The more doublespeak I hear from industry analysts and company executives on earnings calls, the more and more glad I am that companies such as Atlus, Carpe Fulgur, Xseed et al exist. (Though Atlus should really pull their finger out and open a European office. I’ll happily run it. Single-handedly. Gladly. Just bring fucking Trauma Team out over here and we’ll be cool, Atlus. Why you gotta be that way?)
Why? Because these are companies whose primary motivation is not profit, it’s pleasing their customers. They accept that they are catering to niche interests and accept that they are not going to create games that sell millions of copies.
Here’s an actual quote from Aram Jabbari of Index Digital Media, Atlus USA’s parent company:
“With the launch of the strategy RPG Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, an iteration in the popular franchise never before released in North America, Atlus demonstrates the continuation of its proud heritage of supporting niche titles aimed at the core gamer. We are not intimidated by the challenges of servicing a smaller audience or pursuing more modest success with a given project. Our fans are excited for a new Growlanser title and we are excited to be able to bring one to them.”
What a great attitude to take. A bold, proud statement that Atlus specifically isn’t going after the quick buck, but is instead aiming to build long-term loyalty with its customers by giving them the things that they have been asking for.
Note: this is not the same as pandering to the whims of crybabies. It is a case of listening to your customers and providing them with things that they will appreciate, which in turn builds up a strong and significant base of loyalty which can be drawn upon in the future. I know plenty of people who will happily pick up anything that has the Atlus stamp on it purely because of the goodwill the company has built up over the years (goodwill which they’re at risk of losing with the whole Persona 4 Arena region-lock business, but that’s another matter entirely).
It’s the same with Carpe Fulgur, whose dedication to their craft shines through in every one of their three releases so far. While Recettear, Chantelise and Fortune Summoners may not be the most technologically-stunning or even best games in the world, they feature a top-quality localisation job the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of Victor Ireland and Working Designs on the PS1. They work on niche titles that players might not have heard of, but built up a solid foundation of brand loyalty with Recettear and have continued to provide memorable experiences since.
Then there’s Xseed Games, whom I have to admit I’m not as familiar with, but who are noteworthy for bringing excellent PSP action-RPGs Ys Origin and Ys: The Oath in Felghana to PC, and are also handling the North American release of the fantastic The Last Story. (C’mon, guys, pick up Pandora’s Tower, too — your fans will thank you.)
And then there’s the even smaller niche developers and publishers like Mojang, Gaslamp Games, Zeboyd Games — too many to mention. Not one of these companies is responsible to shareholders and investors, which means they can take a much more “human” approach to business. Their team members can speak as individuals and freely give their opinions rather than stock, robotic “we do not comment on rumours and speculation” responses that frustrate journalists and public alike so. They can enthuse about their products in human terms rather than spouting bollocks like this actual quote from Ryotaro Shima, senior vice president the EML business department at GREE Inc and CEO of GREE UK Limited:
“The formation of a UK studio is strategically significant on many levels. Primarily it will allow us to focus on Western content, keyed to local social trends, as well as tailoring content for global propositions. It also reinforces GREE’s commitment to growth within European markets.”
Besides the fact that these smaller companies tend to have job titles that are less of a mouthful, there’s a clear disparity in the language used. Let’s take a look at another quote that is more roughly equivalent to the one from Jabbari I posted at the beginning of this piece — this one’s from Paul Nicholls, sales and marketing director at Koch Media, annoucing Andrew Lloyd Webber Musicals: Sing & Dance (yes, that is a game that is actually coming out, and you bet it’s a game being made primarily as something that will sell rather than a great creative work):
“This is a fabulous signing for us. Andrew Lloyd Webber and his creations are a British institution that have been enjoyed by generations across the world. The chance to bring this product to market for the Nintendo Wii is both an honour and hugely exciting.”
Note the difference in the language used. Jabbari refers to “our fans”; Nicholls talks of “bringing this product to market”. Jabbari speaks of “servicing a smaller audience”, “pursuing more modest success” and emphasises what Atlus is doing for its fans; Nicholls speaks of what a “fabulous signing for us” the Andrew Lloyd Webber license is — no mention of customers at all.
Obviously those two aren’t exact equivalents — one is a rather niche PSP release while the other is a Wii game based on the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But the point stands — personally speaking, I’m much more inclined to respect companies that have a “human” face; companies who make it clear that their first priority is not shifting as many copies as possible, but pleasing, surprising and delighting their fans.
Obviously it would be nice if the niche titles were multimillion-sellers, but that would somewhat diminish their “niche” status. What the continued existence of smaller outfits like Atlus, Xseed and the like proves, however, is that you don’t have to be focused on big business and the bottom line to be successful — it is possible to please your customers and have a company that performs well.
It’s also, I’d argue, a sign that going public is a terrible, terrible idea for a company supposedly based around creative ideas. As soon as “what would be cool?” becomes “what would sell?” or “what will make the investors happy?” I, for one, am no longer interested, because I’m being treated as a bag of money rather than a human being. For all I know, Atlus et al may be laughing all the way to the bank, but because they put such a human, consumer-friendly face on the way they do business, I’m more than happy for them to take all of my monies while I consistently give companies like EA, THQ and Activision the finger until they start speaking English.