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"Why the golden era of JRPG's is over" - 1up


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It's over. It no longer makes economic sense to bring most Japanese titles over to the west -- particularly RPGs. Sure, the Konamis and the Capcoms of the world will keep putting out their AAA titles, but the industry is heading back to a state more like the mid-'90s where JRPGs are few, quirky and charming titles are left untranslated, and fans of Japanese developers are left to beg publishers in vain for their most anticipated games.

 

The recent grassroots attempt to persuade Nintendo to bring over Xenoblade, Pandora's Tower, and The Last Story to America or the west will likely fail to persuade decision makers at the company because they understand the business reality. Localizing a Japanese game and releasing it at retail is an expensive undertaking, and industry forces, including piracy, changing gamer tastes, and platform owner licensing rules have rendered it an unprofitable one. A few specialty publishers who are very good at dealing with Japanese games remain, but even they have cut back on releases in recent years.

 

Just a few years ago, it seemed like any game that did reasonably well in Japan would find a home in Europe and America. Strategy RPGs, rougelikes, and games from every other niche genre in Japan filled the release calendars. Fans could take it for granted that most anticipated titles would eventually find their way out of Japan. While not every title made the trip westward --Mother 3 and Namco X Capcom were conspicuous in their absence -- most games of note did. Compare that to today: while the PSP continues to be the platform of choice for hardcore gamers in Japan, the system is effectively dead elsewhere in the world. Nintendo is holding back three separate hardcore Wii titles, while the number of games that Japan-focused publishers like NIS or Atlus release each year is steadily dropping.

 

"A lot of variables have to fall into place on each and every game as any number of factors can instantly kill a publishing deal," says Ken Berry, Director of Publishing at Xseed Games, a publisher that specializes in Japanese titles. "Factors including the game's quality as determined by our staff, the cost (both to license and to localize), and the projected sales volume, all influence the games the Xseed publishes. As passionate as we are about licensing good games, we can't knowingly go into a project that is likely to lose money, no matter how great the game may be."

 

A number of factors have reduced viability of niche Japanese titles, piracy being chief among them. As the west turned to HD console games at the beginning of the current console cycle, Japanese gamers both hardcore and casual turned to handhelds. Nearly all major Japanese RPG developers stuck to PSP/PS2-level hardware. At the same time, PSP piracy began eating into sales in America and Europe. By the time the Monster Hunter craze took off in 2008, piracy made it nearly impossible to release a viable game on the platform outside of Japan. Meanwhile, the popularity of R4 flash carts and stolen ROMs on the DS exploded amongst Japanese consumers. Stores in Akihabara and other major Japanese retail districts sold and advertised the devices openly. With PSP piracy low in Japan and DS piracy sky-high, and both rampant abroad, developers made the logical choice and pushed PSP games even harder, given that the domestic market was their priority.

 

The situation is even worse today, but piracy alone isn't to blame. It's merely eaten into an already slim profit margin that was under strain from distribution costs. "The realities of producing and shipping physical goods has definitely had an impact on our ability to take chances on smaller, niche titles for platforms such as Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, and PSP. It's especially dire for the DS, if only because there is a multitude of interesting titles in Japan that will likely never find their way stateside," says former 1UP editor and current Director of Business Development at Ignition Entertainment, Shane Bettenhausen.

 

Those realities include not only the cost of manufacturing discs, boxes, and shipping them around the world to retail, but minimum production numbers imposed by the major platform holders. Some of these games could potentially have been profitable with a small enough print run. However, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo demand that publishers produce an undisclosed minimum number of copies for each game that they license. For niche titles, those quotas are larger than projected sales expectations. "Minimum production runs in particular can easily deter us as we're very conservative on our sales forecasts, and having to closeout additional unsold units from our warehouse at a loss can easily wipe out all the profits from the units that did sell." says Berry, "The main risk involved with physical distribution costs are the markdowns to retailers if a title doesn't sell as well as expected, so we have to make sure that each retailer brings in the right amount of units so that no single retailer is too heavy on inventory."

 

This result in an unfortunate catch-22 -- if retailers order too many copies that don't sell, the publisher takes a loss. If they order too few, fans of the game are faced with the equally unpleasant options of pre-ordering the game, purchasing it used at a huge mark-up months later, or not buying it at all. Rather than take such large risks, many small publishers are turning to digital distribution. 2D shoot-em-up developer Cave chose to release their game, Deathsmiles 2X, on Xbox marketplace's Games on Demand service in North American without giving the game a retail release. Their iOS games have also met with a great deal of success. This allowed the company to satisfy their very small yet loyal fan base outside of Japan without risking a huge loss.

 

Xseed finds the risk mitigation inherent in online sales appealing. According to Berry, "It requires much less upfront capital (don't have to pay to manufacture the goods for launch), and it takes away all our risk from having to markdown product since every sale is final and we don't have to worry about discounting excess inventory at the retailer level or at our warehouse. It also allows us to take more chances where we can bring over niche titles with very low sales expectations with much less risk than if we had to manufacture physical units."

 

Selling games through digital channels isn't a magical panacea, however. A retail presence carries a certain weight in consumers' minds, and publishers find it hard to grow an audience without one. While Cave satisfies their small fan base with digitally distributed games on the Xbox and iOS, this hasn't grown their business in a dramatic way. "Just because you use a digital format to get the game out, it doesn't mean you can necessarily reach a bigger user base. Depending on the platform you're working on, the actual audience you reach will vary quite a bit," says Yukihiro Masaki, Cave's Smartphone Game Division Manager.

 

Cave also benefits from the fact that their games don't require much in the way of localization. Most menus and HUD elements in Japanese arcade-style games are displayed in English anyway, and there's not much in the way of story or text for most of their games. On the other hand, Xseed, Atlus and companies that have traditionally focused on JRPGs must contend with the cost not only of translation, but of programming, and debugging the English versions of their games. "If a game contains a tremendous amount of spoken dialogue or songs with lyrics, the cost associated with translating and dubbing all of that can sometimes impact the potential for profitability, especially if you intend to localize it into languages beyond English. (European releases sometimes contain Spanish, French, German, and Italian voices.) And if it's a title that only has appeal to a niche audience, it's likely too risky for a publisher to commit the resources and time," says Bettenhausen.

 

Berry says Xseed finds itself in a similar situation, "Some titles have a ton of text that would take too much manpower to translate, while another title may not be that bad text-wise but have over 15,000 lines of voice-overs spanning 170 different characters which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to dub in English. This is an actual past example."

 

This leaves publishers in a situation where they must pass up the games that they would most like to publish, though occasionally one like Xseed will take a risk, says Berry, "Our latest release, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, was the exception to this rule as we really wanted to build the brand of the Japanese developer, Falcom, in the West," he syas, "Despite that game having over 1.5 million Japanese characters to translate, we felt the release of the title was necessary to show Western gamers that though they may already know Falcom for their work on the action RPG series, Ys, they can also put together a deep and compelling story-intensive game too."

 

In other cases publishers find cheaper methods of porting a title. This is sometimes done through the use of third-party localization firms or through contract workers, including translators, quality assurance testers, and programmers. Xseed went so far as to license a fan translation for Ys: The Oath in Felghana. "The editing was still done in-house while the localization programming was still done by Falcom. We'd never done anything like that before, but as we were getting ready to start the translation in-house, one of our team members suggested this since he was aware of a well-translated English script that people were using to play their Japanese PC copy of the game. We were short on manpower at the time and would have had to outsource the translation anyways, so we figured why not pay someone passionate about the game rather than hire some outside translator to start from scratch on a project that he may not even be familiar with? The choice was an easy one, and as long as we have our internal editors looking over the text then we can always be assured of the final quality going into our games no matter where we get the raw translations from."

 

While such measures are probably not ideal, they help reduce costs in a sector of the gaming market that is facing tough times. It's only now that we can see that the last decade and the heyday of the PSP and DS was a golden age of sorts. While AAA Japanese titles will always be part of the landscape of the industry, and publishers like Xseed and Cave will continue to find clever ways to release their titles in the west economically, the era where nearly every good Japanese RPG found a home at a western publisher is gone.

 

i think Opiate from GAF puts it well:

 

 

To put it succinctly: for "hardcore" gamers (this is not true of casual gamers) we are in an age where games that expect to be "AAA" titles must have very high production values, and JRPGs cannot economically sustain those production values. Another, very old example of this phenomenon occuring to a genre is SHMUPs; their audience is restricted to perhaps a few hundred thousand for the highest end games in the genre. As such, the genre hit a cost ceiling around the PS1 era, and you don't see many SHMUPs with PS2-or-beyond graphics. The genre lives on, but not as a "AAA" genre, because the fanbase isn't large enough to sustain the revenue needed for such production values. This is the problem JRPGs are running in to, but because their fanbase is 1-2M instead of 300-400k, it just took longer. All genres would reach this ceiling at some point, it simply depends on the sales.

 

me, i'm not as worried, because i think this genre has a few smart companies like Atlus (and R.I.P. Working Designs) that not only go above & beyond with localization, but do so with extras and have one of the better business models this gen, as far as costs, expectations & profit largely from treating their niche clientele well. i think we'll see more & more go handheld, but the bigger concern is stuff the article highlights like Xenoblade, Last Story etc...we're gonna go back to the days when some classics fall through the cracks, and waiting years for a viable fan translation. that part sucks. I get that the deluge of RPGs we saw on the PS2 last gen couldn't hold out forever, and i agree this kinda thing was likely inevitable (Final Fantasy aside, i don't think any series is large enough to warrant/need AAA budget these days), but it's still sad to read like this.

 

also, to paraphrase gun's post on GAF about why DD services are a perfect fit just waiting to be discovered by this genre:

 

Recettear-Capitalism.png

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is xseed really making money right now? i think their model's similar to Atlus, but the PSP isn't doing great these days. any idea if this has been profitable or just enough to keep the doors open? i think we talked about this, but i can't wait to see if they make the list of games PSN lets go to PS3.

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Is this really just JRPGs? I mean, check this out:

 

 

It's been out in Japan for a while now. I'm curious, I want it, but it's never gonna come here because of how low demand is. Meanwhile Monster Hunter Portable 3rd already has a HD PS3 remake announced in Japan, and there's NO plans for the UMD here yet.

 

We're being divided, and it's frustrating.

Edited by Maldron
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66247011.jpg38965918.jpg

*sigh* so much for that.

 

While conducting an interview on 4gamer for their new upcoming RPG Frontier Gate a couple Konami employees stated that they were designing Frontier Gate from scratch as they had previously disbanded their Suikoden team and had therefore lost all their RPG-creation know-how.

 

Needless to say this is grim news for the Suikoden community. But, it does not mean a new team cannot take over the Suikoden name later. Konami has done this before with other franchises, such as Silent Hill. There is also still the possibility of re-releases of existing content and side projects, such as the Pachislot machine.

 

thanks for the good times, Konami. looks like that one went out with the same whimper Team Silent did.

 

GAF has (basically) the lifteime sales #'s if you're interested. i was gonna bump the old suikoden topic for this, couldn't bring myself to do it.

 

ps a great poster on GAF again captures my feelings:

 

So this may seem like a weird question to ask about a developer' date=' but does Konami, like, [i']make [/i]video games anymore

 

:sad:

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I think alot of them left to do smaller things, The bigger companies seem to have a hard time keeping talent and seem to have moral issues and it's hurt their games and become kind of a cycle for them. I also feel we seem to get less translations over here lately esp with the move to handhelds.

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again though, to requote, i think opiate (as ever) hit the nail on the head:

 

To put it succinctly: for "hardcore" gamers (this is not true of casual gamers) we are in an age where games that expect to be "AAA" titles must have very high production values, and JRPGs cannot economically sustain those production values. Another, very old example of this phenomenon occuring to a genre is SHMUPs; their audience is restricted to perhaps a few hundred thousand for the highest end games in the genre. As such, the genre hit a cost ceiling around the PS1 era, and you don't see many SHMUPs with PS2-or-beyond graphics. The genre lives on, but not as a "AAA" genre, because the fanbase isn't large enough to sustain the revenue needed for such production values. This is the problem JRPGs are running in to, but because their fanbase is 1-2M instead of 300-400k, it just took longer. All genres would reach this ceiling at some point, it simply depends on the sales.

 

my theory:

-JRPGs were treated as barely a niche in our classic 16-bit days; bernie stolar rebuffs this

-FF VII opens the floodgates; for 2 gens, we see tons of JPRGs localized/dumped from all over. square sets the tone that you need big graphics/budget for large adventures.

-PS2 is the end of this. PS3/360 era sees rising cost; square ironically puts the nail in this coffin with FF XIII - budget out the roof, assets galore, but something had to give, and it was towns. fans displeased. no one else has a real chance of selling millions on a console JRPG, is my guess.

 

konami's old team got it; Suikoden always had assets that looked almost last gen, and focused on story, characters, and music. the teams that do that kinda thing are taking fewer chances being on handheld...id love to see smaller stuff like that on XBLA/PSN though, but for now, there's no better fit (sadly) than the portables.

 

are there any flaws in my theory here? im just following what opiate pointed out: we've hit a ceiling. it's not as low as shmups, but it's not as high as say big name fighters. suikoden always sold 3-350k, i get the feeling like konami told them/team silent/any devs that couldn't clear in the 7-figure range (read: kojipro) to take a hike.

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your missing the shift to handhelds, thats a big part of what happened, there is a reason I love my psp and DS, all those jrpgs ended up going to handhelds except some of the very biggest. Hell even falcom who was basically a PC dev moved over all development to psp and now it's moving to Vita.

 

I think alot of what happened is basically seen in FF 13, it's more then anything else a management issue, something that is true across the industry but seems to have hit jrpgs hard.

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