The tricky path abroad for Japanese games

by

Staff Writer

On the website Change.org, there is a petition addressed to Bandai Namco Games signed by 711 people, as of Sept. 25, that reads simply, “Bring ‘God Eater 2′ to North America and EU.”

“God Eater 2,” a highly popular action role-playing game, was released in Japan on Nov. 14, 2013, and so far Bandai Namco Games has not revealed any plans to release the title outside Japan. The same applies to its new expansion, “God Eater 2: Rage Burst,” which attracted long lines during Tokyo Game Show last week.

“God Eater” wasn’t the only big title at TGS that won’t be leaving Japan anytime soon. There were a number of games that may not be released internationally, a phenomenon that has long frustrated gamers outside Japan. Each year, foreign fans pore over news coming out of TGS, only to find that a number of the cool, interesting titles they’ve been hearing about are destined to never make the journey across the ocean, outside of personal imports.

The reasons for this remain as varied as the games themselves.

“The difference in the cultures is huge,” Tsuyoshi Oka from D3Publisher, a subsidiary of Bandai Namco Games, told The Japan Times at TGS. “Some Japanese content doesn’t work overseas and vice versa. But I think the market is growing. For example, FPS (first-person shooters) from overseas are spreading in Japan.”

D3 has released past titles in two of its well-known series — “Onechanbara” (in which a scantily clad female protagonist hacks and slashes through enemies with a sword) and “Earth Defense Force” (an action shooter) — in Europe and the U.S.

The latest version of each was playable in the D3 booth during TGS, though the publisher doesn’t yet have concrete plans regarding a release outside Japan for either.

“I think Japanese content is going to spread overseas in the future,” Oka said. “I think the industry is going to become borderless.”

Such a future would be welcomed by many.

“I want to have as many overseas people as possible play,” said Hiroki Monda of Arc System Works as he gave a demonstration of “Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign,” which will be released in Japan and abroad later this year.

The inherent challenge in this is finding the best way to navigate the language barrier, which is a expensive roadblock for some Japanese publishers weighing the benefits of an international release and also for Western companies looking to break into the Japanese market.

The localization process can be expensive, and games with a lot of text, mainly role-playing titles, require a lengthy and thorough localization process. Sometimes cultural aspects have to be tweaked in order to appeal to a new market as well.

For instance, the localization of past releases in Sega’s action series “Ryu ga Gotoku” (released abroad as “Yakuza”) required great care because the games are set in modern-day Japan, with all the cultural references that entails, and because they have a large volume of dialogue. The series has been quite well received internationally, though the last new title in the main series to be released abroad was “Yakuza 4″ in 2011, with the two most recent games available only in Japanese.

The forthcoming “Yakuza 0″ had a large presence at TGS. It will be localized for the emerging Chinese market, but there has been no announcement of an English version.

“I don’t know the exact numbers, but from what I’ve seen, that’s one of the games that has the largest scripts, because you can go around and talk to all these people in the game,” said John Ricciardi, a former game journalist and co-founder of localization company 8-4.

“Every time the events that are happening or the scenario changes, what the people are saying changes. So you have tons and tons of text to localize. At the end of the day, that’s going to cost them a couple of million dollars just to translate the game. That’s a pretty big risk for a game that traditionally sells OK but doesn’t sell blockbuster numbers in America.”

Some games are deemed worth the risk. As tastes change, games that may have never seen the light of day beyond Japan are beginning to be localized. Among these are dating sims, so long a genre marketed almost exclusively to Asian gamers.

Tokyo-based Voltage Inc., for instance, has begun to offer English-language versions of Japanese romance sims for both Apple and Android devices, many of them aimed at women. At TGS, the company brought in male models to bring romance sims to life for fans of the games.

“The last couple of years I’ve seen a lot of that,” Sunflare’s Demian Ichinose said of localized romance simulators. Sunflare is a Japanese translation firm that earlier this year launched a game-localization service. “(Romance games) seem to be selling.”

The process has grown more sophisticated as these companies learn more about what works and what doesn’t.

“One company I’ve done business with, at a past company I worked for, would have us localize and they would just throw it out as is, with the (anime-style) characters,” Ichinose said. “From what I gathered at the time, it seemed like (U.S. players) liked it. They liked that style, that anime style, that manga style.

“That same company had also attempted to culturalize some titles, to make the characters look like Westerners. At that time, a lot of people were like, ‘This is gross, why not have the manga version? Give us back the old style.’ ”

Whether to change elements of their game beyond just the language is a big issue for some companies when tackling the broader question of whether or not to attempt an overseas release.

Pumo Inc.’s Isao Shibuya said that maintaining the essence of his company’s mobile game, “Zettai Boei Leviathan,” a role-playing game, would be essential if the company were to undertake any type of localization process for the game.

“Basically I don’t think I would change much,” Shibuya said. “The writer and the developer have created an original world. I want to protect that.”

Regardless of the country of origin, gamers like good games, and it would seem a victory for the Japanese industry to try to make as many as possible available in various parts of the world.

“Back in the day, a lot of stuff didn’t get localized,” Ricciardi said. “A lot of games would just stay in Japan. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, (such as) manpower and just not really knowing the market and what would work.

“But also people’s tastes have broadened a lot over the years. Now, I think most games end up coming out.”

Watch our video report of the Tokyo Game Show 2014 from here


The highlights and lowlights of Tokyo Game Show 2014

The very good

“Bloodborne” for PlayStation 4 was playable in the Sony booth and it looks amazing. The game felt like its predecessor, “Dark Souls,” and the combat, of which there is plenty, handles well.

A lot of attention to detail has been given to the environment, to creating an atmosphere of dread as you move through the gloomy city streets. The game will be released in February 2015.

The good

Lavish hand-drawn role-playing game “Bravely Second” offered up pretty much more of the same as the first game, “Bravely Default,” but that’s a good thing, considering how solid that game was. Between its old-school RPG gameplay, gorgeous graphics and innovative battle system, “Bravely Second” looks set to deliver when it is released for Nintendo 3DS next year.

The bad

“Final Fantasy” developer Square Enix announced a new subscription game service, Dive In, which is due to launch in Japan next month. It was up and running during TGS, streaming the classic “Final Fantasy VII” and the not-quite-as-classic “Final Fantasy XIII” to tablet devices.

The games themselves were faithfully rendered on the tablets, but the touch controls, which are laid out on-screen and are a little distracting at the outset, felt clunky and unresponsive, which detracted from the experience.

The weird

“Onechanbara Z2: Chaos” for PlayStation 4 was playable in the D3Publisher booth. To play it, however, required sticking your head through one of two holes strategically played on the chest of a giant bikini-clad woman rendered on the wall. Two players were allowed to play the demo at the same time. The resulting image isn’t a hard one to imagine.

  • Guest

    Couple million to translate Yakuza? Some games are translated for free by fans… Policenauts, a text-heavy game, being a good example. Sega has all the software shortcuts to translating the game. All they need is the translation. The average word count for a book is 64 000. These games probably have less than a sixth of that. Professional translators translate books for as little as $5000.