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EA is one of the largest publishers in the world and a fully global organization -- but doesn't have much penetration in Japan, which is still one of the most vibrant and successful gaming markets, globally, even in the midst of a downturn.
That seems to be changing. During the week leading up to the Tokyo Game Show, EA Japan hosted an event at the opulent Mado Lounge at Roppongi Hills, an upscale Tokyo complex that mixes offices, shopping, theaters, and museums.
The event featured the company's first Japan-developed, Japan-targeted title to be released in some years: Tsumuji, a Zelda-like adventure game for the DS starring a young ninja. It may not be released in the West at all.
Gamasutra got a chance to speak to the president of EA Japan, Rex Ishibashi. Ishibashi was instrumental in the late '90s deal that partnered EA with Square Soft for the releases of Final Fantasy VIII and IX, among other games, and has an even longer history with the company.
Here, he describes the company's strategy for Japan -- its new approach to working inside the market, to both bring Western games to prominence and to deliver games that originate in Japan and can sell globally. He also discusses the state of the Japanese market -- providing insight to a prominent territory that is, nevertheless, not always well understood by outsiders.
Though this event seems to suggest something of a rebirth for EA Japan, you've been in the Japanese market for some time.
Rex O. Ishibashi: So it's been a long time, you know; call it almost 20 years. The games industry has changed a lot -- platforms, everything else. EA has had good years, has had some not so good years, here. But generally we've been consistent; generally we've been consistently profitable.
At the same time, what we measure ourselves against is our huge success, and our market share in the West. And while we don't expect to have the same market share here, there are some ways that we can approach the business a little be differently, and gain some traction, to arrive at a good place as a Western publisher operating here in Japan. Including what you saw, the game that we started with right over here, Tsumuji; some locally-developed content.
EA, in the past, in Japan, has done some locally-developed content, but it hasn't for some years, correct?
RI: It hasn't. It's been up and down in terms of the studio effort overall. We have everything from MySims, and the MySims franchise, which is actually developed by a Japanese developer, but EP'd and managed out of EA headquarters, or [EA Redwood Shores], out of the EA Play label.
But this is what I believe in. There's two parts to the strategy: If you look at the success of Western content in Japanese gaming, it's always hovered around five percent market share. We think we can grow that a little bit -- and grow it mainly by producing great games, and more deeply localizing those games for the marketplace.
So, given my experience with EA -- I used to be with EA from '97 to 2001, in fact connections with EA going back to the '80s, when it was first founded, really -- and then rejoined EA in December of last year, to head up EA Japan. But just based on the relationships I have with the studios and the label heads, we're getting involved at the development stage, and letting people know exactly what Japan would want.
We're being very selective about not saying we can publish all the titles, and all the titles are appropriate for Japan; we're being very selective about the types of games we bring in, and that we think can do well here. So that's one half of the strategy, is really to more deeply localize, be much more selective and focused about what we bring in to the marketplace.
And then secondly, develop original content. Because, again, even if we help grow Western content market share here in Japan by 100%? That's a 10% market. We're still not addressing the 90% market, in the second largest video game market by country. So, we're starting to do games like Tsumuji, and there are some other things down the pike that are exciting.
Is Tsumuji being developed by an external studio?
RI: It's an external studio, but closely managed by Taka [Murakami], and a team of four people including Taka.
Do you guys have any development teams operating in Japan now, under EA's direct ownership?
RI: Yes. Taka's team -- Taka has developed great DS software; Taka was involved with -- I always mention this -- the development of Sony Aibo. He's a creator, and a creative, in the true Japanese vein, and he has a very balanced team, who don't actively code, but are always in Osaka working with our external developers.
So your strategy is experienced developers managing external developers closely. That's how you're pursuing it right now, in Japan?
RI: Exactly. Exactly. The other thing to mention is our EA Partners group, which is part of the EA Games label. We struck a relationship with Grasshopper Manufacture. So this is Suda-san. Working closely with Mikami-san, the developer of Resident Evil originally. And we're even involved in that development -- just given distance, given time zones, given language. So Taka already has two projects that he's active with, and there will be more projects coming down the pike.
Is Tsumuji a test case? It sounds like you already have some things in motion.
RI: We already have some things in motion. The global publishing organization outside of Japan, while they haven't made firm commitments, and while we haven't made firm announcements, we're very excited about what we're doing here. And it's clear that, one: EA is committed to this marketplace. We're not going away. And two: that for us to grow in this marketplace, we have to expand beyond western content.