ever since Rising Star Games and Marvelous Entertainment went their own separate ways, we’ve been waiting for a chance to get in touch with both companies to find out just what the plan is from here on out. We eventually got the chance to catch up with RSG a few weeks before E3, once everyone’s schedules were relatively less cluttered.
In this interview with product manager, Yen Hau, we discuss the future of Rising Star Games, the state of the Japanese games sector, and branching out into other forms of otaku media.
Rising Star has gone through some changes recently. You’ve got a proper blog up and running, active community forums, and you’re also no longer partially owned by Marvelous Entertainment. How has this affected things down at the office?
Yen Hau, Product Manager at RSG: This past year has been really exciting for all involved in Rising Star Games. We started the Home of Japanese Games campaign in January 2009 with the specific goal of identifying who our customers really were and what we can offer them. The blogs, community forums, website redesign — all encapsulate the new focus and has given us an identity. Our emphasis on all things Japanese, not just games, has really endeared us with the otaku community and it has really hit home how well we are being received. Half the office are otaku ourselves so that’s an added bonus.
We still have close ties with Marvelous Entertainment, they’re a great bunch of guys and we’ve built a very strong working relationship with them. We continue to release their catalogue and as a result there are still daily communications with our counterparts at MMV, so in some respects it doesn’t feel like anything has changed at all.
Did it come as a shock to you guys that MMV were selling their stake in you, or was it something both parties were aware of in advance and planned for accordingly?
It didn’t come as a surprise as we saw the early indications that this may happen. It’s a shame when a strong business relationship comes to a point but both parties were very much aware of what was happening and planned to progress accordingly. You make the best of a situation and as I mentioned earlier we are still working closely with all involved.
Up until now, a lot of people have viewed you as the Xseed of Europe. You’ve both published very similar games and the audiences are similar, too. Now that Marvelous games aren’t tied to any one company in North America and you’ve retained publishing rights in Europe, it gives you a way to set yourself apart. What else is in the pipeline from a publishing perspective? Are you trying to branch out?
We are always on the lookout for quality titles coming out of Japan, those that fit with the core RSG philosophy. Our split with Marvelous hasn’t changed the way we evaluate titles. Rising Star Games has been unique in pinning down one statement that hasn’t been said before, that we are the “home of Japanese games”. We have always been, and will continue to be, a strong supporter of Nintendo and its formats, so without naming names it’s safe to say that our future releases for 2010 will be Nintendo-based products. That being said, we will continually look at titles on other formats and have released our first Xbox 360 title in Samurai Shodown Sen in March, beginning what we hope to be a new and fruitful relationship with SNK Playmore.
Asking you to name games would be a little unfair, so could you tell us, instead, about talent in Japan that you’re keeping an eye on?
We have a very good relationship with Suda51 and all the staff at Grasshopper Manufacture, mostly from working together on the No More Heroes series. We are also big fans of his work so will always keep a look out for anything that comes out of GhM. I’m personally very interested in seeing what Tomonobu Itagaki comes up with. Also, because of his ties with MMV and having worked together on Little King’s Story and No More Heroes 2, and because we all love him at RSG, I’d like to see what Yoshiro Kimura does next.
Let’s talk a little about the audience and how games from Japan are viewed in general. You’ve got Square, Namco, Konami, Level-5, Atlus — others, too — all trying to expand overseas, whether it’s through online or something else. There’s concern on the fan front that the things they like about Japanese games are going to be lost in the transition. Do you think there’s reason to be worried?
Japanese games are quite unique; they have their own wacky way of getting great gameplay out of ideas that maybe Western developers would not have thought about. That is one aspect that makes Japanese games so cherished, and although the fan base may be comparatively small, they are very loyal. The fact that more of the larger developers are trying to broaden their appeal by designing games with Western influences only masks the fact that, at their core, they will retain some aspects of their Japanese heritage. There will always be games with strong Japanese influences, so there is no need to worry about that. Not every Japanese developer will change direction, its impossible for a 100% shift in creativity like this to occur.
Do you think it’s something that you’ll need to think about in terms of future-planning? That more of these companies are trying to come over by themselves and that there might be less room or less need for a publisher of “niche Japanese games” in the future?
I think it’s actually to the contrary — the more publishers coming over will only increase the strength of the industry here. Yes, there will be more competition, but there will always be an audience out there for us, the phenomenal feedback we received at the recent London MCM Expo is testament to that. Also, because of the way we are structured, there is nothing to say that we cannot re-evaluate our current message. No business can survive if it doesn’t move with the times, so if this is what happens in the future then I am confident that RSG can remain competitive and continue to grow.
Something I noticed is that the RSG website — very simple and elegant, by the way — really does present itself like a Japanese games publisher ought to. Little touches like the Japanese text and the cartoons of the people dining…even the account confirmation e-mail has a Japanese translation of the text in it. It establishes an identity. You’re really embracing what it is that you do. Are there plans to be more of a “Japanese content house” rather than just a “Japanese games publisher” going forward?
Firstly, thanks for your opinion on the site, we are always looking for feedback and ways of improving the site. We are first and foremost a publisher of Japanese games, but that is not to say we solely release Japanese games. We have in the past published games that were developed in Europe so we are not restricting ourselves to just one market. Whilst I cannot say what our plans are going forward, the direction we are currently heading in does open some doors to being a Japanese content house and not just a games publisher. However, our primary sector of business is as a games publisher and that will remain the same no matter what decisions are made in the future.
There also isn’t as much competition in Europe as there is in America. You’ve got Square Enix publishing Atlus games, but you don’t have competitors the way Atlus, Xseed, Aksys, NISA and Ignition are in North America. Do you feel that gives you more options to explore in terms of establishing yourself as sort of a “Tokyopop of Europe”?
A result of our ‘Home of Japanese Games’ campaign has been to establish ties with other sectors that encompass the otaku society. This has lead to RSG generating relationships with market leaders in each sector — Manga Entertainment (anime/film), Tokyopop themselves (manga) and, more importantly, NEO magazine. Along with our attendance at the past three London MCM Expos, RSG is already on its way to establishing ourselves as the equivalent videogames leader in this sector. We have also recently built a very good relationship with the Japanese National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) and the Japan Society as well, further strengthening our ties outside of the videogame sector.
I noticed Harvest Moon has its own section on the website. Let’s talk about that a little. Are those the games from your catalogue that tend to do the best?
The Harvest Moon games are our flagship titles, our most successful with the longest heritage, so it was clear to us that they deserved their own section on our website. With such a big audience and fan base it was important to us to give Harvest Moon fans another place to go to for information in addition to the fantastic fan sites out there.
Natsume are obviously very close to Marvelous and there’s some collaboration between the two when it comes to Harvest Moon development. Are you being approached for feedback and design suggestions, too?
Both Marvelous and Natsume have design teams responsible for the Harvest Moon series, whereas RSG are solely a publisher. We generally leave the design process alone and let them get on with it — you don’t need publisher interference when developing a game.
You’ve been publishing Harvest Moon titles in Europe for a while now. What kind of growth curve have you seen over the years?
The Harvest Moon titles are still our best selling games, but as with any game, sales usually follow the same path as market conditions. They are still phenomenally successful for us, but we have seen related series Rune Factory garner significantly good feedback and there are indications that this series is seen as the spiritual successor for the Harvest Moon franchise.
The series has a sizeable female audience, which is incredible, because it’s one of such few franchises that do. Do you have any idea of the gender divide?
We’ve always known that there is a higher female audience for the Harvest Moon games, but it’s very difficult to have an exact number on the gender divide. So long as people continue to buy these games we’re happy, we’re very pleased to cater to the female and male gamers out there.
You collaborated with fan-translators on getting a Spanish translation out for Fragile. Any chance you’ll take it further and maybe put fan-translations on the disc or cartridge with future projects?
We always try to do full European translation for our titles when we can. Unfortunately there are situations where this isn’t possible, but we will always consider options to appease our followers. It’s hard to say whether we’ll do this again but you never know what the future holds. We’re always up for trying new things.