CEO Naoto Hiraoka speaks exclusively to MCV about bringing Japanese sensibility to the West, pairing with Sega, sticking with Vita and remaining unpredictable
Best known in the West for the role-playing franchise Megami Tensei, which spawned the highly popular Shin Megami Tensei: Persona subseries, and surgical-simulation visual novel series Trauma Centre, developer and publisher Atlus has continued to stick to its Japanese roots as its presence in the West has grown.
The confidence Atlus has in its ability to bring a Japanese style of gameplay and storytelling successfully to a Western audience has earned it a devoted cult of followers, who continue to delight in lengthy, story-driven Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs).
But this isn't to say that the firm's popularity in the US and Europe is entirely down to its staunch approach – in fact, admitting it might not always know best was arguably the catalyst for its initial breakthrough.
The big turning point was 2008, which was when Persona 3 came out [in the West],” explains Atlus CEO Naoto Hiraoka.
Up until then, when we would develop a game in Japan, it was very much what we would want to do – as a company. We would want to make a game, and we would make the game the way we wanted to and do it a certain way. That was always how we had done things up until that point.
Persona 3 represented something different for us; it was the first time where we decided to look at things overall, and think more about the consumers and what the consumer might be looking for in a game. That's how that game was developed and then released.
Seeing the fan reaction to that, it was extremely positive, and things kind of took off from there. So we decided that, going forward, we would focus on these things and think about these things while creating our games.”
Released for the PS2, Persona 3 marked Atlus' first major success in the West. An expanded ‘Director's Cut' version of the title, Persona 3 FES, reached European shores just eight months after the original game's launch. This was followed two years later by an enhanced remake for the PSP, entitled Persona 3 Portable.
Persona 3's successor, 2009's Persona 4, saw an even greater reaction on its release, earning critical acclaim and multiple awards. The title sold almost 200,000 copies worldwide within its first week, and was the best-selling PS2 game on Amazon.com for two consecutive weeks – an impressive feat for a niche JRPG requiring players to invest around 100 hours of their time.
Like Persona 3, Persona 4 saw an enhanced remake, Persona 4 Golden for the PlayStation Vita, and multiple spin-offs – notably the fighting game Persona 4 Arena, and upcoming titles Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth for 3DS and Persona 4: Dancing All Night for Vita.
The foundation built by Persona 3 and 4 allowed Atlus' next standalone title, 2011's dreamscape puzzle-platformer Catherine, to thrive, selling more than 500,000 units globally in its first year on sale.
Hiraoka restates his belief that Atlus' growing global success is thanks to the company's belief that Japanese gameplay sensibility can appeal to a Western audience.
The things you might notice about the characters and worlds of games like Persona 4 and Catherine are that they are very Japanese, but are at the same time very character-based and character-focused,” he comments. Users seemed to get very involved with that and had an extremely positive reaction – both in Japan, of course, but even in the West as well.
We realised, from that, that going forward this is how we should develop and create games. That was the turning point – even since then, our market has been expanding and there has been a greater appreciation for Atlus brand titles.”
The big turning point was 2008, which was when Persona 3
came out [in the West]. Up until then, when we would
develop a game in Japan, it was very much what we would
want to do – as a company. Persona 3 represented
something different for us; it was the first time where we
decided to look at things overall, and think more about the
consumers and what the consumer might be looking for in
a game. That's how that game was developed and then
released. Seeing the fan reaction to that, it was extremely
positive, and things kind of took off from there. So we
decided that, going forward, we would focus on these things
and think about these things while creating our games.”
Naoto Hiraoka - CEO, Atlus
While Atlus may be faring well around the globe, its parent company, Index Corporation, struggled to keep afloat. This led to the acquisition of the entire Index group – Atlus included – by Sega in April of this year. Hiraoka says the move will help Atlus continue to grow and develop in the Western world.
Atlus is a company that creates niche products, and, up until now, in terms of how these games were developed, we focused on a core user base and created games for that core user base,” he states. On the other hand, Sega is very large and has created console hardware itself in the past, giving it a much larger scale.”
The success of certain Sega properties in the UK retail charts is of particular interest, Hiraoka adds, hinting at Atlus' own growth in the region.
Over in the UK, games such as the Football Manager series, Alien Isolation and Rome Total War are very big name titles, and are also titles that Sega shows from a strategic standpoint in terms of investment in the future,” he explains.
They are titles that they take time to develop, time to grow and time to get the word out to people, but they are also big enough that they don't just show a point-to-point movement, but an overarching strategy in how to release games over a period of time. I feel that is something that Atlus as a company can learn from.”
But Atlus also believes that other companies can also learn from its example, particularly when it comes to offering more to players.
While many major publishers may be moving away from the PlayStation Vita as a primary release platform, Atlus is one of a scant few still releasing exclusive titles for Sony's handheld.
This includes the remastered Persona 4 Golden, as well as upcoming spin-off Persona 4: Dancing All Night.
Of course, the Vita is far more popular in Japan than the UK, with the hardware consistently placing above all five major consoles. But Hiraoka explains why he continues to see promise in the powerful, but oft-sidelined, device outside of the handheld-loving territory.
Persona 4 Golden was originally envisioned as a PSP release, but it ended up becoming a Vita title,” he reveals. The reason for this is that, currently, the Vita probably has the best specs of any handheld device out there.”
And this power provides an opportunity to give more choice to players – something more developers should be taking advantage of, he adds.
In terms of development and making games, there are many different ways to do things,” Hiraoka says. Some games are well-suited for console – you sit in front of your television and play – some games are suited for when you're going between places on a train or something like that and you're playing, and some people like to play games and put in a few hours before they go to bed.
For us, that's an idea we can offer to the player – How about this? How about playing a game like this? How about playing a game like that?