Recently, I was given the opportunity to ask the producer of Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, Masaki Sakari, a few questions following on from the release of the game on Steam.
In his Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Review, Simon Fong found the game rather disappointing thanks primarily to its short length and lack of challenge, though he did appreciate the Chibi artstyle of the game and the multiple playable characters, all of which have their own unique movesets. Not an unqualified success then, though it’s certainly improved by getting a few friends on board for a bit of co-op, and all it would take to come into its own would be a higher level of difficulty and more stages – something which could be easily added via DLC.
Curious to learn a bit more about the design process behind the game, and the challenges involved in localizing a Japanese game for Western audiences, I thought it would be interesting to get a developer’s viewpoint on the current situation with the Japanese game market. I also wanted to ask if they’re concerned with the decline of the beat-em-up genre’s popularity in recent years, and the broader Japanese gaming industry in general. Here’s what Sakari-san had to say.
CP: Now that Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds has been released on Steam, what are your thoughts on how it went?
Masaki Sakari: Whenever I was interviewed by overseas media, they would always show a very positive reaction when I told them of our will to release games on Steam. This gave me the impression that Steam is a well-established platform in gaming communities overseas. Being able to finally release Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds on Steam is a great source of pleasure.
CP: What, in your view, are the greatest challenges when it comes to localizing a Japanese game for a Western audience, and what are the costs involved? It’s an area that few publishers and developers speak about, and yet in a global industry, it’s clearly one of the major factors when it comes to international releases.
Masaki Sakari: The cost of dealing with not only localization but also rating organizations quickly climbs to millions of yen. Translating a game into English alone is already very costly, but when you go with five more languages and then some, it becomes a really expensive task.
The hardest so far has been SCEE, insisting that ALL text shown on screen had to be translated for it to be released in corresponding regions.
Here’s an example: on the main menu, the button text “MAIN MENU” using a special font for design shows a help text translated in each language, like Menu Principal in French. For Microsoft, this is enough for release in France. However, both French and English on the same screen is unacceptable for SCEE. We would have had to remake the special font text in French on the button itself. This of course means a load of additional graphic design work, as its means redesigning ALL button text for ALL languages.
As a result, while the original Xbox 360 version of Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds was localized in five languages, the version released later on PS Vita in Europe only includes English. It does seem pretty stupid. On Steam, we were able to release the version with five languages in Europe!
CP: There are many stories about how Japanese gamers typically enjoy a lower level of difficulty, with Western releases often seeing the challenge increased (Final Fantasy XII, for example). Is this true, in your experience?
Masaki Sakari: This is correct. [pullquote]In Japan, a good number of gamers do not like to hone their gaming skill or to compete with other players[/pullquote], and prefer instead to grow and strengthen their in-game character. Many gamers study how to be efficient at that growth “work”.
Overseas gamers give the complete opposite impression, which in my mind might relates to the difference between agricultural society and hunter-gatherer society.
That being said, seeing as how the Veteran mode in the Call of Duty series is getting easier over the years. [Non-Japanese] gamers do not all seem to be enjoying harder games 🙂
CP: What consideration is given to a game’s script when attempting to ensure that a game’s humor translates well to a western audience, if any?
Masaki Sakari: This depends on the game. In PB:BG for instance, in the characters’ dialogue there are parodies of old Japanese anime and games. This is just impossible to translate directly, so leeway was given for this translation. However as no one on the dev side understands all of the other languages, sometimes we have to trust that the translators did a good job.
We would be happy to hear feedback from players who understand both the original Japanese and their own language, and we would be open to changing translators or our localization process in future based on that feedback.
CP: In recent years, Western development has gradually grown to the point where it’s often claimed the Japanese game industry is in crisis, with many Japanese developers even creating their games specifically to appeal to the West. What, in your view, does the Japanese game industry need to do in order to reassert its position as the leading source of game experiences? Are Japanese developers losing faith in the appeal of their products, or do you see this more as a logical progression as the industry becomes more globally acceptable?
Masaki Sakari: Many Japanese players aren’t looking for photorealistic CGI, and many reasons including lifestyle and living environments have resulted in fewer sales of high-end consoles in recent years. The Japanese game market is shrinking and the decreased birth rate in Japan is not helping. This is why the Japanese industry is aiming at the larger markets overseas. It is not successful in the business sense, and we’re sometimes being made fun of by not only overseas gamers, but even other game developers. This is due to the fact that we mostly try to make imitations of games that seem successful overseas.
How could we do better? Personally, I don’t feel the need to lead the world game industry. I would rather make games with strong Japanese design, while keeping in balance the cost and market size. A market where games using the latest technology and realistic CGI are the peak of the genre does not match Japanese expectations, and there is no need to try and meet those criteria. As for Japan in the 80s and 90s, they were not specifically trying to lead the game industry – they just ended up in that position due to a number of different things.
Being true to one’s nature would not be a bad thing, right?
CP: What were your influences when you first started making Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds? Scott Pilgrim seems like an obvious comparison, but the genre is almost as old as the medium itself – with everything from Double Dragon to Sunset Riders having become classics that are still frequently referenced and fondly remembered to this day.
Masaki Sakari: I have been making games since the early 90s. Do you remember Data East Corporation? I used to make arcade games for them. As such I saw a huge number of side-scrolling brawlers, and had numerous influences. If I were to choose among them which one was the strongest influence on Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, I would mention Treasure’s Guardian Heroes.
CP: In recent years, the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre has been in decline, as the industry moves instead to open worlds and non-linear gameplay. The beat-em-up isn’t the only genre to experience this decline – the shmup has also witnessed a steep decline in popularity. These days, it seems that the only developers championing these once-dominant genres exist in the indie scene, outside of a few notable exceptions. Why do you think that is, and is it something you wish to see change?
Masaki Sakari: The reason why open world games have grown so much is that the open world type looks like it costs a lot to develop (which it does), and that appeals to major game studios who aim to make AAA titles. Moreover, it is quite easy to point out how advanced technology was used to make great things showing how realistically a town was rendered, etc. It is also very DLC friendly. All in all, it is a very useful promotion argument for AAA titles, but it doesn’t mean that every game would be fun if it were open world.
I have no intention of changing this fact, but in a market where growth is limited, it feels that having games with higher and higher development costs can only lead to bankruptcy.
It’s true that the beat-em-up and shooting genres have been waning; but by keeping dev costs and market size in balance, there’s no reason for them to die off entirely. In the meantime, we should give birth to beat-em-ups or shmups with new ideas!
CP: Are there any genres which you wish were more popular? Visual Novels are huge in Japan, for example, but seen as an extremely niche area in the West.
Masaki Sakari: As MAGES [Editor’s note: 5bp games recently became part of a grouping of different companies. Collectively, they go by the name MAGES], of course it would be great if visual novels were more popular. However, since I do not directly take part in their development I don’t feel too concerned 🙂
I would love to be able to aim at mainstreaming battle action or shooting with girls as their hero. If this is not possible, it would mean we need to rewrite the heroes of Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds in the style of Marcus Fenix or Master Chief!
CP: Gaming is now more open than ever, in terms of restrictions being lifted on region locking and more aspiring developers being able to realize their visions thanks to open-source engines such as Unity and tools like RPGMaker. Nintendo, however, continues to region-lock its games and consoles, despite heavy criticism from gamers and the press, who become frustrated when many interesting games never reach their shores. What are your thoughts on the subject?
Masaki Sakari: Personally I am against region-locking, but I understand that it might be a necessary evil for huge companies with child companies all over the world that need to protect the sales of each branch. However, in such cases I’d at least like to see them to make sure that all games are localized and released in reasonably close dates in most markets.
CP: With Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds, what do you think were your major successes? Conversely, what do you think you could have done better?
Masaki Sakari: The characters’ animation and action being realized as I envisioned them was the greatest source of satisfaction. There is nothing I regret about the game content.
The one point I would like to have done better is the online multiplayer modes. Neither Xbox nor PS Vita reached the degree of perfection we were aiming at. In the PS4 version now being developed, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive, this is one point we are looking at making better, and hopefully have this new system retrofitted to the Steam version of the game. However to make this a reality we need the Steam version to sell very well!
CP: The Chibi (super-deformed) art-style used in Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds is very closely tied to Japanese anime/manga culture, an area which isn’t usually associated with widespread Western appeal. Why did you go with Chibi for Battle Grounds, and do you think it has had a positive or detrimental effect on the game’s success?
Masaki Sakari: I do not feel that the appeal of Chibi is weak overseas. Characters like Mario or Sonic are Chibi, for example. Choosing that Chibi style actually seemed the best way to convey that Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds was a game made in Japan. What concerned me more was the anime style we used, especially since these were all heroines. [pullquote]I had no idea how many gamers would like not only the 8-bit style, the anime style but also that they were playing female characters[/pullquote].
As a result, I can say that there is a certain group of people (for instance gamers going to Anime Expo) who did rate that style very well.
For MAGES. to go overseas, what we need is a strong branding and stable fans, rather than a widespread appeal. I hope we can build a slowly growing foothold on these bases.
CP: What projects are you currently working on? Can you tell us anything about them?
The PS4 version of the game, Phantom Breaker: Battle Grounds Overdrive will be released worldwide later this year.
After that, I hope to keep releasing fun games to the world. I dearly hope we can keep releasing on Steam too, but for that we need this experiment to be a success. Please cheer for us!
I want to thank Sakari for taking the time to answer my questions, and I look forward to seeing what he and his team come up with in the future. As a fan of retro-style gaming, and side-scrolling beat-em-ups, it will be great to see what they turn their attention to next.