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Why Western-style RPG Dragon's Dogma wound up being such a big hit in Japan

Dragon's Dogma, released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 last May worldwide, was a semi-orthodox role-playing game with very unorthodox origins. Produced by Hiroyuki Kobayashi and his internal team at Capcom, the game was portrayed to Western gamers as a Japanese Skyrim, an attempt by a Japanese developer to create a serious Western RPG that can compete with the big boys.

So why did it wind up selling half a million copies in Japan and, well, not quite so much anywhere else?

"When we launched this project, we had a mountain of issues we needed to tackle," Kobayashi told Famitsu magazine in a postmortem published in this week's issue. "One, will we really finish this title and all the new things we're trying to do with it? Two, what do we have to do to attract the attention of Japanese gamers?"

Kobayashi's main concern was that console owners in Japan would take one look at Dogma's visuals and dismiss it as yo-ge-a term (literally "Western game") often used derisively when talking about US-made games with dark, brooding backdrops, space marine-type characters, and tons of bloody violence.

"A lot of Western-made games have pretty dark atmospheres," he told Famitsu. "So to emphasize the fact that we were different with that, we pushed a lot of scenes [in the preview material] that showed characters fighting under a bright blue sky."

The initial approach that Capcom took to selling Dogma to Japan: Don't call it an RPG at all.

"Capcom decided to announce the title as an 'action game'," Famitsu wrote, "deliberately avoiding the term 'open world RPG'. This could be termed a very Capcom-like approach, given the great success they've had producing Monster Hunter and other games in the action genre. The idea was that gamers who hear that Capcom has a new action game coming out would immediately be more interested in hearing more about it."

This helped get the Dogma name out to the Japanese market during the initial press run in 2011. As the spring '12 release approached, though, another problem arose: The tactic was so successful that gamers began to think there were no RPG elements to the title at all. This was a problem, considering that (a) Dogma's an RPG, of course (b) Capcom's main target audience were male gamers in their thirties.

"With all the RPG lovers in Japan," Famitsu wrote, "this wasn't a problem they could ignore. So, as the release date drew near, Capcom switched tactics and touted the game's RPG-ness, talking about how it lets gamers explore a high-fantasy world. They launched a number of drives meant to appeal to the adult male audience, from enlisting J-pop band B'z for the opening theme to organizing a tie-in with the Berserk anime film and producing a novelette penned by Record of Lodoss War author Ryo Mizuno. This wave of effort, all meant to attract the eye of thirty-something gamers, helped Capcom attract both action and RPG fans with Dragon's Dogma, helping them sell 320,000 copies in the first week."

That was the quickest any original franchise sold this generation in Japan, a success that any publisher could be happy with. Yet, as Kobayashi put it, "I think we still have more room to sell this." In the article, he brought up Capcom Summer Jam, a game-demo event opened to the public in Tokyo last summer. "One thing I saw at the event," he recalled, "was that there was a sizable number of visitors who had an interest in the game, but not quite enough of one to inspire a purchase."

Kobayashi and team will attempt to improve on this with Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, an expansion due out this month worldwide that, among other things, includes full Japanese-language voice acting (something not in the original). And as for the future? Both Kobayashi and Capcom have intimated that they treat Dogma as a long term franchise, and given their success in Japan, at least, it's safe to say that their struggle to position the game for maximum exposure worldwide will continue for a while to come.

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