This Week in Japan
With pre-E3 rumors in full swing, what’s the likely fallout going to be in the Japanese battle between Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? Where does Elite fit into this, and what about downloadable content? Plus,. Japan’s most wanted games…
Xbox 360 Elite in Japan
Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Elite console has finally been dated and priced for Japan — October 11th and 47,800 yen, respectively. At the day’s exchange rate, that’s just short of a hundred dollars cheaper than the US version of the console.
Recently, one could find imported American Xbox 30 Elites in shops in Akihabara for around 89,000 yen.
The announcement of a more expensive Microsoft Xbox 360 comes just weeks after a low-key announcement of a cheaper Sony PlayStation 3. Right now, the internet is speculating up a storm about a post-E3 PlayStation 3 price cut. The PlayStation 3 price is going to drop by $100 in America. I’m confident this is true because it’s already been announced in Japan — kind of. The Hot Shots Golf 5 pack, releasing on July 26th, will be the same price as a standard PS3 pack, only it’ll include a game. If that’s not a harbinger of a price cut, I don’t know what is.
The more expensive Microsoft Xbox 360 Elite faces a strange journey here in Japan. The original Xbox 360 marketing strategy seemed to be, um, to do nothing more than parade the words "Welcome to the Hi-Def Era" around, though Microsoft quickly recovered around the launch of the first Japan-igniting game, Blue Dragon, by releasing a cheaper "Core" system, without a hard drive, and with a free game.
Without a hard drive, one wouldn’t be able to download demos or trailers, which didn’t really matter, because the demos and trailers were mostly of American games that fans of stuff like Blue Dragon wouldn’t want, anyway. It didn’t seem feasible, last year, for Microsoft to make the Japanese people care about the Live Marketplace, though now, after staring at the Sony PlayStation 3′s failure to ignite the Japanese people’s thirst for online content for half a year, Microsoft seems to have mustered the courage to try again.
How they’ll market the Elite in Japan, I’d love to hear. Back in 2005, Microsoft collaborated with animation studio Tatsunoko Productions to bring one episode of their hot new series "Karas" to the Xbox Live Marketplace for a limited time. I suppose this was a water-testing tactic. It must not have gone too well, because the Japanese Xbox Live marketplace is stunningly barren today.
Microsoft must have figured that there was no point putting out online content if no one owned the console. This isn’t a terrible conclusion by any stretch, though hell, the US Xbox Live Marketplace has tons of TV shows and movies for download and rental, a service I was enjoying heavily until the firmware update that makes it impossible to access such content with a Japanese IP address. Why can’t there be TV shows on the Japanese Live Marketplace? Maybe the release of the Elite will hold the key: maybe they’ll use the big hard drive as a reason to push Marketplace downloadable content.
Maybe they can add a weather channel, or a news channel. Hey, it’s not such a stupid idea. If you could hear the chatter in Japanese electronics stores, you’d agree with me. People are talking about how the Wii can tell you the weather (yeah, so can my Apple weather widget, and much more quickly), how it lets you browse the internet on your TV. These people are acting like no videogame console has ever had a LAN jack in it, before, and as far as they know, it’s true. Microsoft’s strategy with the Xbox 360 launch in Japan seemed to be to parade the name around, brag about "high-def", and mention none of the features in simple terms. With the Elite, they have a new chance to mention how totally awesome the Xbox 360′s online features are. If nothing else, the Japanese love a hardware redesign — just look at the DS Lite!
The Xbox 360 is still the "underdog", here, and the PlayStation 3′s to-date failure to explode is the perfect opportunity for the underdog to take over. The bigger specifications and the higher price tag can only help. No, that’s not a typo. Here in Japan, big prices are important. I’ve read countless Japanese business magazine articles debating the validity of the Wal-Mart philosophy, and the majority of Japanese analysts seem to think that it undermines the buyer to be given things too cheaply.
The English-speaking blogosphere would likely laugh and joke about any description of the Japanese public’s respect for high price tags. It’s a hard thing to put into words, either way. Simply put, even if the average Japanese consumer and average Japanese gamer alike find the PlayStation 3 to be "too expensive", the difference in price between it and the 360 makes the 360 look — well, if not "too cheap", then "peculiarly not expensive".
EXCLUSIVITY IN THE BALANCE
There’s been talk lately how Sony blundered and passed up on Grand Theft Auto IV’s PlayStation 3 exclusivity for the US, allowing the Xbox 360 to have the game as well. Microsoft must have put up a lot of money for the exclusive downloadable content, as well.
There’s not much of a chance, in the current online-indifferent Japanese console gaming market, of this fact tipping the scales in Microsoft’s favor. However, it’s precisely this kind of thing that can help them start really hammering it in.
It was also recently announced that the American Xbox 360 version of Virtua Fighter 5 would have an online versus mode. This is bone-crushing news — kind of. For one thing, Japanese gamers who bother to play Virtua Fighter at all would only dare to play it obsessively. This truth is evidenced in the long lines around Virtua Fighter 5 cabinets in Japanese arcades even today, a year after the game’s release. Community is a big thing for Virtua Fighter players — or players of any fighting game series.
The hardcore, devoted fans set a corner of the internet on fire when Virtua Fighter 5 was announced as a PlayStation 3 launch-window game. They simply refused to believe that online play would work. Virtua Fighter is too much of a finesse game, they cried. One tiny instance of lag once in every hundred and seven matches would ruin the entire package, as far as they were concerned.
Sony slightly overestimated the power of the game, and released far too many copies, some of which were snatched up by the faithful, who probably used the game as a tool to improve their arcade performance. Once 7,900 yen, the game can now be found for less than 2,000, new, five months after release.
Sega has yet to announce if Virtua Fighter 5 for Xbox 360 will be released in Japan, and if it will have online play, either way. My official forecast is: it doesn’t matter.
Nor does Devil May Cry 4 — the most devoted DMC fans in Japan tend to also love Final Fantasy. They’re the kind of people who feel compelled to dress up in costumes. Even if Microsoft were to announce exclusive downloadable missions for DMC4 for 360, the typical fan over here would rather wait for a super-ultra platinum edition of the game that contained all the downloadable missions on one disc.
Metal Gear Solid 4 would be a reasonable loss for Sony if it were to be announced for Xbox 360 — the announcement would present Microsoft with an ideal opportunity to re-market all those slick, well-produced, painstakingly localized shooting games like Gears of War.
This is where a game like The Last Remnant appears most peculiarly. A rather low-key announcement this week was that the game ( an original RPG by Square-Enix) isn’t just being released on both the 360 and the PS3 at the same time — it’s being released worldwide, simultaneously. Couple this with Square-Enix’s recent statement that they’re not going to start up any new development projects for the PlayStation 3 until the system has sold more units, and you might just come up with a reasonable hypothesis that Square-Enix might be considering a multi-platform Final Fantasy.
What it all comes down to is faith. One would like to think that Final Fantasy XIII will move PlayStation 3s into Japanese homes, though no Japanese developer seems to be sure enough of this probability to be backing the PS3 wholeheartedly. Back in 1997, it can be said that Final Fantasy VII delivered the crushing blow to the Sega Saturn. Why aren’t developers convinced that XIII could deliver a similar crushing blow to the Xbox 360?