Xbox Courts Japan

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2001

Whatever happens in the US market with the Xbox game console, Microsoft's biggest challenge is winning over Japanese developers and consumers.

by Amos Wong

WITH SEGA BOWING OUT of the videogame console business earlier this year, Microsoft's Xbox is the newest contender in the battle for gaming supremacy in living rooms around the world. It's a landmark move of sorts: Not since the mid-1990s has a US company attempted to launch a games console. Both Atari's 64-bit Jaguar and 3DO's hardware failed, partially due to a lack of first-rate game titles software from developers in Japan - arguably the console gaming mecca of the world. Learning from their mistakes, Microsoft is taking Japanese developers very seriously: It knows a strong, locally produced software lineup is essential to shift Xbox units off store shelves during its Japanese launch. With the popularity of Japanese games overseas, a good relationship with local developers also ensures titles for release around the world.

A Tokyo office and three first-party software development teams were established last October, and the company has been actively building contacts, cementing all-important third-party developer support.

Toshiyuki Miyata, group senior manager in charge of the console's first-party games, believes it's the environment for the developers that distinguishes Xbox from the competition, specifically with the use of Microsoft's DirectX software, which until now has been used to create PC titles. "Its strong advantage is that developers can create games with ease," he says. PlayStation 2 game development, by comparison, has often been cited as troublesome.

"It's really difficult" to make games for the PS2, says Shinji Mikami, of third-party Japanese developer Capcom. The producer of the popular Resident Evil and Dino Crisis series is currently working on Devil May Cry for PS2. "With the PlayStation, Sony provided a library - 'middleware' - which helps display graphics on-screen," he explains. "There's nothing like that for the PS2, so we've had to create everything from scratch - which means there's lots of bugs. The main issue has been debugging."

Release dates and other specifics concerning Japanese third-party Xbox games are scarce. In other cases, titles remain nameless; the big push will be at the next Tokyo Game Show in October. Third-party developers working on titles include Konami (AirForce Delta Storm), Tecmo (Dead or Alive 3), Sega (seven titles including Gunvalkyrie, Sega GT2002, and Crazy Taxi Next), and Capcom (Brainbox, Dino Crisis 3, Genma Onimusha).

"It's an interesting time, with the Xbox, Game Cube, and PlayStation," Onimusha producer Keiji Inafune says. "I'm not sure which I should focus on the most, and I think many game creators feel the same way. I'd like to give them all a go, but I can't - so I have to guess which will come out at the top. It's a gamble." Which system is he betting on? "I can't answer that one!" he laughs.

Ports of big titles from overseas may make up the launch roster in Japan, but disparate visual cultures mean that a hit elsewhere doesn't guarantee a hit here - there are even rumors circulating among the gaming press that no overseas games will make the local launch lineup. For example, due to the somewhat scary and malnourished appearance of the alien cast and protagonist, a critically lauded and revolutionary game like Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee is unlikely to blip on a Japanese gamer's "must have" radar. "Walt Disney and Warner Brothers' characters are accepted regardless of nationality," Miyata explains. "Of course, Hollywood movies are very popular here, so this kind of American culture is generally acceptable to the Japanese. But in the game world there is a clear distinction. For example, Japanese prefer cute characters, like Hello Kitty, whereas American users tend to like characters which, from a Japanese point of view, look grotesque."

Even when Japanese-created game characters adopt a more "realistic" approach, the look usually remains very stylized, thanks to the culture's roots in comics and animation. "Western game characters tend to be more realistic, while the Japanese don't need a too literal representation of reality to accept it," says Shinji Mikami. "For example, in art, take a Picasso painting. It's from the imagination, more abstract. People who understand the style know the value of the image."

The all-important gameplay factor is also different. "Many American games tend to have great ideas, but they're unfriendly," observes Metal Gear Solid's producer and director Hideo Kojima. "It's like, 'Here's the game. Play it!'" He offers Crash Bandicoot, one of his favorites, as an example: "When Mike Cerny [executive producer of the Crash Bandicoot series] came up with the first one, I didn't think it was that great. But from the next one onwards, he did a lot of research with Japanese games, for the game balance. The end result has the great American ideas combined with the player-friendly Japanese touch."

Despite Bill Gates' and other developers' appearance at the Tokyo Game Show in March (which also marked the Xbox's local debut), Microsoft has yet to pull out all the stops and roll out a fully fledged promotion in Japan. "Because Xbox is a product from Microsoft, it is known amongst PC users," says Tokyo-based games writer Mars Hiroshi. "But for the same reason, it isn't known by general users." Based on the lineup showcased at the spring Tokyo Game Show, he says that gaining consumer interest is going to be difficult. Conversely, he points out that Xbox isn't on sale yet. "We'll have to wait until the autumn Tokyo Game Show to see if Microsoft can win the Japanese market."

There are some major issues that Microsoft will have to face with its strategy of initially targeting hard-core Japanese gamers with its launch titles. Firstly, Nintendo has the lion's share of hard-core gamer support. Its previous home console, the Nintendo 64, boasted the highest software-to-hardware ratio during its launch, and the forthcoming GameCube is hotly anticipated. In Sony's camp, due to only a few decent titles at launch, buyers and game developers alike initially used the PS2 as a DVD player. But things have since caught up, with acclaimed and wildly popular titles like Onimusha and Gran Turismo 3: A-spec. More hits are on the way this year, and the overall reception of PS2's second-generation titles has been enthusiastic. Concerning the number of titles being developed among third-party developers, it seems that PS2 is receiving the most commitment. It's going to be a tough battle for Microsoft.

To Microsoft's advantage, perhaps, is the fact that Xbox is capable, straight out of the box, of that oft-mentioned next-level experience for consoles: broadband online gaming and services. With the hard disk and broadband adapter an add-on for PS2 owners, Sony's online package is the more expensive of the two, unless further price cutting is introduced in the future. It's another battle looming in the future - even Miyata admits that a simultaneous hardware and online gaming launch is impossible, with the latter to follow at an unspecified date. Indeed, many developers are still unwilling to talk in depth about online gaming features until the infrastructure has been set.

At this stage, Xbox is a true wild card, and although a contingent of the gaming press has been pessimistic, it's too early to say that Microsoft has lost Japan - especially when the bona fide campaign has yet to start and the full software list is unknown. Colorful comments from Sony's camp have been circulating, with Sony Computer Entertainment president Ken Kutaragi slamming the hardware and games on show from Microsoft so far. But consider this: During the tail end of the 16-bit gaming era, both Sega and Nintendo blasted then-newcomer Sony when the PlayStation was announced. The claim was that Sony had no games experience. Look at the gaming landscape now. When all the systems are capable of jaw-dropping cinematic graphics bordering on reality, any technical edge one may have over the other almost becomes irrelevant. Says Miyata: "No matter how excellent the console is, the game users won't use it unless it can provide entertaining content: that's the key." @

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