Xbox 360 in Japan: second life?

Takashi Sensui says the best is yet to come for the Xbox 360 in Japan; cast of heavyweights promos console, game lineup in TGS opener.

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TOKYO--The weather was hot and sunny in Tokyo on Wednesday, probably making more than a few attendees of the Xbox 360 media briefing wish they were relaxing in one of the city's many parks with an ice tea or cold beer rather than hanging out in the Cerulean Tower Hotel's underground ballroom where the event took place. However, the 200 or so journalists who turned out were rewarded with a dynamic and in-depth presentation. This briefing served both to introduce the new Xbox 360 games and peripherals that will be shown at the Tokyo Game Show and to fire an opening shot in Microsoft's bid to "relaunch" the Xbox 360 in Japan.

The event kicked off on schedule, opening with a video projected on a wide screen at the front of the ballroom. The video pummeled the spectators with a blast of load music and visuals that juxtaposed images of a martial artist with those of the Xbox 360 hardware and software. Though the martial artist appeared to kick the Xbox a couple of times, the overall impression was one of speed and power.

When the video finished, Microsoft Japan's Xbox czar, Takashi Sensui (pictured above), welcomed attendees. His voice rising and falling rhythmically, he seemed to stutter or stumble over his own words as he delivered the opening comments. Not to say that he seemed unsure of himself; rather, he appeared to become quite emotional as he discussed the Xbox and its community of users. "The first thing I want to say is that since its launch last year, the user base of the Xbox 360, which we can say constitutes a single global community, has been steadily and greatly increasing. Microsoft is on target to ship 10 million units worldwide by the end of this year." He hoped this might indicate Microsoft is doing something right, even if Japan sales have been a bit sluggish so far.

Swanky.
Swanky.

Speaking of which, Sensui did not directly mention the Xbox 360's hitherto spotty Japan-side performance. Rather, he focused on the future. "The [Xbox 360] is approaching a turning point in its growth in the Japanese market. From now on, evolution in next-generation games will require qualitative changes." The kinds of changes he meant are outlined in Microsoft's new marketing campaign for the system. This campaign consists of three components, as suggested by the advertising slogan: "do! do! do!" The three "do's" are "do! Game," "do! Choice," and "do! Live," and it's on these three pillars that Microsoft hopes to build a foundation for success in Japan.

Sensui said the Xbox will have "the strongest lineup in history...Over 100 titles, including those for Live Arcade are planned for Japan." Regarding the "choice" aspect, Sensui touted the Xbox's personalization features, both in terms of hardware configurations and online profiles. "[The Xbox] offers flexibility found in no other console," he said. As for Xbox Live, he remarked that it was building a "brighter, more social environment" for gamers.

Corporate vice president of interactive entertainment business, entertainment, and devices division Peter Moore also stepped in to talk a little more about Microsoft's Japan strategy. Key to this will be "redefining the way Japanese gamers think about games" and producing more content "by Japanese developers for Japanese gamers." This will include 50 titles that will be exclusively for Japan, though he did not mention how these are divided up between Live Arcade and retail games. He also stressed that of the 110 titles to be released in Japan, fully 70 will be produced by Japanese developers. He further emphasized that Microsoft's strategy is global in scope, with the Xbox 360 slated to roll out in India later this week and in South Africa next week. Moore also introduced five new Xbox Live Arcade titles: Yie Ar Kung Fu, Gyruss, Rush 'n Attack, Ms. Pac Man, and New Rally X. Yie Ar Kung Fu will be exclusive to Japan.

MS gets the ballroom in the basement.
MS gets the ballroom in the basement.

It was in this context that Peter Moore announced the first-ever World Pac-Man Championships. The championship will pit the top 10 Xbox Live players against each other sometime in 2007. Details, such as the venue and date, are still TBA. During Moore's presentation, Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani made a surprise visit. When asked about his thoughts on his creation, Iwatani said, "I hope that Pac-Man will become a new communication tool that transcends generations."

Some video presentations of upcoming third-party games were also shown. First off, the DOA Extreme 2 trailer treated attendees to a titillating display of prancing female characters from Tecmo's Dead or Alive franchise. Following the five or so minutes of bouncing and jiggling, Sensui simply said "I have nothing further to add," to the amusement of the audience.

Footage of Lost Planet and a first look at Trusty Bell, an animelike Japanese role-playing game, were also shown. Infinite Undiscovery also got a brief plug but unfortunately no visuals. However, the centerpiece of the game videos was live demos of Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon, both from Mistwalker Studios. Blue Dragon, which is near completion, looked particularly polished, with Akira Toriyama's character designs making a prominent appearance. Mistwalker's Hironobu Sakaguchi, who appeared to introduce the games and show off the demos, said of the graphics, "We rendered it like a Pixar film...that you can control." The Lost Odyssey demo showed what looks to be a very dark RPG aimed at older gamers. Of this title, Sakaguchi said he hoped to create "a totally fresh" RPG.

Will they be enough?
Will they be enough?

Many more new titles were introduced briefly by way of video, some flashing by for only a few seconds. GameSpot editors will have to wait for the Tokyo Game Show to get a closer look at these.

A host of new peripherals were also shown off at the briefing, including the Vision camera (just released in North America), a wireless headset peripheral, and a wireless racing wheel. But the most praise was saved for the HD-DVD player add-on. A working model of this showcased some of the next-generation format's features, such as user-defined bookmarks and picture-in-picture displays. Almost as an afterthought, Sensui brought out an actual HD-DVD unit to show the audience after the demonstration. This created probably the largest stir of the entire event, as press members mobbed the stage to photograph Sensui holding Microsoft's answer to Sony's Blu-ray drive.

With big names like Sakaguchi and Iwatani promoting the 360, Microsoft may indeed win over the hardcore-gamer segment. However, the question of whether casual gamers will go for the system is far from certain. One detrimental factor may be pricing. Two very high-profile titles--Dead Rising and Lost Planet--are priced at 8,379 yen ($71), a good 1,000-2,000 yen ($9-$17) higher than average titles. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 will cost a staggering 9,240 yen ($79). Prices this high are usually only seen on certain genres in Japan. For example, games with a hardcore following like strategy or RPG titles are priced in the 7,000 to 9,800 yen ($60-$84) range. Age of Empires III is one example. On the other hand, many casual users may be won over by the Xbox Live Arcade, which will let them download games such as Lumines and Yir Ar Kung Fu at more affordable prices.

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