Xbox and Japan: A Long Unrequited Love Story

Xbox and Japan: A Long Unrequited Love Story

Xbox and Japan

It might not sound very nice, on the occasion of the Xbox 20 years celebrations, to dig into an open wound like that of the unrequited love between the American brand and Japan, but it is an interesting and important element in the story. of the videogame division of Microsoft which deserves an in-depth study, also because it has led to many games of great value and important initiatives. On the other hand, the very existence of Xbox is closely linked to the relationship between Microsoft and Japan, given that the will to counter Sony and the dominance of Japanese companies in entertainment devices has pushed the company's top management. to invest in the creation of a console. This troubled relationship starts right from the fateful day when Bill Gates was one step away from closing the nascent Xbox project: the idea of ​​not leaving Sony free field in the "conquest of living rooms" around the world, according to Ed Fries. , one of the original creators of the console, was the final argument that convinced the big head of Microsoft to give the green light to the project.

The global approach of the modern market and the clear westernization of Sony in particular does not makes it very evident today, but Microsoft was practically the first Western competitor to launch itself in a serious and convincing way in the console market, after the Japanese producers managed to revive and revive this sector following the crack of Atari and related companies. .

Bill Gates in an infamous Microsoft advertisement for the launch of the Xbox in Japan A relationship with Japan was therefore inevitable, as was a reluctance on the part of the Japanese public to accept such a blatantly Western product, in a market that by now it was historically dominated by house brands. However, the difficulties proved to be well above the initial forecasts, which however did not affect the desire to breach this territory, at least for the first two generations of Xbox, reaching a fundamental change in approach in the current period. .

Difficult territory

Dead or Alive 3 in a public Xbox test in Japan On February 22, 2002 the first Xbox was launched in Japan and the operation was quite disastrous, in terms commercial, finally reaching a total of sales under 500,000 units, much lower than expected. Microsoft expected a tough challenge, but probably underestimated the obstacles and came rather unprepared for the event. The difficulties were many and related to different aspects, ranging from the characteristics of the Xbox itself to the commercial relations between the US and Japan, in addition to the fact that Microsoft was operating in an area with which it had very little experience. Emblematic of this inexperience were some decidedly reckless and bizarre choices, of which there are unofficial testimonies: from the reckless attempt to buy Nintendo told by Kevin Bachus, who was part of the company in the early 2000s, ended in laughter from the Kyoto house. to the alleged refusal to acquire Sega, with the possibility that according to former manager Joachim Kempin had materialized after Dreamcast's failure, but which was rejected by Bill Gates.

In general, the early 2000s featured a particular situation in commercial relations between the USA and Japan: despite the Japanese brands having no problem spreading on the American market, both from the point of view of electronics and cars, for example, American companies were struggling to spread their products in Japanese territory, which was not explained only by the distrust of imported objects, but also in ef fective cultural and taste differences, a situation which was then strongly modified in the following years, but which at the time had reached its peak. As for video games in particular, this trend could be defined as extended to the entire global market: in terms of consoles, Japanese games and hardware were much more sought after and desired practically everywhere at the time. In addition to this, there were some counter-moves by Sony in particular to make the Xbox mission further complicated: we remember above all the price reduction of PS2 from 35,000 to 29,800 yen (about 225 dollars) made a few weeks before the arrival of Xbox. , which with its introductory price of 34,800 yen (about $ 262) placed itself in a somewhat awkward position.

Software and hardware problems

The first Xbox had size and shape really hard to understand in Japan The biggest problems for Xbox in Japan were also the hardware, in particular the design of the console and its huge gamepad, and above all the support from the developers, which has always been a complicated point of Microsoft's strategy in Sol Levant. Let's start from the machine itself: the first Xbox looked like a 32x26x10 cm mastodon, really too big compared to the standards to which the Japanese public was used, in addition to a shape considered a bit clumsy and not very accurate from the point of view of design, definitely far from the local taste.

The controller is simply inadmissible: the original Duke was so huge that it could not even be presented to the Japanese public, which prompted an ad hoc redesign to arrive at the more measured S controller, released just in time for the launch in Japan. It may seem like an element of lesser importance, but in the Japanese culture an electronic product that takes up too much space compared to that normally dedicated to this type of object, moreover with an unattractive shape, already finds life very difficult (or so it was true for the epoch). This was already the first impact with the new Microsoft console, to which the most important element had to be added, namely the scarcity of games suitable for the Japanese public.

There was a certain commitment from Microsoft, who was aware of the need to support the launch of the Xbox with a certain number of games developed in Japan, the problem was being able to give continuity to these initiatives.

Steel Battalion and its incredible controller, among the most bizarre Xbox exclusives Among the launch titles also in the USA there was Dead or Alive 3, which is one of the best games available on the console in the first wave of titles , for instance. The eclectic tendency of Tomonobu Itagaki and his search for high technology made it perhaps easier to strike such an agreement, later confirmed by the excellent Ninja Gaiden. That with Tecmo was one of the most fruitful collaborations for Microsoft at the time, but too little to push the console. Excellent relations also with Sega, which led to Jet Set Radio Future, Panzer Dragoon Orta and the conversions of Shenmue 1 and 2 while other initiatives to remember were those for Steel Battalion and Phantom Dust, but beyond these partnerships and despite the investments an established trend did not establish itself and the Japanese games soon disappeared from the catalog, necessarily leading to further lack of interest from the public.

Xbox 360 and the attempted relaunch

Blue Dragon, here in an intermission scene, he played Hironobu Sakaguchi and Akira Toriyama on Xbox In several respects, the first Xbox appears today as a dress rehearsal by Microsoft, whose real and convinced introduction into the console market occurred only with the Xbox 360 . The short stay on the market and the early launch of the next machine show how the initial project was a sort of preparatory process for the arrival of a more reasoned product with greater potential and this also had an impact on the approach to Japan. Mind you, even Xbox 360 was basically a failure in those parts, leading to an unofficial total of about 2 million consoles sold, but the attitude was more aggressive and undoubtedly led to better results, with reflections also in the whole global market, seen the greatest interest from Japanese developers. To tell the truth, much of this different trend depended on the context: PlayStation was going through a difficult period, while Nintendo was preparing to play in a separate league with its Wii, but in general there was a certain crisis in the Japanese development that posed. at the center of attention were Western games and developers, on which Xbox could count with considerable confidence.

There was also a surprisingly capable machine and the birth of integrated services that marked a real watershed history for consoles, between pervasive online and new methods of development and distribution.

Lost Odyssey remains an extraordinary JRPG, exclusively on Xbox 360. such as Ace Combat 6, Ridge Racer 6, Tales of Vesperia, Star Ocean, The Last Remnant and the arrival of Final Fantasy XIII, as well as a large number of more niche games, but highly appreciated by the local public, such as the numerous 2D shooter. A line-up that demonstrated the great effort that Microsoft was making to include classically Japanese productions in its catalog. At the same time, Western games were making their way to Japan, such as the great Bethesda RPGs that began remarkable results among critics and audiences, demonstrating a sort of globalization of taste even in videogame terms. Despite everything, even in the period of maximum effort the Xbox was unable to penetrate with conviction in Japan, effectively marking a tacit strategic retreat that would also involve the next Xbox One.

The abandonment and a new approach

One of the first (and few) buyers of Xbox One in Japan Emblematic of the abandonment of Japan in the Xbox One era was the decision to include it among the "Tier 2" countries, which led to a delayed launch of almost a year compared to the US, exacerbating the difficult relationship with the few potential users. While PS4 was out months before meeting an impressive success, the Microsoft console found itself to have very little to offer beyond some occasional collaboration that led to small pearls such as D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die by Swery, which however did not arrive. not even at the conclusion, or the controversial Crimson Dragon. In fact, there was no conviction in the Xbox One proposal in Japan, considering the difficulties that the console was also having on the western market, dominated by PS4, at least until the change of course imparted in large part by the arrival of Phil Spencer, from the launch of Xbox One X and the Scarlett project.

The intention to keep Japan as an important element for Xbox is regularly reiterated by Spencer and Microsoft managers, but it is clear how the approach has changed and the company certainly aims less at invading the market with its hardware, rather looking for new ways to spread.

Beyond the non-negative performance of Xbox Series X | S, still forced by a distribution severely limited by the production crisis, services are the flagship elements of Xbox, probably the preferred channels for diffusion in Japan. Xbox Game Pass has finally arrived in the Rising Sun just before the arrival of this new generation and xCloud has now joined as well, just recently. These are the two elements on which Microsoft will leverage to seek redemption in the interminable challenge to the Japanese market, the results of which will be difficult to decipher because they will not depend on standard numbers as has happened so far for the sale of consoles.

Meanwhile, we can all enjoy the reflections of this extension of Xbox services in Japan: the recent agreements signed with Bandai Namco, Square Enix and Sega have brought a large amount of Japanese products into the Xbox Game Pass catalog and, as demonstrated also from the recent livestream during the Tokyo Game Show 2021, the trend is increasing, so regardless of Japanese sales, the idea is that Japanese developers can have ample space on Microsoft platforms. On the other hand, the relevance of this relationship is also demonstrated by the partnership agreements signed with Sega and also with Sony for the development of cloud technologies.

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