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Opinion: Was  Blue Dragon  The Monster Microsoft Needed?
Opinion: Was Blue Dragon The Monster Microsoft Needed?
January 31, 2007 | By Simon Carless, Brandon Boyer

January 31, 2007 | By Simon Carless, Brandon Boyer
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Last September, directly before the Tokyo Game Show, Gamasutra published an editorial called 'Microsoft's High Hopes In Japan', discussing "the company's admirable intent" to break the Xbox 360 out of its niche in Japan - but voicing concerns about how easy it was to do.

So, nearly two months after the release of Mistwalker's Blue Dragon, Gamasutra wondered just how well the traditional Japanese console RPG introduced Microsoft's Xbox 360 to Eastern gamers, and how similar Microsoft efforts - from other Japanese-developed console exclusives to specific regional ad campaigns - were impacting the country.

The facts: Blue Dragon, a flagship product funded by Microsoft and overseen by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, has sold around 133,000 copies in Japan since its December release. More recently, Gears Of War debuted and actually breached the Top 10, selling around 33,000 copies in one week. These numbers are not, of course, spectacular compared to the majority of the rest of the charts, but represent some improvement from previous Xbox 360 numbers. Weekly hardware sales have failed to maintain the momentum provided by Blue Dragon, though following weeks have seen hardware sales double or even quadruple figures previous to its release, coming to a life-to-date total of just over 330,000 consoles sold.

To help enlighten us, we asked John Ricciardi, COO and creative director of localization company 8-4, Ltd. and Kotaku's Japanese correspondent Brian Ashcraft to tell us more about the real meaning of Gears of Wars' recent Japanese chart-topping success, forthcoming titles that might (or might not) help grow the userbase, and what else Microsoft might 'Do! Do! Do!' to help its console in Japan. Their views are interesting and somewhat contrasting, as follows:

How did Blue Dragon actually affect perceptions of the Xbox 360 in Japan?

John Ricciardi: Not as much as I think most people hoped it would. It's gonna take a lot, lot more than two or three high-profile titles from Mistwalker to affect the perceptions of the 360 in Japan.

Microsoft's problems over here run deep--their situation isn't something that can be changed overnight or even in six months. The entire way they approach the Japanese market needs sweeping changes before any real progress can be made.

Brian Ashcraft: The excuse that there are no Japan-centric games went right out the window. The console went from being something you could play Halo on to something else entirely.

How about Gears Of War? It looked like it's selling quite nicely - who is it selling to? Is anyone buying an X360 because of it?

JR: Is 33,000 copies really nice? I mean, granted, everything is relative--so yes, in a market where the average 360 game sells around 5,000 copies, 30,000 or so may seem like a big deal, but at the end of the day, their userbase is not expanding. The week Gears came out they only sold a little over 7,000 pieces of hardware. It's not enough.

To be fair, the Z rating didn't help Gears, but even if it got a D rating (equivalent to an M in America), I don't believe it would've made that much of a difference.

BA: Gears is doing great. The game got excellent Famitsu scores and sold a lot of units abroad. Japanese gamers notice something like that.

How are Xbox 360 impressions regarding the suitability (and amount of!) Japanese content compared to the Xbox, which was known for having lots of Western games?

JR: Hmm. Tough question. My personal impression is that they're doing a better job of courting more suitable content, but they're doing an awful job of communicating with and understanding Japanese consumers, so it's not really having much impact.

BA: THE IDOLM@STER just came out here and caused quite a stir among hardcore Japanese gamers. Here's a very specific title directed largely at a small segment of the gaming population in Japan. Combine that with Blue Dragon, and the 360 has more quote-un-quote Japanese content than the PS3. Though, the 360 had a year's head start.

What of upcoming X360 titles - did the Lost Odyssey demo in Famitsu interest users? How about the other Hironobu Sakaguchi titles? Is the Dead Or Alive series still a draw?

JR: Dead or Alive is pretty worn out at this point. Lost Odyssey is the obvious big one, though I do think a fair amount of players are looking forward to Halo 3 as well. But those are most likely the same people who bought Gears of War, so again, you have this problem of not really being able to expand the userbase.

The Gundam game should get some attention, and the two "other" RPGs (Trusty Bell and Infinite Undiscovery) will definitely make a little buzz, but nothing that'll last beyond a couple of weeks. Lost Odyssey is their best bet right now, and even that, I don't know if it'll be able to surpass Blue Dragon.

BA: Lost Odyssey should help the 360's street cred here in Japan, as should the Gundam FPS that DIMPS is doing.

Can you give any anecdotes of Xbox 360 gamers and/or Xbox 360 shop displays you've seen in Japan of recent? Are there many used 360s around - or cheap 360 used games? Do you think Microsoft is still feeding a lot of money into marketing the console?

JR: They're pumping plenty of money into marketing, but that's their biggest problem--their marketing in Japan is terrible. That Do! Do! Do! Shiouze campaign they ran (seen on Youtube here and here) was embarrassing. Tokio (the band featured in the ads) is popular with housewives and teenage girls, not guys who play games.

Back at the 360 launch, they had these giant ads above Shibuya Station touting nothing but a list of announced titles, half of which didn't even have names ("Action Game--TBD"). I mean, when you see stuff like that it's really hard not to lose heart. You want to see Microsoft succeed over here so bad, but they just don't seem to understand the market at all.

BA: A family friend who is a heart surgeon bought the Xbox 360 just to play Blue Dragon. He loves it. And because he's now got a 360, he's also bought Dead Rising and Gears of War. He says that Gears is a great stress reliever for performing surgery.

Are there any Japanese developers you've spoke to who are excited about Xbox 360 opportunities? Does the Western installed base excite any niche developers?

JR: Most developers I know here are actually very enthusiastic about the 360. The problem is simply a matter of economics; there's no market to work with in Japan, so unless you can get major backing from Microsoft or another publisher with a strong presence overseas, there's no way to justify the risk involved to create a title that may wind up only selling to an audience of a couple hundred thousand.

It's a shame MS hasn't made any effort with Live Arcade over here, because that's one area where Japanese developers could've really made strides, I think.

BA: Inafune seemed excited. But that seemed to be more because Microsoft can follow a timeline.

Do the Japanese stress 'next-gen graphics' in their wants, or are they quite happy with some of the current tech?

JR: I think they care. It's just that realism isn't as high on their list of priorities as design.

BA: Without a doubt. Japanese do care about next-gen graphics. Don't forget: This is the land of high def televisions and digital broadcasts. That doesn't mean they're willing to pay "next-gen" prices, though.


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