Japanese games were hard to ignore at E3 this year.
Japanese role-playing games dominated the PlayStation Vita bar at Sony's booth, with titles like Valhalla Knights, Dragon's Crown and Ys: Memories of Celceta taking up nearly half the rows of demo units. The words Dark Souls 2 seemed to bubble excitedly on attendees lips. And in the tidal wave of upcoming western and European big guns — a new Call of Duty, a new Battlefield, Dying Light and The Division among them — titles like Final Fantasy 15 and Kingdom Hearts 3 earned spots as major conference announcements.
However, these Japanese games still appeal to a somewhat niche audience — most developers and publishers still consider these games to be tailored to a smaller, less "mainstream" audience in the west. So if the sentiment exists that these games don't have broad, widespread appeal, why bother to localize and bring them stateside?
At publisher Marvelous USA, known as Xseed prior to its rebranding this past March, there is one big question to answer when deciding which Japanese games to bring west: will an audience with a number of cultural differences from the game's origin region find it fun?
"Every game is first evaluated by us as gamers on if it is, or likely will be, fun to play," Marvelous USA executive vice president Ken Berry told Polygon. "From there we get into the business aspect of it where we try to determine how likely our chances of getting the license will be, a huge part of which depends on who the IP holder is, and then try to guesstimate on if the title has a realistic chance to meet the sales numbers that we would need in order to be able to justify the licensing and localization costs."
Berry said that historically, action games are more likely to make the jump around the world, "probably because they are easy to localize and can appeal to a broad audience." He noted many sports games don't make it over because a North American audience is likely unfamiliar with professional Japanese players, and music games are piled high with licensing requirements. You would think role-playing games would be a sure-fire pick — but Berry said a surprisingly high number don't get the localization treatment.
"A lot of RPGs don't make it over because the 'niche' status of the genre and low forecasted sales numbers can't justify the large localization costs associated with that story-heavy genre," he said.
So why bother looking at these niche titles in the first place, when high-octane AAA games like BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us dominate the western market? Why put the time and effort into localization if you know right off the bat you won't be making millions with Pandora's Tower and The Last Story?
"The scale is completely different, because when I hear that something sold multiple millions of copies and still lost money, it is completely baffling to me," Berry said. "I guess that's because I still remember the original PlayStation days when only a very select few titles would break the 1 million mark, but there were plenty of titles selling a healthy 200,000 to 300,000 units back then, including RPGs from Japan. The sales gap between the top titles and the rest is certainly much larger now than before, but as long as you manage your costs and keep your expectations realistic, you can still succeed without a AAA title."
Mike Meeker, translation editor at Atlus, considers the company's North American branch to be a "niche publisher," with Japanese role-playing games heading their offerings.
"Niche publishers like us, they tend to be going more and more further away from mainstream genres," he said. "We're doing more super-niche games like JRPGs."
Meeker clarified that his idea of JRPGs being "super niche" stems from their heavy emphasis on story and tendency to drag it out for a few dozen hours — the idea of the "40-hour JRPG" has become less of a ribbing joke and more the reality.
"JRPGs have more to do with characters," he explained. "They have a story to tell, and a game is a way to tell the story. Most of the time it's less about the game itself."
When choosing which games to localize at Atlus, a committee of staff managers and evaluators thoroughly investigate the company's slate of Japanese games. Often they will play demos and pore over game documents until they can make a solid judgment on the game's quality.
"Niche publishers like us, they tend to be going more and more further away from mainstream genres."
"It's very important to us whether the game quality is good and that it is a good fit for our audience," explained Atlus senior project manager Sammy Matsushima. In his time at Atlus, Matsushima has overseen localization on Odin Sphere, Catherine, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers and most recently, Dragon's Crown.
"In the case that we find the premise of the game is good, we then evaluate the game in terms of costs and what needs to be localized," he added. "Localization can come in different levels, such as pure text translation volume, whether there is voice work involved, the amount of graphics that needs adjusting, and the amount of movie data it has."
Matsushima noted that most of what Atlus brings over from Japan are story-heavy role-playing games like the Shin Megami Tensei titles, a genre — and series — that has become synonymous with the Atlus brand.
One type of game that is more prevalent in Japan than western territories is the visual novel, an interactive story in which players will make many in-game choices that affect the outcome but participate in very little gameplay. At localization specialist Aksys Games, these visual novels have become the dominant section of the company's offerings.
"The vast majority of the games we do are text-heavy games, which in the past has usually meant RPGs, but now sometimes means visual novels, or visual novel-like things," editor Ben Bateman said. "I think in part that's because those sorts of games benefit the most from what we do, so they're the ones we seek out.
"Also, things like visual novels have traditionally been a genre that's ignored in the west, but over the last several years a sort of underground fanbase of not-insignificant size has developed — probably as a result of the internet and easier importing," he added. "The proliferation of that community has resulted in a reasonably large market that's interested in games like 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Virtue's Last Reward or the Hakuoki [visual novel] games."
Words, Words, Words
Localization is a messy business.
Everything starts with the script. Or rather, a text file with the script in it. Meeker said that "if they're lucky" Atlus will get a text file integrated with the raw game code — if not, it can be really messy.
At Atlus, often translations are done in Excel spreadsheets — one column for Japanese text, another for the English translation and one more for the reworked English translation, a more fluid and conversational version of the raw translation.
Part of what makes Japanese games difficult to translate is the written language. Japanese kanji characters can be used to express ideas, sometimes whole strings of ideas, with one or just a few symbols. Translating those ideas into English and making sure the translation fits in the allotted screen space is a frustrating challenge.
"The Etrian series is particularly tough [to translate], mainly because there are so many items and a ton of different swords, shields and stuff," Meeker said. "In Japanese, each character is enough for a pretty lengthy description of an item — an example being, an item may use three characters that literally mean 'Dragon Claw Thunder,' and in English you only have 12 letters to convey that same idea. Sometimes it doesn't really work out, and in [games like the Etrian titles] you have to do that with hundreds and hundreds of different items. It's difficult."
"A big game that needs to match previous entries in terms of terminology and tone and has extensive voiced lines as well? Nightmare fuel."
Oftentimes there are cultural and linguistic nuances in Japanese that don't translate well into English.
"Usually, we will find similar phrases or idioms to replace awkward lines and we improvise when necessary," added Matsushima. "It also depends on the setting of a game. Say, if it's a modern setting in Japan, we try to keep the original nuance and try not to introduce any strange [North American pop culture references], though one may think it's the easiest way out. This is really up to how our editors can cleverly word them from the original translation."
At Aksys, translators keep track of the game's special terms as they move through the script, compiling a dictionary of the game's key phrases and in-universe terminology to keep everyone on production in the loop.
"This is useful as a reference for everyone in the company, but also to help insure that multiple translators will translate a given term the same way," said Bateman. "We'll also often discuss ideas specific to the game (like all the insane metaphysical stuff in Virtue's Last Reward and 999) and how they'll be dealt with and determine the localized terms for Japanese words we want to localize. Basically, before an editor starts working, we try to lay down as much of a foundation for what the game is about and how it will be portrayed as we can."
Marvelous USA localization manager Jessica Chavez corroborates the sentiment that intricate, text heavy, multi-character, voiced, grind-y" role-playing games are the most challenging to localize, but the sequels to these RPGs are often more difficult.
"Having a huge text count is a daunting undertaking by itself, but having a big game that needs to match previous entries in terms of terminology and tone and has extensive voiced lines as well? Nightmare fuel," Chavez said, joking, "Give me a simple action or rhythm game any day. Or mute characters. A game where nobody speaks and thinks only in pictographs would be ideal."
Chavez said the most difficult phrases to translate often involve puns. These have been the subject of many long hours of conversation at Xseed in an effort to write fun, enjoyable dialogue for players.
"One of my translators spends much of his free mental time coming up with terrible, ear-gouging [pun] equivalents in English," she said. "Quite faithfully too, I might add. I guess you can say, then, that we overcome the difficulty of translating these often complex and culturally invested jokes by indulging his talent for wordplay.
" For example, a difficult joke that didn't make it into Rune Factory 4 was a pun on sake, the word for salmon, and sake, the alcohol," she explained. "I think [he] considered something to do with 'slammin' drinks' being the riff off of the original 'spare salmon'. Spare salmon, slammin' salmon, slammin' drinks. But we didn't go with this translation for obvious reasons."
Room to Grow
Japanese games may get more advertising real estate on their home turf, but passionate western fans are still intimately in tune with their most highly anticipated games. In North America it's still somewhat of a surprise to see advertisements for BioShock Infinite plastered to walls in subway stations.
"Obviously Japanese games are much more mainstream in Japan, especially RPGs, as you will often see advertisements for the latest game on trains and TV [in Japan], whereas the RPG fans in North America tend to consist mainly of hardcore gamers," Berry said. "The RPG fanbase [in North America] is definitely growing, with great Western-style RPGs coming from the likes of BioWare and Bethesda, but the fans that prefer the Japanese RPGs make up a smaller subset of that group and are still considered a hardcore niche group that tend to be well-versed in Japanese culture."
"I do believe our audience is growing," added Chavez. "It took a couple of years to get [the Xseed name] out there, but we have a pretty solid foundation, and Xseed is a bit more well-known now following the success of The Last Story. If anything niche or weird comes out of Japan these days, our name eventually gets bandied about, and the request section of our forums is booming."
"RPGs and JRPGs are less frequently released on a yearly basis than other genres, but these genres remain popular throughout the console transitions and the fan base that plays them are incredibly loyal and anxiously awaiting new games," said Jason Enos, senior global brand manager at Namco Bandai Games America. "RPGs and JRPGs really shouldn't be compared to other genres since the types of games and audiences are different. While these genres do appeal to a smaller subset of the overall gaming audience, these types of games are often very helpful in increasing adoption of newly launched hardware consoles since the fan base are usually very core gamers.
"Furthermore RPGs and RPG mechanics, systems and design elements have tremendous influence on other game genres," he added. The more widespread these mechanics become in other genres, the more gamers may develop an interest in role-playing games. "Career modes in sports games, character customization in action games and increasing focus on story in games can be traced back to RPGs."
"I think a certain portion of our audience are people who are interested in all sorts of Japanese media — manga and anime in addition to games," Aksys's Bateman said. "These are the people who helped establish Japanese games in the west as a viable market, and in many ways continue to help drive that community, helping to identify new, popular games, and introduce US fans to them before they're brought over. This is a large, incredibly dedicated group-look at things like the fan translations for Danganronpa or Umineko, where a group of fans organized themselves into production teams to localize games with millions of Japanese characters. I'd say that in a lot of ways this group is a core market: They understand our products and involve themselves in the community in incredible ways.
"I do think our audience has grown especially since we tapped into and are known for the visual novel and otome genre (games targeted at female players where the goal is often to establish a romantic relationship between characters)," added Ogawa. "I think Aksys is pretty much known for taking chances in super niche markets and because of that our fanbase are usually very welcoming and kind.
"There are titles we have to pass on and opportunities we'll always miss, but it also makes us much more agile."
Bateman said Aksys is currently straddling both the North American and Japanese markets, but manages to use what resources it has to stay afloat among other niche publishers, like Atlus and Marvelous USA. The studio's more subdued status, he said, also allows it to pick up those smaller, niche titles that larger studios will often overlook.
"We don't really have the money or resources to compete with the big boys, which means there are titles we have to pass on and opportunities we'll always miss, but it also makes us much more agile and able to do interesting things," Bateman said. "I can't imagine a larger U.S. company giving a second thought to something like 999 or Hakuoki, but both of those have become big successes for us and for our fans.
"I think we're at our best when we work on smaller, less well-known projects with developers who are trying to do newer or more exciting things," he added. "We can help developers find new success in the U.S. like we did for Chunsoft with 999, and we can help fans on this side of the ocean discover games they might never have heard of before."
There is certainly room for this niche genre to grow, but it appears to be making leaps and bounds already — headed by Atlus and its internationally beloved Persona games. According to the studio's senior product manager Yu Namba,the western and Japanese fanbases for the series are alike in their passion of the games. The games feature likeable characters (or characters you love to hate) and engaging features like the social link and complex storylines. And although the games are steeped heavily in Japanese culture, it doesn't bog them down or make them unrelatable to western players.
"The game taking place in Japan isn't much of an issue; rather, I'd like to think that the cultural similarities and differences we show in the game are part of what fascinates the western fans," Namba said.
There is a still a ways to go for universal acceptance of Japanese games, and one of the biggest problems with localization is when aesthetics feel so foreign they are taken as offensive — notably the recent drama surrounding the hypersexualized, stylized characters of Dragon's Crown. But as Namba notes, the characters were not created to be offensive or even to appeal to a certain type of gamer — it's simply the designer's unique style.
At the end of the day, it's still Atlus leading the charge to making localization of Japanese games feel less niche and more welcoming. As the industry moves forward, the next year will bring a number of Japanese games to audiences worldwide, including Dark Souls 2 — the sequel to an open-world Japanese RPG both praised and derided for its challenging nature — as well as the next big Final Fantasy games, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13, and Suda 51's latest endeavor Killer is Dead. With a new console generation, dozens more games in production and unannounced and studios welcoming growing audiences, localizing niche Japanese games may not be such a niche endeavor much longer.