Western game aims to conquer foreign market

When big movies don’t launch globally, that usually means Japan is going to have to wait a while. When the same thing happens with videogames, it’s typically America that has to wait.

Japan, after all, is the home of Nintendo and Sony and the most videogame-centered culture in the world. Many of the biggest videogame franchises originate there. The ones that don’t are typically released at or near the same time that they hit the U.S. and Europe.

But not everything crosses the Pacific with ease. In the film world, the best examples are American adult comedies, which typically don’t perform well in Japan. As a result, studios often forgo the momentum of a worldwide launch in order to tailor subtitles and marketing materials as well as find the right Japan-specific release date.

As it turns out, they have a lot in common with Rockstar Games, publisher of “Grand Theft Auto.” Arguably the biggest nonsports videogame franchise ever created in the West, “GTA” has consistently found Japan a tough nut to crack. Though “GTA” titles have done solidly compared with most Western games to enter that market, as a percentage of their worldwide perf Nippon revenue has been absolutely minuscule. 2004’s “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” for instance, sold less than 2% of its 22.2 million worldwide units in Japan. 2002’s “Vice City” did under 4%.

But six months after a record-setting release in the U.S. and Europe, publisher Rockstar Games is hoping to do better with “Grand Theft Auto IV,” which has already sold more than 10 million units in other markets. The game hit Japan just last week, after months of work on new subtitles and creating a marketing plan with Capcom, which is releasing “GTA IV” games in Japan for Rockstar.

“For a Western game, we’ve done amazing numbers in Japan, but we’re very ambitious and want to compete with the biggest Japanese titles,” says Rockstar co-founder and VP creative Dan Houser.

That inevitably means, he grants, selling Japanese gamers on a uniquely American experience. The “GTA” series has always drawn on and satirized U.S. cultural tropes, from “Scarface” to ’90s hip-hop, and this year’s entry is a story about immigration and the American Dream that wouldn’t work if it were set anywhere else.

Rockstar has found that trying to adapt those themes for the Japanese market, where the most popular titles tend to be escapist fantasy titles and casual games for Nintendo’s Wii and DS, only made things worse.

“One of the mistakes we made early on was a T-shirt for ‘Vice City’ (on which) we translated ‘vice city’ into Japanese,” Houser recalls. “It turns out that doesn’t work culturally.”

Rather than hide what the “GTA IV” is, Rockstar is working harder to get Japanese consumers to embrace it while focusing on the aspects that might appeal to them most.

On a recent publicity trip for the game’s launch, Houser says he found local game journalists intrigued by the fact that “GTA IV” features an immigrant as its protagonist and that many of its technological breakthroughs, such as a narrative that branches based on player choices and a hi-def open world, haven’t been done in any Japanese-developed games so far.

Waiting this long does present its own problems: Just like the U.S., Japan has a small but thriving import games market where hardcore fans can get foreign versions of videogames before they’re released in their local incarnations. Given “GTA’s” relatively small but fervent fanbase in the country, Houser acknowledges that some potential buyers may have already gotten the game. But since he ultimately sees Japan as a long-term growth market, the benefits may outweigh the costs.

“If they’re telling their friends who don’t play imported games that they’ve got to get the subtitles version, that’s great marketing for us,” he says. “We’re taking a long-term (view) with Japan of trying to grow the game and grow the interest.”

So far, “GTA IV” is off to a solid start, with the PlayStation 3 version topping the Japanese charts in its first week, moving 133,000 units, and the Xbox 360 version coming in at No. 7.

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