Saturday, July 4, 2015

NFAW: Is Dragon Quest really unpopular with Western gamers?

It's that lovely time again: a new Dragon Quest game is coming, and Square-Enix is making asinine comments about the viability of the franchise overseas. "We're thinking about it," Horii says again: meaning, of course, that Square-Enix has zero plans to localize any Dragon Quest titles outside of Japan.

Some fans pin their hopes on the upcoming Dragon Quest spin-off, Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below. Its localization, they cry, is possibly indicative of changing attitudes over at Square-Enix, and positive sales may encourage further localization of the venerable RPG franchise.

These desperate hopes ignore the fact that the new Dragon Quest Heroes game is more a Musou game than a Dragon Quest game, and that EVERY Musou game (no matter how niche) has been localized overseas for the past decade or so. Even the really bad ones.)

While these hopes may be misguided, they DO speak to an increasingly common assumption among Western fans of Dragon Quest--that these wonderful games, despite their profound popularity in Japan, simply aren't very popular overseas. If there was a market for Dragon Quest outside of Japan, surely Square-Enix would work tirelessly to meet that demand. That is, after all, how a free market is supposed to function.

But is this assumption accurate, or misguided? Keep in mind that for all of its ubiquity in the industry, Square-Enix has a history of making rather harsh judgments based on outlandishly overoptimistic expectations. To ascertain the validity of this common assumption, we must determine two things:

1. How well does Dragon Quest sell outside of Japan?
2. How much does a game need to sell to be considered a success?

Obviously, there are serious problems with both points. For the first, accurate sales data is something of a White Whale in the games industry; and the second is mostly a qualitative point, and thus dependent more on subjective variables than objective ones.

Nonetheless, I believe it is possible to test the hypothesis that "Dragon Quest games sell poorly outside of Japan" even with our limited means--and what's more, I believe it vital and necessary to do so in order to better understand just what is wrong with the Dragon Quest franchise, and who is to blame. Is Square-Enix at fault for failing to appreciate its Western audiences, or are we at fault for being too paltry a crowd to be worth appeasing?

Well, as I stated earlier, accurate sales figures for games are... not really a thing that exists (aside from the few rare instances where developers or publishers divulge such details of their own volition). The most popular website for games industry sales-tracking is undoubtedly the notorious VGChartz, which is notorious both for the unceasing ammunition it provides fanboys of all flags, as well as for conjuring hilariously inaccurate figures from the ether.  But, unfortunately, VGChartz is the only source we have to go on.

I have taken the sales data from every Dragon Quest game and spin-off released overseas since the year 2000 and compiled it into a simple table. While I must again caution against placing too much trust into the sales figures, they should be sufficient to determine a rough idea of each games' overseas sales.

Year Platform Game Title NA Sales EU Sales Total Overseas Sales
2000 PS1 Dragon Quest VII
2004 PS2 Dragon Quest VIII
2005 NDS Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
2006 NDS Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker
2007 NDS Dragon Quest IV
2007 WII Dragon Quest Swords
2008 NDS Dragon Quest V
2009 NDS Dragon Quest IX
2010 NDS Dragon Quest VI
2010 NDS Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2
*Note: I've color-coded the titles: Red is for original main-series Dragon Quest games, Blue is for remakes, and Green is for spin-off titles.

As we might expect, the main entries in the series tend to sell much better than the spin-off games or remakes. And the last two main-series games to be released overseas both saw sales greater than one million--a staggering accomplishment by any metric. Of course, it's also worth noting that the two worst-selling games listed (Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime and Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2) both have sales figures greater than 100,000.

Perhaps the most important games to look at are the three remakes (of IV, V and VI) on the Nintendo DS--which sold an average of around 300,000 copies.

And, recently, Square-Enix has started porting many of their older games to Android and iOS. There is no solid sales data available for these titles, but we can make certain extrapolations based on user-reviews. In general, fewer than 10% of consumers are likely to review a product--meaning we can determine a (very rough) approximation of a given game's total sales by multiplying the total number of reviews by a factor of 10. For the purposes of this article, let's only examine the seven Dragon Quest ports currently available for Android devices via the Google Play Store.

Game Title User Reviews Estimated Sales
Dragon Quest I
Dragon Quest II
Dragon Quest III
Dragon Quest IV
Dragon Quest V
Dragon Quest VI
Dragon Quest VIII

These figures may not seem to compare well to the sales of Dragon Quest games on dedicated gaming platforms, but it's worth keeping in mind that the mobile market is a very different beast, and that Square-Enix prices their games much higher than the vast majority of their competition. It's also worth noting that these ports suffer a number of major problems, such as the forced-portrait perspective that makes them unsuitable for play on a tablet, as well as missing text (IV) and missing voice acting (VIII). To see these mobile sales in a better context, let's similarly estimate the sales of other Square-Enix titles via the Play Store:

Game Title User Reviews Estimated Sales
Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy II
Final Fantasy III
Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy IV: TAY
Final Fantasy V
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy Dimensions
Final Fantasy Tactics
Chrono Trigger
Secret of Mana
Chaos Rings
Chaos Rings II
Chaos Rings III

While it might be tempting to compare these two sets of numbers and say that Dragon Quest games simply don't sell well in the mobile market compared to other Square-Enix properties, there are a few very important things to keep in mind:

  1. The Dragon Quest ports are almost all newer than most of the other Square-Enix games in the Play Store.
  2. Despite selling relatively less than their counterparts in the Play Store, and selling MUCH less than their counterparts on dedicated gaming platforms, Square-Enix has localized 100% of their mobile ports of Dragon Quest.

If these sales are sufficient to justify Square-Enix' investment in their localization, one can only wonder (with bitter, bitter incredulity) why the consistently higher sales the Dragon Quest series sees on dedicated platforms are insufficient. And with the rising prevalence of digital-distribution across all platforms these days, physical production is no longer a necessity--and the costs associated with production and distribution, therefore, are no longer a valid excuse.

Even assuming a (very) large margin-of-error with these figures, it's safe to say that the Dragon Quest games routinely sell at least 150,000 copies (on consoles) outside of Japan--and, more often than not, will sell much more.

Now that we have determined how much Dragon Quest games sell overseas, it's time to figure out--in greater detail--what kind of totals might constitute a success.

Unfortunately this is a very murky area, but I believe we can find some information of meaning and value by examining a similar game: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Like Dragon Quest, Trails in the Sky is very much a traditional JRPG game, and like Dragon Quest, it has an extremely dense script that requires a great deal of work to adequately translate from Japanese due to the convoluted NPC storylines, quirky humor, and frequent references and call-backs.

XSEED Games released Trails in the Sky on Steam during the middle of the summer of 2014. The game made headlines a year later after it exceeded 100,000 owners on Steam. (Note that ownership statistics do not necessarily reflect sales). XSEED's Thomas Lipschultz later stated that "If we ever reach a point where 100k sales isn't a success, I think we'll collapse under our own massiveness."

It is important to note that developers/publishers reap a much greater portion of the profits from digital sales on Steam than physical retail sales, while at the same time avoiding the costly processes of production, distribution and licensing.

According to Larian's Swen Vincke, the typical digital distributor will take 30% of a game's sale, while the remaining 70% goes to the developer (or publisher); for physical games, there are many more people who get a cut of each game's sale--roughly

The breakdowns look something like this:

Physical Game Digital Game
Retail distribution
Misc. Publisher Costs
Production Costs
Digital Platform Fees
Net revenue

Therefore we can determine that if Trails in the Sky sold 100,000 copies at its initial price (approximately $20 USD), it would generate approximately $1.1 million; whereas a Dragon Quest priced at $40 selling the same amount (100,000 being, as you will remember, a very, very low estimation for potential sales) would generate approximately $1.54 million.

Of course, games do not always sell at their initial MSRP, but I would argue that the incredibly low estimates for potential sales of this theoretical, future Dragon Quest adequately account for any deviations in price.

Now: how does 100,000 sales compare to other Japanese-style Roleplaying Games on Steam? Using SteamSpy, we can get a pretty good idea of how much games of various genres end up selling.

Game Title Steam Ownership
Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VIII
Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale
Final Fantasy XIII
Ys Origin
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;1
Ys: The Oath in Felghana
Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
Final Fantasy III
Final Fantasy IV
Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;2
Ys: The Ark of Napishtim
Toukiden Kiwami
Akiba's Trip

With all of this in mind, I think we can safely say that Dragon Quest games tend to be fairly popular overseas, and always have been.

So, then, why does Square-Enix consistently fail to see any viability in the franchise outside of of Japan? While the games may never have been blockbuster successes, it is clear that they consistently sell very well. And if the problem isn't with us, the consumers, it must lie with Square-Enix.

What's their problem?

Ultimately, it seems that Square-Enix simply no longer cares about simply "selling well." Instead of investing a comparatively small amount of money in developing or publishing comparatively cheap games that could reliably reap consistent profits, they would much rather invest a comparatively large amount of money developing a comparatively expensive gave that could potentially reap enormous profits.

In other words, they're only interested in playing at the high-stakes table these days.

This is why they abandoned their series of low-budget, but (very) faithful remakes of classic games (which included Dragon Quest IV, V and VI, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy I, II, III, and IV) and are instead pursuing much more expensive and ambitious products like the recently-announced Final Fantasy VII Remake.

Dragon Quest VIII sold 1.6 million copies outside of Japan.
Dragon Quest IX sold 1.4 million copies outside of Japan.

And those are really, really good sales figures--by ANY metric.
But the problem--Square-Enix's problem--is that they don't want good sales, they want absurd sales. They seem to think that if they can't sell as many copies of a game overseas as they can in Japan, that they shouldn't bother selling any. They want either three million sales, or zero sales.

Dragon Quest VIII sold 3.6 million copies in Japan.
Dragon Quest IX sold 4.3 million copies in Japan.

There is a serious problem here: Square-Enix's two greatest franchises are Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Final Fantasy is an incredibly powerful brand outside of Japan but Dragon Quest, for a myriad of reasons, is not. And so long as Square-Enix insists on an All-Or-Nothing approach, that's unlikely to change any time soon.

UPDATE: 06. June 2015
Rumors abound that Horii, in an uncharacteristic fit of forthrightness, announced (albeit in an unofficial capacity) the overseas localization of 3DS remakes of Dragon Quest VII and Dragon Quest VIII. While this would be fantastic news, at this point its still a rumor. I would dearly love to believe that Square-Enix has recognized the enormous potential of the Dragon Quest franchise worldwide (especially if they bothered to actually advertise the games), but without an official announcement of some kind, Dragon Quest's Western future remains undetermined.

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