Earlier this month, Ghostlight launched an unusual appeal to help bring DS RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2.
The UK publisher stated that if it could generate 1,800 pre-orders for the game through its online store, it would be able to afford the manufacturing costs.
It's a campaign reminiscent of the wave of Kickstarter and other appeals that have spread across the internet for the past 18 months. But Ghostlight's PR man Ross Brierley says the difference is that this project, unlike most crowd-funding initiatives, is not being funded from scratch.
We have the game ready and we've localised it,” he explains. Unfortunately with the 3DS being out for a while now, the DS is coming to the end of its life and there's just not much shelf space for DS games – quite understandable.
So we couldn't get enough orders for retail. But we've done all the hard work and people are asking for it, so we would like them to be able to play it. As long as we can cover our costs for the manufacturing, we can get it out to them.”
Given the state of the market right now, it may seem easy to blame problems like this on economics but another publisher explained to MCV that DS manufacturing costs are genuinely still quite high, even this late into the handheld's lifecycle.
"We've done all the hard work and people are asking for
Devil Summoner 2. As long as we can cover our costs
for the manufacturing, we can get it out to them."
Ross Brierley, Ghostlight
Nintendo requires all DS games to launch with a minimum run of 4,800 copies. If you factor in production of both the box and the cartidge, distribution, applying for age ratings and the myriad of other costs involved in manufacturing a game, you rack of a bill close to the 100,000 mark.
That's 100,000 just to get your game out of the door, and if you don't sell all 4,800 copies, you've lost money. A considerable amount of money if you're a smaller publisher like Ghostlight.
Put into perspective, this actually makes the firm's appeal seem more reasonable. It's only asking for 1,800 pre-orders. Even if every consumer opts for the cheaper 24.99 SKU, that only generates around 45,000, suggesting Ghostlight is still footing as much of the bill as it can.
And Ghostlight isn't alone. Other publishers have told MCV they have multiple DS games ready for release, but are unable to afford production.
But why should consumers fund any of the manufacturing when that is essentially the role of a publisher?
This is the first time an appeal has asked gamers to fund a game already promised a retail release, and from an established publisher rather than an independent developer or start-up.
Our publishing expert is not too comfortable with Ghostlight's venture: We're in the market to make games for consumers to play, not to make them for consumers to pay for the right to play,” said one publisher. To ask fans to pay for it up front, that just doesn't sit right with me.”
But Brierley is keen to point out that Ghostlight has no problem funding other niche releases from the same series: We managed to release Devil Survivor Overclocked on 3DS through retail normally. But there's just not much shelf space for DS games.”
"We're in the market to make games for
consumers to play, not to make them for
consumers to pay for the right to play."
Space issues are a conscious choice of the UK's games retailers, of course. It's understandable that stores need to focus what limited space they have on the more current formats, particularly given that 3DS has dramatically gained momentum in the last year.
But given the slow state of the market right now, can retailers afford to turn away any physical release – especially on a format that still sells well. In July, more DS games were sold than for Wii U and Vita combined.
The alternative for Ghostlight is to concentrate on online retailers such as Amazon – one DS publisher claimed it could easily secure half of the 4,800 sales required through online purchases alone.
But Ghostlight says demand for Devil Summoner 2 has been promising, warranting a physical release.
Our website has been struggling under the load,” Brierley says. The response seems to be really positive. One guy told us on Twitter that he had been trying for eight hours before he managed to pre-order a copy – so clearly he was quite keen.”
Ultimately this is not the first time small publishers have struggled to secure shelf space for cult Japanese games, nor will it be the last. Back in 2009, Rising Star boss Martin Defries hit out at the High Street for ‘dumbing down' games retail by not stocking acclaimed Wii title Muramasa: The Demon Blade
True, Muramasa, Shin Megami Tensei and other such titles are never going to rake in the level of sales that other Japanese exports like Final Fantasy and Pokmon do. But crucially, they do still sell – just look at the success Namco Bandai has had with the likes of chart-topping Ni No Kuni and Tales of Xillia, which is No.4 in this week's charts.
Is Ghostlight's Kickstarter-esque appeal to fans the optimum way to bring these titles to market? Perhaps not – whether or not a publisher should ask consumers to fund game manufacturing is a grey area at best. But it's a sign of the lengths determined small publishers will go to if bricks and mortar retailers don't invest in a more diverse range of titles.