Pity poor Xbox

It’s hard to feel empathy for a huge, megalomaniacal corporation, especially one that has caused me personally so much heartache and wasted time in the home computing arena, but looking at the continued struggle Microsoft has in Japan with their Xbox360 console one can’t help but feel their frustration. And this time round they are really trying, bless their coal-black little hearts.

A lot of conjecture and guesswork surrounds their epic quest and I can’t claim to have any real answers, but I have on occasion thought at length about what they are doing, where they went wrong and how they could improve. None of these musings will help the current generation of the machine, but quite possibly could help their next iteration, whatever ridiculous, circular name it will have.

Firstly there is the age old question of why any Western company is so desperate to break the Japanese market. Listening to supposed “analysts”, whom shall remain nameless, it is all about the dream, the idea that Japan originated the current market and that to be successful over here is somehow a validation, a massive and expensive kudos farming exercise. If you need to be told how ridiculous this is then you have no job being paid to “analyse” markets. Japan, however much it is dwarfed by the West, is still a significant market and success over here means an extra few points on your financial year. No greedy corporation is content with a “good sized market” if there is an extra small percentage to be added to potential profits. And that is the end of it. People want to break the Japanese market because of money.

Now Microsoft may well be pushing the boundary between effort/cost and results. The amount of cash they are pouring into Japanese developed titles exclusively for their machine is bordering on the irresponsible. Even if they gain a marginal foothold in Japan, surely they’ll never sell enough units to justify the expenses and effort. Indeed, not this generation, but an Xbox360 being taken seriously in Japan will certainly help when the next version of the console is launched. I see Microsoft’s campaign as a massive advertising push for the brand to be collected on at a future date. And this is pretty clever.

What they are doing right:

The original Xbox was released, world-wide, with a global marketing campaign. This obviously didn’t work. In Japan the marketing push was just too “American”, it didn’t speak to the locals and couldn’t engage their interest. This time round they have a more local approach with Japanese adverts, localized marketing campaigns and generally paying more attention to the Japanese.
Similarly the design of the machine, though still bulky, is much more streamlined compared to the chunk of burnt plastic that was the original. These are not overriding factors, but in the long run they do have an effect.

The games on offer, though still mostly American games, by which I mean genres that appeal mostly to Western markets like first-person shooters, are now beginning to include the quirky madness one expects from Japanese games as well as some stalwarts of the local scene, most notably in the guise of story-heavy, turn-based RPGs, this time designed by famous Japanese names. I remember some laughable press event around the launch of the original Xbox in which we were told that Microsoft ended up hiring a Western developer to create their flagship RPG because they couldn’t find a Japanese company up to the task. The result was Sudeki. This time round they went straight to the source and allegedly piled tons of cash on some Japanese veterans to create true Japanese RPGs to appeal mainly to the Japanese player. A good move, if somewhat late.

Original Xbox games resolutely failed to win any shelf space in Japan’s crowded shops. Whether it is the increased library or Microsoft’s aggressive approach the Xbox360 suffers less from this, though is, as PSP and PS3 games still a slave to the zombie-like attributes of the ever-expanding DS shelf area. But wander into any shop and you’ll at least find some 360 titles, possibly even a demo pod.

What they are doing wrong:

The biggest hurdle is probably still the price tag. The core system clocks in at just under 40,000 Yen, which is a good 15,000 Yen more than a Wii. Japanese consumers may be spending, but they still have mouths to feed and bills to pay. If priority number one is to have hardware in the homes so they can make money of the software, as is de rigeur in console markets, a steep price-drop could certainly help.

Once people have the machine, though, there are some usability issues which should be sorted out for future iterations. Consoles are meant to be easy; you switch it on, pop in a game and play. In this generation we suddenly see interfaces and so far only Nintendo seems to have created a user-friendly one. Switch on your 360 and you’re greeted with sign-ins, several pages of options, menus that require several clicks to navigate through and some very strange logic regarding set-up. When I bought my Wii I plugged it in, connected it up and switched it on. In 5 minutes I was connected to my Wifi router and within another few seconds I was playing. Conversely when I bought my Xbox I had to tell the machine I wanted High Definition display and pull a tiny switch on the plug before it caught on, go through numerous pages of set-up information, create a log-in, buy a separate Wifi adapter for a staggering 8,000 Yen and then spend literally three days pissing about for it to work, eventually having to use my PC to delve into my router to manually open up some ports. When I want to play a game I have to go through several menus to get there. All in all, it could have been more user-friendly. Don’t forget that Japan isn’t really a PC country and that these things, simple to people like you and I (presumably), can be baffling and annoying to Joe Every-san. And let’s not talk about setting up a bridge between the console and PC – something I have long given up trying to achieve.

Ever since I’ve had my 360, the “featured downloads” tab on the Xbox Live Marketplace has been…empty. Some localized support for this feature would be welcomed. Similarly, the video marketplace is bereft of anything but a few trailers. Obviously they are having problems finding local suppliers of digital content to fill it up, but with this year’s software update and the consequent lock-out of any non-US I.P., it has turned into a useless feature. It’s still there, it just doesn’t do anything. For Live Arcade games one just might as well create a second, fake log-in, to access the American libraries, because otherwise that too is a bit of a wet disappointment. Every Xbox owner, gaijin or native, whom I know does this. It’s just an extra obstacle between the end-user and fun that is entirely unnecessary.

Finally, I think Microsoft has bought into the fallacy that Western games are seen as inferior in Japan. They are, but only by the minority hardcore player, you know the kind: loud, trolling troglodytes that they are. It’s a self-perpetuating folly where Japanese publishers buy up Western games cheaply but don’t pour too much money into marketing, because they hardly ever sell. And because there is so little marketing they hardly ever sell. Et cetera. Though I know the group comprised of “my colleagues and people I know personally” isn’t a representative one, but this group does play Xbox games, they do import US games before they are released in Japan, if ever, and do enjoy them tremendously.
But on the subject of engaging Japanese developers I think they are going wrong. Well, not exactly. A Mistwalker title could appeal to the average Japanese player, but established IP is much, much stronger. If, for example, Microsoft had paid a King’s ransom to have an Xbox exclusive Dragon Quest, however impossible that would probably be, they would certainly see a return on investment this generation.

In conclusion

The Xbox360 has, obviously, no chance in Hell to snag a large enough market-share in Japan to make all of Microsoft’s efforts worthwhile this generation. But if they continue the way they are it isn’t unthinkable that a future iteration of Xbox, if the price is good enough and the games exciting enough, could be a minor success and plant Microsoft finally and firmly into the Japanese game sphere. It’s a good console with a surprising amount of excellent games, as well as a slowly growing library of casual fare, and it is only the minor lack of “Japanesey” games, pricing and local support that really need to be sorted out.

Whenever supposedly enlightened journalists or analysts proclaim, with sarcastic guffaws, what a dire failure the Xbox360 is in Japan just sit back and wait. If Microsoft continues this feverish push the Xbox720 may very well not be. However hateful they are as a corporation, they are not stupid, and Bill Gates didn’t become the world’s richest man because of his winning smile and drop-dead gorgeous looks. I think Microsoft know what they are doing, and though we like to laugh at schadenfreude, they are, at least, not sitting still.

20 comments:

  1. Interesting, but two things jumped out at me.

    First, re: console size, get a tape measure, and measure the actual dimensions of the Xbox and Xbox 360 - you may be surprised. And let's not forget that the 360 has a huge external PSU as well.

    Secondly, when I want to play a game, I turn on the console (press one button), and it plays whatever game is in the DVD tray. It's only if I want to do stuff with the Xbox 360 dashboard that I have to use it - is the Japanese model different in this respect?

    XBLA games/downoadable demos are different in this respect, but I'm not sure it's that hard to use. Granted, some of the UI could be streamlined in this respect (I hate the thing where it says "You've already downloaded this game? Do you want to find it?" and you say yes, and it basically displays some text telling you to go to the XBLA games list and find the game in there - what were they thinking?!)

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  2. I believe Microsoft could have possibly been more successful in Japan, had it changed its strategy a bit.

    The name should have been changed from "Xbox" in Japan. While X is a cool letter in the US, X is symbolic for "no" or "bad" in Japan. Add in the western software focus, and no wonder the Japanese vote no with their wallets on the "BadBox." Microsoft could have dusted off the MSX brand, which does have some equity in Japan, and repurposed it for a console. MSX 360 has a nice ring to it.

    Microsoft should have partnered with Matsushita, Toshiba, NEC or Sega to market the Xbox in Japan, rather than try to go it alone. These companies would possibly have been eager to make the Xbox or 360 successful, in order get a foothold against Sony. Plus they understand the Japanese market and could taylor the marketing and software development for the machine accordingly.

    As for size, I agree with all that has been said, but want to point out that the PS3 is about the same size as the original Xbox (PS3 is longer but shorter). That, along with price are contributing to the PS3s stuggle against the Wii in the home market.

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  3. Oh, I never claimed the 360 wasn't huge, but it is a little more pleasing to the eye (but not the ear) than the original XBox.

    Chad makes a good point about the name too, though it's mostly referred to as the san-roku-maru (3-6-0) here, which isn't as easy to say as "pureisuteisuree" or "wii".
    I think though that Microsoft are really trying to build a brand at this point, so partnering out would weaken their ownership.

    We'll see if their strategies work around the release of the next generation, I think.

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  4. The smartest thing to do is start up their own branch in Japan like Sony. I'm sure Sony comercials in Japan are totally different than the one here. Though a separate branch makes it hard for a console firmware to stay the same everywhere. More bureaucracy means more wait time for consumers. Still waiting for the day when I can fully claim I can watch all of my video files on the PS3 or some other console.

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  5. JC can probably confirm this, but I believe Microsoft already has an Japan Xbox division attempting to market the Xbox, as well as foster developer relations. The big problem is the Xbox is perceived as a western console, and published software does little to fight that image. Marketing western titles to the Japanese is sort of like marketing prune juice to teenagers.

    I agree with JC that Microsoft is trying to build a brand, but I don't think a partnership would dilute the brand. Could the Xbox really be any "less" successful than it is right now, without a Japanese partnership?

    The hard question is which company is the best partner? Sega's software would be a boon, but Sega's consoles have never done too well in Japan. Matsushita and NEC are great hardware companies, but have no experience or interest in software. They used software partners when marketing the 3DO and PC Engine. Toshiba is completely green to the console market, and has the software weakness too. So who would really be the best fit?

    In my last post, I mentioned Microsoft should bring back the MSX brand, but Microsoft does not own the trademark for that brand. I think the principle of my argument still stands, though.

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  6. Hm... good point. I guess the best way to go is Capcom for software or try to steal Nintendo's exclusive pokemon's. I think with those two (even though it is so repetitive...) will at least save the XboX somehow.

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  7. There is indeed a MS Jaan, as there is an XBox Japan, though how autonomous they are I haven't a clue. I wouldn't be surprised if MS HQ still pulls the strings somehow.

    Whatever they are doing, I am getting quite a "Japanesy" vibe from the image XBox has in Japan, vis advertising, presentation, etc. And as I said, I know more and more people, colleagues, who have one and play games quite extensively on them. The idea that "Western games are seen as garbage" is really rather niche, as most of Japan still has a sordid love affair with everything American. I think it's more that catch-22 of little exposure. few sales, even less exposure, etc.

    We'll see, we'll see.

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  8. http://kotaku.com/gaming/un_fucking_believable/simple-2000-the-japanese-software-chart-where-halo-3-does-ok-306918.php

    Seems like they are doing something right.

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  9. I always thought it was an interesting paradox that Japanese snap up all things USA, except the games. I was trying to say the Japanese have a different taste in games, when it comes to genres and art styles, not that western games are seen as "garbage."

    It's good to see Halo 3 do well in Japan, and I was pleased to see Blue Dragon spike 360 sales last year, too. JC, what would you say is the most successful western series in Japan? That could be a great topic for another blog post.

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  10. Welcome back, JC.

    @Chad
    I like your BatsuBox idea. I doubt the circular logo of the 360 could even change anything about that.

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