Nippon Ichi Software has had success with games like Disgaea in Europe, despite their nature as hardcore Japanese RPGs. Until recently those titles were always licensed out in that territory, but now they are publishing them directly.
At this year's Tokyo Games Show, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with NIS America president Haru Akenaga to discuss the thinking behind the move.
Q: Why have you decided to make the move into Europe now?
Haru Akenaga: That's a pretty tough question. I established NIS America five years ago and I tried to establish a hardcore fanbase in the United States. Now, it's getting pretty stable. Until now we licensed companies to publish our titles in Europe, but now we want to communicate directly with European gamers. I believe we have the knowhow, we understand how to capture gamers' passion, and we're ready to go to Europe.
Q: What do you see as being the advantages of that direct communication over publishing via a licensee?
Haru Akenaga: We are Japanese. Even though some people like our titles in Europe it's difficult to explain our philosophy, or why we're releasing those kinds of titles. I want to communicate why we are publishing these titles directly with European users. Also, we want to know what gamers want to add to or improve about our titles. We can get that information via licensees but it's not the same as direct comment. We want to hear input from the European users and the media, as your comments are really important. We want to hear gamers' voices directly and understand what they truly feel, instead of hearing it from a third-party.
Q: You've previously stated your company is focused on producing titles for hardcore gamers. What's your view of how the European and Japanese hardcore compare? Are they very different or do they share fundamental characteristics?
Haru Akenaga: That's turned out to be pretty interesting. At first I thought the groups would be different, but hardcore gamers are the same. Basically, everyone can be moved by the same experiences and feel the same emotions. That was a big discovery for me, to find Western people feel the same way as Eastern people. Some elements are different, but the core part is the same. Because I believe that, I am confident we can do more and do well in Europe.
Q: When you look at bringing a JRPG to Europe, do you attempt to Westernise it in any way? Obviously you translate the language, but do you change the tone of the game in a bid to appeal to a different audience?
Haru Akenaga: No, never. This is my policy: I always ask our developers not to change anything, and especially not to try to Westernise games. Once they lose their reputation with Japanese users, the game is no longer a good JRPG. We are trying to distribute JRPGs to European gamers, and that means we have to continue publishing good JRPGs. I don't want the developers to change anything.
Q: You've shown a lot of support for PSP in the past. Recently there's been talk of retailers withdrawing some of their support, refusing to stock the PSPGo and so on. How concerned are you about these issues?
Haru Akenaga: It's a really tough market for PSP now. We have to reconsider. We've already started developing some titles, but from now on, we will evaluate and reconsider the console we should be developing for. I learned a lot last year and this year about Europe. Originally, the PSP itself was selling pretty well there but the software sales were really poor. I thought that might create a good opportunity for us to release our titles for PSP, so that's why we published them titles back then. But the reason why the games don't sell is piracy. In which case, it could be tough to release PSP games in the European market - especially as retailers don't want to take PSP titles. So we are trying to change the platform [we focus on] to PS3.
Q: Going back to your focus on the hardcore market - we hear endless talk about the broadening of the gaming audience, Nintendo's huge success with Brain Training and Wii Sports and so on. With that in mind, why do you continue to focus on the hardcore? Why not attempt to broaden your focus to include those new gamers?
Haru Akenaga: There are several reasons, but the biggest is this: we are small. It's too big of a challenge to compete with the larger companies like Square Enix, Nintendo, Ubisoft, EA... They are too big now. To make a PS3 game costs them more than 10 million, 20 million dollars, and we can't spend that. So we won't try to compete against that kind of really big, but competitive market. Nintendo always said they will stay in a blue ocean. We will stay small, but in a blue pond. For the last five years, Sony and Microsoft have been in the red ocean, but Nintendo hasn't changed anything. They are doing it their way.
Q: They can afford to create their own ocean...
Haru Akenaga: Yes. Now the blue ocean is really big! If many people go to Nintendo's blue ocean, it will turn into a red ocean. That's not our job. Maybe Square Enix or EA or Ubisoft - that's their job. Our plan is to stick to the small blue pond.
Q: Is that a short-term or long-term strategy? How does it fit in with the European expansion?
Haru Akenaga: We're going to have many small blue ponds. This is the big problem: if you're trying to create a revolution, you have to spend a lot of money on development. In that case, the break even point is really high - higher than ever. Hardcore gamers are basically a small group, but that's why we want to stick with them - it's our job, I believe. It's very difficult for us to keep expanding the company, but personally I want to expand little by little. That's why we need to find other small ponds.
Haru Akenaga is president of Nippon Ichi Software America. Interview by Ellie Gibson.