Interview: Zenimax Asia's Takahashi on Bringing Western Games to Japan
Western games have traditionally not sold well in Japan. There have been a number of theories as to why -- for instance, the lack of a PC market in Japan to inform players that Western-style titles are fun, or simply cultural differences.
Sony famously puts giant eyebrows on Ratchet in order to sell Ratchet and Clank games in the country. Does it work? The game sells well, but whether itís because of additional eyebrows is debatable.
As the entire world moves toward HD games, and even Japanese companies must create games for the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well as the Wii in order to survive, Western-style games are coming under a lot more scrutiny in Japan.
Microsoft Japan localized original Xbox titles by simply releasing them with Japanese manuals, and only subtitles on the cutscenes -- if players were lucky. Companies need to do a lot more than that to succeed, but itís been argued that the market is too small to warrant the effort.
Itís the ďcart before the horseĒ problem of deciding whether you invest to build the market, or simply try to cater to the market thatís there, spending as little as possible to make a profit. HD games are rising, and more Japanese game players are starting to realize that Western games can offer them something, as more Japanese companies trend away from core game experiences.
There are only a few third party companies that localize Western content into Japan, and Tetsu Takahashi, currently in charge of Bethesda sister company Zenimax Asia, has worked at many of them as a Western to Japanese localization boss - most recently Fallout 3.
In this extensive interview, we discuss the trials and tribulations of the Western localizer, with numbers of many prominent titles, demographics of the hardcore player in Japan, and the trouble with Z ratings.
Can you give a little background on yourself?
Tetsu Takahashi: Before I joined Bethesda, I was with a company called Spike. I was there for about two years. Before that, I was at Capcom for about four and a half years.
In Japan or the U.S.?
TT: In Japan. All this time, I've been doing nothing but localizing Western titles. For Capcom, I did GTA 3: Vice City, the first Call of Duty, God of War, stuff like that. At Spike, I did Oblivion, which is basically the reason I'm here now.
What is the market like for Western titles in Japan these days? Is there much of one?
TT: It's a lot better than when I started doing this. Back then, if we could sell 10,000 units of a triple A title, it was great. But now, for example, Oblivion, we sold about 150,000 units between PS3 and 360. Fallout 3, we did -- well, it's still selling, but right now we're at about 30,000. Obviously, GTA has done like 100,000. Now we're seeing some interesting numbers. It's getting better, but it's still small. I think there's still room to grow.
How big do you think the third-party high definition publishing market is in general? I know there are a few companies doing it. How much consumer demand is there for this kind of stuff?
TT: I think the consumers are waiting for good, new stuff. There just aren't too many of them. I think a lot of the reason is because of market conditions. It's difficult for local developers to make next gen stuff. It used to be that they could recoup their costs by selling only in Japan, and if they sell something out West, it was like icing on the cake.
So, in that sense, there are a lot less local high def games, which I guess opened up doors for Western companies. I think the demand is there. 360 has done a lot better than the original Xbox. PS3, especially with the price cut, is doing better. I think the demand is still there.
When I was a kid, it felt like all the best console games came from Japan. Now, the best games don't necessarily come from Japan anymore, though there are still good ones. I wonder if there are those consumers in Japan that feel that way as well.
TT: I think numbers are growing with what we call Western game fans. There has always been like a negative, almost allergic reaction to Western games in Japan in general, but that's going away a little bit. I think the Western companies, they've studied Japanese games in the past years.
They've learned from it. They've done a lot of innovative stuff, especially on PC, which is now a big plus for them on high definition. Japan, we didn't have the PC market. It was okay back in the PS2 days when we had to make something small that would run on PS2. But the second we went into next gen, we lost it. [laughs]
Other Western localizers
How did ZeniMax Asia start publishing other company's titles (such as Rockstarís Bully)?
TT: I've been doing a lot of licensing for other publishers, and it's an extension of that. We've actually done two.
Bully and 50 Cent.
TT: Right. But, you know, if there's something good out there and it's a good business opportunity, we'll do it.
I guess you sort of just answered that, but is that something you plan to do going forward?
TT: Yeah. We're not going to pick up obviously anything that doesnít fit the market, of course.
Yeah. There are couple of other companies are doing it. Obviously Spike, and then other companies like CyberFront and Russell.
TT: I don't know if Russell is still around. Are they?
Yeah, they're releasing Infernal: Hellís Vengeance on 360 and a bunch of PC games, like Left 4 Dead 2.
TT: I think people, they're not -- I shouldn't say this. A lot of companies are having difficulty making money on their own titles or developing their own next gen stuff. Obviously, licensing is one of their options. I think if you look at Konami, they're going to be publishing... what's that title. Darksiders.
Oh yeah, Darksiders. And Square Enix is doing Call of Duty. What was curious to me is looking at CyberFront and Russell. They're traditionally Galget companies (visual novels in which you try to date girls). I was trying to figure out why that would be? Do you have any speculation?
TT: I think it's just a business decision. They don't have a history of developing their own next-gen stuff. It takes time.
My suspicion was that with those kinds of Galget titles, you port it from PC to console, and you have a kind of small expectation. You don't spend too much money on it, and you expect only a small return of investment. That's true for the games they usually do, and I thought perhaps maybe Western titles, they can think of it similarly.
TT: Especially with licensed games, there are usually guarantees to stuff like that, but it's still controlled. You're buying something that's already finished. So, the return may not be big, but the risk is also manageable in those cases. In that sense, it's sort of the same.
In the U.S., we have a few companies like that. Like Atlus in the U.S. is doing it, and Nippon Ichi America does that kind of thing, localizing Japanese content on a smaller scale. It seems like there are some parallels with CyberFront doing that here.
TT: I think there are two philosophies. One is you do something quick and fast, and make a little money, which is fine. What I've always been trying to do is really create a Western game market, you know what I mean? I'm sure in the West, there's more than one place like that. It's good for them, but it's not necessarily good for the Japanese games market.
How do you go about creating a market for Western games?
TT: For example, Fallout, it's a huge game. We get full localization, voice and everything.
TT: We always make sure to invest I think more than other companies in marketing. A lot of times, there's issues with the rating board. When you want to turn it around real quick, what you usually do is you listen, you bend over backward and do whatever. I try to fight it as much as I can. You know, bring the content as close to the original as possible.
Right, I was actually going to ask, what kind of localization trouble have you experienced? And how much work can you really justify on it before it becomes two expensive for return.
TT: Localization isn't as expensive... It really depends on what your expectations are. If you're only planning to ship 10,000 units, you can't spend that much. I think that's... If you set your targets a little higher, at the end of the day, $100,000, $200,000 in localization costs is a small part of your costs.
I don't see that as costly as a risk. It's more of an investment to make sure that you hit that number (of shipped units). So, I guess to answer your question, it really depends on what your expectations are for the title. If the cost of your localization is enough to make or break your deal, then you probably shouldn't be doing it anyway. [laughs]
Thatís a fair statement. In terms of actually altering content, how much have you had to do? I can imagine... Well, didnít Fallout 3 get a Z rating in Japan? (Considered more extreme than the ESRBís M rating, because many stores wonít carry games with a Z.)
TT: Yeah, it got a Z rating. We almost didn't get rated. [laughs]
Right, because you can kill civilians and stuff like that.
TT: Well, you still can. But the biggest issue was the "Power of the Atom" mission. You blow up the bomb, and blow up the whole town. That part, we had to cut.
So, you had to cut it entirely?
TT: Yeah. The mission is still there, but there are always two routes to the missions. We had to close that part of the mission. But we kept a lot of the decapitations in. The only alterations we made was that part and also humans... Human decapitations we had to cut. Mutants and ghouls and all that are still there.
What other kinds of things have you had to change in your past titles?
TT: It really depends from game to game. And actually, it sort of depends on your strategy for the title. Fallout, we chose to take the Z rating and try not to alter the content as much as possible. But for another title, you may decide to take out decapitations, make it a D and make it more accessible to the market.
For example, for Oblivion, we changed nothing. It's exactly the same. For the earlier GTAs, it was stuff that you probably couldn't even notice. We had to take down a poster from a room, stuff like that. When you first talk to the rating board and also to the platform holder, you usually start with these huge lists. And obviously, during negotiations, you're going to have to give up one or two.
But we try to not necessarily fight it but to make them understand why all these things are necessary in the context of the game. I don't think the rating board or the first parties are unreasonable. I think you just have to work a little bit harder to get them to understand. There are cultural differences...
How important do you think having a lower rating actually is on the high-end consoles considering the demographic?
TT: The actual users, their average age is probably in the upper 20s to lower 30s. So, in that sense, it shouldn't make a difference. But having a Z rating will mean that a lot of stores simply won't carry them. We can't air TV commercials from a certain time in the morning until like 11.
So, after 11 PM is okay, but not in certain prefectures. We can't get outdoor ads in train stations and stuff. It makes it difficult to advertise and to promote to the mass.
Isn't there a prefecture that actually has banned Z games entirely?
TT: Well, they can't ban it, but the...
The sale of it?
TT: Yeah. I don't know what the English translation is, but anything that's Z rated is tagged as harmful content to the youth. Basically, it's like porn. It has to be shelved in a certain way, stuff like that.
Creating the Market Through Hardware
What do you think the HD platform holders need to do to kind of expand the market here, like Microsoft and Sony?
TT: I think Sony, the first step, along with price.... Really from my standpoint, I would like for them to have more support for Western third-party publishers. Of all the games that I've ever done in the companies that I've worked for, I've never had any financial support from them, marketing support, stuff like that.
I guess it's justifiable because the numbers aren't great, but it's sort of unfortunate. In general, just more support. Just sell the hardware.
What about Microsoft?
TT: Microsoft. They've done a lot better job with... I don't know if they did a better job with the 360 or not. Maybe it was just the fact that the PS3 wasn't nearly sold out. It's good hardware, really. I think it's better, to be honest with you. I think they've done some things right like bringing a lot of local content to the console. But also, I think they've under-advertised the Live part of it.
Yeah, I remember last year, they were trying to advertise Live at the Tokyo Game show, and they were giving out points. I think they were giving out a free card for 200 Xbox Live Points. 200 Points is... You can't buy anything with it. It's like nothing.
TT: That's great. You can buy a theme. [laughs] They should have handed out like one month Xbox Gold. Yeah, I don't know what they're doing. I'm going to get in trouble saying this, but I think there's too much control from Seattle.
They tried with the Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and stuff. I guess probably what they should be doing is helping support more third parties.
TT: Yeah. But they're doing that now. I think Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey were important. I believe they were supposed to be launch titles, but it was important to have big local content at launch. Obviously, RPGs are the biggest genre here still. But now, Namco Bandai and Square Enix are bringing good titles. They've done well.
Can you give kind of a recap of the state of the market?
TT: I think in general, the Japanese market is tough. As you said, it looks like the whole market is just kind of shrinking, withering away. But having said that, at the same time, I think that opens new doors for Western titles and publishers.
If there are people out there that are thinking of coming to Japan, It might be the right time. But again, it is a really different market and a tough market. If they want to come to Japan, I think they're going to have to...
Fight for it.
TT: Yeah. And invest a little planning money. A lot of companies have come and gone. Activision.
Electronic Arts is still here.
TT: Yeah, they're still strong. EA's a big company. The only people that are here are EA, Ubi... They're the two big publishers. Codemasters has an office. I don't know why. Disney. They have Disneyland. And us I guess.
It's kind of a small group. Do you guys support each other at all or not? I mean discuss stuff?
TT: I know my staff doesnít much... Because of the business that I was in, I've always had contact with all these companies, their head offices and what not. So, I guess the answer is not really, but maybe we should.
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