Why So Many Games These Days Are 'Japan-Only'

Tales of Xillia is a great game — perhaps the best JRPG on the PlayStation 3. It was the second best-selling PS3 game in Japan last year (ninth best-selling in Japan overall), with 660,000 copies sold. And in a country where anything over 100,000 copies sold is considered a financial success, Tales of Xillia was a run-away hit. It was so popular that it is getting a numbered sequel coming out next week.

Yet, despite its incredible level of popularity in Japan, it still hasn't come west.

Moreover, Tales of Xillia is far from an isolated case when it comes to popular Japanese games not leaving Japan. Monster Hunter 3rd is the best-selling PSP game ever in Japan with 4,780,000 copies sold. Its PS3 HD remaster sold an excellent 500,000 copies as well, yet neither version is scheduled for an international release. Other neglected best-sellers include Gundam Extreme VS (510,000 PS3), Final Fantasy Type-0 (800,000 PSP), and Tomodachi Collection (3,670,000 DS).

In the early days of gaming, many titles were never released internationally simply because of the sheer volume of Japanese games out there. Some just slipped through the cracks for various reasons. But now, with downloadable services and less public demand for full localisation (i.e., subtitles are acceptable), it has never been easier to release a Japanese game in the West. So why are there still Japan-only games, much less chart-topping ones?

Other than Nintendo's first party titles, this last generation has seen a large downturn in the popularity of Japanese games outside of Japan. The best-selling non-Nintendo Japanese-made game this generation was Gran Turismo 5, followed by Final Fantasy XIII and Resident Evil 5. In fact, of the top 50 best-selling non-Nintendo-developed console games, only eleven of the top 50 were made in Japan. And only two of those were in the top 10.

In large part, it seems that Japanese developers have given up on trying to make worldwide hits. A few years back, as companies became aware of the growing size of the world gaming market and shrinking size of the Japanese one, several Japanese game developers tried to make titles aimed at Western audiences. The games that came out of this included Vanquish, Ninja Blade, and Quantum Theory. None was even close to the ground-breaking international hit that Japanese game companies were hoping for, so most studios gave up on that approach.

Large publishers instead began to contract with outside studios to make Western-marketed games. Capcom hired British-based Ninja Theory for the next Devil May Cry, while Konami hired MercurySteam to make Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (with Kojima Productions overseeing the project). Square Enix has even taken this a step further and purchased an entire Western publisher (Eidos Interactive) to make Western games — i.e. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot.

The majority of Japan-based studios, on the other hand, have doubled-down on Japan. Instead of looking for a worldwide hit, they have decided to focus on exploiting the numerous niches of their home market. By building games catering to the fanbases of these markets, they are able to almost guarantee a profitable game. In other words, instead of aiming for a big international hit and failing, they aim for the surefire win. Thus most companies just tend to ignore the West in regard to their Japan aimed titles — unless it's the newest sequel in a series popular the world over.

With this focus on the niche markets comes a focus on only producing content for the most popular systems. This is one reason why such a large number of big-named titles have come out on portable systems this generation. It is also the reason why the Xbox 360 is pretty much extinct in Japan.

Despite Japan-only games becoming more and more common, all hope is not lost for gamers outside of Japan. Sometimes international interest can be enough for a Western publisher to step in and bring the game west (like what happened with The Last Story and numerous other Xseed-published games). Or sometimes, as in the case of the aforementioned Tales of Xillia, the success of a similar game (Tales of Graces f) can be all it needs to finally get a scheduled release beyond Japan's shores — even if that release is in 2013, two years after its Japanese release.

Image: Shutterstock


    Nope. Don't hold on to this hope. Things won't change, and there will ALWAYS be some JRPG you want to play that will only come out in Japan.

    But do something about it. I've spent the past 4 years studying Japanese for the sole reason of being able to play Japanese games. Crazy? Maybe. But I played and thoroughly enjoyed Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, and I just bought a 3DS LL as well as Rune Factory 4 and Phoenix vs Layton, and I'll be playing those games YEARS before their international release, if they even get one.

    Don't whinge, just go learn Japanese. It's worth it in the long run.

      I'm sorry, that sounds extremely condescending and rude. "Don't whinge, just go learn Japanese." Gosh, he wrote an article examining why Japanese games often don't make it international, and he's whinging?
      And it's not as simple as "learn Japanese" for everyone. Languages are difficult, some people have better minds for it than others, some people don't have the time to properly study it, or maybe some people don't want to have to learn an entire language just so they can play a handful of games.
      What I essentially trying to say is, great, you found a workaround in learning Japanese and that works for you. That's fine, but don't act so superior because of this.

        If you have time to play rpgs you have time to TRY to learn a language. If you find it difficult well... At least you TRIED and hopefully you at least learned something more useful than the amount of hitpoints that a 10th level Penis demon has.

          Right... So if you have time to TRY and learn Japanese, why don't you TRY to study to become a lawyer? Because I don't fucking want to.

          Just port the games over to the west, at least adding english subtitles. Give one of these superior "Japanese Language knowers", Like our buddy Jake here, a job so he can put those 4 years he spent learning your language to good use.

          Learn a language to play a game? Please...

          (Nice article, btw)

            Lawyering is much easier than Japanese. Just saying, as a law student...

              If that were true they wouldn't be teaching Japanese in first grade primary school.

                Learning law is much easier than learning Japanese if you're an 18yo or above who's only ever known English. There's a reason they teach children other languages from a young age.

                  Mate I did Law as a minor degree in Uni, I can safely say having more or less an intermediate understanding of the Japanese language after only two years in senior Highschool, that Japanese is hands down much much easier.

                  I agree with Fenixius here, I found learning Japanese easily as hard, but probably more rewarding, lol.

                  Last edited 29/10/12 11:11 am

      I dont quite think he was whinging, and i definitely think learning a language to play some games is crazy... however i have also been seriously thinking about it, not for the games, more for the anime. However the more i watch, and more things i see (especially here) the more i think it would be far more realistic to attempt to learn Japanese than to hope for patches on games or localisation. Anime's not so bad, i can deal with Subtitles, actually prefer to hear the character as it was ment to be, Japanese voice acting always seems to have far more emotions than the equivalent English Dub. I would be quite happy for the jrpg to localise the Menu and Subtitle the speech, even if it was outsourced.

      Fan-subs for games?

      Random thoughts and my 5cents. btw, any decent places to start learning?

        Get your hands on a copy of Rosetta Stone Japanese levels 1-3. It takes about 20min a day, but in 3 months I had learned all the spoken components of first year university level japanese. The only downside is it's a bizarre technique that takes some getting used to, and it isn't very efficient at teaching kanji,. I struggled to learn the language at school and I did drop it, but the Rosetta Stone technique kicked ass.

        The Michel Thomas tapes are fantastic also, and the Pimsleur ones are decent too. You can learn a LOT of japanese via the self taught method in about 3-6 months, to the point that you'll be able to understand menus and games with furigana (e.g. Ni no Kuni, got that a year ago), but if you want to learn the advanced games then you'll have to do a lot of external study.

          I was actually going to ask what you recommend to learn Japanese. I did some in school as well for few years and I remember some of it though I'd need to do some more revision over the uni holidays when I get free time. Is there any other programs/books/tapes beside what you listed above which you found helpful?


        I learned English to be able to play FFVI and Chrono Trigger. In fact, I /learned English by playing those games./ It really gave me an idea of the proper use of language and grammar, far better than anything I had been taught before.

        So no, it is not farfetched at all.

    The budget and quality will get even lower if they're not aiming at an international audience and most jrpgs are already really subpar. Just like the majority of anime is these days, stories have taken a dive and smut and stupid crap have become popular, but hey, that's clearly what their market wants.

      What are you talking about man? Anime has ALWAYS had "smut and stupid crap".; the fact that Cowboy bebop or others were made in the 90s doesn't mean there wasn't a humongous among of crap as well. Anime nowadays is a in a good shape. If you don't believe me, compare the list of good anime made between 2000 and 2005 with those made ever since. 2003-2005 were super poor with a few notable exceptions (GitS:SAC, FMA and a few others) that was indeed a time to decry about failing anime quality. Not so much now.

        I never said all old anime didn't have smut and stupid crap. It's become much more prevaliant now though, you say 2003-2005 were bad? I disagree, 2010-now has been the worse by far. Studios themselves have stated that they want to make more broader appealing anime, but can't risk it due to the decline of income due to piracy, they're pretty much bottled into making what they know will sell - merchandise wise, and sadly, "sex sells". Dateline did a documentary on it like a year ago > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dahTYcJR1qo & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYJ6wowUnp0&feature=relmfu Goto 40 seconds in, in the 2nd video, "anime has had to change it's target audience". As well as 2:30 "we are not producing anime aimed at the general audience".

        Last edited 29/10/12 11:04 am

    I would really like to see a Western company which does nothing but translate and then publish Japanese games over this way. Think Carpe Fulgar (ie: 2 guys who did Recettear, etc), but on a bigger scale.

    I think the trick will be to actually publish the games themselves: Without an ancient Japanese dynasty at the helm, they'd be able to leverage digital distribution and other more modern approaches. Of course, they're extremely limited by what's available on various platforms, but damn, if they could make a PSP emulator, and start translating those PSP games which don't come out over here...

      Fortune Summoners was a massive pain for them to release. The original publisher was still involved, and they were angry that they were selling the game for $20 (still high for a steam indie game) instead of the $50 they wanted. It's a very different market in Japan, and although Carpe Fulgur has proved there is a market, it's a difficult journey.

        I appreciate that, and it's an unfortunate situation for Carpe Fulgar. The market surely is very different here to there, and that's why I suggested that they (or others) might want to try to publish independantly of the Japanese publisher.

        It's a woefully unrealistic dream; never going to happen, but that's why they're called dreams...

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