Nippon Ichi president discusses 20 years and a future beyond Disgaea

Nippon Ichi Software was never exactly meant to be a triple-A game developer. That doesn't happen when you establish yourself in 1993 in the relative backwater that is Japan's Gifu prefecture and release a jigsaw-puzzle collection for the PlayStation 1 as your first self-published title.

Nippon Ichi Software was never exactly meant to be a triple-A game developer. That doesn't happen when you establish yourself in 1993 in the relative backwater that is Japan's Gifu prefecture and release a jigsaw-puzzle collection for the PlayStation 1 as your first self-published title.

"I have to express surprise that we've lasted nearly twenty years," NIS president Sohei Niikawa told Famitsu magazine in this week's issue. "I joined this company in 1996, and until it got listed [in Japan's stock exchange] five years ago, every year it was a case of 'if we can't get this game out, that might be it for the company.' It's really moving to see us make it this long and keep all these people employed, and I have to thank all the people that helped us do it."

Despite getting a few titles (including the aforementioned jigsaw game and the goofy PS tactical RPG Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure) published in the US during its early years, NIS never had any major success until Disgaea: Hour of Darkness hit the PS2 in 2003. "Before that point," Niikawa said, "there wasn't a single title in our lineup that had passed 50,000 copies in sales. Disgaea didn't do it either when it first came out. The difference with this one was that it sold out really quickly afterward and we kept on getting these extra orders afterward. In the end, we pushed that title up to 130,000 copies. We were offered to release it in America not long after, and I thought there's no way gamers in there would accept it because it's got all these spoofs on anime and so on. But it wound up reaching around 130,000 copies over there, too. It's funny to think there are Americans out there who dig this sort of humor."

Now NIS is something of a mainstream success, getting its games published worldwide and becoming the darling of strategy RPG fans everywhere. For the big 20th birthday, though, Niikawa sees a need to bring his company to the next level. "I would like to think that we're always trying to be the challengers, that there's nothing we're trying to protect," he said. "Going into our 20th year and thinking about what our fans want from us, I think they want something silly, something ridiculous, the sort of thing that the big makers can't do. I think it's that Nippon Ichi-ness that they're seeking from us. More to the point, I think that if we keep going the way we have, we won't be able to escape this state where we're having to rely on Disgaea. Taking a more aggressive approach is a good thing for the industry and more fun for our fans, and that's why we're concentrating on a new set of titles. I want people to look forward to what we're producing even as they think 'What the hell are they doing now?'"

Does this mean moving away from Disgaea, the title that more or less put them on the map for most gamers worldwide? "As I said before, we want to cherish Disgaea, but the goal before us is to create the second or the third franchise that surpasses Disgaea," Niikawa clarified. "I also think we need to think about not just games, but creating all kinds of forms of entertainment. I want users to think 'This company is involved with lots of different things'. It'd be nice if we had to find something to replace the word 'Software' in our company title."

No matter what happens with NIS's most well-known series, Niikawa has two firm ideas in mind for the future: branch out into the rest of the world more, but still retain their titles' quirky Japanese-ness. "In addition to producing more content for different media," he said, "another goal is to expand more into the world. We have branch offices in the US and Europe, but we're also thinking about expanding into Asia. One thing I want to promise our fans in Japan, though, is that we're going to keep making the best games possible for gamers in this country. Once we achieve that, then we export it out to the rest of the world. Overseas gamers aren't looking for games made by Japanese companies to resemble Western titles; it's important we have them enjoy the kinds of games Japan can really devote its all to making."

Niikawa also took pains to point out that this drive to expand their userbase isn't going to come at the cost of dumbing down their games. "It's really important that we treat the 100,000 or 200,000 people that purchase our titles with the utmost importance," he noted, "although I don't think we should be satisfied just with that. The thing is, even if we bought a bunch of ad time and got a million casual users on our side, I think that audience would dissipate really quick once the initial rush is gone. If we want to expand on those 100,000 or so passionate gamers, we need to work with other smaller developers that share our intentions and proceed from there. It's hard to pull in casuals all of a sudden if we're trying to build a hardcore audience, though, and I want to work more on attracting the sort of person who's into anime or trading-card games but doesn't really get involved with video games. "

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