Last week we went along to the Tokyo Game Show, Japan's best known and most popular games expo. Various publishers went all-in with live events and streams, such as Sony, Capcom and more, while Nintendo still opted for a low-key approach. It offered some support, however, for smaller publishers and developers showcasing Switch and 3DS games, and the current-gen hybrid was the focus for the impressive stand held by CIRCLE Entertainment and Flyhigh Works.
The two companies share some employees and business; CIRCLE is a familiar developer and publisher on 3DS and now Switch, while Flyhigh Works is a newer name to Western audiences. They're businesses that aim to succeed in the West - often by localising games out of Japan - but are also increasingly active publishing PAL and North America-developed games on the Japanese eShop. For example between them they're the publishers of games like SteamWorld Dig 2 and RIVE in Japan.
During TGS we had a chance to chat with Chris Chau, CEO of CIRCLE Entertainment and foreign (outside Japan) business director of Flyhigh Works. We caught up on the TGS experience and the general business of building a library on Switch.
Thank you for meeting with us, and welcome to TGS. How has it been so far?
Chris Chau: Busy! Not eating much, just cookies!
This is the first time we've had a proper booth at TGS, in previous years we have had a couple of blocks, but this year, we have 20 TVs at our booth. This is the biggest investment we've ever had at TGS so we feel it's important and we need to do our best for everyone involved. We feel this is our duty and are extremely happy to be here.
It's great to see the relationship growing, in terms of developers and building a library with Nintendo.
We have worked with Nintendo since DSiWare, and then on 3DS eshop and Wii U. Five years ago we started focusing on the Japanese market. The eShop is really suitable for Nindies. Nintendo is also aware of us as a company and we are really thankful that we are only focusing on publishing for Nintendo. Nintendo trusts us which is a precious thing.
It's exciting to see the range of titles you have brought to TGS - right up to games still in development.
Of course we are planning on new titles and It's been really positive developing new titles, but it takes a lot of time, so Flyhigh Works are also publishing some games in Japan that were released on the Wii, such as World of Goo, but Nintendo Switch exclusives such as Kamiko are also very important, even though it's a smaller title.
We like this platform, we are fans of it and Nintendo games in general, this gives us passion to continue our work.
The turnaround from the announcement to release of the console was short - how did you deal with it? It must have been fast paced compared to other consoles, and the Switch is still so early in its lifecycle.
The best example is Kamiko. It is a brand new title which took four months to make. The developer Skipmore developed Fairune for 3DS which came out in 2014, so they have good experience, they knew how to make a good pixel art game. They are professional, but they also needed help to learn about releasing in this region and on the new platform. They have also been very positive and passionate about their upcoming game Picontier, which was announced last TGS but has been really well received and will launch at the end of the year. It suits the platform really well, plus we want to create more content for it to make a more premium product. We are still thinking about other titles to bring to Nintendo platforms.
We want to be bigger, but we need to build as we are 'hand crafting' the company. We are always learning, getting a lot of feedback which is really precious. I'm so happy so many gamers still support us - in the future we want to make more exclusive and new titles like Picontier, also maybe different art styles, but we are still a small company with a few employees. While it is true that at the moment that we are publishing some ported games, they are enhanced ports and we are really focused on bringing new, exclusive games to the Switch.
You mentioned about different art styles. We've just played Deemo - not only is the art style gorgeous, it's great to see the hardware being utilised in different ways.
Due to the portable nature its possible to see AAA as well as games that are smaller or have different control schemes.
We have gotten so much support from Nintendo, especially with the music games.
VOEZ was our first title on Switch and we were ecstatic about it. In the early stages we can't use all of the features all of the time, but people had a great experience on Switch and people appreciated the free DLC.
We have a physical release coming out and it's been confirmed to have controller support. It's really exciting that the Switch is so popular already and, going forward, we are excited to release another music game. It's true that we are used to pixel art games, but it's not just about being satisfied or not, it's about being happy or not happy with the product and experience. So far we are so happy because of player comments, so we can carry on. Our first Switch title VOEZ, and the positive comments we received, motivated us going forward into publishing Deemo in Japan.
All sorts of games can find a home on Switch; as a publisher, what are your thoughts on the immediacy of digital distribution and how important it is for this platform?
A good example is PAN-PAN. PAN-PAN was announced during the Nintendo Direct in Japan. It's a cool title but it's still a new title and from the comments we have received, gamers are finding it satisfying and say they want fresh experiences.
After the showcase it was available straight away, but maybe western gamers won't watch the Japanese Direct, also the release is sudden - so there isn't much build up. Things like timing in addition to the fact that the Switch is region free are still important, but It's a double edged sword - it's doing well in Asia but it's still a learning experience. We can still satisfy global users when there are titles coming to the global market.
We're always telling ourselves that we need to learn from past experience; the markets can change fast and we need to learn fast.
Issues with titles for the global eShop include ratings like CERO or localisation, it can take time, so we want to focus on a specific region and also take care. Not just releasing the English versions in Japan. Maybe we have to wait but then more titles or AAA titles come out which is unavoidable, so we prefer to focus on regions for each project.
What do you look for in a game?
We did try other platforms, such as PS4, but we are focused on Switch and this is our main consideration. Due to the size of our team, we should focus and don't want to divide our energy, so for now Switch as a first priority, then even when we decide to port a title, we are looking for the reason why players want this on Switch. If it's not a good match for Switch users it's not fun. The game might be a hidden gem on other platform, we give it a second chance but it still might not be suitable. Party games such as Death Squared have thrived on Switch.
It's great to hear how much care you're taking in choosing the right titles to bring to Switch, to new audiences as well as suiting the hardware.
We have lots of games, get lots of feedback and we have our viewpoints which we have shared with developers, sharing advice regarding localisation or even the nature of the market. We don't want to just port fast to get money. We want to build our reputation and trust.
There are so many games on other platforms, especially Unity. In theory it's easy to port it to other platforms. As a publisher we want to make the right decision and choice.
The diversity of the titles is fantastic and, going forward, SteamWorld Dig 2 is a big title for you.
It was stressful (laughs) so we want to do our best and the CEO of Image & Form, Brjann, knows Japanese, therefore we can't be lazy. We need to earn developers' trust. Sometimes when starting a partnership with a developer, it's about timing.
SWD2 is the first sequel that you've taken on - there's that legacy/ fanbase to honour.
It's not easy to get the opportunity. It started about 4 years ago. We already knew each other, but we missed out on SteamWorld Dig. Looking back, we did learn a lot about the market. He gave us the opportunity and I'm really thankful. We have been patient, as a result, now we have finally got to work together. You can't buy trust or support and it takes years. It's not just business. Many years ago 3DS eShop games were simple, now they are rich in content and can compete for space. Developers have to choose partners carefully. It's a huge risk.
We have talked about Japanese titles in Japan and their success in the West. How about bringing western games to Japan?
For me, we need to think about this because it's not just about it being a good title, there could be something like the actual pronunciation of the game itself - it might not be easy or catchy to the Japanese audience. For example, Death Squared - in Japan the word 'death' maybe is a bit too strong, so we changed it to the katakana 'rorororo' which is... ロロロロ - four squares! And the Chinese is '㗊' which means clamour and match for party game concept, also four squares!
We need to care about the sensitive issues to understand them, but we bring Japanese games to the West and vice versa, so we need to think about the western market which is a lot of pressure. The main thing is to do our best. We care so much about different cultures and the developers are indies so there is an element of risk regarding global sales, but it's going really well right now. Most western gamers are understanding and embracing 'traditional' Japanese games more than ever.
An interesting example is Urban Trial Freestyle on 3DS - a western and western-style motorbike game, and it turns out it sold really well on the shop in Japan, and exceeded western sales. It can depend on timing, but we are getting the word out there and saying to consumers that it is suitable for the Japanese market - they are putting faith in our judgement.
There's been a resurgence of Japanese games coming into the western market - with the indie scene and digital distribution, are consumers more globally aware than ever.?
Japan is still a traditional audience in terms of preferred genres, to a certain extent, it is a cultural thing and there are of course long running series that have huge userbases. Most of the most popular titles are still local titles.
We have the chance to do certain things slowly. We can understand why other companies have been aggressive but we can be patient and observe. You can't build a house with a 3D printer!
Flyhigh Works' most recent releases - PAN-PAN, SteamWorld Dig 2 is coming to Japan soon and Deemo has just come out in Japan, as well as Golf Story next month. We have nearly thirty titles. It's exhausting but very rewarding.
As you see, we have had a great booth this year. However we have learnt from having a smaller booth in the previous two years that it's step by step, year after year.
Thank you for you time and showing us your booth at TGS.