Xbox in Japan: A New Dawn?

Xbox in Japan: A New Dawn?

Microsoft has never said that the Xbox 360’s performance in Japan would win it the current generation console war. While Asia as a whole is “important”, according to Xbox 360 group product manager Aaron Greenberg, “you can win on a global basis by leading specifically in North America and Europe”.

But while Japan – where the 360’s installed base lags far behind that of Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s market-leading Wii – may not be as important to the Xbox business as other regions, that’s not to say Microsoft hasn’t been making a concerted effort to woo Japanese gamers.

Almost exactly two years ago at a pre-Tokyo Game Show conference, Xbox Japan boss Takashi Sensui unveiled an Xbox 360 bundle featuring Mistwalker-developed Blue Dragon (pictured, below), a Japanese RPG that led to a significant short-term jump in 360 sales when it released that December. A year later Mistwalker’s follow-up, Lost Odyssey, helped boost 360 adoption once more in the run-up to Christmas, but while the sales bumps were welcome news to Microsoft, the PS3 and Wii were still comfortably outselling the 360.

Ultimately, these titles alone wouldn’t be enough to spearhead Microsoft’s assault on Japan, but securing 360-exclsuive JRPGs is still very much a central part of the platform holder’s long-term attempts to penetrate the market, according to Tokyo-based Sensui, who has headed Microsoft’s Xbox biz in Japan since being appointed general manager of the Home and Entertainment Division at Microsoft Co. Ltd in February 2006.

“We know that to succeed in the Japanese market, we must provide major RPG franchises for Xbox 360,” he told us.

The strategy has served Microsoft well recently. While the Xbox 360 generally averages about 5,000 sales a week in Japan according to Media Create data, last month saw the release of Namco Bandai’s 360-exclusive Tales of Vesperia, which debuted at No4 in the country’s software chart after selling 108,000 copies during the week ended August 10. That same week, Media Create reported that the 360 had scored a notable victory on the hardware front in Japan, shifting almost 25,000 units to outsell the PS3 2.5:1.

“The recent launch of Tales of Vesperia was a true catalyst for console sales, and in order to bring more gamers from a broader segment of consumers to the Xbox 360, we need to make the strengthening of our RPG lineup a priority,” said Sensui.

Another challenge facing Microsoft is ensuring a steady supply of 360s in Japan. Following the system’s sales success in early-mid August, the company announced that the 360 had sold out across Japan and wouldn’t be available again until September. That Microsoft failed to anticipate a significant jump in console sales following Tales of Vesperia’s release was unfortunate, and perhaps betrayed a slight lack of faith in the title and the potential of the platform holder’s own software strategy, or maybe the company had just been shortsighted. Either way, Microsoft cannot afford to fail to meet demand and it’s hoping not to find itself in the same situation any time soon, telling us that it is “working hard to ensure that there is a continuing sufficient supply of Xbox 360 consoles in Japan”.

With the 360 back in stock again this month, the console repeated the sales feat during the week ended September 14, once again aided by the release of an exclusive RPG, this time Square Enix’s Infinite Undiscovery (pictured, below). Quite how many console’s Microsoft sold during the week is not exactly clear. Famitsu publisher Enterbrain reported that the system had outsold not only Sony’s PS3 by a factor of 3.5:1, but also Nintendo’s Wii by around 1,500 units. Contrasting data subsequently released by Media Create put the Wii ahead by around the same figure. What is clear though is that the 360 has been picking up the pace in Japan of late, a factor also aided by early September price cuts applied to the entire range of 360 models.

Sensui said he was hopeful that the 360 would continue to be competitive with the Wii and PS3 over an extended stretch of time, and that Microsoft is aiming to achieve one million console sales in the country as soon a spossible – last week Enterbrain pegged current Japanese 360 sales at 717,275 units.

“Sales have been in an upward trend in Japan recently and we intend to work hard to push this momentum forward moving into the holiday sales season,” he said. “As an initial milestone, we would like to hit the one million mark as soon as possible, and are continuing to work hard to get to this milestone and go beyond.”

In order to achieve this feat and more, software will play a crucial role, and in particular the 360’s lineup of RPGs, but will that include Final Fantasy XIII in Japan at some point?

“The recent launch of Infinite Undiscovery on September 11 saw sales of over 90,000 units in the week of September 8-14 according to data from Media Create, placing it the third-highest selling game in Japan in that period. Console sales also passed the Wii for the first time according to data for the same week from Enterbrain,” Sensui said.

“We have similar high hopes for the upcoming launch of other RPGs such as The Last Remnant, Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope and Fable II. However, we have no plans to launch Final Fantasy XIII in Japan.”

Sensui was also keen to stress Microsoft’s belief that, aside from its software lineup, the 360 has a number of other facets that will help it gain favor with consumers in the months and years ahead.

“We believe that the launch of big RPG titles for Xbox 360 in Japan is an important part of the road to success here. However, it is not everything.

“The core of the Xbox 360 business is made up of three elements: great titles, the best online service and accessible hardware. Now we have all three elements firmly in place, we believe that Japanese consumers will see what we have to offer and agree that it is the best option available.”

What’s clear is that while the Xbox 360 may never ‘win’ in Japan Microsoft certainly hasn’t given up the fight. Don’t be surprised to hear some big-name announcements from the platform holder centered on the Japanese market at next month’s Tokyo Game Show.

Lead photo: Associated Press

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