The group that would soon be known as Dangen Entertainment sat around Ben Judd’s house this past April, making plans and bouncing ideas off each other over pizza and drinks. Judd had an idea to start an independent game-publishing company in Japan and had reached out to five others in the industry. Like Judd, they were longtime foreign residents of Japan, each with an intimate knowledge in a different section of the industry.
So in April, they came together — five in person and the sixth Skyping in from Tokyo — to hammer out the salient details. They had a name (a portmanteau of what they’d originally come up with, Dandy Gentlemen, shortened so as not to prevent women from joining the team) and a vision for helping Western developers break into the difficult-to-crack Japanese market, and working in the opposite direction as well.
Essentially starting from scratch, they pulled everything together in time to make their official debut about a month later at BitSummit, the annual indie gaming show in Kyoto. There, Dangen was able to start what they now think can become a fruitful and meaningful foray into the Japanese gaming space. The team hit the ground running, getting a few titles such as “Brave Earth: Prologue,” “Iconoclasts” and “CrossCode” into the hands of fans as well as domestic and international media in Kyoto.
“It was like a huge insane whirlwind,” says Nayan Ramachandran, who helps Dangen acquire content and who is listed as “content connoisseur,” on the company website. “I’m actually surprised that it worked, and it didn’t just work, it went really well.”
Dangen is entering the fray as something of a one-stop shop for developers looking to expand into the Japanese market. Through their various experience and connections, the team wants to handle all the different aspects of publishing: from marketing to translation to getting in front of the Japanese masses through streamers and other methods.
“I would say it’s one part bringing together disparate talents from different sectors of the games industry,” says Dan Stern, who also helps in content acquisition and is officially listed as Dangen’s “scholar of the first deal.”
“From indie publishing, to indie development, Triple A development and even streaming. Bringing all that experience together to kind of handle any issue that comes up for developers that we work with, and to put our best foot forward for the games that we’re working on.”
The Dangen team came together from various parts of the industry in Japan. Judd (“gentleman behind the curtain”) built Capcom’s internal translation team from the ground up and was the first foreign producer at Capcom Japan; Ramachandran and Stern each worked at Playism, an Osaka-based digital distribution platform for PC games; Dan Luffy (“overlord of localization”) has been in localization and translation for over 10 years; John Davis (“master of public shenanigans”) has worked for companies such as Grasshopper Manufacture and Q-Games; and Chad Porter (“greatest internet sensei”) is a partnered Twitch streamer and has worked in content creation and translation, among other things.
There were no interviews to fill the positions, each member was hand-picked because of what they brought to the table.
Of the challenges of publishing and marketing titles in Japan, language is the most obvious one, but hardly the only one.
“When you meet a (developer), a lot of times they might not have a clear picture of what it’s like to release a game in Japan, what kind marketing needs are necessary or what’s even an efficient or reasonable strategy to get the game to their fans over here,” Stern says.
In many cases, translating the actual game into Japanese is only the start of the process.
“Honestly, I think one of the greatest challenges is not just translating the text of the game, but translating the message and type of the game to a style of marketing and PR that fits Japan,” Ramachandran says. “Because as we all know living in Japan, advertising is done differently, PR is done differently. People react and are cool with — and not cool with — different things.”
He cites the higher number of celebrity spokespeople in Japanese advertising as opposed to in some Western countries as an example.
“Like Tommy Lee Jones marketing Boss Coffee in Japan,” he says. “He would never market Folgers in America. That’s below him, he’s a Hollywood actor. Because Japanese people are less cynical when it comes to advertising, they don’t mind being advertised to. They like a spokesperson.”
Following that logic, the team was able to get famed “Castlevania” producer Koji Igarashi to spend some time with “Brave Earth: Prologue,” a title very much inspired by Igarashi’s own work, at BitSummit.
“He’ll probably be doing ‘Let’s Plays’ with the game around release, basically pushing it wherever he can,” Ramachandran says, referring to the practice of watching a skilled gamer play a video game. “Because people know Igarashi and people will say, ‘Oh, well Igarashi makes great games. If he likes this, then this has gotta be a game I gotta check out.'”
Dangen is also helping its developers get the word out on social media. The team dropped the first Dangen documentary featuring the “Brave Earth: Prologue” developer on Twitter recently. The company will also have a presence at this weekend’s Tokyo Game Show.
They’re busy, but careful not to take on too much, choosing to work only with titles the team is excited about.
“It’s not taking as many titles as we possibly can and releasing them all in the hope that something will make us money,” Ramachandran says. “Instead, its pre-vetting every single title we go after, going after the ones we are really, really excited about, and then taking that small group of titles and releasing them over the year.”
When pitches are accepted, Dangen works closely with developers every step of the way and tries to keep in touch daily. The team uses Slack to communicate, and it’s open to the different developers also, so they can speak with each other as well as to the Dangen staffers.
Finding the best strategy for each game is a case-by-case process. While some titles require more work than others, the general thawing of the once chilly reception many Western games received among Japanese gamers has created more opportunities.
“If you told me six or seven years ago ‘Call of Duty’ would be on the front of Dengeki (a Japanese publication), I’d call you a crazy person,” Ramachandran says. “But it has happened. ‘Call of Duty’ and Western games are actually getting a lot more notice in Japan.”
“Western indie games and rather unknown games, it was really rare for them to find the audience that they should here,” Stern says. “Now, with more people paying attention, people reporting on them better, a larger streaming community on Nico Nico and Twitch growing in Japan as well, I think it’s a lot easier to get the right game to the right people.”
Dangen is hoping to be a bridge from the West to Japan and vice versa, carving out a niche and reputation for itself in the process.
“When somebody looks at the PSN Store or on Steam or they see a box on the shelf, I want them to feel that symbolizes a certain level of quality,” Ramachandran says. “That when they pick up a title published by Dangen, they can rest assured this is going to be awesome. Because if it wasn’t awesome, Dangen wouldn’t publish it.”
Tokyo Game Show takes place at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, and is open to the public on Sept. 23 and 24 (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). For more information, visit expo.nikkeibp.co.jp/tgs/2017.