Inc's John Ricciardi on the "finicky" Japanese market,
"hackjob translations," and why Crash ruled Japan.
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.
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?
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?
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.
Tokyo From The West
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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."