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No fan left behind

Niche publishers XSEED and Marvelous Europe hope to bring in new audiences without running afoul of their existing fanbases

Gamers perusing the Steam new releases section last month may have noticed a title that seemed somewhat out of place. XSEED released Little King's Story on the platform in early August, even though Steam maybe isn't the first place one would look for an HD port of a deceptively cute 2009 Wii game that could at best be considered a sleeper hit.

But XSEED CEO Ken Berry told GamesIndustry.biz it was a natural decision for his company, the North American subsidiary of Japanese publisher Marvelous and a growing presence on PC that has been ramping up its catalog of Steam offerings in the past year.

"It's one of our team's all-time favorite games and the 'onii' monster from it has been our default mascot for years, so when looking to revive a game on PC that we thought didn't reach its potential during its original release it was a no-brainer for us," Berry said. "We felt that being a Wii exclusive with cutesy graphics while containing some adult themes and humor may have limited its audience despite its critical acclaim, so we were hopeful it was a better fit for PC gamers."

"PC gamers are very demanding when it comes to play options, and that's something that's been difficult to relay to our Japanese development partners..."

Ken Berry

Unfortunately, early sales haven't proved that theory out just yet.

"It hasn't quite lived up to expectations yet after being released for about a month," Berry acknowledged, "but the great thing about Steam and PC is that they have an extremely long tail and it can continue selling for years, so we're confident we will get to where we want to be eventually."

Regardless of how Little King's Story performs, XSEED sees the international PC market as a huge market for Japanese-created content going forward. And it is by no means alone in that observation.

"We were probably one of the first publishers focusing on Japanese games to start publishing regularly on Steam, but now pretty much every single Japanese publisher is onboard, and it's fantastic for gamers because they are no longer limited by the console or country they're living in to be able to play the game they want," Berry said.

Bandai Namco, NIS America, Spike Chunsoft, Aksys Games, Idea Factory, and other companies specializing in JRPGs and other traditionally console-bound offerings have been bringing more and more niche content to Western audiences on Steam. Berry said that most of the titles XSEED winds up publishing are being developed now with a PC release in mind, even if they aren't (yet) planned for simultaneous launches with their console counterparts.

As one might expect, the process of porting these games is fraught with complications both technical and cultural.

"PC gamers are very demanding when it comes to play options, and that's something that's been difficult to relay to our Japanese development partners that are used to working within a very confined environment on consoles," Berry said. "Oftentimes they will wonder why we need more than three screen resolution options or as many options as possible to turn graphical settings on/off that may affect performance, but thankfully PC gamers tend to also be technically proficient and patient, so they tend to give us a lot of great feedback and advice post-launch so that we can continue refining the games together. "

The increased focus on the PC platform is a move to expand XSEED's audience, but that's a goal niche publishers have to be very careful about pursuing. The same devoted and loyal audience that helps make XSEED's localizations and ports a viable business can also be wary of companies moving on to chase markets with a higher potential return on investment.

"There will always be some concerns about us publishing a title outside of our usual comfort zone may be preventing us from publishing something else that some of our fans may want or expect," Berry said, "but hopefully they understand that we are trying to grow the business by publishing titles in addition to that ones that we normally would rather than instead of."

It's much the same across the pond, where Marvelous Europe GM Harry Holmwood explained for GI.biz how he's trying to grow the audience in his own region.

"It seems that our fans, in particular, really do want physical copies - they're often into really into collecting the games and merchandise as well as playing the game - it's a key part of the hobby for them."

Harry Holmwood

"For us, it's been a case of starting slow and building that core audience first," Holmwood said. "Our first entries into the market were digital only, keeping risks as low as possible as we found our fans. Success there gave us the confidence to start making physical games, too. The first one we did we actually sold exclusively via our website and Amazon, not hitting major retail at all, so that we could keep the core fans happy with limited edition packs without getting into all the risks of full retail distribution. This year, we've branched out further with our first titles going into retail across Europe on PS4 and PS Vita."

Marvelous Europe's games are typically made by the parent company in Japan and localized by XSEED, so Holmwood's biggest lever for pleasing the fanbase is putting together particularly appealing limited editions of each game with an assortment of creative pack-ins that make splurging on a physical copy worthwhile.

"It's hugely risky, and much less profitable than digital, which makes it very difficult to do physical - especially on older formats where the cost of goods to us can be really high, and the retail sales price is pretty low," Holmwood acknowledged. "That said, it seems that our fans, in particular, really do want physical copies - they're often into really into collecting the games and merchandise as well as playing the game - it's a key part of the hobby for them. So we've tried to do it prudently by keeping quantities low - shipping out just as many as we know will sell to our fanbase, then maybe placing more orders once they've sold through. It's a different approach from the high profile 'sell everything in one weekend' strategy you see with the huge titles, and we don't benefit from the high profile that a huge launch can get you. The great thing for us, though, is that we often keep selling titles much longer than a traditional publisher would - we're still placing orders for new stock of titles we launched several years ago."

Berry agreed that there is "enormous risk" in the physical games business, but said it's another area where the company's devoted fanbase can mitigate uncertainties.

"Today's gamers are well-educated and know of the issues that small publishers like us face with getting shelf space when retailers want to only focus on AAA titles that have advertising budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, so they do a great job pre-ordering the titles they want to ensure that we build enough for them."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.