InterOne Inc's John Ricciardi on the "finicky" Japanese market, "hackjob translations," and why Crash ruled Japan.
Although many game developers and publishers speak of a truly worldwide videogame market, making a title popular in all of the major territories is still a tantalizingly difficult prospect. But nowhere is this problem more marked than in the gulf between Japanese and American/European tastes. It's easy to dismiss this cultural chasm as unbreachable. But with hundreds of thousands and possibly millions, of extra sales at stake, it's worth taking a minute to look at some of the issues and possible solutions that crop up when trying to transition titles between the West and Japan, and vice versa.
For example, there are still a relatively tiny amount of Western games that break through and sell a significant amount of copies in Japan. Why is Japan's relatively large gaming market so hard to crack for Westerners, and is there anything developers can do to make their titles more universally appealing? Is the Japanese games industry even well-understood by English-speakers?
But for every export situation, there's a similar import conundrum, only exacerbated by the language differences. It's true that the choicest Japanese videogames are often among the most popular titles in the West. But, if you're a publisher wanting to release Japanese games in the West, what's the key to getting a Japanese title translated properly, without, say, the Indian goddess Kali becoming the Three Stooges member Curly, as recently happened in the Game Boy Advance title Castlevania: Aria Of Sorrow. More worryingly, does it even matter, sales-wise, if a game is badly translated?
Castlevania: Aria Of Sorrow
One man in a position to discuss these issues cogently is John Ricciardi, formerly an editor at EGM, and now working at Tokyo-based Interone Inc. Interone has translated titles such as Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, Soul Calibur II, PSO Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution, and Tales of Symphonia for major publishers in the Western market, and also licenses Japanese games for release in the U.S. and Europe.
Invading Tokyo From The West
A good place to start, Ricciardi argues, is with the consummate example of a success story: "The most notable case in recent memory of a Western game becoming really popular in Japan would probably be the PlayStation 1 Crash Bandicoot games." He points out that this success, in the form of hundreds of thousands of sales for each game, was only possible by careful coordination of multiple factors.
Firstly, there was marketing: "Simply put, Sony did a superb job marketing the games. The Crash TV commercials were among the funniest game commercials in Japan at the time, and they spent a ton of money making sure everyone who owned a PlayStation knew who Crash was." Second, there's the question of timing: "Crash launched at a time when the PlayStation was enormously popular with young people and females in Japan. It was the "in" thing for 20-something girls to own a PlayStation at that time, and that kind of crowd was perfect for a cute-character-based action game."
Also vital in Crash Bandicoot's success was the question of design: "Sony Japan had a lot of input in terms of game design, which helped the games to maintain a bit of a Japanese feel despite being developed in the West. Most Japanese gamers I speak to actually think Crash was developed in Japan!" Finally, Ricciardi points out that the game's localization was carefully orchestrated: "Sony games always get the full localization treatment. Most of the time when a Western game comes to Japan, it gets a half-assed localization with the minimal amount of Japanese necessary for gamers to get by. In Sony's case, their games almost always feature high-quality translations, re-recorded Japanese voiceovers (often with famous voice actors), and in some cases, like Crash, visual design changes to make the games more appealing to the Japanese market. This goes a long way toward making the games more accessible to Japanese players."
So it seems that the most dedicated companies are even prepared to change their games graphically to appeal to the Japanese market. Sony has removed Jak's goatee for the Japanese release of Naughty Dog's Jak II, and, best of all, Insomniac's Japanese version of Ratchet & Clank II has seen Ratchet sprout bushy eyebrows. Stuart Roch of Shiny also has good comments about localizing for Japan in a Game Developer's Conference lecture transcript from 2000, discussing Wild 9's Japanese transition.
When asked to give advice to Western game creators hoping to make games that have a chance of breaking through in Japan, Ricciardi stresses attention to detail above all: "Make the extra effort to do a proper localization and be willing to make some changes if it seems like they might help broaden your game's appeal in Japan. It's a different country with an entirely different culture and you have to be mindful of that when trying to bring a new product over. If you just slap some Japanese subtitles on the box and change the region encoding, you're not going to have any impact whatsoever."
However, one Western game which has succeeded on its own terms in Japan is Grand Theft Auto III, recently published by Capcom. Ricciardi muses: "GTA III has sold almost 250,000 copies and counting here--certainly not bad, but nothing at all like the response it got in the West. I think it's the most important game to hit Japan this year, and I'm hoping that developers here will take notice of it, study it, break it apart, and try to learn from it. Capcom's done a great job of keeping it in the public eye, and sales remain strong on a week-to-week basis, mostly due to positive word-of-mouth." But he comments that even GTA doesn't go all the way in meeting the needs of the Japanese consumer: "I think it makes as much sense for Japan as any other game, but I would've spent more time on the localization to make it more comfortable for Japanese gamers."
But things are not altogether well in Japanese gaming, which is why Ricciardi ends his analysis on a cautionary note to anyone who would presume to deliberately target Western and Japanese gamers at the same time: "Japanese gamers are a finicky bunch, and cracking that market has proven to be quite a task. Developers would probably be better off putting as much focus as possible on creating a game that'll be a hit in the West and then worry about Japan later. The market in the West is much bigger and more stable. In Japan, most people are finding other ways to spend their money and their time lately, which is a big reason why games in Japan don't sell as well as they used to."