Opinion: Japan has returned, and the gaming world wasn’t ready

2017 will be remembered as the year Japan made its comeback. While the quality never diminished, it seems that this year the world decided to take notice. Yakuza 0, NieR: Automata, Nioh, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Persona 5, have all returned Japan to the forefront of gamers’ minds. Go to any message board across the internet and it’s likely you’ll come across fan art celebrating Japan in a way never seen outside the niche. It has become a popular category with “Japan at the Game of the Year Awards 2017”, where images of characters are in fine attire taking selfies and posing for the adoring press.

Just one of the fan art examples circling around the web. The artist is unfortunately unknown.

All the games mentioned have received high critical acclaim to a surprising level. Yakuza 0, a niche genre mix up, has finally put the series where it needs to be in terms of prominence. Nioh, a Dark Souls inspired action RPG, has taken a formula and created a phenomenal world that many are still figuring out. NieR: Automata was a sequel to an overlooked gem and made itself a noticeable standout. Breath of the Wild returned a storied franchise back to its roots and gave players a sense of exploration and wonderment, not felt in decades. Finally, Persona 5 (based on all accounts), brought the JRPG to a level of glee that many outgrew during the last generation. All these games are spectacular, yet most of them shared a truly disgraceful fate in the hands of those who could not understand that they were destined for more than just critical adoration.

With the exception of Breath of the Wild, there was a noticeable trend with each game launch – they all sold out before it began. Pre-order culture became a toxic cesspit that sought to be nothing more than the opportunity for publishers to manipulate a fan base through shameless tactics and the warping of priority. A tool to provide investors some kind of gleeful statistic, so they could pat themselves on the back and present sales numbers even before launch. Yet, for the first time in a long time, 2017 will mark the year that pre-orders became a necessity in an awkward manner.

Of the games mentioned, none of them had pre-order incentives besides NieR: Automata with its Day 1 edition. Even by those standards, it was quite benign in terms of its pre-order offerings – keeping it more restrained than other options out there. Yet, each of these games sold out, if you were waiting for a launch day purchase you would have been met with disappointment as the next shipment would have been your only means of getting a physical copy. For the first time in a long time, by not pre-ordering you did more than simply block off a dumb costume; you actually could not get the game. There were games that were sold out a week or more in advance.

When Japan came back, it was the publishers who could not see it. There was no reason for any of these games to receive any shortage of stock. On launch day, you could buy Mass Effect: Andromeda. Yet, as of right now, buying Persona 5 physically only leads you to wait for the next incoming stock.

This is what you will find if you head to Raru right now. April 4th is the official launch day, but you now have to pre-order for the second shipment.

In saying all this, I am aware of the elephant in the room: digital purchases. All these games were available digitally on launch day, and while this is a saving grace it does not diminish the point of the publisher’s trip-up. As a fan of JRPGs and the general quirkiness that comes out of Japan, accepting digital-only titles as a means of saving cash through production, makes complete sense to me. However, when there has been a physical launch, I cannot recall an instance where it has not been readily available.

All this tactic does is restrain the overall success of these games. Despite them exceeding expectations, it still harks a cause for concern that publishers still cannot seem to understand exactly how big of a comeback these games would have. Yakuza 0 hit the top 10 of the PlayStation charts in the UK on launch, NieR: Automata as sold over 200,000 copies on Steam alone, Nioh sales have officially topped a million only two months out of launch and although Persona 5 has only launched today, it is looking like it is going to be strong.

This only garners more confusion as these games were marketed in a mass appeal manner. By having players miss that launch window, there is a good chance those on the fence will just move on, wait for a sale or completely ignore the game that had their attention for a hot second. Looking at the marketing of all those that suffered from a slim launch – such as Yakuza 0 – they were massive in terms of genre and developer. Numerous trailers, early reviews (which can tie to a definite sign of known quality) and constant interaction of press and fans through previews and even demos. How did this all happen?

The entirety of the seventh generation of consoles saw press, general player base and the business minds decrying Japanese games as a niche. Only a fraction still played games that were predominately anime styled or plain out-there in terms of sense. The mentality of under estimating these games’ success has been around for some time, possibly closer to a decade, but now this impact is hurting their success.

South Africans have been hit in a much harder way than most of the main markets. As a market force with regards to video games, our influence has always extended to an outliner whose core focus has never been that important to publishers. Yet, the effects of this are now showing at the forefront. There is likely to be a reader who found themselves in the current Persona 5 stock fiasco. Critical Hit did a story explaining that a recent rash of pre-order cancellations were due to a fraction of stock actually arriving into the country. While this is just speculation, if I was to hedge my bets, it is likely that the demand in the “core markets” (UK and EU territories), was greatly outpacing what the publisher, Deep Silver, expected. Thus to meet this demand, South African stock became subject to a reduction. And it seems that some of the “core markets” met similar stock issues with Yakuza 0, Nioh and now Persona 5. The juggernaut of Amazon even ran out of stock in some cases – which is insane.

As of Launch Day, Amazon does not have any stock of the Standard Edition of Persona 5.

What should have been a year of celebration has turned into frustration. There is no reason for any of these games not to be readily available at their launch. While it is very easy to look at this as a positive – that they have completely exceeded every expectation imaginable – the publishers have already tripped over themselves right out of launch.

If 2017 has been a lesson for new Japanese titles, it shows that with the right marketing, right approach and knowledge of the audience – these games can thrive. The quality of Japanese games never truly diminished as publishers and western audiences would like you to believe. However, it shows how the right kind of push can lead to the general audience taking notice. For these publishers, it’s all well and good to take the strongly needed step towards better promotion, but you cannot push a game to have market appeal, then then not back it up with the shipments.

It is understandable that there is a semblance of trepidation when bringing games that tick off every box in the publisher’s handbook of “not going to sell”, but after this time it is crucial that all publishers handling Japanese releases do not immediately dismiss them. 2017 will mark the year that Japanese games took the forefront, we can only hope that the publishers behind these games now understand that the notion of “niche” is dying out. A strong marketing campaign can do wonders, they just have to match the hype with the stock.

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