If you know me, you also know that I don’t really like writing rebuttals. Yet, at times I read something so absurdly inane that my brain starts hurting, and I have to write something about it.
Yesterday, I read a quote by Wedbush Securities industry analyst Michael Pachter — with whom I’m sure you’re quite familiar — alleging that Sucker Punch’s upcoming open-world game Ghost of Tsushima lacks “broad appeal.” Pachter also says that this expands to “anything that has that Japanese flavor.”
“I don’t think anything that has that Japanese flavor has broad appeal. They’re great games and get high ratings, and the hardcore audiences love them. But, for the average audience, they’re hard games. They’re too hard for most people. I mean, I played Persona 5, one of the highest rated games ever, and I like it, but I can’t believe it went on to sell as many copies as it did. It’s just not the kind of game that seems like it has mass appeal, even though it’s one of the best games ever made, and probably wins Game of the Year. But… going back to Tsushima, no, I don’t think it has broad appeal either.”
And that’s when my brain started hurting.
Personally, I have a lot of respect for Michael Pachter. While his conclusions don’t always hit the mark, no one is perfect and, contrary to the memes, he doesn’t have a crystal ball. He has deep industry knowledge and his reasoning is very interesting for someone like me who is intrigued by the business aspects of the industry. It’s also worth mentioning that his statements are often abused out of context by less-than-scrupulous websites throwing around clickbait headlines with remarkable desperation.
Yet, this is not the first time that Pachter talks negatively about the Japanese gaming industry, calling Japanese publishers (excluding Nintendo and a few other exceptions) “not relevant any longer” to making consoles successful, mentioning that Japanese games “don’t matter in the larger scheme of things”, or downplaying the two million units shipped by NieR: Automata.
This already is a largely debatable position. Not only are there many, many western games by publishers that would lick their lips at the idea of selling two million units, but Japanese games as a whole are certainly a relevant factor to selling consoles.
Are they the most relevant factor compared to giants like Call of Duty or Star Wars? Certainly not, but they are still a factor. One of the reasons why the PS4 has been so successful this generation is the sheer amount of variety it offers to its customers. You don’t just have the high-budget shooters and the AAA action-adventures, but you also have plenty of creative indies and a constellation of Japanese games, which add plenty of often quirky flavor to the lineup.
Most Japanese games don’t go on to sell millions on their own, but if you put them together, they can certainly be considered a factor of attraction for customers due to the diversity they add to a console’s catalog.
There is a reason why Phil Spencer travels periodically to Japan to persuade local publishers to put their games on Xbox One, despite its abysmal sales in the country. He doesn’t fly halfway around the world to push the console on the local market, but because Microsoft is well aware of the fact that that it’s lagging a bit behind in terms of diversity on the worldwide scene, and Japanese games can help address that.
That being said, we’re not even talking about a Japanese game here. We’re talking about a massive AAA exclusive by one of the most revered among Sony Interactive Entertainment’s western first party studios. The problem that Pachter sees is in Ghost of Tsushima‘s Japanese flavor.
He appears to think that said Japanese flavor is behind the Japanese games’ relatively low individual sales, but that’s a tall assumption to make.
Japanese games don’t normally sell millions of units, and this is indeed a fact, but assuming that it’s simply because they’re Japanese is a case of confusing correlation with causation. The reason behind the sales number is normally due to a combination of lack of marketing push and sub-AAA production values.
Japanese developers normally push on other elements as opposed to high-fidelity graphics, working on much lower budgets than their top western counterparts, while their games are often handled by smaller publishers with a lot less money to spend on marketing.
Even large publishers like Bandai Namco and Koei Tecmo normally prefer to release more games on a shorter development cycle, spending less in both development and marketing for each. It’s pretty normal that those games will go on to sell fewer copies, but this doesn’t make them irrelevant (or less profitable) when combined.
Pachter has historically mentioned exceptions to his reasoning like Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, or Resident Evil, and in this latest interview, he appears to be baffled by the performance of Persona 5. Those don’t sell well because they have somehow dropped their Japanese flavor, but simply because they’re part of popular franchises, come with excellent AAA-level production values, and have a proper marketing push that improves awareness among the audience.
Persona 5 had a fraction of the marketing budget of its biggest western competitors, but it made it up with stellar production values and its strong Japanese flavor, which is exactly what Pachter indicates as a crippling factor. The game is basically a playable high school anime, and high school anime are popular even in the west.
The low marketing budgets that Japanese games suffer from tend to extend into lack of coverage from the media. Small Japanese publishers and their tiny western partners don’t really have the money to wine and dine armies of western journalists at massive preview events, and often have to resort to almost literally begging for articles. If you look at an average large gaming website, you’ll see that their coverage of most Japanese games is spotty at best, and non-existent at worst.
They cover the games that are part of popular franchises, that have AAA or AA-level production values, and big marketing budgets, ignoring those that don’t have those perks. Of course, this is another factor that translates more or less directly into sales, or lack of thereof.
Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t suffer from most of these issues. Being a high-level PS4 first-party exclusive, it’ll benefit from the strong marketing push that Sony is certainly capable of. On top of that, Sucker Punch has the technology, the will, the know-how, and the budget to create a title with stellar production values under every point of view.
The only relatively weak spot is that they have dropped the inFAMOUS franchise to work on a new IP, and that is objectively an element of challenge. One of the elements that can overcome that challenge is certainly flavor, and they picked the flavor that can certainly make the audience notice and remember the game: Ninja.
While the main character in Ghost of Tsushima is originally a samurai, the end of the announcement trailer shows clearly that he is going to take up the mantle of the ninja. Not only does the concept of “ghost” make it clear, but at the end we see him in ninja garb, using shinobi tools, and stealth to fight off the Mongol army.
We don’t know whether the term “ninja” will be officially used to define the protagonist, but he appears to perfectly blend the concepts of samurai and ninja, which are absolutely popular even among the western mass market audience.
Ninja have been popularized through decades of media and pop culture appearances, not just Japanese. Just think about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, many Ninja-inspired superheroes and characters (all the way back to G.I. Joe), and products like LEGO Ninjago and much, much more.
If you look at Google Trends, you’ll notice that “Ninja” is more popular as a search term than pirates (just to play with a classic meme), and if you try to compare against many other relevant search terms, the Japanese stealthy warriors will more often than not jump out of the shadows and come out on top.
There is also another relevant element, which is the charm of the “exotic.” Exotic locations and themes are certainly not a handicap for the mass-market success of a game, as they create curiosity and memorable images. I loved inFAMOUS: Second Son, but I doubt I could respond with anything else than hilarity to someone telling me that feudal Japan combined with a samurai-turned-ninja protagonist will have less mass market appeal and cool factor than Seattle and an improvised superhero wearing a beanie.
The strong Japanese flavor, mixed with elements that are extremely rooted in popular culture worldwide, are exactly what gives Ghost of Tsushima the edge to overcome the challenge of being a new IP. It’s a strong, memorable concept evoking intense and epic images, and it’s easily comparable in mass “broad appeal” to things like space marines or World War II soldiers. It’s also not as overdone in western gaming, which is certainly a perk and not a liability.
Will Ghost of Tsushima become an absolute smash hit and Sony’s next big IP? We’ll see. It’ll depend a lot on the quality of the game and on how much money the house of PlayStation will spend on pushing its promotion. That being said, its Japanese flavor is far from being a handicap. It’s probably the one element that can set it apart from today’s overcrowded market, and make it soar.
Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t yet have a release window, but it will come exclusively for PS4. If you want to learn more, you can enjoy some data recently provided by the developers, the first trailer, and some charming art. You can also read my articles on the history behind the game, and on the possible map. Stay tuned on DualShockers for the next part, which will soon examine the game’s exotic setting.