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Interview: Namco-Bandai Shifts West For Survival With Surge

Interview: Namco-Bandai Shifts West For Survival With Surge Exclusive

December 16, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander

December 16, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Japanese publisher Namco-Bandai recently revealed its intention to more directly address Western audiences with the creation of a new label called Surge. In the competition for continuing relevance, many Japanese companies have demonstrated interest in similar initiatives.

What is Surge, exactly? "The quick and easy answer is that Surge is really a U.S.-based studio and publisher being run out of our Santa Clara office," explains Namco Bandai exec Andrew Lelchuk.

In fact, Lelchuk says, Surge actually represents a Westward migration for Namco-Bandai. "In the past, almost all of our games were developed out of Japan from our parent company," he says. "Moving forward, more and more of our games will be developed here in the U.S. -- either internally, or externally through outside studios."

The Backstory

Namco-Bandai's actually had a Western development presence for two or three years now, Lelchuk says. The Surge label's first title, Afro Samurai, will serve as the team's official introduction, and so applying the Surge label to the work that team does, introducing them publicly, and making them a bigger part of the parent company's Western focus is "part of the naming process."

That means Afro Samurai has been in the works for those past couple of years then, alongside the upcoming Splatterhouse reboot that's been in the works through an external studio for a year and a half.

Much discussion surrounds the idea that the era of dominance for Japanese development has been on the wane for some time, and those companies must focus their efforts on the West to survive -- and Lelchuk seems to agree.

"The reality is, the overall video game market is shifting, and I think that it was necessary for us -- not only to stay competitive, but for us to make additional advances within the marketplace," he says.

"Consumer tastes are constantly changing -- I think the Western consumer is much more sophisticated than three to five years ago, and in order for us to stay current and to capitalize on that, we needed to have development done closer to that consumer.

"There is in reality only so much we can do out of Japan," Lelchuk adds.

The Business Reality

Beginning about a year and a half ago, Namco-Bandai began research projects designed to bring Japanese developers "up to speed" on consumer tastes in the West. "It's a lot of work," concedes Lelchuk. "We'd gotten to the point where it's better for all of us to focus more on that development here in the U.S."

So what considerations are important specific to a Western audience? "Some of it is just cultural," says Lelchuk. "There are a lot of cultural differences between the East and West that shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone."

"Understanding what those cultural differences are, I think, is easy. But putting them into truly immersive, interactive gameplay experiences is a little more difficult to pull off."

Aside from the more obvious cultural divide, where exactly does the primary difficulty lie in trying to adapt Japanese developers to addressing Western audiences? Games developed under a highly Japanese cultural ideal may not be received the same way by Western audiences -- but also, Japanese developers and publishers have different methods behind the subtleties of doing business and working within an organization that can make it hard for a company to effectively bridge the Pacific ocean.

Lelchuk says that both the end user and the internal politics play an equal role. "Certain things that, culturally, may be off limits from a Japanese perspective -- like mature language, or adult themes, if you will -- some of that is just a comfort level. We see that culturally, just in doing business with our parent company in Japan."

"I think it's both from a business perspective, and then, obviously, understanding consumers' taste."

So, from Lelchuk's point of view, is shifting more development resources to the West something that will be crucial to the success of traditional Japanese companies?

"Selfishly, I don't think any other Japanese publisher should do this," Lelchuk joked. "But I think that reality is going to force our brethren in Japan to do the same."

"I think most Japanese publishers are faced with the reality that more of their sales growth and revenue opportunity has to come from the West in order to survive. I think that's a business reality," he added.

Working Together

At a glance, it seems there could be a downside to a studio in the U.S. developing for a publisher that's based in Japan. The very same cultural divide that sent development Westward could theoretically make it even more challenging to do business across the ocean -- but Lelchuk says that Namco-Bandai's accustomed to global communications.

"We've been working with studios both here in the U.S. as well as in Europe," he says. "We're absolutely in step on how we're approaching this. It is an overall global corporate strategy to do this, and it will continue to grow and build in the years to come."

Now, Surge is beginning with Afro Samurai -- and from there, will the label handle primarily original IP, or will they focus on tailoring established Namco-Bandai brands to a Western audience?

"It's going to be a combination of both," Lelchuk says. "Obviously, Splatterhouse is an original IP of ours that will end up under the Surge label. Another title that we're going to announce early next year is originally part of our IP, but we've got some things that are brand new."

And while recent trends have seemed to favor Japanese development moves to the West, Lelchuk stresses that Namco-Bandai isn't imitating here. "It sounds kind of 'me too,' like saying, 'oh, we're catering to Western consumers'," he admits.

"But the reality is we want to focus on innovation -- everything from tech to art styles to storylines, to creating that totally immersive experience for the consumer," he adds. "Whether it's creating a new genre or sub-genre, we really want to focus on creativity and innovation. This isn't us going out and doing another FPS or action game, but doing something that truly is creative and makes a difference."

Looking Back East

Meanwhile, the ultimate prize for a global publisher seems to be creating a title that appeals equally in Japan, Europe and the U.S., although few games have achieved such a feat. Will there be any focus on Surge games being able to enjoy an audience in Namco-Bandai's home nation of Japan, too?

"I think that there will be things that will absolutely have viability and merit for the Japanese market," Lelchuk says. "Obviously, most of this is focused on the U.S. and Europe -- but depending on theme and some other things, absolutely, these games will work globally."

"We're definitely moving as an entire corporation toward a global studio ideal, where we're taking all the regions into consideration as we develop new games, both here and in Japan."

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