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Disgaea's focus on "the road most niche"

As the strategy RPG series marks five million units sold, NIS president Sohei Niikawa discusses its enduring appeal

The very first Disgaea game in 2003 was subtitled "Hour of Darkness," but Nippon Ichi Software's strategy RPG series can now be more easily measured in decades than hours.

The game's complex overlapping progression systems encouraged stats fans to effectively break the game balance with ever-more-powerful builds, while the cartoonish depiction of the game's demon-infested netherworlds (and legion of penguin-like doomed souls called Prinnies) gave the action a bizarre narrative trapping that proved a hit with audiences internationally.

Since then, the series has seen a slew of sequels, as well as spin-offs into visual novel territory and side-scrolling action games, and more. This year saw the debut of Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny, which has helped push the franchise to more than five million in lifetime sales.

Sohei Niikawa

To mark the milestone, put a few questions to Nippon Ichi Software president Sohei Niikawa about the company's relationship with its star series and what made it successful in the first place.

"I think it was popular because people enjoyed the outlandish game system, which was very unique when compared to other games available at that time," Niikawa says. "The charm of the game characters that were supporting that system, as well as the strong story, also likely helped.

"I don't think there's any one secret to the series' continuing success, but I do believe the fact that the Japanese and international teams work together to make Disgaea more enjoyable for as many people as possible, and the fact that we incorporate the opinions of our fans into our development efforts, contributes to its success.

"For each title we make it a point to gather a lot of user feedback regarding what worked well and what didn't. By ensuring these opinions are reflected in the sequels, we are able to make changes that satisfy the players' needs and are appropriate for the times."

"Going forward, for both Disgaea and Nippon Ichi Software, we will continue to take the road most niche!"

That reliance on the game's existing fans is key for the series, because it doesn't sound like NIS has much of an aspiration to broaden the series' appeal or make it a more mainstream hit.

"I personally believe that it is because Disgaea is niche that we have been able to create the gameplay systems and stories that we have," Niikawa says. "I think it is because it was niche that we were able to take on bold new challenges, rather than wasting time defending our decisions. If we were to lose touch with that spirit, then Disgaea would no longer be Disgaea.

"Also, let's not forget that Nippon Ichi Software was originally a small company in rural Japan. For a company like ours to endure in the fiercely competitive world of video games, it was of critical importance that we find some way to set ourselves apart from other companies. In order to survive, we have tried many new, strange, and sometimes even reckless things that other companies simply wouldn't. For Nippon Ichi Software, we prefer unorthodox methods over a simple approach. To us, it doesn't make sense to do things that have already been done in other games or by other companies."

Niikawa is careful to note that doesn't mean the company is fine making games that don't sell.

"Even if a title winds up being 'niche,' we will always aim to create hits by making games that are compelling and unique in the world of gaming. In that sense, we are probably making games with a mindset similar to indie game developers. Going forward, for both Disgaea and Nippon Ichi Software, we will continue to take the road most niche!"

That strategy has worked for the series since the start, with the original Disgaea quickly topping 100,000 copies sold in Japan when it was released, and later replicating that feat in the US, much to the surprise of NIS.

"We simply couldn't believe what we were seeing," Niikawa says.

While the first follow-ups didn't quite live up to that initial game's performance, Niikawa said Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten returned the series to that level of success, with Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance -- particularly the Switch release -- becoming "a huge success" in North America and Europe and Disgaea 6 on track to join the shortlist of most successful entries in the franchise.

All that is not to say NIS isn't looking to grow the business or make new Disgaea fans. It has in recent years begun porting previous Disgaea games to the PC, as well as making a free-to-play mobile game called Disgaea RPG as well as a mobile remaster of the first Disgaea.

"We're noticing that rather than the dramatic initial spurt we see on consoles, PC sales are steadier," Niikawa says. "From a business standpoint, we are very thankful for such steady sales numbers. Mobile still has a way to go, however. There are also a lot of people who find it easier to play on consoles. However, since Disgaea is a title that is so representative of Nippon Ichi Software and NISA, we would like to continue to develop it for various platforms so that more people can play it."

Don't hold your breath for an Xbox version, however, as Niikawa says that even though NIS is keeping an eye out for new platforms to bring the series to, "because of how challenging the Xbox market is in Japan, we have had some difficulty there."

So aside from keeping an eye open for new port opportunities, what is Niikawa's plan to grow the franchise in the future? His answer to that question is perhaps straight-forward in a way that may not match the zany style of the series, but reflects an approach that has let the company continue catering to its fanbase year after year:

"We've gotten a lot of feedback with the release of 6," he says, "so we believe the best way forward for the series is for us to develop 7 with that feedback reflected."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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