Continuing Gamasutra's series on the state of the Japanese game market, we had a chance to interview longtime Japan resident John Ricciardi and his partner in localization firm 8-4, Hiroko Minamoto, and get their expert opinions on everything from the PlayStation 3's chances to the DS' tremendous Japanese success.
Ricciardi is well-positioned to comment on the Japanese market from somewhat of a Western perspective, since he entered the game business as an editor on U.S. game magazine EGM, but has been living and working in Tokyo for the past 5 years - now at his own localization company, which has been in operation for almost a year.
8-4 has provided localization-related services to major companies including Bandai Namco, Nintendo, Sony, and Kojima Productions, and Ricciardi explains of the company's mission: "Our goal was to get involved in the industry and bridge the communication gap between Japanese publishers and developer and the American industry." The company also provides Japanese liaison and access to PR contacts for major U.S. game media firms such as Ziff Davis.
Japan - The New Generation
We started the conversation by discussing what Ricciardi terms the "new generation" of Japanese developers - the recent trend of companies formed when major creators, from Tetsuya Mizuguchi to Yuji Naka and beyond, set up separately of the major corporations than once controlled them more strictly.
When asked for examples, Minamoto pointed out Clover Studio (Viewtiful Joe, Okami
), noting that the Capcom division is "...still inside the same building but they wanted to be individual, [and] didn't want to bother with all the politics."
Ricciardi adds of the overall trend: "When you're stuck in a big company like Sega, it's kind of hard to do what you want to do", noting that it's "...not just a game industry exclusive thing - Japan in general is loosening up", since before recent trends: "You were in [your chosen] company for life."
The State Of Localization
Gamasutra has previously interviewed Ricciardi
regarding his views on localization for the English language market, and also recently ran the first part of
a comprehensive Gamasutra Radio podcast on the subject, so we thought we'd ask his view on how games are being translated. His basic opinion: "It's improved, but it hasn't improved enough."
8-4 as a company continues to try to help the cause of higher-quality localization, Ricciardi notes: "We're a small company and we're a third party, not working for one specific publisher. We work on a lot of high profile projects, but only up to a certain point [in development]." Fortunately, he notes, "a lot of clients are very capable" and understand the importance of good attention to detail and a lyrical style.
But, he points out, there are "...a lot of companies out there who don't understand the importance of good localization". He continues: "Look at the movie industry - do you ever see a movie with typos in the subtitles? This wouldn't happen in any other industry." The issue is, in his opinion, when "the suits... think it's going to sell anyway", no matter the quality of the translation. But not only can it affect sales, Ricciardi explains: "I think you're hurting the artistic integrity of the product."
PSP - Lukewarm In Japan?
As regular Japanese chartwatchers may have spotted, Sony's portable console is doing merely OK in the territory, and is lagging majorly behind the runaway success of the DS. Why might that be? Ricciardi has a theory: "I think there's some kind of disconnect between the people who create the hardware and the people who sell it." He believes that the PSP has amazing hardware - he commented that when he first picked it up, "I felt like I was holding the future", but the game-based ramifications of the hardware are not well thought through.
As he notes, the games are often great-looking, but it "costs almost as much to make a [PSP] game as to make a PS2 game", meaning a significant barrier to entry into the development market for PSP games. In addition, issues like loading times do not play well to the Japanese market - when "playing it on a go... you can't afford to wait 2 minutes for the game to load", Ricciardi sagely notes.
Not only this, Sony's big hope LocoRoco
, which even had an associated hardware bundle, "didn't sell nearly as well as I think it should have" in Japan, Ricciardi notes - a sentiment many observers agree with. He continues: "That shows there's a problem with the PSP... [LocoRoco
] is clearly an A caliber game, but because there's so much stuff that people aren't interested in, it got lost in a cloud of crummy games. I don't know how they're going to get around that."
DS' State Of Domination
As we've recently remarked here on Gamasutra, Nintendo's DS continues to dominate both hardware and software sales in Japan. But we looked to Ricciardi and Minamoto for some more explanation - is it that the DS is penetrating new retail stores, or is it just that existing stores are selling massive amounts of DS games? Riccardi comments of the games: "I think they're just being sold more in places they were already sold... Most people will buy their games at [large Japanese electronics retail stores] Bic Camera or Yodobashi Camera - you will get discounts [with a special loyalty card]."
But overall, Ricciardi noted that the DS has "...broken [games] into a much more mainstream thing than it used to be." For example, Minamoto's father recently bought a DS without any prompting from her. Ricciardi continues of the DS' near-total domination of the game charts: "I don't see it slowing down soon... [even though] you can't predict anything here.. it's penetrated so much." Minamoto adds: "So many people just bought the DS - they're not going to throw it out after 6 months.."
So why is DS especially popular in Japan - and may not ever reach that level in the West? Apart from the content being right, Ricciardi notes: "The culture here is more suitable to have a handheld game in the first place", with plenty of train journeys and other opportunities to play brief game sessions. Minamoto adds: "The Keitai [cellphone] industry opened up the possibility of playing games in such a way - that's why DS had an easier path."
Xbox 360 - Where Now?
Both during and after TGS, Gamasutra has been covering the Xbox 360 and the potential impact of Hironobu Sakaguchi's two major RPGs, Blue Dragon
and Lost Odyssey
, on Microsoft's stuttering Japanese sales for its next-gen console. So naturally, we asked Ricciardi his thoughts: "If I think about it seriously, of course [Sakaguchi's games] are going to have some kind of impact. He's in a market right now that's almost dead - [the Xbox 360] is not even doing as well as the first Xbox was."
He continues, ferociously: "A large part is that they don't know how to market Xbox in Japan. Their marketing has been absolutely terrible." For example, for the actual Xbox 360 launch late last year, Ricciardi noted: "There were huge ads outside Shibuya station", but they ended up being just "a release list of the games coming out", with a fair amount of 'TBD' date entries. He sighs: "I was almost angry at them... [the console] was launched way too early."
Ricciardi is also unsure of the new 'Do! Do! Do!' Japanese marketing campaign, which stars Japanese pop group Tokio - suggesting that its targeting may also be a little off-base in terms of the kind of Japanese consumers who like the pop stars in question.
But though Ricciardi doesn't believe that Capcom's Dead Rising
alone, released this week in Japan, can revitalize the Xbox 360 ("I don't think so - I would love to be wrong"), he does concede that Sakaguchi's RPG launches this December are an unknown quantity that might (or might not) finally help Microsoft's console break out a little in the territory.
PlayStation 3 - Unhappy Consumers?
We finished up by asking Ricciardi whether the anti-PS3 press prevalent in the Western media of late was mirrored in editorials and similar media commentary in Japan. He agreed of the negative press: "It's less [in Japan]... the media here is just different - people aren't as upfront."
Nonetheless, the duo noted that "There are surveys in magazines" in which the replies hint at the worry from the Japanese over the PS3's price. (Our interview with Ricciardi was conducted before Ken Kutaragi's announcement of a decrease in the low-end PS3 price in Japan late last week.)
But this fact alone shows that, no matter how mellifluously the Japanese press are reporting on the story, Sony has an understanding of its PR problems and perhaps some inkling of how to overcome them, even in Japan.
[Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine editorial director Simon Carless has been reporting from Japan, both before and after Tokyo Game Show, on the state of the Japanese video game market, looking at the state of the industry from multiple perspectives - his final report will appear as part of a round-up tomorrow.]