Interview: Mastiff's Bill Swartz - Woofing At The Moon
November 4, 2004
If recent numbers are any indication, the Japanese console gaming market is getting more and more saturated. As more indigenous game titles struggle to break even financially, most Japanese companies are looking to sales in Western markets as their potential savior. Games are increasingly being developed with the intention of being released in multiple markets, even to the extent of having U.S. releases prior to the Japanese launch.
Most of the larger Japanese companies - Capcom, Konami, Square-Enix - have had their finger in the proverbial Western pie for quite some time now, but these days, even incredibly Japan-centric developers such as Taito, Nippon Ichi and Sammy have begun to make inroads within the Western territories. For some companies, this means opening branches in the U.S., or acquiring companies that already have names in the region. For others, it means getting games published through third parties who are already used to the localization process.
Bay Area-headquartered Mastiff Games is one such publisher, and in general, they tend to focus on the more 'niche' Japanese titles, the likes of which larger companies won't touch, and bring a different publishing model to bear to the average 'AAA hit or bust' attitude of many Western game publishers. Mastiff is particularly known to import gaming fans for bringing cult Nippon Ichi PlayStation 2 SRPG La Pucelle Tactics to the West, and is also publishing titles such as Red Entertainment's anime-licensed action game Gungrave: Overdose and Arika's quirky music action game Technic Beat in North America.
In fact, Bill Swartz, CEO and 'head woof' of Mastiff, explains: "It's like this: right now there are really only two kinds of companies out there. You've got some really good, really big companies; Electronic Arts, Take Two, THQ, Activision. And the deal with these companies is that they're big. That means they've got high overhead. Big buildings and parking lots, and such, and what that means is they cannot afford to do titles of less than, depending on how many, 400, 500, 600 thousand units. Literally, it's not worth their time."
"So that's one kind of company. Then you've got smaller companies, many of which are really good and run by really good people, but frankly, they tend to do stuff that is not as polished as a big company product, and they are not as professionally managed. A lot of them are Japanese companies that are really not comfortable taking returns, doing inventory swapping, and all the stuff that's unique to the business in America that isn't the case abroad. PR is also something a lot of these companies really don't pursue seriously."
Mastiff Games itself is an extremely small, focused game publisher, quite a rarity for the U.S. market, with a small number of dedicated staff, as Swartz details. "Who are the people from Mastiff? There are really four central people. Me, Mika Hayashi who runs our Japanese office, Ron Kurtz who heads up sales, and Charles "Van-the-Man", our 'numbers woof'. And I'm a former senior vice president of Activision, in that position for 10 years, Ron is a former vice president of sales at Activision, Mika is a former senior executive producer at…guess where?"
He continues: "All of us are fairly well trained - we understand the business as a business, we understand systems, we understand terms of distribution, we understand PR, and we understand quality. Activision's come from being a really crappy company to being a pretty good company pretty suddenly, when it started to make good games. We learned that - you've got to make good games to get that product in the stands. Make good games, and no matter how bad you screw everything else up, you'll do ok."
"Anyway, that's one of our competitive advantages, that background. I guess it's our niche, more than an advantage. And then the other thing we've got going for us is that basically, American videogame companies can't attack Japan. I mean, EA went basically bankrupt in Japan, then came back again, then withdrew, then came back a third time, and now with all the power of being the big gorilla, they're sort of breaking even there now. But Activision Japan was, for the 12 years I was there, every single year, it was either the number one or number two most profitable Activision subsidiary. And what we learned through that, an environment that chewed up and spat out everybody else, was how to exploit the Japanese development infrastructure. And it was a lot of work, a lot of trouble, and frankly, for the big companies it's just not worth it, it's too much trouble. But for us, for the same reason we don't need 400,000 copies sold, we can afford to exploit that infrastructure. That, I guess, is the whole basis of what Mastiff is, and where it came from."
For an American-based company like Mastiff, with a lower overhead and smaller staff, the risks involved in licensing and releasing the more 'hardcore gamer' Japanese-developed titles aren't as high. Swartz explains: "I would say, we're probably most of the time making money at 50 or 60,000 units, and at 1~200,000 units we're doing really really well. This is great because we can go after real niches that aren't worth it to the bigger companies. We're not trying to be a mini-THQ. I mean, we're not going to do football - obviously we'd get blown out of the water. We can go after the small, high quality, polished games - RPGs, animated shooting games, music games, all this stuff - which is real neat."
"We're looking for - if I had to put it into an MBA study, and no, I'm not an MBA by the way - our profile would be a proven market, 100,000 units or more, ideally isolated from other larger markets. It's like I say - we're not going to go up against EA, in sports, because we're going to get smashed! It doesn't make sense to us. But that doesn't mean that the markets are small. There's that installed base of 25 million units, or whatever [in the U.S.]. Even a small percentage of that is a large number of people. If I had to make that into an analogy to another industry, I'd say that we do sort of light comedies. And I don't mean light comedies because our games are light, I mean there's a certain group of people we appeal to, and this is a proven business, and ultimately it's the players who will make or destroy us."
"I think it just goes back to that very basic thing: big companies have very big overhead, and you only get so many at-bats per year, and you just cannot spend resources on something that's not a home run, say 600,000 units. I mean it's just not worth it. It's the same reason that normally big studios don't do small arthouse projects. They may distribute one, or go through a branch, but basically it's just not worth their time. But it's very nice work, and we love doing it. That's the other thing about Mastiff, of course. We love games, we love working with people we like, and it's fun, and it beats getting a real job!"
A common complaint with these sorts of niche or budget titles is that they are not available for sale in most retail stores. Mastiff has managed to buck the stereotype, garnering distribution at 'mainstream' retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, as well as the usual dedicated game store chains. According to Swartz, it's not about the size of your wallet; it's about the strength of your convictions: "I mean, capitalism is a wonderful thing! We've been doing this for well, just about two years - less than that actually, and that's enough to get reasonable credibility. We have products that we create a pretty compelling case for - there's no magic to it, it's getting out there and saying 'here.' You know, these people are reasonable, we've been good about retail distribution, we understand the position retailers are in, we try to address their needs… I hate to be so vague, but that's really all there is to it!"
But Mastiff has quickly gotten better distribution than some more established localization houses, as well as newer upstart branches of Japanese companies, and Swartz argues: "I think one of our big advantages is that we are an American company. And Ron Kurtz, he's our sales guy, he's been doing consumer level sales in the U.S. for 25 years. And there are things in the U.S. industry - for example buyers for the retail chains. If something doesn't sell, you take it back, you exchange it. We understand that, at the end of the day, the retail buyer is going to be judged him or herself, and if it's not turning over, they've got a problem. We try to help them with their problems, and they help with ours."
"However, Japan has an economy that's very much focused on the manufacturer, the distributor, and the retailer, at the expense of the consumer. This is why prices are really high, and demand is suppressed, and the economy's in some serious trouble. Now in the U.S., the customer has all the power, and it starts rolling down hill; the retailer has power, and the manufacturer, on down to the end. And you've got two choices: you can say 'Yep, that's the way it is, wish it weren't that way, but as long as we're in this business, we're going to deal with that reality, we're going to take care of our retail', or you can say 'No, that's not the way I want to see it work, that's not the way it is with our parent company, we're not going to deal with that reality.' And I don't mean to be disrespectful, and not that a lot of these companies aren't fantastic, with fantastic products, but they just don't know how to deal with the Western market."
So how hard is it to get licenses from Japanese developers as a Western publisher? Swartz explains his attitude to getting the best and most suitable Japanese titles for American release: "Obviously, I'm not going to discuss details, but I would say that in any negotiation, the first person to say something reasonable usually wins. And you put yourself in the position of the other party. Of course you have sorts of companies who just want a quick buck and then just go away, but mostly what they worry about is being treated fairly. They think: "OK, we're getting a contract for this now, am I really going to go after this? Are my intellectual properties going to be represented, are you going to send me the box for approval?' And in all modesty, I think we've been fairly successful because we've been doing this as a company, and at Activision as individuals. A lot of companies feel secure dealing with us. And that doesn't mean we get this huge break, but it also means we're not such a risk for the company. So all I can say is that our deals have been such that everyone makes money, and risks are pretty low. And also it's a business - if it doesn't make sense to both parties, we don't do it."
Even in sensitive negotiations, though, changes can still be made to the original game, should the need arise. Swartz argues that this is possible, even with a small team: "My feeling is any time you're doing a localization, it should be at least as good as the original, and unless there's a damn good reason why you can't, it should be better. It's another bite of the apple. I mean you're not just copy-typing in foreign language, it's a chance to both improve stuff that got typed in at the last minute and they didn't have time or whatever, and just to look at it, and say 'Wouldn't it be nice - I bet you guys really wanted to…?' and that's where, in terms of programmers, we outsource. The whole thing is variable-ized, and so we've got a very small internal staff. We've got a whole bunch of people who we work with, who we like and we know, and it's a sort of movie studio model, project by project."
"We do a lot of contracting for non-core stuff - I mean, all of our advertising is done by Ignited Minds- plug - incredibly good company. It's all about having professional resources. They do THQ, they do Activision, they do Sony, they do Microsoft. Other companies of our size don't use them because they're too expensive. We say, OK, it is expensive, but guess what, you've got to pay for quality. For PR, we use Michael Meyers PR, another great organization. Although Mastiff is a small staff, we're fairly production-heavy, Mika is a great producer. If fact, I'll bet you anything she's the only one in the industry that's gotten 23 SKUs past their respective hardware makers on the first pass throughout her career. She's very precise."
Swartz continues: "I'm occasionally a production guy. I started off in development with Koei in Yokohama, that's where I come from. So, yes, a lot of it is outsourced, but there are things you can't outsource. The hands grabbing Microsoft Project, grabbing a script, are often mine, and we do argue over whether hit points are too high or too low here, or what's fair to the player, or is the camera really screwy, should we even have an fixed camera. It helps being able to multi-task."
"But overall, we get stuff done. It's like asking a pastry chef how you make such great cakes, and it's like: 'Nothing, just a lot of kneading, and a lot of work with your fingers, and being willing to screw with it til it works.' And I'm afraid it's not very subtle, or elegant, or anything else, but a lot of it is brute force, and being willing to screw with it 'til it works. If I had to put it into a specific phrase, I'd say that one of our many working mottos is: 'Determination and motivation is the key to successful project completion'."
It can be difficult to convince hardware makers that a smaller scale project is going to bring something new to the console, or at least, new enough to pass the approval process in your territory, but Swartz is rather optimistic: "Although all these companies and hardware makers have various rules, and you hear of a lot of things getting shut down, on the other hand, they're smart, reasonable guys who love games. And if you can articulate why this is really cool, why this is something nobody else does, why it's different from everything in its category, most of the time they want to work with you. Like I said with negotiations, as long as you're reasonable, there's a discussion to be had."
So, with the current difficulties faced by the Japanese industry, many smaller companies such as Nippon Ichi and D3 Publisher, those with no real U.S. presence, are opening branches in the U.S., and localizing their own products. Swartz talks a little about the problems in Japan that are leading companies into the American market, arguing: "The Japanese industry is down what, 40 percent from its peak over the last five years. And sure, it's bounced back a couple of percentage points this year, but imagine you had 5,000 dollars in your bank account, and then suddenly you had 3,000. Then you look around, and think where the profitable markets are- it's a pretty short list, and North America is at the top of it. It's not amazing to me that they're coming over here a little bit, or that they're trying their products in this market a little bit, but that it's taken them five years, after a 40 percent decline, for them to begin to see this. For a long time, many, but not all Japanese companies treated huge markets as kind of an afterthought, and I don't really know why the industry evolved that way, though I have some theories, but it did. Even now, in spite of the incredible pressure, the fact is that selling 30,000 copies of anything in Japan is really, really tough unless it's a huge title. There's still not as much of a focus on actively exploring foreign markets, relative to the size of the crisis in the industry."
But Swartz maintains that the grand majority of the industry takes the wrong path, as far as localization and translation is concerned: "First of all, I think that there are a lot of people that do great localizations. For us, it comes down to a willingness to step back and take a look at the product as a whole. Somewhere along the line, the idea that videogames don't have to make sense got embedded in our culture. And also somewhere along the line, the idea that localization is trivial got embedded in industry culture. And when you add to this the fact that, while there are many Japanese that speak wonderful English, Japan is still not an Anglophone nation in the way that so much of Europe is, which means that English speaking is a specialized skill."
"So, first and foremost, what a lot of companies do is what you'd call a direct translation, and then have someone rewrite it. And there's a real problem with that. It blows. And I'll tell you why. Your very best translation is going to be 80 percent of the original. Always. I don't care what you have to go through for it. The translator has a kind of spotlight, and if you're doing a good job, you pick the 80 percent that's really relevant to the context. Then when the whole thing is put together, you get pretty close to the original, because you're always taking 80 percent of each little piece that matters. And that's the way language works, and that's fine."
He continues: "But when you have someone who doesn't know what the game is, with no understanding of the context, doing a direct translation, you don't get 80 percent of the original, you get 30 percent or 20 percent. Really, it's a number like that. And then for the next half, the so-called rewrite, you have someone who has absolutely no understanding of what the underlying text is, taking this 20 to 30 percent, making guesses, and probably distorting that another 10 or 15 percent. They put some glue and polish on it so it kind of hangs together, but the fact is, you have the world's longest game of telephone going on, and to me that just sucks. It really cheats both the designers and the players. Our feeling is that our translators - and we have a very small staff of people we really like and trust, who we've worked with and trained over the years - are expected to produce something close to final text. We're not looking for them to run it through a big electronic dictionary and spit it out. For example - the line says that the monster is big and furry. Now does that mean that he has fur, or that it's a metaphor for how he's feeling at the time?"
Artwork from La Pucelle Tactics
"So you start with a really good translation, then you do a really good job editing it, holding it to the same standards you would any other piece of professional writing. If you handed in the text of most videogames in a college freshman year composition class, you'd probably get a "D-" and a note: see me in office. We just hold our translations to basic professional writing standards. That's part of it, but also, and maybe this gets down to spending more money, but when we record we use really good people, expensive actors, and we have the recording director Kris Zimmerman, who's very professional, very trained, has a huge history of movies, TV shows and games. We sit there, and make sure the actors understand the parts, understand the context. You do that long enough, test it long enough, and you end up with a pretty good product. Once again, it's not magic, it's just a willingness to, at every step say what doesn't make sense, and what doesn't work, and go back and fix it."
"I mean, there's one thing we're working on right now that I shouldn't announce, but that we're rebuilding huge chunks of. But we're happy, we think it's good. If it works, it'll be really cool. For other things like [Taito-licensed action game] Space Raiders we did virtually nothing. Most are somewhere in between. If nothing else, we'll go through and we'll type in the script. It's fairly easy to do, but most groups don't bother to do it. And we'll try to correct small and obvious glitches. How much more we can do depends on how much time and budget we have. But, at the very least, we'll correct the obvious stuff that's just crying out at us."
it comes to finding new projects, there's no shortage of potential
material, even with more Japanese companies trying to make stateside
inroads. But when it comes to winning licenses, it's all about charisma.
Swartz concludes: "We spend a lot of time seeking out products,
we do everything we can for that, but a lot of stuff has come to
us. I mean, it's a small community. I won't say it's less important
that we search than that people know you're searching, but the two
tie together, and a lot of what we do is just maintaining relationships.
Often people know people, who know people, who know people, and
whatever. One thing we're really serious about is that we say what
we're going to do, and we'll do it. And that may not sound like
much, and actually I think videogames are less slimy than many industries.
But there are a lot of companies out there that have track records
of causing people a lot of problems. And I think credibility is
really worth something - credibility and sincerity. 'Cause, you
know, once you fake sincerity, you've got it made!"