What does Japan really think of Xbox One?

Friday, 4 October 2013 08:22 GMT By Dave Cook

The Xbox brand’s performance in Japan is often painted as disastrous by analysts and critics, but what’s it really like? VG247′s Dave Cook asks two Japanese indie devs for their thoughts at grassroots level.

Japanese gamers and the Xbox brand haven’t exactly been getting along too well in recent years. Every week we post Japan’s Media Create charts and see a notable absence of successful games on Microsoft’s format. Sometimes less than 250 Xbox 360 consoles are sold in a given week. From the outside looking in, the East seems like a lost cause.

Gamers and members of the press are all too eager to pronounce the Xbox format a failure in Japan. There’s a lot of guesswork and too many assumptions. Something is clearly broken in Microsoft’s attempts to penetrate the market, otherwise the Xbox One would have a solid Japanese release date by now. Every day this is looking less like a failure, but a company that simply doesn’t care. With such a stranglehold over the American market, does it even need Japan?

I wanted to understand what it feels like to walk into any of Japan’s gaming stores and to see what – if any – presence Microsoft has on the shelves. Are Japanese indies being reached out to ahead of Xbox One’s launch? Do these small teams even care about the new platform? Would they even care if Phils Spencer and Harrison extended an olive branch in their direction via ID@Xbox? Spencer in particular seems keen, but is there any hope for the format?

After dwelling on these questions I realised I had assumed long enough. I wanted straight answers, so I decided to get in touch with two Japanese indie devs to get a realistic view on how well Microsoft is marketing Xbox 360 and Xbox One in Japan. I contacted Astro Port founder ‘Sak’ and ‘Nal’ from Edelweiss. Both are using pseudonyms, as is common in Japan’s indie scene, and both interviews have been translated by a publisher.

Mixed messages, half-baked ideas

Before looking forward to Xbox One, I thought it best to get a firm grasp of exactly what level of visibility Microsoft has in the Japanese market today. Incredibly, Xbox 360 is seen as something of a hardcore import machine that is played by the minority, rather than the widely-accepted juggernaut we see here in the West. Sak said, “Core gamers love the Xbox 360. They find its underground feel attractive. I’ve bought imports through Amazon, but I’ve never seen imported Xbox 360 games in normal video game stores. Mainstream gamers don’t buy import games.

“None of my gamer friends are talking about the Xbox One. It was covered in the media, but it was cursory coverage and it’s not as if it’s being promoted over other game consoles. I think there’s a strong chance that the Japanese Xbox One launch will fail.”

“It’s fair to say that Xbox 360 players in Japan are generally either core gamers or people who obsess over particular game characters. The latter are people who bought an Xbox because of games like the Idol Master series or Steins;Gate. Most mainstream gamers see the Xbox 360 negatively as ‘an underground games system for core gamers’.

“I honestly don’t think that Microsoft is trying very hard to make a success of the Xbox 360 in Japan. Or, maybe they are trying hard, but my impression is that they don’t understand the Japanese market, they’re shooting for targets that don’t exist, and aren’t putting in the amount of effort that they do in the US and Europe.”

Nal added, “The majority of Xbox 360 players are core gamers. The Xbox 360 has a relatively high proportion of FPS, shooting games, and ports of PC bishojo games and novel games, so I expect that the players reflect. Importing Xbox 360 games is straightforward. Microsoft doesn’t seem to have much interest in the Japanese market.”

There’s already a consensus between both developers that Microsoft doesn’t ‘appear’ to care about the Japanese market. Importing is seen as something of a hardcore hobbyists pursuit, while Xbox shelf space in stores is anorexic. What little advertisement Microsoft bothers with – Nal said – delivers a confusing mixed message. It’s not clear exactly who the Xbox brand is targeting.

He added, “I hardly ever watch TV, so I can’t comment on their TV commercials, but I feel that Microsoft isn’t putting much effort into the Japanese market. Shelf space for Xbox 360 games has clearly shrunk over the last two years and it’s common for small to mid-sized shops not to carry Xbox 360 games at all.”

Sak – once again – shared Nal’s point of view, “Promotion for the Xbox 360 in Japan is far inferior to other games consoles. Advertising in stores is usually for other games and there are almost no Xbox TV commercials. The Xbox 360 space is usually tucked deep inside stores. For better or for worse, Xbox has an underground feel to it, which is comfortable for core gamers, but off-putting for mainstream gamers.”

It almost sounds that Xbox systems in Japan are comparable to, say, the NeoGeo was here in the UK. It was an expensive system to import back in the day, and even if you had one the games would run you several hundred pound a pop. If you had one you were either seen as a hardcore purist or a silly sod with too much money in your back pocket. It’s little wonder that Xbox 360 has remained a niche format in Japan, given the cost involved when obtaining code.

“There is no dialogue between indie developers and Microsoft about selling their games overseas. Developers who have released games on Xbox Live Indie Games say that ‘there was almost no support from Microsoft, so we were left to struggle with problems on our own’.”

Forgetting about actual hardcore gamers for a second, I asked the duo for their thoughts on how the public at large perceive the Xbox 360, and if there is any scope for opinions to shift, given the correct application of advertising and dialogue between Microsoft and consumer. Their replies weren’t all that assuring. Sak replied, “While Microsoft Windows is indispensable in Japan, most people don’t see the Xbox 360 as necessary as long as we have Japanese games consoles.

“When gamers discuss which games console to buy, it’s always about Sony or Nintendo, and the Xbox 360 doesn’t come up. I don’t have any friends who have an Xbox 360 in Japan, so we can’t lend or swap games. Idol Master is a series of arcade games that were ported to the Xbox and have contributed significantly to Japanese otaku culture. Idol Master has a massive community and is probably better known than the Xbox 360 itself. Idol Master became a success in spite being the Xbox 360, rather than because of it.

“The Xbox 360 line-up is too weak to expand its user base beyond Idol Master fans and Microsoft have lost their opportunity attract new users. Japanese publishers have been reluctant about the Xbox 360, but there is a small number of core developers that support it.”

Sak himself is a fan of 2D shooters on Xbox 360, so it’s absolutely a system he uses, but beyond the Idol Master series he doesn’t see little room for outsiders to care. For Nal, Steins;Gate is his Xbox 360 game of choice, but feels that Microsoft as a company just feels too ‘foreign’ for it to make waves in Japan.

Nal continued, “Microsoft has become known as the Windows or MS Office company, but people don’t feel close to the company. It’s reassuring that it’s one of the world’s leading companies, but it also feels like a foreign company that is hard to become familiar with. The same applies to the Xbox 360.

“Steins;Gate comes to mind as a successful Xbox 360 game. For fighting games there was a pattern of core gamers gravitating toward the Xbox 360 and casual games toward the PS3, but because it takes a while for game user bases to form, recently the Xbox 360 is under-populated and core users are moving to the PS3.”

Are indies bothered about making games for Xbox?

As Nal suggested, the core userbase is actually starting to shift away from Xbox 360 and towards PlayStation 3. Such migration casts the future of Microsoft’s brand into further doubt across Japan, so it stands to reason that interest in developing for Xbox One could falter apace. There are some interesting high-profile games coming to Xbox One from Japan that seem to belie Microsoft’s silence on the country. Swery65′s D4 and Yukio Futatsugi’s Crimson Dragon spring to mind, while Xbox 360 shooters like Deathsmiles (above) are popular among gamers. But what of Japan’s bubbling indie scene?

“In the end, I think that the success or failure of the Xbox One will depend upon whether it has any killer software to attract Japanese gamers. Japanese people will probably buy the PS4 over the Xbox One, not because of differences in functionality, but because the PS4 is more likely to release games targeted at Japanese people.”

“I used to work on Xbox 360 games in a game development studio,” Nal explained. “The Xbox 360 is a great piece of game hardware and very easy to develop for, but the language barrier was a significant obstacle and we really felt the distance between Japan and the US. Questions to Microsoft Japan are relayed to the Microsoft in the US and it can take a long time to get responses.

“There isn’t much Japanese language support for Japanese developers, which is particularly unfortunate because we miss out on a lot of technical information that would be useful for game development in general.My impression is that Microsoft is pretty much indifferent about Japanese developers. I don’t believe that they dislike Japanese developers, but I personally feel that they can’t serious about Japan until they pay attention to and resolve the issue of the language barrier.”

He has a point. If the same level of support isn’t afforded to developers keen to use the Xbox platform – regardless of proximity – then it does suggest a sort of apathy towards foreign markets. That Microsoft allegedly doesn’t even have the means to communicate efficiently with potential partners seems to paint the company in a dubious light. After all, studios that could help the format flourish in Japan seem as if they’re being ignored. It’s a confusing angle.

Sak agreed with Nal but said that in Japan, indie studios and solo coders would rather push their games out on Microsoft’s Windows platform, rather than Xbox 360 itself. He explained, “Xbox Live and XNA are interesting to Japanese indie game developers, but developing games for new environments is risky and it’s difficult to approach Microsoft for support. While some Japanese indie developers have taken the plunge with Xbox Live, many say that they’d like to try it, but then find some excuse to do nothing.

“There is no dialogue between indie developers and Microsoft about selling their games overseas. Developers who have released games on Xbox Live Indie Games say that ‘there was almost no support from Microsoft, so we were left to struggle with problems on our own’. Microsoft doesn’t seem to understand that some features are considered must-haves in Japan, but not in America. On the other hand, some features that are must-haves in America, just aren’t in Japan.”

Based on Sak’s response, it seems that perhaps Microsoft is taking a blanket approach to Japan, pushing out the same policies, features and support that you would find in say, Europe, America and Australia. Such broad strokes simply cannot apply to what is a very different market. If true, this isn’t just negligence on the company’s part, it’s lazy, pure and simple.

At the risk of sounding defeatist, it seems that Microsoft sees Japan as a heavily-fortified walled garden. I’d like to think that it wants to break the Japanese market, but part of me sees Phil Spencer, Steve Ballmer and his cohorts standing at the base of that wall, scratching their heads as they realise they’ve brought too short a ladder, and then abandoning the idea completely.

We’re told Xbox One will launch across Japan in 2014, but little has been said on the matter. I agree with Keiji Inafune’s sentiment that Microsoft is merely focusing on markets in which it knows Xbox One will perform well. That makes sense from a business perspective, but some people, potential content creators like Sak and Nal clearly feel ignored right now.

What does Japan really think of Xbox One?

After all of these worrying messages from the ground in Japan, the appearance of Microsoft at Tokyo Games Show 2013 was a surprise for some. Was it an effort to show that the company does in fact care about Japan and is willing to take another stab, or was it just for show? I asked Sak and Nal for their opinion on hype for Xbox One in Japan, based on what their friends, families and colleagues have said so far.

“None of my gamer friends are talking about the Xbox One,” Sak replied. “It was covered in the media, but it was cursory coverage and it’s not as if it’s being promoted over other game consoles. I think there’s a strong chance that the Japanese Xbox One launch will fail. People expect multi-functionality from PCs, but it not from a gaming machine. This is also a problem for the PS4. The official sites for both consoles seem more like consumer electronics than games consoles. There is lots of flashy talk, but they don’t look much fun.

“Ease of development is a strength of the Xbox 360, but I hear that the Xbox One is 64-bit, so I’m concerned that the PS4 will be at an advantage in terms of ease of development. I like the Xbox 360 and enjoying playing on it, but there’s no escaping that the present situation for the Xbox in Japan is tough.”

“In the end, I think that the success or failure of the Xbox One will depend upon whether it has any killer software to attract Japanese gamers. Japanese people will probably buy the PS4 over the Xbox One, not because of differences in functionality, but because the PS4 is more likely to release games targeted at Japanese people.”

Nal painted a different market, one in which excitement for home consoles in general has started to wane in the face of smartphone apps. He told me that mobile gaming in Japan is booming and now poses a significant threat to Japan’s consoles. “Personally, I feel that the Xbox One is easily the underdog,” he explained. “This was probably true of the Xbox 360 too, but unfortunately, it will carry the reputation that the previous version wasn’t very popular.

“I think that many Japanese gamers aren’t enthusiastic about next-generation hardware in general, anyway. There seems to be a trend away from rich and engrossing games on consoles, and toward simple, community-based, time-killing smartphones games. For core gamers choosing between the PS4 and Xbox One, presently it probably there doesn’t seem to be any aspect in which Xbox One excels. Kinect is about the only outstanding feature, but Kinect is not popular at all in Japan.”

At this point there seems to be a lethargic approach to Xbox One and Microsoft’s gaming presence in Japan. I wanted to close my line of questioning with both Sak and Nal by asking them for their own thoughts on what Microsoft needs to do if it truly does want to stake a claim in the Japanese market. After reading through what they both had to say on the matter so far, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of positivity, but they were surprisingly frank on paper.

“Microsoft need to change the perception that ‘Xbox games = not for Japanese’,” Sak began. “AAA movies are major entertainment in Japan, but AAA FPS games are only for core users. Another approach would be to focus promotion on creating awareness for major characters from Xbox One games. While it’s not necessarily a good thing, characters come first in Japan. Everyone knows Snoopy, but almost no-one has read the comic. (They also don’t know how much cynicism there is in the comic.) Despite this, Japanese people think they know Snoopy.

“I think it’s necessary to first create characters that ‘even’ Japanese people will be able to find attractive. Also, Japanese people are more influenced by image than they are reality. There is a sentiment that ‘I don’t want to actually play games, but I’d like to thought of as a gamer’. It’s important for them to cultivate the impression that ‘it’s cool to play Xbox One games’.”

Nal offered a different take on the issue, “PS3 struggled in the early days because it was difficult to develop for; if the Xbox 360 had taken the opportunity to gain ground during that period, it would probably have become established in Japan.

“Ease of development is a strength of the Xbox 360, but I hear that the Xbox One is 64-bit, so I’m concerned that the PS4 will be at an advantage in terms of ease of development. I like the Xbox 360 and enjoying playing on it, but there’s no escaping that the present situation for the Xbox in Japan is tough.”

A lost cause?

So is Japan a lost cause for Microsoft? I genuinely believe that nothing in this world is beyond repair, and some of the issues raised by Sak and Nal seem to have relatively easy fixes. For one, a Japanese-speaking support base would be a good start, and a way for indies to approach the company with their projects, as well as receive localised tech support. It’d also make sense for Microsoft to establish a clearer marketing strategy that paints the console as something for the mass market, rather than the hardcore curio it’s seen to be.

Of course, it’s all well and good to say these things are simple remedies on this side of the fence, and I think we often assume too much about the ‘why’ behind Microsoft’s flagging presence in Japan. We’re yet to crack the issue, despite the superb insight offered by my interviewees. At executive level, it seems Microsoft is experiencing a degree of turmoil in America, with shareholders allegedly calling on Bill Gates to retire so that the company can usher in new innovation and strategies. If rumours are to believed, Ballmer’s presence has been counter-productive for years.

Microsoft absolutely can make waves in Japan, but first it needs to stop treating it like a ‘Tier Two’ country and realise that there are potentially vast spoils to be made if it targets the country correctly. Unfortunately, I get the impression that such efforts would be too little, too late at this stage.

What’s your take?

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