“If we’re honest, it was initially just as an excuse to go to TGS, and even then as an excuse to go to Tokyo!” managing director Sean Murray tells us of the decision he, and the three other developers that make up Guildford-based Hello Games, took to bring PSN racer Joe Danger to Japan – a decision which coincided with a UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) trade mission to the Tokyo Game Show in September 2010. "Joe Danger went down really well there," Murray continues, "and got a nice reception in the press, so we started to take the Japanese version much more seriously.”
But translating your game for another market costs money. A small amount of text translation – a mobile game, for example – can cost £500–£1,000, whereas a beefier XBLA/PSN title can cost between £1,000–£5,000 – and if you factor in additional costs of recording voices needed for certain games, you can be looking at a minimum bill of around £15,000– £20,000.
However, the process for Hello Games, while sometimes difficult, has been rewarding in other ways, such as in beginning to understand the very different development and business practices in Japan. “One of the companies there said that in Japan nothing is more valued than being able to clone something and improve it – the Japanese games industry is very much focused on perfection, rather than straight innovation,” Murray says. “The example given was if you’ve ever played a Zelda game, you’ll know you’re going to get the hook shot halfway through. The methodology of the game and the design doesn’t change that much at all, but every iteration is improved from the last. The bigger companies’ focus on casual titles is why many developers we met out there felt the games business had declined in Japan – a constant topic wherever we went was how casual Mario Kart Wii had become and how it wouldn’t be played in Japan any more.”
Managing director of Hello Games Sean Murray (left) and overseas sales manager for Active Gaming ?Media Toru Sasaki
Ex-SCE Japan and now overseas sales manager for Active Gaming Media Toru Sasaki confirms this conservatism in Japanese gameplaying culture, and that players in the UK and the west are more willing to explore the unexpected. “Japanese players enjoy a certain degree of linearity in their gameplay, and prefer having set schedules made in advance – the effects of which can be seen in the prevalent reuse of classic story arcs in popular media like manga and TV dramas,” he says. “If things are too different from the expected mould, they won’t resonate as strongly with audiences in Japan.”
So, as a developer without the resources of a major international publisher, how do you begin the process of taking your title to the spiritual home of videogames? “Do your homework on the local market in Japan first,” continues Sasaki, who worked with Hello Games on the Japanese iteration of Joe Danger. “It may not be possible to build a game with the Japanese audience in mind from the start, but it’s always possible to do a little market research before making the decision to break into Japan.”
Platform choice, for example, is a major factor, because while Xbox 360 had just a four per cent console market share in Japan in 2008, other western-produced hardware finds success in the region – more than two million iPhones have been sold in Japan, for example.