Most gaming fans worldwide know of Dragon Quest, but it's not an unfair assumption that a much smaller number of them have played the series. It's wildly popular in Japan, and has been for 30 years now. But, as several members of Square Enix acknowledged when we spoke during E3 2016, that just hasn't been the case stateside.
"There's two main reasons" why Dragon Quest isn't as popular outside of its native country, producer Yu Miyake told Polygon. "The first is that, in Japan, the Famicom was kind of the moment that video games became part of families, and people really started bringing them into their homes."
Enix released the original Dragon Quest in 1986. To many Japanese gamers, Miyake said, it's the title they continue to strongly, nostalgically associate with the medium.
Western gamers latched on to role-playing games much later, according to Miyake. "In the West, we feel like PlayStation is where home consoles really caught on with Final Fantasy 7, so Final Fantasy has that foundation ... where it really captured the hearts of gamers."
"Mature gamers look at it and feel like it's a kids game"
That's why Final Fantasy games almost always get localized while Dragon Quest 10 and the upcoming Dragon Quest 11 hang in localization limbo, let alone more obscure titles, like a rhythm game featuring music from the series.
For his second reason, Miyake cited the "cartoonish style" by longtime character designer Akira Toriyama as a turnoff for international audiences.
"Mature gamers look at it and feel like it's a kids game," he said. "When you actually play the game, it's a little complicated for children to play, but it's kind of been a hurdle for grown ups to get into it."
With Dragon Quest Builders, though — the series' 30th anniversary title that comes West on Oct. 11 — it seems like the developer is fully embracing that audience, while also making a play for its hard-won foreign audience. Builders diverges from the typical RPG gameplay for a more Minecraft-style affair, as players gather up objects and move blocks to re-construct the world.
Builders is less of a sandbox game than people expect, though. It tells a complete, four chapter-long story, one drawn from Japan's beloved first Dragon Quest. In a demo shown to us, we saw the hero joined by other fighters, resembling a typical RPG party. Its setting isn't a true open world; the player's hometown remains in a fixed spot, and townspeople won't travel far outside of it.
The most obvious point of comparison is still Minecraft, because of the core crafting element, and Square Enix is well aware of that.
Builders isn't as Minecraft-esque as it seems
Minecraft is a massive property outside of Japan, especially with the kiddy set that might be attracted to Dragon Quest's brightly colored, big-headed characters. While it may seem like the game is a calculated move to attract Minecraft-loving, younger newcomers to Dragon Quest, Miyake said that it has a different function in Japan.
"Minecraft just recently became popular in Japan," he explained. "It's very popular with children in Japan. Dragon Quest with this building style [of play] is a great way to introduce Dragon Quest players to this building style in Japan.
"It has the opposite effect in Japan, but we see that it's a great way to get people interested in Dragon Quest in the U.S."
Japanese appeal is first and foremost for Square Enix when creating new Dragon Quest games; that's its biggest audience, after all. After 30 years, the team seems comfortable with things staying that way.
"The series has a Japanese nature to it, a cultural nature, that people in Japan will get right away," Miyake said. "Localizing this game has definitely been a challenge to make sure it has the same feel, the same warmth."
Western players can determine if Square Enix has succeeded this fall. And if the game does really well, who knows — it could be enough to convince the developer that Dragon Quest 11 is worth bringing over, the producer teased.