CIRCLE Entertainment is a name that will be instantly familiar with Nintendo Life readers, not just for its range of excellent downloadable titles on 3DS and Switch, but also because it was the destination of former site editor Thomas Whitehead when he parted company with us a few months ago.
With franchise like Mercenary Saga and World Conquerer under its belt, CIRCLE is gearing up for the next chapter in its history, and we thought it would be an ideal time to catch up with Tom - now hard at work as a CIRCLE Product Manager - to chat about the past, present and future of this intriguing Japanese publisher.
We know you've only been there a few months, but can you give us a brief overview of CIRCLE Entertainment's history?
CIRCLE has been around for over a decade, so its history is longer than some may realise. I first became aware of the company long ago in the DSiWare and then 3DS eShop age, with a prolific number of releases in the West, often of relatively quirky and affordable games. That’s only a part of it, naturally, as so many releases have been in the Asian market, particularly Nintendo’s Japanese download stores. In numbers, the stat is that over 170 games have been published in various forms, territories and platforms in over 12 years.
The other key thing is that when we talk about CIRCLE Entertainment, it’s really alongside Flyhigh Works. I often describe it as a ‘publishing duo’, with Flyhigh Works being extremely visible in Japan and CIRCLE being more familiar in the West, though the FW stamp is increasingly going on Western releases in the Switch era. The two companies are really one big team spread across Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and some random bloke in Scotland (ahem). To emphasise the point my business card is double sided – CIRCLE Entertainment on one and Flyhigh Works on the other. I think the global nature of how the companies have developed, and the fact that the two chief executives teamed up long ago, means it’s quite unique in that two different names and companies are working together so intimately.
CIRCLE has been a staunch supporter of Nintendo hardware for some time now; what do you think makes the company's platforms so attractive from a publishing perspective?
I think something I learned from my Nintendo Life years is that the dedicated and most active Nintendo audience is really interested in download games. It started on Wii, and in fact it was WiiWare that made me seek out the pre-NL community online, and then DSi, 3DS, Wii U and Switch have followed. So many developers say ‘our Nintendo sales have beaten other consoles’, and I think it’s the audience’s appetite that makes it possible. Part of it might be because Nintendo systems don’t get flooded with all the major AAA retail multi-platform games, but I think the bigger factor is that people buy Nintendo systems to play stuff that’s different and interesting, and downloads are often affordable options that scratch that itch.
I know that, from a CIRCLE / Flyhigh perspective, Nintendo is often hugely supportive. Certainly the history with Nintendo in Kyoto is positive for us, and I’m trying to get us to similar relationships in the West too. Even in my brief interactions so far, though, Nintendo’s teams are unfailingly helpful and polite; you can send an enquiry or call for help and rely on feedback, which really matters for smaller publishers and developers. Ultimately, though, I think it’s the style of the hardware and the eager audiences that make Nintendo systems great for download games.
CIRCLE recently started supporting Switch; how does this new console differ from say, the 3DS or Wii U in terms of development options and revenue potential?
Well, I think the Switch picture is constantly evolving. 2017 will surely be looked back on as a bit of a bubble – in the first few months Nintendo actively curated and therefore controlled output to 3-6 new games a week, and eager new owners snapped up releases in huge numbers. By Fall / Winter, though, we started getting 20+ games a week, and that’s the norm now. So in terms of revenue potential the game has changed. You can have a smash hit like Enter the Gungeon or Celeste (based on their eShop chart placings), a reasonable result, or disasters are possible, where a game arrives with 20 others and dies a painful death. Of the two games I’ve been involved in so far we’ve had what (I think!) are reasonable results, helped by the fact that CIRCLE / Flyhigh are known quantities and that the games had appeal to specific audiences. Part of my job is to try and keep those interested in our stuff involved and intrigued about what’s next, and we have to keep pushing to release cool games.
Based on a bit of research I think the Switch is settling into numbers maybe reflective of the sorts of sales most would see on 3DS. There’s still loads of enthusiasm among early owners, which means that if your game is decent and you get the word out you might survive release windows with 20 other games. It’s scary, though, and outside of occasional big winners it’s a challenge for everyone.
As for development options, I can talk to the sorts of games we’re publishing in the future. There’s a mix of console games, PC games that’ll make their console debut on Switch, some exclusives, and some that originated on mobile. The last one often draws some grumbles, but I think the likes of VOEZ, Deemo and OPUS: The Day We Found Earth show that games with mobile origins can have a lot to offer. In March we have games previously on PC and, yes, mobile, on the way, but all actually suit the system. That’s the thing with Switch though, it’s whatever you want it to be – you can make games you think people should play on a TV, you can make ‘portable / handheld’ games, or use touch controls if you fancy that. As a result that means games can be really varied.
CIRCLE is unique in that it brings many Japanese titles over to the west that, ordinarily, might remain exclusive to Japan. How do you select which games to localise and publish? Do you approach the studios, or is it the other way around?
It goes both ways I think; sometimes we’ll approach developers, other times they make the first move.
My bosses have spent 10+ years building relationships with devs in Japan and Asia more broadly; they’ve worked hard to do that. From what I’ve learned so far they back their instincts on what games are not only good, but will also intrigue gamers. When it comes to Asian games for the West, the call will be made on which genres and styles will likely find an audience – Kamiko was an example of a game that had broad appeal. To be honest, though, in the Switch era things are diversifying a bit, and we’re publishing some games from Western studios; I also think that good games fit the bill wherever they’re from, and that’s especially true for Nintendo gamers. After all, most first-party games from Ninty are ‘Japanese’ games, but it’s not that relevant. If it’s fun and well made a game has a chance regardless of where it’s from.
A big part of the business, though, is localising ‘Western’ games to Japan, with recent success stories being SteamWorld Dig 2, Cat Quest and Guns, Gore & Cannoli; others on the way include Golf Story, for example. I’m not really involved with that beyond occasionally suggesting games that could be of interest, but I know that the team works really hard to localise and market games to suit the specific market. So that means Famitsu reviews, or Death Squared becoming ‘RORORORO’ and having re-designed characters. Localisation isn’t always simple.
Could you tell us what plans CIRCLE has for Switch in 2018?
We've just released World Conqueror X, while OPUS: Rocket of Whispers and Shelter Generations are very close. We’ve got a pretty long list of games on the way, some global, some ‘Western’ and some Asia-only. One that is confirmed is Picontier, from some of the same talent as Kamiko, and we have a pretty interesting range of confirmed games on our super-secret spreadsheet. We’re also actively talking about others, and as always someone from the team will be at major expos and dev events to meet developers and talk about their games; we’ll be at GDC, for example, looking for cool games that can make a splash on Switch.
Is the 3DS now part of the past, as far as CIRCLE is concerned?
The honest answer is… nearly. We have one more game coming to the 3DS, Witch & Hero 3, and that’s probably it.
Ironically, despite the market shifting towards digital, we're seeing a lot of eShop titles get physical releases on Switch. Is this something CIRCLE is considering in the future?
Sure, it’s so common it’d be mad not to consider it. It’s a bit above my pay grade and obviously it has to make financial sense to do it, but I can’t really get into it any further just now. Sorry!
What does the future hold for CIRCLE in general? Do you have plans to expand the business in any way, or branch out onto more platforms?
Like every other publisher / developer we want to expand, sure, though everything is managed pretty carefully and crazy risks are avoided. We’re slowly learning more about the Wild West of Steam, but it’s an insane platform (20+ games PER DAY). We’re looking beyond that too, but Switch is still the big focus.
Finally, what's it like being on the other side of the fence after editing Nintendo Life?
It’s been weird but nice, to steal a line from some movie or other (Notting Hill, maybe?). The fact is that I was pretty burned out as a games writer / editor, and it was showing. The ‘Nintendo Life’ is awesome, but it’s a lifestyle rather than a job, and in my case it was a bit all-encompassing. I’m grateful for 2017 though, because 2016 was a tad grim as the Wii U died a death and 3DS faded a bit; to be around for the Switch launch was awesome.
Being on the other side of the fence is interesting, for sure, and I’ve had to learn to be more patient; I can’t control things as much as I could before. Delays and problems happen and I’ve learned we just have to deal with them and move on. I always tried to be empathetic and understand the challenges for developers and publishers before, but now I get to see the reality from the other side of the curtain; it’s been fascinating. Rather than being an impatient audience member looking up at the stage, I’m behind the curtain sweating buckets and worrying about my lines. I definitely feel pressure – all self-inflicted – to show that I’m contributing positive things.
I’ve been enjoying it, though, and I was only going to leave Nintendo Life for something ‘similar’, in that it’s a small-ish team trying to over-achieve and do things the right way. In a parallel universe the chance hasn’t come up and I’m still editing the site, probably complaining about all the made up rumours in our Slack channel!
But hey, the internet moves on, and I’m sure it’s very much like I was never there on Nintendo Life! The change has done me good, I have a better work / life balance, and NL keeps kicking butt without me. With that in mind it’s been well worth it.
We'd like to thank Thomas for his time.