NIS America and Nihon Falcom on how to save the JRPG

The Japanese market is shrinking, according to the presidents of NIS America and Nihon Falcom, so what can developers do to ensure the future of their business?

When Nihon Falcom’s Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana ended Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s month-long reign at the top of the Japanese charts back in May, president Toshihiro Kondo was both surprised and impressed by the title’s performance. According to Famitsu, the RPG sold over 30,000 copies in just four days, marking the first time the series had risen so high up the Japanese rankings. 

“We never expected to beat Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, so we were really happy,” Kondo tells MCV. “Usually, our Trails of Cold Steel series is the one to take the top spot, and Ys had never done that before, so this time we were really surprised and pleased. 

“We took a lot of chances with it and changed a lot of things compared to previous titles in the series. The user reaction has been very good and it’s definitely paid off on the sales side, as both versions of the game on PS4 and Vita met and exceeded what we were expecting.”

When it came to bringing the title to the US and Europe, Nihon Falcom chose to work with NIS America instead of its usual publishing partner XSeed – and with good reason, too: “Actually, NIS America has approached us for several years now on various different titles, always with an enthusiastic proposal,” Kondo continues. 

“This time, of course, another enthusiastic proposal was received. However, within that, some of the key features were the French localisation – this was something that had never been proposed before – and the very detailed idea and plan for both marketing and for sales. This impressed us very much, so much so that we decided to go with NIS America this time.”

 

Pictured above: Nihon Falcom’s Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, published by NIS America, released in Europe in September

Indeed, NIS America president and CEO Takuro Yamashita confirms that France is now the company’s “biggest market” in Europe, making its localisation a highly profitable venture. “To speak very honestly, the [pre-order] numbers for Ys VIII actually reached 2.5x more in France than the UK,” he explains. “However, I’m very much convinced that the UK will catch up as well over time as people learn about the game and see the reviews.”

It’s not just Ys VIII that’s more popular in France, as NIS America saw the same thing happen in May with the Switch version of its own tactical RPG, Disgaea 5 Complete. The game hit 36,000 pre-orders in Europe, with France once again taking the biggest slice of the sales pie. As Yamashita told us at the time, it was the French localisation that sealed the deal.  

“To do translations into EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German and Spanish), we need to sell at least 10,000 units in the language that it’s been localised into,” Yamashita reveals. “So if that’s French, you need to sell 10,000 French units, if it’s German, you need to sell 10,000 German units.

"I feel the Japanese market has become very insular and Japanese companies really need to look outward in order to grow."

Takuro Yamashita, NIS America

“Only Square Enix really does that for its big titles. 15 years ago, when it was simply known as Square, they were the only ones willing to take a chance on the localisation of RPGs because of the volume of text. Obviously, because of that, the market was very small at the time. But with NIS America, we now want to take our larger titles like Ys and translate them into other languages.”

NIS America’s publishing partnership with Nihon Falcom may well continue beyond the release of Ys VIII, too, as Kondo says he “would love to continue working with NIS America on a broader front globally going forward.” He himself admits that while “we as a company are very good at making games, we’re not very good at PR for ourselves,” making it “necessary” to have a partner like NIS America when promoting their titles overseas.

Since the interview was conducted, issues have arisen with Ys VIII’s localisation. NIS America has recognised this, Yamashita apologised personally, and the company is working to fix the issue with a full review and revision of the translation, which should be available early next year.

SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE

Japanese developers are going to need all the help they can get publishing their games overseas, according to Kondo and Yamashita, as both feel their home market is only going to get smaller over the coming years. 

“In the west, the market is definitely increasing,” says Yamashita. “With giants like Square Enix and games like Persona 5, Disgaea 5, and of course Ys VIII and the Trails of Cold Steel games, it’s only getting bigger on this side of the western market.

“However, and I probably shouldn’t be the one saying this, but I do feel the Japanese market has become very insular, and going forward Japanese companies really need to look outward in order to grow. On the localisation side, English is obviously a must, and French as well. Ideally, EFIGS languages will do the best to help build up JRPGs again.”

Kondo agrees: “The Japanese market is exactly as Mr Yamashita described. Right now, there’s an issue with the lack of growth within the Japanese market, and the situation is such that to grow the current sales numbers by 1.5x or 2x, for example, is a very difficult task. It’s not simply a matter of improving the quality of the games to make them better, either. Even with that, it’s still very difficult to meet that financial or numerical goal.”

Pictured above: At launch, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana took Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s top spot in the Japanese charts

For Nihon Falcom, one solution has been to start selling physical PC versions of its games in China. “From there, it’s kind of spread throughout the rest of Asia, and that’s been a market for us for several years now,” Kondo explains.

“At the moment, Asian sales reach about half of what happens in Japan for any given title. So, as a company, one of our focuses going forward is to, of course, continue cultivating this market that’s emerged for us in Asia, as well as continue to cultivate and grow the markets that are emerging in North America and Europe. 

“I feel that, in the future, it might become the case where foreign sales are 1:1 with Japan, and beyond that may even begin to exceed sales in Japan. So rather than have just a negative outlook on the Japanese market, Nihon Falcom wants to look forward and continue to find partners like NIS America to work with to continue to grow their brands, not only in Japan, but globally as well.”

"There’s an issue with the lack of growth within the Japanese market. It’s not simply a matter of improving the quality of the games. Even with that, it’s still very difficult to meet that financial or numerical goal."

Toshihiro Kondo, Nihon Falcom

Yamashita is confident Kondo will be able to achieve this, too: “In Japan, Nihon Falcom’s titles are incredibly strong. Through the help of Sega, Atlus is perhaps thought of as No.2 after Square Enix in terms of the Japanese RPG market, but in Japan, Nihon Falcom is definitely the No.2 JRPG maker.

“In contrast, if you look at NISA titles, for example, it’s usually 4:1 on the side of foreign sales compared to Japan. It’s a general tendency. So the fact that Falcom sells much more in Japan shows there’s still a huge opportunity for Falcom in the west. Falcom is incredibly underrated in the west through a lack of knowledge from users, so our goal as NIS America and through our partnership with Falcom is to raise the awareness of their brands, so they easily come in right after Square Enix and to give them that global recognition that they deserve for their games.”

SWITCHING TO DIGITAL

That’s not to say NIS America isn’t looking after its own success, though. Despite having previously told MCV at Gamescom that it’s not a company that’s able to take a lot of risks, its bold decision to support the Nintendo Switch with Disgaea 5 Complete within months of the console’s launch has certainly paid off for the publisher. 

“Disgaea 5 originally came out on PS4 and then a year and a half later it came out on Switch and did very, very well,” says Yamashita. “Right now in the market, the PS Vita is obviously on its way out, but Switch is very strong. One thing in particular that makes it so strong is that it has that handheld function, so going forward as a company, we want to target PS4, Steam and Switch, because over the next two years, the Switch market is only going to grow and become stronger. 

“There’s definitely a feeling that Nintendo doesn’t want to lose to Sony. They’ve really changed their attitude, so I think the market will become very interesting going forward. We’ll continue to support the Vita digitally, but there’s a very strong chance the last physical title from us for it will be Ys VIII and Danganronpa V3.”

The publisher’s digital sales have been particularly strong since the launch of its online store, Yamashita continues. 

“Generally speaking, digital is about 30 per cent of all sales revenue,” he says. “But, and this is just the American numbers, around 25 per cent of sales revenue comes from our online store. Therefore, the combined total revenue share of sales is 55 per cent when you add the online store and digital together.”

Pictured above: NIS America started supporting the Switch by releasing Disgaea 5 Complete a couple of months after the console’s launch

In Japan, digital sales are growing but are less pronounced than they are in the west, as according to Kondo: “Japanese people still have a tendency to prefer physical goods.” As a result, he says, physical sales generally account “for more than 70 per cent of [Nihon Falcom’s] total sales.”

Despite this, releasing games on digital platforms like Steam continues to be a major pillar of both company’s publishing strategies. “If a game has already been a success on console or handheld, it stands to reason that it’s going to be a success on Steam as well,” says Yamashita. “That’s because you’ve already formed a bond of trust with the user.”

Kondo agrees: “For the Japanese market, at least, the fact that the games are on Steam isn’t really a big thing because there’s not really a market yet on Steam in Japan.

“However, I’m definitely aware that at least in North America, the percentage of people who play games on Steam and PC is very high. Originally, we would take our back catalogue from ten and twenty years ago and put them on Steam, but now it’s got to the point where we’re putting our new titles on Steam as well when they come out. Again, because of that really positive response we’ve had from the foreign market, especially in North America, it’s definitely changed our thinking and why we want to do more on Steam now. It’s only logical to continue to put more games on there.”

"For 20 years, JRPGs continued in a very positive direction. But for the last ten years, there have been a lot of voices in Japan saying that these games aren’t as good as they used to be."

Toshihiro Kondo, Nihon Falcom

As for Switch, Kondo is taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. “Traditionally, Nihon Falcom’s always been a PC developer that doesn’t really create games for the casual market, but for the really hardcore gamers. Where is that market today? The answer to that is PS4,” he says.

“The Switch is very successful right now, but there’s still no positive guarantee that the fan base that would play Falcom games are on the Switch yet. It’s always been very important to look and see where our users are, so while we thought it was more than likely that many of our fans actually owned a 3DS, one of the trends of PC users is that they prefer gadgets and machines with a higher spec, which is obviously something that Sony was offering. So after a really careful consideration of both sides, we decided it was more likely that the people who wanted to play the types of games we made would want to play them on a PlayStation platform.

“Things have been very strong for the Japanese handheld market recently, but even that market has shrunk drastically as well. Our strategy is to go forward on PS4, and then wait and see if fans want a handheld version.”

A BIG SEA CHANGE

One of the main forces behind Japan’s shrinking console market is, of course, the unstoppable rise of mobile. 

“One thing you can point to, of course, is smartphones,” says Yamashita. “Obviously because of that, you can see the sales of consoles, and games on consoles, are much less than they were prior to the advent of smartphones as a gaming platform. 

“Interestingly, if you look at the financial situation for most people in Asia, they might not necessarily have a big disposal income, but they do purchase more PS4 units than in Japan. So it seems the Japanese as a market are going more for these easy to pick-up-and-play-type games rather than traditional style games.”

For Kondo, however, there’s still a lot of merit in sticking to a slightly more old-fashioned way of making games: “Falcom has existed for 40 years now, and we’re called something of a traditional company,” he says. “But there’s a positive quality to tradition and to continue the quality of that tradition is important. The game industry as a whole has improved by having companies like Falcom carry on these traditions in JRPGs, because if you don’t maintain the quality of your games, no one is going to buy them.”

Pictured above: Trails of Cold Steel is one of Nihon Falcom’s most popular franchises 

It seems to be working, too, as this year alone we’ve seen critically-acclaimed titles such as Persona 5, Nier: Automata and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild all create a surge of new interest in Japanese games in the west, with each of them selling well over a million around the world just days after release. Kondo is confident this trend will continue as well.

“The very core of the JRPG comes from Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy,” he says. “For 20 years, JRPGs continued in a very positive direction. But for the last ten years, there have been a lot of voices in Japan saying that these games aren’t as good as they used to be.

“The situation has improved in the last five years with games like Persona, but having seen the games that have succeeded, it’s because the companies did only something they could do. You’ll notice that everyone else has faded into the periphery, so now you just have these developers who are very good at one particular thing that really shines through in the games that they make, and I think these creators are finally starting to recognise that. 

“Because of that, we’re right before something really great in terms of the revival of JRPGs. There’s still a lot of room for JRPGs to evolve, but I think we’re right before a big sea change, both in the quality of JRPGs and the reception of them. If you look carefully from the Nintendo Famicom days all the way up to the PS2 generation, you’ll see lots of really good, high quality, unique JRPGs, so the point is to go back to that again and revisit that, taking a stance that says ‘We’re going to make games that only we can make, just like we made in that time, and that could only have come from Japan.’ This will allow us to continue to fight on a global front and bring back JRPGs.”