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Opinion: Microsoft's High Hopes In Japan

Opinion: Microsoft's High Hopes In Japan

September 20, 2006 | By Simon Carless, Tokyo

September 20, 2006 | By Simon Carless, Tokyo
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If the Xbox 360 Media Briefing, held in the Cerulean Tokyu Hotel in Shibuya earlier today and covered in detail elsewhere, could be termed anything, it would be 'hopeful'. The 90 minute briefing, helmed both by Takashi Sensui, General Manager of Xbox Japan, and in parts by an ever-ebullient Peter Moore, was intended to show that it was business as usual in terms of Microsoft's Japanese strategy.

And, in many ways, the company's admirable intent is still in place - but the results are starting to show, and it simply hasn't worked so far. Peter Moore made a point to stress, more than once, the 10 million Xbox 360 owners that the company expects to be in place by the end of this holiday season. But the unspoken elephant in the room is that only perhaps 250,000 of those (if Microsoft's value for money Core price point and Blue Dragon bundle deals start seeing fruit) will be purchased in Japan.

Hence the price drop/bundle in Japan for the Xbox 360 Core System. The new bundle, which debuts on November 2nd for 29,800 yen ($265), and has two games bundled with the system - Project Gotham Racing 3 and Ninety-Nine Nights was described by Sensui as "the most affordable next-gen system" - lower even than Nintendo Wii, he made a point of stating. There's also the limited edition Blue Dragon hardware deal, of course. But the problem is in the long-term support for the system, which is still widely considered Western-centric thanks to the extreme lack of Japan-specific games for the first Xbox.

It was interesting to note that Sensui and Moore were a study in contrasts - Sensui was guardedly optimistic, and prone to modest statements trumpeting the inception of "a circle of users that can be referred to as a community" on Xbox 360, but Moore was plain bombastic, starting with the bombshell: "I've never been so excited by the opportunities that the industry has domestically."

Moore's speech, which baldly commenced with his proclamation: "There has never been a more important TGS for Microsoft", particularly stressed the "new industry paradigm of hardware, software, and services." The exec also noted that Microsoft's console was showcasing "...more Japanese content by Japanese developers for japanese gamers than we have ever shown before." There will be 110 Xbox 360 titles by the holiday season in Japan, with 70 of them by Japanese creators, and 50 titles exclusive to the Japanese market. And to be sure, some of these titles look intriguing - Namco's Chopin-based RPG Trusty Bell among them.

But it can't have escaped the notice of gamers that the most spectacular and key Xbox 360 titles in Japan, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, are funded by Microsoft, and given what looks like extremely hefty budgets for top-notch talent and CG/art, must be considered some kind of loss leader for the company in the Japanese market (albeit a good title to market in the rest of the world). Will Microsoft fund the next Blue Dragon, and the next, and the next, even if the Xbox 360's installed base means that its games will struggle to best 100,000 copies sold in Japan many months down the road? Even if they do, does the platform still feel burgeoning?

As for the marketing strategy" announced by Sensui called: 'Do! Game, Do! Choice, Do! Live', or 'Do! Do! Do!' for short, the slogan only made the assorted Western journalists snigger a lot, I'm afraid. But it's all part of Sensui's hope that "the image that there are only a limited amount of games for Japanese users can be eliminated", and perhaps it'll be useful in communicating the company's concept snappily.

The star of the briefing for the Japanese press was very clearly Hironobu Sakaguchi, who demonstrated the Xbox 360-exclusive, medium-cute RPG Blue Dragon at length, revealing that his company "should make it on time" for its December 7th release date, and also showed the more Final Fantasy-ish Lost Odyssey in Trial Edition form, which will appear as a magazine coverdisc and in retail stores in November.

Now, let it not be said that Microsoft aren't going about things the right way by recruiting Sakaguchi to the cause, and there is certainly good support to a certain degree from major Japanese companies including Capcom and Bandai Namco. But it looks increasingly to me, from seeing the shelves in Tokyo game stores filled with Western-created games for the first Xbox, that the company's Xbox 360 efforts are being undone by what has gone before. Moore notes that Japan is "one of the most critical regions for our business" - well, the next few months will be a final chance to get the console off life support.

Perhaps a fitting conclusion, and a sign of Microsoft's hopeful but ultimately frustrated air, was the Xbox Live profile video floating around the screen before the start of the presentation, showing Xbox Live status for a number of players. The names on screen were all Western journalists, and it was the same video used for the company's E3 presentation, in fact.

And, just as this reporter stopped playing Ridge Racer 6 and moved on, Microsoft needs to work out a way to keep momentum flowing, and move on with the Japanese market. Blue Dragon and the other Sakaguchi productions are a good step - but they're just not the sustained AAA third-party support needed, and that just can't be manufactured.

[Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine editorial director Simon Carless will be reporting from Tokyo all this week on the state of the Japanese video game market - posts to date have included a special on the state of the Japanese retail market, and a number of posts on sister site GameSetWatch on the Japanese arcade scene.]


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