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Q&A: Namco Bandai's Iwai Talks Tricky Topics In Western Markets

Q&A: Namco Bandai's Iwai Talks Tricky Topics In Western Markets Exclusive

March 12, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 12, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Like many of its fellow long-standing Japanese publishers, veteran creator Namco Bandai is making a concentrated push for Western markets -- and Makoto Iwai, EVP and COO of the company's American operations, admits peers like Sega and Capcom are "a little bit ahead" in that respect.

But Iwai's entering the fight swinging, promising to get ahead before long, and in this frank discussion, he talks about the company's new Western-focused Surge label, the disappointing reception for Afro Samurai, the tricky situation with Bottlerocket and Splatterhouse, and what it'll take to get ahead in the U.S.

What was the decision behind making Surge as kind of a new publishing brand?

Makoto Iwai: There was always a discussion internally - I don't know how you describe our company logo, but some people describe it as a pig logo; it's not the official way of describing it (laughs).

So, under the Namco Bandai logo, we'll be releasing Tamagotchi, Naruto, or one of the lower teen or high teen [titles]. And now we're releasing some more M-rated games, which we believe are more appealing to Western audiences.

There was a question, like, "Can we just keep releasing mixed genres under one company logo?" This is expressed the sort of interlocking logos of Namco and Bandai, which we currently use.

Bandai is a toy business. One of the philosophies that the founders had in the past, and still have, is that there should be no violence, no blood, no sex -- that kind of thing.

Some people were worried, even myself, with trying to create Afro Samurai and saying that this is one of the ways we should take to be successful. So, we tried to come up with something new as a label. Of course, before reaching towards Surge, we tried to do some enhanced Namco logo, for instance. You know, 3D, or a black label even.

Then again, Namco is a well respected IP, and attached to the memories of Mr. [Masaya] Nakamura. I've been trying to get like a Namco black label; I thought it was cool, and Namco is well known to begin with. But it can't happen because not many people are willing to talk about it to Nakamura-san face-to-face.

You know, he's retiring. So, to show some respect, we don't want to disrupt his process. And there was a deadline that we needed to come up with because Afro Samurai's release was around the corner.

So, we came up with several ideas, but after research, not many of them were available. So, we ended up with Surge. To sort of sum it up, we wanted to promote it as a new brand to represent us and our U.S.-developed titles. That was the idea.

How have you felt about Afro Samurai's performance so far?

MI: The team did a great job with the limited amount of time, which allowed them to make improvements up to the last moment. But again, this is the very first internal project that we have started as a newly born Namco Bandai Games America. And, of course, there are many things that happened [bad and good].

And, so, the result is that it's not really a 100 percent achievement, but it's still receiving repeat orders. I was not really happy to see some brutal reviews. At the same time, I was happy to see the reviews from the end users who really actually played the game.

I knew those kinds of licensed products always -- just because it's licensed, the review gets lower, it's a tendency. Everybody has that sort of prejudice about licensed products. We knew it, and we tried to make a change. Well, it's working in some way.

Can you talk a little bit about Bottlerocket and Splatterhouse, and how that went?

MI: So, basically, the only reason why publishers pull the project out from the developer is when the developer isn't really meeting the requirements. So, unfortunately, this was the case.

I have to be very careful so we don't make any direct comment on it because whatever we say, people will try to be on the developer side. You know, "The developer is an independent developer trying hard, and evil publishers are trying to get rid of the business by doing whatever they feel like."

That's not the case. I just want to be 100 percent clear. There was a performance issue.

How do you make sure your U.S.-developed games still retain the Namco Bandai flavor to them?

MI: Good question. It's kind of like the Wii. I'd like to change the people's perception of Namco Bandai. In the past, people never thought about Namco Bandai releasing bloody games, for instance.

But why not, if there's a market? Why don't we just make a zombie game, for instance? --Though that doesn't mean we're making one! (laughs)

But every company has got some sort of corporate image created internally or by outside people. I just want to change it, because we don't want to rely just on the good old franchises anymore. Rather than having those big franchises, and revitalize them... We'd like to create a new idea.

So it's not too important to you that the new games have kind of a Namco Bandai feeling to them so long as they're good? Is that kind of what you mean?

MI: Yeah.

One thing that someone was complaining to me about [at DICE] is when Japanese companies still send very, very Japanese executives to come and run the studios in the U.S. More companies are trying to move toward getting people who actually have some experience in the West. What is your perception of that? I feel you're doing a good job, based on what I've seen.

MI: Thank you. Let's keep it that way! You might view these sorts of organization changes in line with the changes happening in Japan, but it's going more in a positive direction, I think. People in Japan want to communicate more, so they start coming [to the West].

We have global meetings internally, share ideas, criticize each other, try to streamline and make uniform the process and terminology as well. But if you take a term like "Vertical slice" - their definition [in Japan] and our definition are different. "High concept" - what is that?

Even a number of my people, local American people, their definitions can be different from each other.

That can be difficult with job titles, because we don't have a "planner" in the U.S., though that's a common Japanese game job, and a director in Japan actually means something very different than what it means here.

MI: That's true, that's true. But again, the important thing is trying to understand how different the development approaches are. We're doing that, too.

Then there's a tech meeting, where only those engineers get together, exchanging information, and talking about the glossary and stuff. It's happening for us now, which is good, because it never happened before.

I believe all Japanese companies are trying to go to the Western market. We are not the only one. Capcom and Sega -- let's be honest, they are a few steps ahead of us, maybe. But I'm sure we'll catch up, and we'll be ahead of them in the near future.

Oh yeah? You think you can get ahead of Capcom? That's the toughest one.

MI: Ah, we will be.

I'm going to hold you to that.

MI: Okay, we'll try!

What do you think is the best philosophy for bringing stuff to the Western market? A lot of companies seem to be approaching it in a less-progressive way -- [Jun Takeuchi] said in his DICE talk, 'if we put an actor in it that many people know, then it will sell,' and that's what it takes. To you, what is the best way to tackle the Western market?

MI: Well actually, the company needs to have the eyes and ears for specific market demands. That's something where we can't rely on Japanese people.

You need to have a willingness to listen to local people [in Western markets]. They have to be good people who can talk about markets and end-users. More communication, more delegation. I think those will be key.

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