Nippon Ichi's Disgaea published in the U.S. by Atlus.
Nippon Ichi is a bit of an odd company in the contemporary game world, as they release very niche titles exclusively, and actually manage to succeed. Their bread and butter is the 2D strategy RPG genre, something the industry as a whole has started to shy away from, in favor of mainstream acceptance. After releasing two titles through third party publishers (Mastiff and Atlus, respectively), Nippon Ichi, which means "Japan Number One", has made the move to America. We had a talk with Nippon Ichi Software America's marketing coordinator Jack Niida about his thoughts on the Japanese industry, pleasing your fanbase and niche genres as sustainable business.
Gamasutra: What made Nippon Ichi decide to come to the West?
Jack Niida: It kind of sprung from us originally having games, like Disgaea published (in America) by Atlus, but we were always thinking of producing games for the North American market, and after awhile, we thought it was better for us to publish our own titles since they are our games. But we still have a good relationship with Atlus. We publish the games and they distribute them for us. It just kind of happened.
Gamasutra: The games market in general is shrinking in Japan, was this a move to expand Nippon Ichi's market exposure?
Niida: In a way. We thought it was the right timing, because the American market seemed to be getting more accustomed to Japanese anime-style artwork and the market over here seemed to be growing, and our titles are all pretty much anime-influenced 2D, there is 3D, but it's heavily 2D influenced, so we thought it was a perfect match. The anime crowd is pretty hardcore, so we thought it was a good match, and it turned out to be.
Gamasutra: To what do you attribute this increased receptiveness to Japanese style art and culture?
Niida: I think it's because of the growing anime influence, Americans are becoming more accustomed to it, and back in the old days you had Japanese titles with anime-related characters but they changed the art style to suite the western taste, but then nowadays they can just bring the original artwork over, which is great for people like us.
Gamasutra: Does that make localization easier for you?
Niida: It's a lot easier, the language barrier is still there-certain Japanese jokes wouldn't make sense in the U.S. at all, so we have to change that around, but in regards to the art style, we have no problem bringing that over.
Gamasutra: When you have to localize humor, do you wind up rewriting, or just translating?
Niida: We actually rewrite the jokes. We try to retain the meaning of the joke, and change it in a way that it will make sense. The way we localize the game is that first we vaguely translate the game, and then we get the editors to go through the entire script and change it, making his interpretation of the translation. So it's not a direct port of the story. It really depends on the editor too. If your editor is good, you'll come up with a better product.
Gamasutra: Do you think that the strategy and niche RPG genres are enough to maintain Nippon Ichi's business for the foreseeable future, or are you going to have to branch out?
Niida: We are actually releasing other companies' titles, such as Atelier Iris, which is a traditional RPG. We will release other titles, but they will still be in the strategy RPG genre. We don't want to branch out too far, say into fighting games.
Gamasutra: Are you at all concerned that the SRPG market is getting to crowded? These are games that require deep commitment, but seem to be coming out rather fast.
Niida: Competition is always there, but we try to release our games in a certain date of the year where there aren't many releases, such as May/June/July. That's a period that a lot of the bigger companies avoid because the Christmas season is coming in and the new titles usually come in Sept/Oct/Nov/Dec. And the early half of the year is kind of on the slow pace side, so we try to focus on that part of the year.
Gamasutra: Do you have a smaller margin that you need to sell to be profitable, then?
Niida: Exactly. A major company like Square Enix needs to sell millions, but a small company like us can make a small profit and survive, which is perfectly fine with us, as long as we don't go down the hole. And it's been working beautifully.
Atelier Iris, developed by Gust and published by Nippon Ichi.
Gamasutra: What is your localization process?
Niida: It's actually quite simple: we get the original script and the original data text and the story text, translate that vaguely, and have the editor translate that text (into traditional English).
Gamasutra: Do you ever edit images or programming?
Niida: Images and programming we don't touch, unless it's necessary. On certain titles we might change some of the data around, for instance monster encounters, or the number of times an item appears, something simple like that, but that's it.
Gamasutra: What is your staff size?
Niida: We are a small company. We do have freelancers, mainly for game testers. We have a lot of game testers that freelance part time. So in terms of full time employees, we have a total of five.
Gamasutra: What do you consider to be your main demographic?
Niida: Our demographic is anywhere from teenagers to late twenties. Anybody who is interested in anime or Japanese cartoon style artwork is pretty much our target. We go after the real hardcore people out there.
Gamasutra: So you must have good relationships with a lot of fan sites?
Niida: We have our own boards, and go out to fan websites to try to hear their voice, because we're dedicated to what the anime fans like, and we try to understand what they want.
Gamasutra: Who do you consider to be your main competitors?
Niida: That's a hard question. I can't really answer that. The way we see it, there aren't any competitors. The more titles like ours that come out, the greater the market gets. We are kind of helping each other out in a way and not competing. We try to avoid each others' release dates, so we won't really compete.
Gamasutra: So you don't think that having too many strategy RPGs out there will make the market saturated?
Niida: I don't think so. As long as you make something different and unique, I think the audience will follow you. We just hope that people will purchase them anyway.
Gamasutra: What's your relationship with Nippon Ichi in Japan?
Niida: We are a subsidiary of Nippon Ichi software, they develop all the games for us which is real nice, but it's only one and a half games per year. So we reach out and try to get games from other companies.
Phantom Brave, developed and published by Nippon Ichi.
Gamasutra: Do they dictate what you can release in terms of those third parties?
Niida: We can do anything we want.
Gamasutra: What do you think of the state of the Japanese industry right now?
Niida: I'd say It's been lagging a little. There aren't many exciting titles. But with the introduction of PS3, Xbox 360, Revolution, it's going to change.
Gamasutra: Will Nippon Ichi be making games for next gen?
Niida: We are seriously thinking of working to Xbox 360 and also Revolution.
Gamasutra: What is the future of Nippon Ichi, and of the whole niche market?
Niida: We will obviously continue to serve the niche market, bringing in Nippon Ichi titles, as well as titles from other companies, for instance, we recently acquired The Generation of Chaos from Idea Factory to be released on the PSP next spring. So we are going to be branching out into various other games while still in the same genre and on different consoles also. So in a way we're gradually growing our market within the RPG and strategy RPG genres.
Gamasutra: Have you had any trouble getting SCEA to approve 2D games?
Niida: Sony's been very helpful, actually. We've been able to bring over all the titles that we submitted, and they seem to like the titles we brought over.
Gamasutra: Why do you think they're so receptive, when other companies complain of the difficulty of bringing out 2D titles on Sony consoles?
Niida: That's actually a surprise to me. We carefully select the games we want to bring over, making sure they're titles that we have a good chance of getting approved. We don't a long shot title that is a waste of time. In the end it comes down to the way you present it to Sony, it's fairly easy to convince them. They're actually really great guys to work for. We've built a mutual relationship and we're able to work together. They love 2D anime just as much as we do.
Gamasutra: Are they more willing to approve a 2D title if it's more of a budget price, or is that a factor?
Niida: I don't think it really matters, because with games like Atelier Iris, we just show the game, talk about it, convince them, and get approval. They didn't really mention the 2D part. We actually emphasize the 2D aspect of the game, saying there's 3D everywhere and there's still that niche 2D market out there, and Sony was willing to take the chance to try it.