From Falcom to farming and fighters
Ken Berry is the Executive Vice President and one of the founding members of XSEED Games, one of the premier localization houses responsible for bringing Japanese games to western audiences.
Earlier this week at an XSEED-hosted event in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to see the studio’s latest crop of games (including titles in the Earth Defense Force, Senran Kagura, and Legend of Heroes series) and discuss them (and more) with Mr. Berry.
Destructoid: XSEED seems to have formed a close relationship with Nihon Falcom over the years. You’ve been publishing the Ys and Legend of Heroes series, Brandish released earlier this year, and you just announced Xanadu Next. However, many of these localizations take quite a long time. Are you working to speed up this process or perhaps developing a system with Falcom to localize the games as they’re being developed?
Ken Berry: That would be nice to implement, but, to be honest, no, we don’t have anything like that going on. With Marvelous, our parent company, yes. Falcom is a completely separate entity.
Even though we have been working in an almost exclusive relationship for several years, we are not officially exclusive with them. So, we don’t have access to their materials early. A lot of times we need to wait for a Japanese retail release before we even get our hands on their games.
Part of that I think is because they’re such a small team over there and they don’t have a dedicated localization team like other companies do. They need all free hands working on their Japanese releases until those are done. Then they can start communicating with us about localization and what to do about a western release.
Dtoid: We’ve also noticed a similar relationship sprout up between XSEED and D3, the company behind Earth Defense Force and Onechanbara, which is actually a Bandai Namco subsidiary. How did that get started and is that something you see continuing?
Berry: XSEED actually worked with D3 one time before on the Nintendo DS. In Japan, the game was called Riz-Zoawd and here it was released as The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road.
We did work on that a long time ago, but you’re correct, this is a relationship we’ve renewed in the past year or so after D3 announced they were going to focus on digital and mobile products.
I’m not sure about D3’s relationship with Bandai Namco specifically in the US, because, as you know, there are lot of Bandai Namco games out of Japan that don’t get published in America. I would think Bandai Namco would focus on getting most of their Japanese games out instead of the D3 lineup. So, we just had an opportunity to work on those titles, and we just jumped at the chance.
Onechanbara, in particular, is made by Tamsoft, the same team that made the Senran Kagura series, so that was a very easy decision for us because we know Tamsoft does put out some… nice gameplay. Many of us also have been EDF fans for years, so we were very happy to get both of those titles.
Dtoid: Speaking of Senran Kagura, initially, XSEED seemed cagey about releasing that series here in the West. But, lately, we’ve been getting all of them. What changed?
Berry: Due to the subject matter, how it would be received at retail, or even by fans for that matter, we tested the waters by releasing Senran Kagura Burst as a digital-only title on the [Nintendo 3DS] eShop. That was a big success. The fans loved it. And despite some criticisms from the press side for bringing it over, overall, it was more positive than we expected. Plus, the sales numbers were there, so we decided with the next one, Shinovi Versus on PlayStation, to give it a limited physical release and see how it went. That also exceeded our expectations.
At this point, I think we’re pretty much set and committed to the franchise. But the producer, [Kenichiro] Takaki-san, loves to push the envelope further and further each time. Estival Versus takes it up another notch, but we’re still dedicated to the franchise. We want to keep going with the series, because the fans keep asking for it.
Dtoid: Touching on the criticism you mentioned, there has been a lot of discussion in the industry surrounding gender equality and sexism. Has this impacted how you approach and handle Senran Kagura or perhaps some of the other games you localize for western audiences?
Berry: I think it all depends on the content of the game. The ESRB is surprisingly very accommodating. They have stated very clearly that their job is to rate the material and not to censor anything. If it ever gets to a point where there’s some content that gets us to an AO rating — none of the platform holders will approve an AO-rated game — so, only in an extreme case like that where we are forced to scale back some of the content would we go that route.
Dtoid: Have you had to back away from certain games for that reason in the past?
Berry: There are various games from other publishers — not necessarily Marvelous — that seem to push things a bit too far. I’m not going to name titles, but it’s something we continue to deal with, especially some of the newer titles coming out from Marvelous. There’s a new game called Uppers from Takaki-san that was just announced…
Dtoid: Oh, I actually wanted to ask you about that and Valkyrie Drive.
Berry: So Uppers does have some elements in there that we will need to get a better look at to see how much of an issue it will be in the US. And Valkyrie Drive, pretty much the entire game is based on that kind of stuff. That’s another one we’re going to have to learn more about to see if it’s even feasible to release in the West as they are. Because, if we have to edit them down too much or censor too much content, then, at that point, we have to consider if it’s even worth doing. Because the fans that want the game, they want it uncensored, and censoring the content isn’t going to appease the people that had no interest in buying it anyways.
Dtoid: Mr. Takaki also worked on the rhythm game IA/VT Colorful. Is it true there are no plans to localize that title?
Berry: That is how it’s looking right now. You know, a couple of us in the office really love that game. They’ve been playing in their free time the retail Japanese version.
Dtoid: I actually just recently imported a copy of that and have been enjoying it a lot.
Berry: Good. I’m glad to hear that. Yes, I know for that game — even the licensing issues in Japan were tough to work out from what I hear. And just even thinking about overcoming those same obstacles for the West just doesn’t look feasible right now, which is a shame because it is a great game.
Dtoid: I’m aware they’re completely different companies and it’s a different character, but Sega and Crypton Future Media have published several Hatsune Miku games that are quite similar to IA/VT Colorful here in the West. Are you aware of any particular reason why that situation is different?
Berry: To be honest, I’m not sure how Sega works that out with Hatsune Miku or how that license would be different than the IA license.
Dtoid: I’d like to talk about Bokujou Monogatari (which was known as Harvest Moon in the West until recently, when it was renamed Story of Seasons — though Natsume continues to release games under the Harvest Moon brand). What is going on there?
Berry: Those discussions were going on for years. I think Marvelous wanted to own the rights to their own IP, and, over the years, as development costs go up higher and higher, I think it might have finally reached to the point where if they couldn’t own their IP in the West, maybe it wasn’t as viable to put together a multi-million dollar [development budget].
So, I know those were discussions that were going on for years between Marvelous and Natsume, because the Harvest Moon trademark is registered by Natsume in the West. I think it finally got to the point where the decision had to be made. Do we bite the bullet and rebrand it now or continue working where we don’t even have worldwide control over our own IP?
Dtoid: You have one of those games here with you today, a crossover game, right?
Berry: Yes, Return to PopoloCrois: A Story of Seasons Fairytale. That is a crossover game in Japan that used the Bokujou subtitle, which is why we’re able to use the Story of Seasons name here. But that title is very much a PopoloCrois game first with Story of Seasons farming elements thrown in as a secondary game feature.
Dtoid: Will we be seeing a lot more Story of Seasons games and spin-offs in the future?
Berry: The Bokujou/Story of Seasons IP is [Marvelous’] most valuable IP. So that’s one we’ll focus on moving forward.
Dtoid: What about Rune Factory (a spin-off series of the Bokujou Monogatari franchise)?
Berry: There are continuing discussions on how to keep the Rune Factory series going, despite Neverland, the original developers, no longer being around. Hopefully, something will come of that in the not too distant future, because Rune Factory 4 was the best-selling title in the series, I believe, and it’s a series that’s been growing and growing over the years. Marvelous knows fans are clamoring for a sequel and are looking for ways to make it happen.
Dtoid: Do you ever foresee Marvelous doing simultaneous worldwide releases for its games?
Berry: We may attempt it on a future unannounced title for next year. Every now and then Japan masters up very early and sits on the code for a certain amount of time with a preset release date in mind for their launch strategy in Japan. That would give us an opportunity to catch up on our localization. It just depends on how much volume of text there is to be localized and how much work it involves. But it is something we would love to be able to do in the future.
Berry: That is something we’re handling out of the US office completely by ourselves. Marvelous did assist us with finding a good company that could do the HD conversion. And of course we need to license the title from them, because it’s their IP. But other than that it’s completely us, where we’re communicating with the company that’s in charge of the company in charge of the HD conversion on a day-to-day basis. And then it will be uploaded onto Steam on our account for a worldwide release, as well as other digital delivery platforms, such as GOG.
Dtoid: You’re also publishing a fighting game, Nitroplus Blasterz, which is a genre we don’t typically associate with XSEED. Is this something we’ll see more of? What spurred the interest there?
Berry: The main reason is because it’s being done by Marvelous and they asked us if we wanted to do it. To be honest, at first, we weren’t quite sure, because even though we have a lot of otaku in the office, even they didn’t know a lot of the characters on the roster. But once we got our hands on the game and sat down in Examu [the studio behind the Arcana Heart series] and the director, it just looked great. So we’re like, okay, we think even in the West, even if people don’t know the [visual novels] the characters are coming from, this is a great fighting game on its own. So that’s when we decided to go for it.
Dtoid: A challenge many fighting games not on that Street Fighter tier face is a difficulty keeping the community alive. Do you have any initiatives to keep the game in the public consciousness, the tournament scene, and have people playing it for a long period of time?
Berry: That’s something we’re looking into. Thankfully, in our office we have three people who are pretty active in the fighting game community. Those are the people who took the game out to the Prelude II event and the main SoCal Regionals event this past weekend.
[The people at these events] have been great at saying how to get a game out there, how to get players to notice. We’ve already held a couple small tournaments and are looking to keep momentum after release to perhaps continue holding tournaments with cash prizes and keep the community involved in the game.
Dtoid: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Is there anything else you’d like to tell the fans?
Berry: Just thank you for the continued support. We couldn’t be more thankful for all the pre-orders especially. A small company like us, pre-orders, we live and die by them, because that determines if retailers are going to carry our titles or not. We’ve had a great couple years thanks to the tremendous fan support and we hope to keep that momentum going into 2016.
Dtoid: Yeah, you’ve had a few big successes with The Last Story, Rune Factory 4, and Story of Seasons recently, haven’t you?
Berry: A couple months ago we announced Rune Factory 4 eclipsed 160,000 units in North America and Story of Seasons has sold more than 100,000 units in North America. Story of Seasons, in particular, that was the fastest title of ours to reach 100,000 units. So we are very happy about the successful rebranding of the Bokujou series. For a small company like us, those are fantastic numbers, and both of those titles continue to do well … I think we’re in a very good place right now — probably the healthiest the company has been in years.
Dtoid: That’s great. I’m really glad to hear it.
Berry: (Laughs) We’re very busy. Our entire team is just swamped all the time, but they love what they do, so we can’t really complain. It’s better than not being busy enough!
Dtoid: Thanks again, Ken.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]