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Steam, Japan, and missed opportunities
Steam, Japan, and missed opportunities Exclusive
September 20, 2012 | By Kris Graft

September 20, 2012 | By Kris Graft
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    21 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Exclusive



Steam is a pretty good place to find indie games. But outside of the occasional exception, games from small and mid-sized Japanese developers are tough to find on the service.

That's not only a loss for players who use Valve Software's Steam, but also for smaller Japanese developers, according to Esteban Salazar, who works in the digital business division at Tokyo's MarvelousAQL.

"My personal opinion is that [Steam] is one of the ways that Japan can still compete, as far as putting their games in front of users, and not having to spend huge mega-budgets. It can help them compete with Western publishers."

Salazar is the self-professed "Steam evangelist" within MarvelousAQL, which next week is bringing its popular (and very fun) game Half-Minute Hero to Steam, making it the first Steam game for the company.

As he understands the situation, Valve approached a number of Japanese developers, including MarvelousAQL, shortly before he came on board at MarvelousAQL six months ago. Now MarvelousAQL is looking for more opportunities to bring games onto Steam.

But while Steam and its 40 million-person user-base seems like it'd be a no-brainer for Japanese developers to reach Western audiences, there are some reasons why smaller game companies pass up, or don't even look into, the Steam opportunity.

"There are a couple things that are barriers," said Salazar. "One, [Japanese] developers are like, 'PC? We don't really know anything about that market if it's not browser.'

"The second is the language barrier. Steam doesn't really have any support in Japanese. So you kind of need someone who's bilingual to run things, and act as an intermediary. That's another thing I do. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have Japanese branches, and have plenty of Japanese speakers, and full Japanese support. But Steam really doesn't. If you're a smaller company, you might not even have someone who can speak English that well. So how are you going to contact Valve?"

Salazar also described a bit of a mental barrier that Japan's game industry might possess in regards to PC games. "There's a really hardcore PC enthusiast audience here, but they usually play Western games, and visual novels, and porno games. So [the market] is not big at all," he said.

"In fact the PC market is pretty neglected here. Which is a shame, because there is a big business opportunity for it. Some developers just don't consider the market for PC at all here in Japan. They think that's a tiny market for fans of porno games."

As MarvelousAQL is a developer and publisher that is in a position to seek out games from small Japanese companies, Salazar hopes more domestic developers will look into the Steam business opportunity. "I think it's a great space, and Japan right now is finding that unless you're a major studio, it's really hard to compete with [the major publishers] on console," he said. "PC is the natural way to go, and Steam is the biggest, and in my opinion, the best."


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Comments


Igor Queiroz
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I just wish that, with that, a lot of JRPGs can make it through on Steam.

Paul Szczepanek
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"Some developers just don't consider the market for PC at all here in Japan. They think that's a tiny market for fans of porno games"

How true is that? What I'm curious to know is: is that a problem with supply or demand?

Even if it is true, what about selling the game to the rest of the world? The Czech Bohemia Interactive doesn't make games based on what will sell in their own country.

Kris Graft
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Hey Paul. That's kind of the point that Esteban is making -- that some smaller Japanese devs aren't thinking about selling PC games on a global level, that they're thinking too locally.

Paul Szczepanek
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Even if they're thinking locally, since according to him PC players are being served by western companies, there is also a local market for the PC. I find this porno games statement ridiculous - like the song "The Internet is for porn".

Allan Munyika
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Maybe they just don't know how to create games for a global audience, the same is true for some big Japanese developers, some of the games they make are just not appealing to anyone but the Japanese market.

Maurício Gomes
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I think some develpers never heard of Touhou... or Kenta Cho, or a miriad of other awesome hardcore game developers for PC in Japan that prove that there is a market for it...

Saul Gonzalez
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Japanese are used to thinking about Japan as the only market they have access to. For right or wrong, getting involved with overseas is something you only do if you're a very large company. The cultural barriers are huge.

PC *is* a minor niche in Japan. It really is not viable to switch to PC if you're a console developer, you'd go to social and mobile instead.
Japanese PC devs with global appeal are either freak accidents or brought to fame by someone outside Japan. Not to mention most of their success is non-commercial.

Chris Lynn
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Reccetear was a strong case of a japanese game made by a small company that found success on Steam. Of course, a great part of it was due to the localization team that fought hard to bring it to the west.

The funny thing is I believe there are a plethora of great japanese games being made, and a considerable demand for it in the west (specially considering places like Brazil and Europe, where anime is specially popular). But traditional big publishers don't know what to do with it, and the small ones are still learning how to use all the digital distribution tools available.

But it is still possible to grow here, and not by "westernizing" games (a practice that only diminishes games, I believe). Look at games like Demon's Soul, Catherine, Disgaea for disc based examples, Reccetear for a small japanese game done right in Steam, and Atlus and NIS in general for a company that knows how to take risks well with both big and niche games.

Jonathan Jennings
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i absolutely loved Recettear , definitely an example in good localization while still maintaining the unique quirkiness that only japanese games have .

Joe Wreschnig
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It's strange that you call out Demon's Souls as a way to find success without westernizing games. The King's Field / * Souls line of games has been very western-influenced. Artistically, they've always been in a general western fantasy vein. Mechanically, you see lots of first-person views, open level designs, free cameras, character customization, and loose, emergent systems - all of which I'd characterize broadly as "western" rather than "Japanese" design traits.

NIS is a terrible example to hold up as Japanese growth. They went from floundering financially to a line of ports and C-grade crossover charage. It's not what I'd consider success from undertaking risk. I was excited to see ClaDun 2 on Steam - which I think might be entirely NISA, not NIS - but I'm still not convinced they're going to do well (financially, artistically, maybe both) long term.

Andrew Yang
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Biggest problem I noticed in Japan with Steam is that there aren't as many PC gamers compared to US, Europe and say Korea. They used to be more console focused but are transitioning a lot towards handheld mobile devices such as PSP, 3DS, and phones. Though it might help increase sales offshore, PC games aren't a huge market inside the country. So for a lot of smaller developers there its not as huge of a incentive to get it onto Steam unless they can localize it (unless they find a western company to translate it).

Saul Gonzalez
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It may be hard for people in the West to imagine, but Japan really is a cultural bubble. Creating something not for their own market, but for the not-very-well-understood "overseas" requires a mental leap beyond what most J-developers are capable of.
I agree with most of the reasons mentioned in the article. It also doesn't help that the Japanese "indie" scene has very different values, products and distribution methods from the Western one. However the Japanese indie scene *is* PC-based out of necessity, so there may be potential products there.
In any case, it would require a major outreach effort on the part of Valve or an intermediary company to actively recruit J-devs and make it easy for them to bring their games to Steam. They're not going to come by themselves.

Paul Szczepanek
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I've been reading the swathe of articles about Japanese gamedev popping up now and I just find it hard to understand why they do it (limit themselves to their home market) unless it's some principle thing. Tiny dev studios around the world release titles translated into many languages without any problems and the cultural divide doesn't convince me since console games and other Japanese products like anime are wildly popular worldwide despite the supposed cultural divide. I say it's just wilful.

Saul Gonzalez
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@Paul
You speak English and are a member of a global community, so it may be hard to get a sense on how insular Japan is. An unspoken tenet of Japanese society is that Japanese people's "world" is Japan and they needn't get too involved with the outside. Almost no one speaks English and most of their contact with the West is thru preprocessed media. Most Japanese people have no idea that Pokemon and Naruto are popular in the West.

Game Developers are better informed and some would like to appeal to the West, but it really is going against the grain for them (For decades Japan used to be enough). It'd be like telling you that the only viable market is Fiji and you cannot survive unless you make games that appeal to Fijian language and culture.

You may call it not keeping up with the times or whatever you will, but "principle" and "willful" are off the mark in my experience.

Paul Szczepanek
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It's still their own choice and their own loss IMHO. I can still play their games.

I wasn't born in the UK, nor is English my native language; I can't sympathise with the insurmountable obstacles you imply they face. I think it's patronising to say they are somehow incapable of doing this rather than just choosing not to.

To be honest I think I'm conflating several issues here: devs not wanting to release already made games outside of Japan, not releasing for the PC and not creating titles with a global audience in mind. I'm totally fine with the last one and don't see it as a problem.

Alfe Clemencio
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I think the major reason why they aren't as motivated is that the successful ones already have 2 hour line ups and games at chantelise's level was already in store shelves in physical boxes.

They also probably already get the occasional request from their fans to sign copies.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I get that this is shining a light on a lesser known issue, but this seems to ignore the fact that a lot of the big Japanese companies are having just as many problems-look at the contortions Capcom has been going through while trying to join the 21st century. Look at SquareEnix, they've basically become "That company that puts out Final Fantasy XIII and Kingdom Hearts spinoffs".

I remember an interview with a bassist in a Japanese metal band (Coffins, I believe), where he said something to the effect of, "The Japanese don't invent. We innovate", but I think the statement really should be, "The Japanese don't invent. We innovate, then iterate ad nauseum". Even when something fun and fresh like Katamari Damacy comes along, we're then inundated with endless sequels that only incrementally move forwards. Or sideways.

Globalization is really the only key to their success-As much as I hate what Capcom is doing with RE6, they're at least trying to appeal to a much larger demographic than before. Smaller devs would do well to look around a bit, and realize there's more to the PC market than Hentai games and tedious, grindy MMOs.

Arthur De Martino
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Honestly how can you point the "ad nauseum" effect and then pick RE6 cookie cutter, more-of-the-same gameplay and point it as something positive to appeal?
If anything it's just saturation, except now for an audience that eats it up.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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"-As much as I hate what Capcom is doing with RE6, they're at least trying to appeal to a much larger demographic than before"

Not sure why you ignored the context of my statement. The Japanese games industry needs higher selling games, not art. RE6 looks like a dumb bro-tastic revamp of the series (I turned the demo off ten minutes into it due to boredom/irritation), but it's also likely to sell in the millions.

Steven Christian
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People complain about Japan not selling to the West, but how many Western Devs have tried to sell to Japan?

Just imagine the trouble of Japaneese localization, publishing and marketing..

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Why would the gigantic market cater to the smaller, insular market?


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