XSEED Interview + AMA: The challenges of bringing Japanese games to Western markets

It definitely takes more than just a long flight over the ocean.
Japanese games are largely governed by a particular aesthetic approach, while at the same time offering a unique perspective in storytelling and gameplay mechanics. It's what makes them instantly distinguishable from their western counterparts, why we're so fond of them, and why we gathered them together for our current Kawaii Sale.
But some of these differences can also make their transition to the global market challenging. Ken Barry, executive Vice President of XSEED, is one of the people whose mission is to overcome those obstacles and bring some of the most popular Japanese games to the rest of the world.

What are the main challenges of bringing Japanese games to the Western market?

I would say cultural issues as they pertain to text are still a major challenge, though to varying degrees for each project. As a recent example, our parent company Marvelous put out a game called NetHigh for Vita in Japan not too long ago where the gameplay focused on solving puzzles a la the Ace Attorney games, but instead of solving cases in a courtroom you’re trying to reveal the true identity of people on the internet. Our hopes of being able to localize it were quickly dashed once we realized that most of the puzzles were based on Japanese puns and wordplay using written kanji characters which often have multiple meanings. Seeing that it also had a lot of text displaying from top to bottom rather than our way of reading from left to right sealed its fate of definitely not coming to the West.

The rest of the world seems much more receptive to everything Japanese these days but there are still things keeping the markets apart. What are those differences, in your experience?

an affinity for cute and innocent-looking things and then often combining that together with sexuality can be quite shocking at times
I know this is something that’s been examined before, but the Japanese culture is much more tolerant of sexuality while graphic depictions of violence are frowned upon, whereas here in the US we are very tolerant of violence but much more conservative when it comes to issues concerning sex. This is a huge fundamental difference in the videogames being created in Japan, and their culture also having an affinity for cute and innocent-looking things and then often combining that together with sexuality can be quite shocking at times, resulting in such things as Hello Kitty sex toys.

Which are the necessary adjustments that you usually have to make for the jump to be as smooth as possible (subtitles, game names, dubbing, etc.)?

There is no single element, you have to factor all things and consider how best to immerse the player in the world created by the original developers that happen to be of another culture. For example, all our Senran Kagura games have only the Japanese voices in them because not only were we extremely lucky to get them, but also because we weren’t quite sure how the sexual nature of the content would be received in the West when first bringing over the series years ago. Seeing something lewd happening onscreen and hearing a girl say something in a different language while the sub-title “Don’t touch me like that” appears is very different from hearing a girl in English verbally expressing her objections.

Are there any kinds of games (due to genre of theme) that you can't really see making that jump in the foreseeable future?

We always thought the “otome” genre geared toward female players [..] would be difficult, but we’re not quite so sure anymore
We always thought the “otome” genre geared toward female players that often involves developing a romantic relationship with one of the many male characters would be difficult, but we’re not quite so sure anymore. We continue to get fan requests for this kind of game, so it’s one that we wouldn’t mind testing out in the future at some point to see if there really is a market for it or not.

Can you share with us a story about a game that you handled and things took an unexpected turn along the way?

Well, we published a cute game on 3DS a while ago called Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven that was by the producer of the Story of Seasons series and being made by the Rune Factory developers, and sure enough playing the first few hours it was just as cute and adorable as we had expected it to be given the pedigree. So I start pitching it to all our retail partners as our next family-friendly 3DS title because I’m expecting an ESRB rating of Everyone 10+, only to find out months into the project from our localization producer that there’s a totally gratuitous scene at a hot spring where the lead character, who had been a very nice and caring guy with nothing but love and respect for all the girls working at his inn until then, somehow gets convinced by his buddy to go sneak a peek at the girls as they bathe. This results in a completely out of place 30-second animated cutscene featuring the girls in the hot springs together, and we were lucky to get away with a Teen rating. Needless to say I had to go back and revise my sales pitch on the title to more of a “coming of age” type of story.
---AMA Coming Up!---
But that's not all! If you're looking to learn more about the intricacies involved in this process, make sure to tune in today, Friday, at 6PM UTC. We're holding an AskMeAnything session with XSEED's Localization Producer, Tom Lipshultz, right here on the forum!