Homegrown heroes

Nation's unique taste in games and systems stymies import efforts

More than four years after the system launched in the U.S. and Japan, Microsoft’s Xbox is a surprising success Stateside and an abysmal failure in the Land of the Rising Sun. In America, consumers on average buy more than 100,000 of the systems per month; in Japan, fewer than 300 are sold.

So why hasn’t Xbox sold better in Japan and, perhaps more crucial, why are homegrown consoles Nintendo’s GameCube and Sony’s PlayStation 2 selling at a faster rate?

There is one factor that gamers and publishers agree upon: Japanese gamers have different tastes than their Stateside brethren. In Japan, players favor Japanese franchises like “Dynasty Warriors,” “Onimusha,” “Winning Eleven” and, of course, “Dragon Quest.”

Role-playing games also rule in the Land of the Rising Sun, with the topselling PlayStation 2 games being “Dragon Quest VIII,” “Final Fantasy X,” “Final Fantasy X-2” and “Dragon Quest V” — all RPGs published by powerhouse Square Enix.

Sony publishes only four of the top 20 bestselling PlayStation 2 games in Japan and relies on third-party contributions. The company has an investment in Square Enix, which has made it difficult for Microsoft or Nintendo to ink deals with the top-tier developer.

Similarly, ex- prexy of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi established the Q Fund — a cash reserve to fund upstart studios so they can make software exclusively for Nintendo platforms. Game Designer’s Studio, headed by Akitoshi Kawazu, created “Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles” for GameCube under the deal.

Microsoft might have failed to deliver appealing titles in its first run in the country, but the publisher hasn’t given up on the Japanese market. The company intends to launch its next-generation console in Japan before Nintendo or Sony roll out theirs, and the company recently made a move similar to Nintendo’s, except grander, in an attempt to finally attract Japanese gamers.

The company has forged an exclusive partnership with former Square president Hironobu Sakaguchi, whose new studio, Mistwalker, will develop two exclusive RPGs for the Xbox 360. Sakaguchi, who kickstarted the “Final Fantasy” series, has been a pivotal figure in Square’s success. Mistwalker’s two games will boast teams of 100-150 people each, which suggests that the production values will rival, if not exceed, Square’s top titles.

“It’s a main priority for me in the next 12-18 months to ensure Japanese developers are our partners,” says Peter Moore, Microsoft’s vice president of worldwide marketing and publishing. “This is an investment that will pay off in the future and will be a platform-driving set of games for our next-generation system.”

While Microsoft and Sony pursue Japanese third-party support in the next-gen wars, Nintendo is more likely to draw upon its own licenses for its forthcoming Revolution console. Nintendo publishes the top 12 bestselling GameCube titles in Japan and its lucrative licenses include “Mario Bros.,” “Zelda” and “Pokemon.”

Nintendo believes the Japanese games market is in a slump and is therefore seeking to attract consumers not normally interested in videogames. To do that, the developer is creating simpler, pick-up-and-play software like “Wario Ware” and “Nintendogs,” which are in stark contrast to the big-budgeted efforts coming from many third parties.

Is there room in Japan for three bears? Microsoft, armed with a smaller, sleeker console and formidable Japanese support, hopes the answer is yes.

Matt Casamassina is editor in chief of IGNcube.