The Making Of: The Black Onyx
“In desperation my wife called Softbank, a PC game distributor, to ask them for an introduction to a reliable publisher. After they had heard my pitch they advised us to self-publish, saying that they would place a large initial order to help out once the game was finished. In their words, all I had to do was ‘get my wife to answer the phone’. Obviously publishing is not that simple, but we naively did it anyway, borrowing $50,000 from a friend to set up Bullet-Proof Software. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
However, immediately after release Black Onyx was to hit some more near-fatal problems: “The game was finished just in time for Christmas 1983, but Softbank reneged on their promise to initially order 3,000 pieces and ordered 600 pieces instead. My rudimentary advertising campaign resulted in zero phone calls in the first month and four in the second after we had added some screenshots to the ads. The word had not got out; nobody knew what an RPG was and we were on the brink of collapse.”
Not one to give up easily, Rogers decided to go straight to the press. “I rolled up my sleeves and started knocking on doors,” he explains. “I visited every computer game magazine in Japan, sat the editor down and created his character. I had a set of questions I’d ask them in Japanese: ‘What’s your name? Which one of these 50 heads looks the most like you? Please pick out some clothes to wear’. Then I’d tell them: ‘This is you. Now we are going to go on an adventure’. I would play with their character for an hour while they looked over my shoulder. That way they’d see how to map with graph paper and pencil, how to explore the world, and buy and equip amour and weapons.”
This hands-on approach to PR paid off spectacularly. In the April editions of every Japanese gaming magazine Black Onyx had secured rave reviews. By May Bullet-Proof Software was selling 10,000 copies a month at ¥7,800 (£36/$72) a unit – the most expensive game on the market at the time.
Voted game of the year by the readers of Login magazine (the best-selling Japanese gaming magazine at that time), Black Onyx sold around 150,000 copies, not counting huge numbers of rentals. The game’s gigantic success paved the way for the other Japanese developers to bring their own RPG titles to market. The first Dragon Quest team went on the record praising Black Onyx as the influence for them investigating other western titles in the genre (specifically Wizardry). And so the RPG hacked and slashed its way into the Japanese videogame industry and consciousness.
Rogers is philosophical about the adaptation of his ideas into rival titles at the time: “I saw so many elements of Black Onyx replicated in subsequent RPGs and even titles across other genres, but what can you do? For example, I ditched the numbers that indicated player health for blue bar-graphs that turned red as the player got damaged. This system is widely used not only in RPGs but in fighting games such as Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter today.
As well as introducing the RPG genre to Japan, Rogers’ game was responsible for launching some heavyweight videogame careers. Hisashi Suzuki, a Keio University student and part-timer at Bullet-Proof Software, wrote the manual. Suzuki would later go on to become president of Square Enix. “I meet a lot of people in the industry in Japan. Some don’t know the history,” says Rogers. “When I mention I used to have a publishing company in Japan, Bullet-Proof Software, they ask if I had anything to do with Black Onyx. I say I designed and developed it and a lot of the time they’ll exclaim: ‘Oh my god, you’re the reason I’m in this industry!’”
Bullet-Proof Software immediately went into production of a sequel but, by the third game, Rogers felt like he was being left behind by the bandwagon he had set in motion:
“The game made such a huge impact and caused so many clones to be developed I fast realized we just could not keep up. Dragon Quest was a game built specifically for the Famicom and Famicom players. The graphics and the story come from the manga world, which inevitably resonated with the Japanese psyche much louder than the Lord Of The Rings style I was familiar with. A westerner cannot compete with that kind of cultural incisiveness, so I started looking around the world for games to bring to Japan instead. I guess then, in some ways, the success of Black Onyx was not only responsible for Final Fantasy but also for Tetris.”