Best of the West

With all this defeatist talk of the difficulty Western games have in Japan, I thought it might be time to have a gander at those mythical titles that actually have migrated successfully. Game markets are notoriously subject to the ebb and flow of ever changing public wants, so this “all time” examination may not bear too much significance these days. But with enough spurious chin-stroking on my part we may learn a few tricks Western developers can employ in their quest to crack that Eastern nut. This list is far from complete, but does represent some of the bigger successes. Sales figures may not be definitive, but ballpark figures will be good enough for this exercise.

Tetris (Gameboy)
Total sales Japan 4.2 million
Total sales world: 30.2 million
Though initially handled by Nintendo (of America) and licensed by Henk Rogers’ BPS, this game is undeniably as non-Japanese as its affable creator Alexey Pajitnov.
The universal appeal of Tetris is legendary, of course, and it spawned many imitations and variations, also in Japan. It succeeded both thanks to not being tied down to specific character design as well as its Russian atmosphere, which speaks to the natural curiosity and affinity a lot of Japanese have with Foreignland. The fact it was a pack-in for the immensely popular Gameboy of course also helped.

Donkey Kong Country (SNES)
Total sales Japan 2.9 million
Total sales world: 9.3 million
Donkey Kong Country 2 (SNES)
Total sales Japan 2.2 million
Total sales world: 5.1 million
Donkey Kong Country 3 (SNES)
Total sales Japan 1.7 million
Total sales world: 3.5 million
Rare’s Donkey Kong Country series is probably the best example of a Western title making a splash in Japan. Nintendo’s involvement was of course a factor, as were the ahead of its time graphics and traditional platforming gameplay. Donkey Kong as a character may also have boosted its popularity, as it is still around today very much in the shape of Rare’s effort, though with varying levels of success, as in, for example the following:

Donkey Kong 64 (N64)
Total sales Japan 1 million
Total sales world: 5.2 million
The fact this sold about half of any of the DKC series speaks to the waning popularity of the DK series, but all things considered it still sold significant numbers for a Western-made product. Rare, as a company, doesn’t enjoy as much of a reputation as it did in the West, where they were heralded as the torch-bearer for, what was then known as “Japanese-quality games made in the West”. By the release of this title they were already slipping and it is likely it was only the Donkey Kong IP which carried it to modest success.

Crash Bandicoot (PS1)
Total sales Japan 0.9 million
Total sales world: 6.8 million
Crash Bandicoot 2 (PS1)
Total sales Japan 1.3 million
Total sales world: 7.5 million
Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped (PS1)
Total sales Japan 1.4 million
Total sales world: 7.1 million
For a title which looks and plays like a very Western game, the Crash Bandicoot series overall performed admirably in Japan. Crash of course famously was never accepted as a platform mascot. However, back in the day Sony spent a king’s ransom on marketing the original Crash Bandicoot in Japan, as its success was seen as vital to the new Playstation brand. Though 1.4 million units sounds like an admirable sales figure, especially for a Western game in Japan, when offset against Sony’s massive advertising budget it could have performed better.
Also, Crash did have some excellent and simple design, which made it easier for Japanese players to appreciate. Though a fully 3D game, graphically speaking, it harked back to easier times with levels that were basically 2.5 in essence. There was little chance of players getting lost or disoriented or for them to have to battle a shitty camera system. All these elements have slowly disappeared from the series over time, making it hard to imagine any Crash title being able to make any significant impact in Japan today; the character himself just isn’t strong enough to carry it.

Sim City (SNES)
Total sales Japan 0.7 million
Total sales world: 1.9 million
By mere virtue of the success of the console, a lot of SNES titles were sold, which meant statistically speaking some Western games would sell in Japan better than they probably would these days. Sim City, again, is one of those boundary-breaking titles that spoke to a wide audience. Graphics were functional at best but avoided, again, the difficulties of foreign character design. As it was something very new at the time it also spoke to the Japanese market’s hunger for innovation or at least for new experiences. This trend is still visible today when, even as it’s the sequels that sell best, the market still demands a certain level of innovation and any title that simply delivers more of the same without adding a few new touches will simply not succeed. This then was the first city simulator that spawned sequels and spin-offs and, as a first, must have spoken to the Japanese.

Banjo Kazooie (N64)
Total sales Japan 0.5 million
Total sales world: 3.6 million
Another Rare entry and this one a title which is held with many fond regards by Western gamers of a certain age (like me). It was a great platformer, yet its characters were relentlessly Western. Cutesy and colourful does not automatically equate to character design fit for Japanese consumption.

What’s most interesting is that aside from Tetris none of the titles above really enjoy the cult status they have, somewhat, in the West. Though Nintendo continues to exploit the revamped Donkey Kong character, his debut title (DKC) is just an old game, rather than a fondly remembered classic. Banjo and Kazooie failed to make a splash as merchandisable characters. Crash equally never captured the hearts of the Japanese audience to the extent of national fame, though the continuing downward trend of the series’ quality may be a contributing factor. I’d say these characters can be filed under “recognizable” rather than “beloved”.
Tetris, conversely, continues to see new leases of life with new versions being released constantly and some very well-made mobile phone adaptations. That one is a true classic.

What about some more recent, high-profile titles?

Grand Theft Auto 3 (PS2)
Total sales Japan 0.3 million
Total sales world: 11.6 million
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
Total sales Japan 0.4 million
Total sales world: 14.8 million
It took quite a while before Capcom swallowed this bitter pill and dared to release this western game in Japan, after most other publishers had shied away from it. Did it pay off? Well, they probably made their money back from localization, and all things considered it didn’t do that badly, but in a global sense it was a failure. The whole sandbox attitude is not something the Japanese gamer enjoys, let alone the urban, hood, gansta violence. Some Japanese youth like the gansta-rap image and even do their own hilarious imitations, but the idea of battering hookers wasn’t as big a hook as it was in the west, apparently.
True to expectations the title did cause a bit of a storm in a teacup with local politicians clamping down on 18+ rated games, like these (notice the triangular warning on the package shown above). The CERO rating, as it is here, is now in force in most places by having these particular titles separate from the regular ones, on a shelf with ample notification of their mature content. Some shops even go so far as to remove the covers from the boxes and replacing them with photocopied pieces of paper containing the title of the game and a short explanation of its contents. I think it is even against the law to sell such titles to underage customers, though that may come down to local governments. If anything the release of GTA in Japan proves that Japanese politicians are as keen to jump on vote-winning bandwagons as their foreign colleagues.

Halo 3 (360)
Total sales Japan 85k
Total sales world: 6 million
Much has been made of Halo 3’s launch, extending even its reach to Japan. The figures, however, speak for themselves, showing a mere tiny percentage of market share. Sure, for a first-person shooter on a badly selling console it’s not a bad figure, even if it pales compared to global sales, but it’s not good either. Microsoft, of course, fully anticipated this, knowing full well its only market in Japan was the super-double-hard-core, and subsequently didn’t go as batshit insane with its marketing spending as it did in the US. Sure, there were a few posters and advertising spreads in Famitsu for weeks on end, but any more publicity would not have made the, apathetic average Joe-san give a damn about first-person shooters on an expensive console.

Honourable mention
Parappa the Rapper (PS1)
Total sales Japan 1.4 million
Total sales world: 1.9 million
Though this game was very much designed and produced in Japan, it deserves a special mention as one of its main attractions was the design and character work by American artist and overall genius Rodney Greenblat. With Parappa he did the impossible, which is for a Westerner to create a style and set of characters that spoke directly to the Japanese, leading to a period of fame with merchandise, anime and even a café, which have all but subsided over the past few years. As a rule, with a few notable exceptions, Western character design faces a huge cultural chasm to cross, but Mr. Greenblat bridged it with aplomb. You gotta believe!

In conclusion it’s difficult to nail down any specific definitive tactic that can guarantee success in Japan. Even though Mr. Greenblat hit the bull’s eye with Parappa going for original character design is by far the most challenging. Having a game that avoids character can offer an advantage, like Tetris or Sim City, but this too is a gamble, as your average Japanese player does like his avatars on screen to be a certain kind of cool or cute. I think the best lessons can be learned from Donkey Kong; take an existing Japanese IP, improve on it or simply license it, have direct input from the locals, in this case Nintendo, and keep your fingers crossed. This of course doesn’t maximize returns, as you’ll be paying license fees and sharing profits, as well as signing over a chunk of creative freedom. But in the end it would appear the safest route into Japan.

Sources: VG Chartz, Enterbrain, MediaCreate, the mind of JC Barnett

12 comments:

  1. Ugh, I feel like I'm becoming your gadfly but....

    DK64

    Lower sales might easily be attribted to a MUCH MUCH smaller N64 market vs the SNES market. N64 was never as big a hit as far as I know.

    Crash Bandicoot

    Is not clearly western designed. Most Japanese I've asked were shocked to find it wasn't made in Japan. That includes many in the game industry. On top of that, Crash had 2 sets of 2d graphics. One for Japan, One for other markets. The Japan one was made by the Japanese for the Japanese. So, all the Japanese marketing, posters, box art, in game icons, title screen, etc, for the Japanese player then get applied to the very simple PS1 in game character which gives the game a much different feel to a Japanese player than to a westerner who played the game through the western PR, Ads and 2d graphics.

    As for why it never became a mascot, that has more to do with Universal owning the IP than with Sony, Sony's will or the success of Crash.

    GTA3

    I'll never be able to prove this but #1 0.3 million copies is WAY more than anyone expected GTA to sell in Japan and #2, IMHO they didn't localize the game. GTA3 didn't succeed just because it's open ended. It succeeded because of its entire package. It probably has the best voice acting of any game created until that time, something that would be lost on the Japanese audience unless redone in Japanese by name actors. It also has an amazing soundtrack that completely and utterly reproduces the feeling of American radio, radio music, various styles of DJs, commericals, radio ID diddies, talk radio, etc and at the same time amazingly managed to parody those things as well. All of that was not localized and therefore lost on the Japanese.

    I personally feel that if there was a 100% localized verison of that game or better yet, a GTA Tokyo or GTA Osaka version that as perfectly re-created the feelings of those cities that GTA would do just as well in Japan as it did in the west even with it's open endedness.

    I take exception to the Japanese don't like open ended games. Zelda and Animal Crossing are just as open as GTA3. And like GTA3 both give you missions if you want them to lead you but leave it up to you to go do them at your leisure. All that remains is for the quality of GTA3 to actually be communicated to the Japanese. To do that will require a GTA that doesn't lose the points I made above for Japanese players.

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  2. Always glad to have your comments, Gman. It's good to get different perspectives on Japan.

    "I take exception to the Japanese don't like open ended games. Zelda and Animal Crossing are just as open as GTA3."

    I disagree. Zelda is deceptively linear and Animal Crossing is not even a game as such. They are very different beasts. I really feel most Japanese players (meaning the meanstream as opposed to the hard-core) like more designed experiences. I think GTA Tokyo would speak more to foreign players than the Japanese - it'll still have the same game mechanics.

    DK64, sure, the N64 installbase was much smaller, but you have to admit the game is pretty, well, annoying. :)

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  3. It will be interesting to see how well the upcoming US-developed Silent Hill game will fare in Japan, compared to its predecessors. Keep it in mind for a future post. ;)

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  4. there's always ryu ga gotoku. of course, it's not really like GTA (to the chagrin of the western press, who seemed to buy into the idea that it would be) it's essentially an RPG. but it does prove there's a japanese audience for gritty crime drama. though come to think of it, i don't think any of the entries in the series have performed very significantly better than GTA, actually.

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  5. I find it facinating that the japanese never get feed up with their own shit and seek out soemthing exotic and foregin like we do in the west.

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  8. well as a western person I have to say that many of this games, are not only the best of this side of the ocean, also the best of the best in all world, specially DKC saga since the first one until DKC 64.

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