It's Time For Japanese Developers To Stop Hoarding Their RPGs

When I think about all the role-playing games released in Japan that never make their way overseas, I like to picture a snarling dragon sitting atop a pile of game cartridges, spitting fire at anyone who comes within breathing distance.

Hey Japan. Time to stop hoarding your gold.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Australian RPG fans will undoubtedly remember all the games we missed in the 90s: Final Fantasy V, Live A Live and many more. But it's a little nutty that this localisation barrier still exists today. If you don't speak Japanese, there's no way to legally play games like Valkyria Chronicles 3, Suikoden PSP and of course, the infamous Mother 3.

It's too bad. When a Japanese developer announces a new game, my first reaction is not "Awesome!" but "Shit, we're never going to get that, are we?" When Atlus announced yesterday that dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey IV is coming here next year, I was more relieved than anything. It had been way too long. I was starting to worry.

If you're wondering why Japanese game publishers and developers have been so reluctant to localise their RPGs, the answer is easy. They think it's too much of a risk. They look at games that have failed to take off overseas -- RPGs like Brave Story and Half-Minute Hero and quite a few others -- and decide it's not worth the time, money, and shame involved in localizing their games for an audience that doesn't seem to want them.

But here's the thing: we do still want JRPGs. There are still plenty of fans who are happy to spend money on great, high-quality games. Don't believe me? Let's look at two big examples.

A few weeks ago, when I interviewed Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime about Wii U, I managed to sneak in a couple of questions about Xenoblade, one of the Wii's biggest RPGs. Released in Japan during 2010, then in Europe a year later, Xenoblade was not confirmed for US localisation until December 2011, months after many diehard fans had already imported or pirated it.

So what took so long?

"We needed to make sure that there was really an opportunity for it," Fils-Aime said. "We wanted to see how it would sell in Europe, and based on the performance in Europe, we would look to bring it here to the US. It did well in Europe; we decided to bring it in here. We took a very smart approach and we sold it ourselves online in terms of physical goods as well as a focus on GameStop as a retailer and it was a very good effort for us."

"How'd it sell?" I asked.

"Quite well," he said.

I had already gone over my allotted interview time, so I didn't get a chance to prod him for more numbers, but that "quite well" could mean just about anything, depending on Nintendo's expectations. Could mean 200,000 copies sold; could mean 20,000. (Probably closer to the latter.)

The important takeaway here is that gamers were willing to dish out money for a high-quality, critically-acclaimed JRPG. Didn't matter that it was in standard definition. Didn't matter that a ton of its prospective audience had already bought the European version. RPG fans were hungry for good games, and they proved it with their wallets.

And what of The Last Story, that other big JRPG that came out for the Wii this year? I asked publisher XSEED's Jessica Chavez (who you may remember from her excellent Kotaku Q&A a couple of months ago) how it performed.

"The Last Story has definitely gotten the support of the fans," she told me. "It's doing really well, and we hope word of the game's quality/sexy packaging will continue to entice more to check it out."

Again, no specifics, but my point still stands: overseas gamers are willing to spend their money on excellent Japanese role-playing games, but with many of them, we're not even getting the chance. Granted, publishers like XSEED, Aksys, Level-5 and Atlus are doing a commendable job of localising and releasing their Japanese games overseas. It's the bigger guys -- the Squares, the Konamis, the Segas -- who need to stop hoarding and mistreating their RPGs.

While chatting with Nintendo's Fils-Aime, I also asked about the next RPG from Monolith Soft, the one they're making for Wii U. Should we expect that same Xenoblade rollercoaster ride all over again?

Reggie Fils-Aime: "The way we look at the opportunity is, given a level of marketing support, how much are we gonna sell and is it gonna be a profitable venture?

"We know that they're working on a game," he said. "I personally haven't seen it, but I know there's a lot of excitement in Japan and Kyoto about what they're working on, so I look forward to seeing it. In the end, if it's a game that we decide to publish from... what would be a second-party standpoint, certainly we'd love to bring it here to the US.

"The way we look at the opportunity is, given a level of marketing support, how much are we gonna sell and is it gonna be a profitable venture?"

Fair enough. Presumably that's why Square Enix hasn't released Final Fantasy Type-0 in the US yet; they know the Final Fantasy brand could move copies, but the PSP is dead, and not a lot of people are buying Vitas. Maybe they're waiting to see how a classic role-playing game like Bravely Default: Flying Fairy will do in Japan before they commit to bringing it here. Maybe they think nobody here will care about Slime MoriMori Dragon Quest 3.

That's all well and good. I don't expect any gaming company to operate in a way that won't make it money. But there's an audience for great Japanese RPGs, and the success of games like Xenoblade and The Last Story prove that. Sure, RPGs not named Final Fantasy might not move more than 40 or 50 thousand copies without some sort of marketing budget, but a game can still be profitable on that scale. Look at the success of XSEED, of Aksys, of Monkeypaw Games.

And hey, even if a publisher doesn't make money off the Western release of a given game, sometimes building up fan loyalty can be just as beneficial. By localizing a niche RPG -- like, say, Mother 3 -- a company like Nintendo could have turned a cadre of angry fans into some of its biggest supporters. We feel connections to the guys like Atlus and XSEED not only because they talk to us like human beings, but because they rarely hold games back.

This winter, Atlus released two niche RPGs on the dying PSP -- Gungnir and Growlanser Wayfarer of Time. Both games flew straight under most peoples' radars, but the hardcore Growlanser fans will never stop appreciating Atlus for giving them the opportunity to play that game.

It's depressing that localisation has become such a big issue for RPG fans. Fifteen years ago, I never could have imagined that I'd miss out on so many RPGs just because I don't speak Japanese. So listen up, you lovely publishers. We're here, we want to play good games and we're willing to give you money for them. We just need a chance.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


Comments

    Uh... We did get Terranigma. (known in Japan as Tenchi So-Zo) It was the PAL region's consolation prize for the badly delayed Nintendo64 release.

    Maybe with the increasing popularity of digital distribution, we'll see more more releases due to lower costs? And btw, we did get Terranigma. It was awesome :)

    EDIT: damn, ninja'd!

    Last edited 07/10/12 10:24 am

    Man. Every time Reggie speaks I just want to yell "Bullshit". He's such a corporate mouthpiece. I don't trust him at all. Nintendo needs to lift its game fast.

      Please explain to me how it needs to 'lift its game'???

      The big N has always been ahead of EVERYONE tech wise.

      SNES: first 3D, even if it was a bit fake.
      N64: First 64bit console.
      GameCube: First Sterioscopic 3D console.
      Wii: First moiton contorl.
      3DS: First none-glasses 3D.

      WiiU: First devise to have the interface on the controler.

      They are always ahead of there time. Yes, they mite talk it up, but you have to talk up new ideas or they don't go anywhere.

        >WiiU: First devise to have the interface on the controler.

        Dreamcast?

        Those hardware "firsts" are all well and good, but I believe what McGarnical is referring to is software. Nintendo is notorious for releasing great, new hardware gimmicks but not backing up those great innovations with a constant supply of high quality software.
        This is especially noticeable in recent years with the Wii and as many are fearing, with the Wii U.

        '3D' games were around in the 70s. SNES wasn't ahead of the curve in anything really except it had a far better sound processor (designed by Ken Kutaragi at Sony, mind you). Talking about the number of 'bits' in the processor is just marketing fluff and it's meaningless, but even so, the Atari Jaguar had several 64-bit processors in it and it predates the N64 by 3 years. The Virtual Boy was the first Stereoscopic system I know of, not the Gamecube, and even so there were stereoscopic games made years before that and the GC's support was to do with the games, not the hardware. Motion control goes way back before the Wii, it just managed to commercialize the concept (the first obvious consumer level example is probably the SNES powerglove). 3DS is using existing off-the-shelf technology to do the 3D and it's generally been a complete non-event as far as a sales pitch goes. Dreamcast had a screen in its controllers and was arguably more advanced since the VMU could be detached and taken away to play games on without being tethered to a system, though it was pretty much an idea before the technology was around.

        Nintendo have never been truly ahead of anyone in technology except in minor ways. They're ahead of everyone at marketing.

          +1
          If anything nintendo tend to be behind the times... but their marketing and gimmicks are very well done.
          (they where not the first to make motion controller, the Wii is only SD and was released to a HD market, They still sold cartridge systems after the PS1 was released)

    (not really for JRPGs but Japanese games in general)

    Xenoblade! :D

    But yeah, when a new game is announced in Japan all I can think of is "BUT are we get a local release?", it's hard to get excited for something I can't play. I try not to look into anything that doesn't have a local release planned so I can save myself the disappointment if it doesn't get announced. Nothing is worse than being hyped or excited for an awesome new game only to have it not come out.

    They need to focus on and localise quality releases and not have such high expectations for something that's fairly average. Let the game speak for itself and let us vote with our wallets. I know I'm doing my part to help spread the awesomeness of Xenoblade - hell it's hard for me to go a month without mentioning it to someone and I even have two copies of it.

    Following my "don't get excited until a local release is announced" 'rule' I didn't know much about Xenoblade until Operation Rainfall kicked in. I didn't know what the game was about until closer to release but pre-ordered it anyway as I was just glad we (PAL) got a game that Americans weren't and I was happy to just buy it because of that. I even bought the other Operation Rainfall games for the same reason, to support the localisations.

    I'm seeing a bit of improvement with some of the bigger franchises (Tales of) but there's still a few games we're unlikely to see (Valkyria 3, Type-0, AA: Investigations 2). There's not too many games I can think of that I'm missing out on (probably because I follow my 'rule') and games that I am interested in are likely to get a local release some time (AA games, Professor Layton) - at least I hope they do. I'm not really interested in the smaller niche JRPGs but I know some people are and it's going to be much harder to get those localised, it's just too risky. Online distribution is probably cheaper and safer and we've seen games like Tokyo Jungle come over and Guild 01 so hopefully more games follow.

    Basically I'm bored and just had a bunch of crap to type but GIVE ME MORE GREAT GAMES! My most anticipated game at the moment is Ni No Kuni and even though I still don't know much about it, the fact that it's getting localised (albeit a really late one) is enough to get me excited. I'd also go bonkers if we didn't get some of the games I'm interested in, namely Phoenix Wright vs. Layton and Monolith Soft's new game.

    This generation we've really been screwed out of games. Namco are particularly stingy with their localizations, chalking it up to "poor marketing" when quite simply, if you don't sell any of your games, how the fuck is anyone supposed to be a fan of the series.
    Square Enix kept many games secret also and never put them out. But back to this generation.. I can't count 10 great RPG games off the top of my head (that I consider good RPGs) and that is a poor ass effort.
    If Square Enix is going to absorb Enix and Taito (among other companies) then it should release more of their god damn games or re-release them on PSN/XBL Arcade.
    I saw Terranigma mentioned earlier (Loved that game)
    Where's the rest of the Soul Blazer series, or a sequel or something. Quintet's awesome series shouldn't be left to be forgotten in the dust. The same with Lufia. Instead of rebooting an already great series, just bring it back. That active based remake of 2 was awful.

    The whole gaming industry needs to stop dogging us with RPGs. No wonder this generation of gamers aren't RPG addicts when major titles include Final Fantasy XIII >_>

      MassEffect 1. It had GREAT RPG sytem, and then it got dumed down in the other 2.
      Dragon Age 1. Same as ME1.
      The Witcher 1. Great RPG.
      The Witcher 2. Have not played it, but everyone says its better than the first.
      Boarderlands 1. Yes, its not a real RPG, but as a FPS/RPG hybid, it dose a good job of it.
      Boarderlands 2. Same as 1, but imprives on a few things witch just make the game better! XD

      Theres 6... I don't play JRPGs to much, so would not know where to start, but I think for weston game devs, thats pritty good.

      Doesn't help that from all accounts FF Type-0 is the best FF they've done in ages but they refuse to localize it. Sony basically threw the PSP under the bus right when it was peaking in terms of JRPGs and as a result we've missed out on some really good games. And then the Vita has bombed so we're missing out on its JRPGs too.

    Keep em in Japan, we don't deserve them. Everytime a JRPG gets released here we get some pretentious article talking about how they are too sentimental, unrealistic, focus too much on NPC chitty chatter, aren't free-roam enough, aren't graphical competent enough blah blah.

    It doesn't bother me too much when smaller, more niche JRPG companies can't afford a localisation, thats understandable. What boils my blood, though, is large companies like Nintendo who make huge profits in other areas (namely casual games) but won't even cop the cost of a localisation for some of their most hardcore fans.
    It is sad to me that Operation Rainfall had to take place, it just shows how reluctant Nintendo are to please their smaller (yet loyal) fanbase. For shame!

    Oh, of course, this is a Kotaku US article.
    Just because PAL got a game first, it's hoarding? Okay, seems legit.

    "They think it’s too much of a risk"

    And they're also probably annoyed by all the crappy english VA work going around that's ruining their great games.

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