Niche Games Can do Well if Companies Take Time to Market Them Correctly

Note: Close to a decade ago, I worked for a gaming website called Gamrfeed, sadly the site folded and was absorbed back into it’s parent website VGchartz a long time ago. When I started working at my current job in 2011, I sadly did not have time to continue producing articles on the schedule that was required, so I had to drop it. I was really proud of some of the work I did on there, and do not want it to disappear into the ether as most websites do after a while. I’ve been posting a few of these “rescued articles” recently, especially ones I think still matter or that I’m proud of. Since this article is from early 2011, the references are incredibly out of date, but that should not stand in the way of the information presented.

I wrote this as a commentary on the trend of publishers not releasing what could be considered “niche games” in the US market for a myriad of reasons and basically blaming the fans when asked about it. I was really hot about this issue at the time, as companies like Namco, Konami, Capcom, and pretty much any other Japanese gaming company started this really ugly trend of cancelling games then blaming fans for not doing free PR work or “not being excited enough”. Honestly this seems to have gotten somewhat worse as time has gone by as most “AAA games” have shifted from being “games” and are now almost all open-world monstrosities that are designed to pump money from you. Case and point, this slide from an Ubisoft press conference: 

 


The “Games as a Service” dilemma might be a solid topic for a future article, but without further ado, lets step back into 2011 and see what made me rage out then.


We have been told for years and years now that niche games (which usually mean games from Japan) do not sell in this current market. This has been, on countless occasions, the primary reason for the endless sequels, spin-offs, and clones that we see in place of refreshing new IPs. I have always held the opinion that, if given a fair shot, many of these games could sell very well if marketed well, courted to the press, and handled better than many games are handled. The age old argument seems to be that “weird Japanese games” should never be released over here, as they will fail miserably. Some seem to forget occasions where this was proven to be total bunk, like with the EXTREMELY weird game Katamari Damacy and now an equally bizarre game – Catherine.

If one had to actually explain the premise of Catherine to a non-gamer or the dreaded “casual gamer” I would imagine that the person in question would resemble either a total loon, or somebody on a prohibited substance. In a recent VGchartz review, the plot was laid as as such: “Every night after Vincent leaves the bar he grows horns and enters a nightmare world in which he and some sheep constantly climb a tower of blocks in an attempt to reach the top before the bottom falls out from under them.” For the layman, a premise like this seems destined for the bargain bin amongst copies of Wet and Brink; but that’s the funny thing about Catherine – it’s actually doing well.

After just one week out in the Americas, the game has racked up a total sales of nearly 300,000 units worldwide, and with a reported 200,000 copies released to stores (the largest release Atlus USA has ever enjoyed) I think we can safely see that a game like an erotic action/puzzle game can sell well if handled correctly.

 

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News reports later backed this revelation Catherine had shipped 200k copies”:

“Yesterday, Atlus told IGN that Catherine has been the company’s biggest launch title ever. “[It] has exceeded our highest expectations,” said Tim Pivnicny, VP of Sales and Marketing at Atlus. “It released last week to tremendous critical acclaim and fan response, bolstered by the release of a demo a couple weeks prior, and continues to generate discussion among fans for its mature themes, engrossing subject matter, and frantic, challenging gameplay.”

So how did this happen? How did a game where a man is slowly being turned into a sheep and has to climb a tower do so well? Quick answer – it was marketed correctly.

Let’s face it, Atlus games have a very loyal built in fanbase all over the world, and while some games sort of fizzled out like, Growlanser V, they have had a number of modest hits including the Persona series. The reason that their games do well is a hard question to answer, but I feel that it can be broken down into a quick little formula that they have obviously mastered. First and foremost Atlus USA seems to be one of the only companies in America that sets realistic goals for games. Rather than expecting everything to be a million seller, then getting mad when they have extra stock and nobody buying them, Atlus makes small runs of every game based on predictions from pre-orders. This usually means that their games almost always sell out.

Another thing that Atlus always does well is that they treat any release like an event, like it is something special. Rather than throwing the game to the wolves in such a way that indicates that the parent company really could care less for a quirky foreign game, Atlus does it right. They set realistic goals, run pre-orders, and use viral marketing to build hype. Atlus USA have a good relationship with their fans, and utilize them to help hype games, but not in a way that totally burdens them with it, as a lot of the bigger companies do.

When fans spoke out about Catherine originally not getting released in the U.S., the fans spoke up and it worked. Nobody ever said “you better hype this or we won’t release anything else”, they said “okay here it is”. Now that the fans were happy and willing to help out, it was time to win over the press. Remember all the E3 press the game got, even if the game itself wasn’t being talked about, all patrons of the convention had “Catherine” branded on their lanyards, leaving many to look into the game if they hadn’t done so. Magazines started talking about it, game websites, everybody.

It really shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Catherine is doing well, but many are treating it as such. This is most likely because we live in an era when any game that does not sell millions of units is considered a huge flop. If anything, it is the small publishing houses that get it right in these situations: they don’t try to act like they are as big as EA or Activision, but cater to their more intimate audience. Through Pre-sell bonuses, viral marketing, word-of-mouth, and pure old fasioned sexual innuendo, Atlus seem to have struck gold here. Let’s hope it keeps happening.


End Note: It’s funny to look back on this and see me talk about the “modest hit Persona” considering how huge Persona 5 was last year – despite that Atlus (now owned by Sega) is still great at what they do, and many other Japanese publishers have not changed course – especially Konami because F%$# Konami.

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Two new Final Fantasy VII Remake images Revealed at Monaco Anime Game International Conference!

THIS IS NOT A DRILL!

Okay, that’s a bit over the top, but we finally have a glimpse of gameplay footage of the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake. These were apparently revealed today at a convention called The Monaco Anime Game International Conference (MAGIC). As you can see from the images below, the initial bombing raid is in full force as members of AVALANCHE infiltrate the Sector 1 reactor of Shinra Electric Power Company. It’s hard to tell 100%, but the game appears to be running on some version of the Final Fantasy XV engine which really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Here’s hoping E3 gives us a new trailer or something this year.

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Kingdom Hearts 3 was also showing off some new screens

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Is the Valkyria Chronicles Franchise Dead in the West?

LONG Before I even decided to get a PlayStation 3, I would check the various recommendation threads and other such things on a lot of gaming forums to see what games were seen as the “killer apps” that I should definitely play. I was honestly sort of cranky with Sony after the PS3 launch, pricing especially. I needed something that stood out, a game that I couldn’t get anywhere else, and one game, more than any other, was constantly touted as being not only one of the most underrated games on the PS3, but one of the best RPGs out there on any system. That game was the first Valkyria Chronicles. I finally got the system, and immediately snagged a copy of it.

I was taken aback by how mature the game was, and no I don’t mean “blood and guts and boobs” mature like the many games that misuse the term today, but an honest mature game done in such a way that most folks of the teenage persuasion, except maybe anime fans, would probably scoff at it. Yes the game deals with war, but in concentrates on the heroics and struggles with fighting rather than the bleak horrors of any battlefield.

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The art style alone is worth the purchase

For those that haven’t heard of the series, all of the games follow a fictitious war that somewhat closely resembles World War II if you squint really hard and drop some pixie dust on it. In this fantasy world, a small country called Gallia suddenly comes under attack from a huge land grabbing conglomerate of nations dubbed the East Europan Imperial Alliance. This is a shock because these Nazi analogues (if you equate them to our terms) are at war with another federation of countries that dub themselves the Atlantic Federation, and there is no real reason for such an invasion to occur (other than energy reserves to fuel the war). The game places you in the shoes of a rag-tag group of militia members that are suddenly forced to repel the most powerful army on earth on the verge of world conquest. This is of course the stage for a game that breathed an icy breath of fresh air into a somewhat played out genre – the strategy RPG.

The immediate thing that struck me about both games in the series that I’ve played is that they have some huge balls, and exist as a true asset to the RPG genre, especially in how they portray war. For years we have been playing hundreds of World War II games, and very few of them have actually managed to mention the holocaust or the Jewish people for fear of getting the game banned in some random countries. Here, however, we have a game that revolves around a group of people called the Darcsens that have literally been blamed for just about every bad thing in the world for hundreds of years, and are the targets of ethnic cleansing campaigns (in Valkyria Chronicles 2 most notably) and even forced to work in labor camps. The fact that any series had the cajones to even attempt to have a storyline closely mirroring this sort of world event makes SEGA go up in my books quite a bit.

Racism is somewhat unsettling in the game. Darcsens are seen as unholy inferir people to many people in the game, even protagonist characters.
Racism is somewhat unsettling in the game. Darcsens are seen as unholy inferior people to many in the game, even protagonist characters. In my experience, race politics are rarely seen in JRPGs.

Flash forward just a few years and it seems that a series with such promise, critical acclaim, big sales in Japan, and a cult following in America should be running strong; sadly this is not the case. Valkyria Chronicles may already be dead, especially in the west. A few years back news rang out about the possible release of the third Valkyria Chronicles game in America specifically. SEGA West had been pretty tight lipped about it, and its no-show at E3 that year was amongst about a dozen or so games that seemed absent from localization plans. game journalists apparently talked to some of the SEGA reps at E3 and asked if the new Valkyria Chronicles and Phantasy Star games would be heading to the west and the news wasn’t good.

Valkyria Chronicles III (or pretty much any other Japanese PSP game that year) never came to the west. This was largely because the PSP was on life support when the game released. You see, in their grand wisdom, Sega decided to make a quick buck by churning the games out far too quickly on a completely other system as before (more on that later). Valkyria Chronicles II, a direct sequel to the first PS3 game, was confusingly a now handheld title. Granted, at the time the PSP had a userbase of more than 50 million users (a lot more than the PS3 at the time), but how many outside of Japan would buy it? How many had the first game? Series Producer Shuntaro Tanaka told Famitsu that the second game was being developed for the PSP instead of the PS3, in order “to allow a broader spectrum of users to discover and enjoy what makes Valkyria special.” Tanaka added that the series could return to consoles in the future, though.

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There are rumors that SEGA decided to release the games on the PSP in order to capitalize on the TV anime that was running, using it to hock a host of toys and such that were hot on the market. Moving a flagship title for any series across platforms is a tough decision, and especially ludicrous when we have to realize that Valkyria Chronicles II was, not shockingly, only the second game in the series. Usually, handheld spinoff games come well into the lifespan of a series, ala Final Fantasy and it’s numerous side-games. While it did decently well in Japan, the sales were still under that of the first game, but the real story is the American Market. VGchartz has the game listed at an estimated 80k for the American Market. That’s basically an estimated eight times less than what the first game obtained in the same region.

Here are some graphs to speak for themselves, these are old screen-grabs I took when I first published this article but they still stand:

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Please note the scaling difference between the two graphs.

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I’m not going to jump on the anti-piracy bandwagon, but when you have a system that is cheap and easy to develop for, but is plagued with piracy and doesn’t perform well in all areas versus a system that does a bit better in all areas, and isn’t hit hard (until recently) by any sort of hackers, I wonder why you’d choose the former. SEGA obviously wanted a quick buck rather than letting a franchise grow a bit more naturally, and it’s hurt the series pretty bad. Since its release the third game in series had barely cracked 160k units in sales, a far cry from the previous games.

Sadly, Japanese gaming companies really hit a rut about five years ago, and honestly they are still there, they don’t take chances and seemingly have regressed back into a Japan-only mindset that pretty much guarantees failure. Putting anything on the PSP during that time, or the Vita currently, pretty much guarantees a niche game that few will play. But why is this happening? Take, for example, words by Keiji Inafune, the once prominent mind behind many Capcom classics such as Mega Man and Dead Rising:

Keiji Inafune
Keiji Inafune

“The mainstream industry in Japan is like a large tree that’s just begun to wilt. It’s still standing strong, it hasn’t collapsed just yet, but it’s not doing all that well,” Inafune told The Verge at BitSummit, a Kyoto indie-games festival in its second year. Inafune himself went independent in 2010, leaving giant developer Capcom to start his own studio called Comcept. He believes that indie games are the most exciting thing happening within the Japanese industry. “Indies have just sprouted above the ground. There’s still this monolithic large tree over the industry, but indies have popped up. Whether or not the big tree will fall, whether or not the indie scene will grow into a tree itself, I don’t know.”

Inafune is just one of many big name studio guys leaving “wilting trees”, perhaps the most prominent was Hideo Kojima and his epic battles with Konami leading up to the release of the last Metal Gear game. He now works for Sony and Konami is making cellphone and pachinko games.

I wish more of these big Japanese companies with American publishing arms would look at companies like Atlus (owned by SEGA now) and XSeed for how to treat localizations. XSeed, for example, has released a few games in the Record of Agarest War series digitally, that way they could obtain a cheap license and keep costs down. These smaller publishers also set realistic goals for sales of these games, instead of assuming that a niche strategy RPG will be a huge blockbuster, NIS and Atlus both learned a ton about the market, and learned how to market, publicize, and keep costs down on a ton of games like La Pucelle Tactics, Disgaea, and even Phantom Brave. They don’t always sell crazily well, but they have rabid followings that keep buying the games, and keeping them going.

A somewhat new game in the series.
A somewhat new game in the series.

So, where do we stand now? well, there might be a glimmer of hope shining through. While the third installment is still the last game in the series so far, many fans are hoping that a recent HD remaster of Valkyria Chronicles and a new spinoff game will re-ignite interest in the series. The spinoff, Valkyria Revolution, is planned to be released by SEGA in Japan on January 19, 2017, and in North America in early 2017. It is also planned to be released by Deep Silver in Europe in early 2017 as well. For the Western releases, an Xbox One version will also be available.

This shows a big change for SEGA in that they seem to be switching back to home consoles for games like this, and are trusting the west to support more niche games. Namco-Bandai recently did a similar thing and finally got the Tales series back on track over here, so who knows… As for Valkyria Chronicles III? I guess there is always hope that SEGA could do a PSP Remake edition for the PS4, but if they think the game won’t sell well, where is the incentive? Even a digital release with original dialog would be good, but I’m not holding my breath.

If Valkyria Revolution bombs, the fans are not to blame – a decade of poor and largely short-sighted business decisions are. If it does happen, only one thing comes to mind – Sorry SEGA, but you guys ruined your own franchise.

Valkyria Revolution looks promising!
Valkyria Revolution looks promising!

Disclaimer: A version of this article was originally produced for a now-defunct video game website that I worked for in the past. I have decided to rescue some of this stuff so it doesn’t disappear from the internet forever. If you enjoy this, let me know and I might just do more!

 


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