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Capcom's hunt for a global audience

Monster Hunter was perhaps the best example of a “big in Japan” game - until Capcom's persistence and confidence finally paid off this week

If you had told me, only a few years ago, that a Monster Hunter game would debut at the top of the UK's charts, shipping five million units for an enormously successful global launch, I might not have laughed - why laugh at such a beautiful fantasy? - but I certainly wouldn't have believed you. More fool me; that's precisely what Monster Hunter World did this week, with the series' first simultaneous global launch and its first instalment on this generation of home consoles arriving not only to the expected fanfare of critical acclaim, but to global commercial success.

Much has been written over the past week about how good Monster Hunter World is, for old devotees and new fans alike, and I have little to contribute to that corpus of glowing praise. What I would like to talk about briefly is the remarkable vindication this represents for Capcom's strategy with the series, and its commitment to replicating its domestic success on the international stage. While the game's designers are being rightly celebrated for a reinvention that makes Monster Hunter more welcoming to newcomers without losing its appeal to long-term fans, there's also praise due for the series of business decisions that brought the franchise to this point.

"There are several reasons for the PSP being more successful in Japan than in the rest of the world, but Monster Hunter is arguably the biggest one"

Perhaps more than any other franchise, Monster Hunter had come to represent the divide between the Japanese market and the rest of the world. Since the first game appeared on the PS2 in 2004, it's been a big hit in Japan - but it was its arrival on PSP the following year which really gave the franchise wings and cemented it as a cultural phenomenon.

For years, tables full of teenagers or young adults playing Monster Hunter together on their PSPs were a permanent fixture of cafes, fast-food joints and shopping mall food courts across Japan; requests for friends to play "MonHan" with, or boastful details of high-level equipment, are standard features of social media profiles. There are several reasons for the PSP being more successful in Japan than in the rest of the world, but Monster Hunter is arguably the biggest one, and it's no great exaggeration to say that the franchise leaping to 3DS rather than PS Vita was a death knell for Sony's handheld ambitions.

Yet with the exception of a small and devoted following in the west, Monster Hunter has never previously found an audience outside Japan. While it's not uncommon for some games to find an audience in Japan and not overseas (or vice versa), these are usually relatively small titles, not the kind of gargantuan games that make or break entire consoles. Perhaps the only other mega-franchise that works in Japan but disappoints overseas is Dragon Quest, and that's far more easily explained, given the extent to which the DQ franchise trades on nostalgia for past games that western audiences never experienced in the first place. Monster Hunter does no such thing, yet in Japan it's a cultural touchstone for an entire generation, while in the west it's barely been recognised until recently.

"A lot of companies would have given up on dreams of Monster Hunter as a global franchise several years ago"

Given what an important game Monster Hunter has been for Capcom's fortunes, it's not surprising that the company had ambitions to repeat its success overseas. What's genuinely surprising, though, is that it kept on trying even after repeatedly failing to gain traction in foreign markets. A lot of companies, bluntly, would have given up on dreams of Monster Hunter as a global franchise several years ago; they'd have reached for a hand-waving excuse about Japan's unique tastes, and settled for having a hugely successful franchise in a single market only.

Capcom's radical departure from that expected script is eye-opening - the company didn't just believe in Monster Hunter enough to keep pushing it in the west, it believed in Monster Hunter as a global franchise enough to make that into a key priority of its business strategy for the first major release in the franchise in three years.

That decision involved a very significant degree of risk; not just in the creative decisions that have been made to open up the game to international audiences' tastes, but in the most fundamental business decisions made for Monster Hunter: World. The game is launching on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One; not only home console platforms for a game that's found most of its historic success on handhelds, but platforms that are a step down from the 3DS in Japanese installed base terms.

"Capcom has just succeeded in pushing a traditional, core console title out of the Japanese market and onto the world stage"

PS4 has done moderately well in Japan, but with a 6 million installed base is far short of the sales potential of the Nintendo 3DS, which has been the main platform for the franchise since 2013. Xbox One, of course, barely exists in Japan at all, with sales undershooting even those of previous Xbox generations - meaning that Capcom developed a parallel launch version of the game in full knowledge that it would struggle to sell any units at all in the only country that's previously been a major market for the franchise.

There is a certain logic to Capcom's platform decision beyond appealing to the western markets - 3DS is still a strong platform in Japan but the room for Monster Hunter to expand and develop on that platform is minimal, Vita is largely moribund even in Japan, and Switch wasn't on the horizon when development started on Monster Hunter World. Perhaps the company felt that PS4 was its best option right now regardless of its relatively low installed base, and thus felt pushed to appeal to overseas markets in order to make the most of that situation.

Regardless, the decision made in the end was one which, if not handled superbly well, could have backfired badly on a valuable franchise, yet Capcom marched into it with nothing but confidence in the power and appeal of the Monster Hunter series. That confidence has paid off in spades, and is well worth bearing in mind the next time someone trots out a vague hand-waving argument about a certain franchise or genre only working in a certain region for ill-defined "cultural reasons".

This is also, and more importantly, worth bearing in mind next time we see a company talking about internationalisation, or trying to break out of its home market. Capcom has just succeeded in pushing a pretty traditional, core console title out of the Japanese market and onto the world stage, even as its compatriot and sometime rival Konami struggles against what looks for all the world like a dramatic inward turn. Konami's transition towards being a mobile-first company is all but complete, judging from its financials this week; yet in the process it seems to have also become, by and large, a Japan-only company, with much of its revenue and growth potential coming from the mature (and certainly lucrative) Japanese mobile market.

Konami is trying to push into developing markets too, but it's hard to escape the notion that in embracing what it believed to be a mobile future, Konami has actually condemned itself to the "Galapagos" problem so many Japanese companies have faced - highly evolved to meet the needs of one small archipelago, and entirely unsuited to life outside it.

The firm's financials are in good shape and it's clearly being well managed from quarter to quarter; it's just hard to see where its long-term future leads, and one wonders if the company's executives, watching their former rival in Osaka turn exactly the kind of game whose development Konami has largely eschewed in favour of smartphone titles into a global hit, are feeling a little buyer's remorse right now.

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