Not made in Ja­pan

Meet the pub­lish­ing la­bel qui­etly bring­ing western indie dar­lings to Ja­pan

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Meet the pub­lish­ing la­bel qui­etly bring­ing western indies to Ja­pan

Founded in June 2017, Dan­gen – a con­trac­tion of the English words ‘Dandy’ and ‘Gentle­men’ that also hap­pens to mean ‘con­vic­tion’ in Ja­panese – is an indie-game pub­lisher that is run like a small record la­bel, pro­mot­ing in­de­pen­dent games that have some kind of uni­fy­ing qual­ity. The six-per­son out­fit, based in Osaka, spe­cialises in sign­ing western games that it be­lieves will ap­peal to Ja­panese au­di­ence, a de­mo­graphic that has, com­pany co-founder Nayan Ra­machan­dran claims, his­tor­i­cally shied away from western indie games.

Ra­machan­dran’s job ti­tle is ‘con­tent con­nois­seur’, but his role is per­haps best­de­scribed in mu­sic in­dus­try terms: he acts as an A&R man­ager, sign­ing games that he be­lieves fit the la­bel and its fans. In a lit­tle over a year, Dan­gen has al­ready had con­sid­er­able suc­cess, par­tic­u­larly with Icon­o­clasts, a Swedish­made plat­former that takes clear in­spi­ra­tion from ’90s Ja­panese art and de­sign. Here, Ra­machan­dran ex­plains how Dan­gen is work­ing to con­vince the Ja­panese to have an open mind when it comes to buy­ing games from over­seas.

Why did you de­cide to fo­cus on bring­ing western indie ti­tles to Ja­pan?

The Ja­panese gam­ing land­scape has changed a lot in re­cent years. While Ja­panese con­sumers char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally have been un­re­cep­tive to western games, that has be­gun to change. This is, in part, be­cause so many indie devel­op­ers in the west have been highly in­flu­enced by Ja­panese games, and that in­flu­ence shows up in their work. This has cre­ated a kind of feed­back loop, whereby western indies are mak­ing Ja­pane­se­in­flu­enced games that, in turn, are mar­ketable to Ja­panese au­di­ences.

You im­ply that there has his­tor­i­cally been some re­sis­tance to western indie games in Ja­pan. To what do you at­tribute this re­sis­tance?

The re­sis­tance comes from western games be­ing so fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent for such a long time. Whether it has been the scope of the game, the genre, or sim­ply the con­trol and UI con­ven­tions, Ja­panese de­vel­op­ment al­ways ap­proached those el­e­ments in a vac­uum, bor­row­ing lit­tle from western ti­tles. For in­stance, Ja­panese gamers, for a long time, stayed away from western shoot­ers be­cause con­trol­ling both sticks on a con­troller at the same time while pri­mar­ily us­ing the shoul­der but­tons for ac­tions was an en­tirely for­eign con­cept, and hard to pick up.

So how do you select games that will work for the Ja­panese mar­ket?

What, in your ex­pe­ri­ence, works and what does not? Find­ing a dis­tinct, pow­er­ful art style, es­pe­cially in terms of strong char­ac­ter de­sign, is re­ally im­por­tant to Ja­pan. We tend to seek out types of game­play that use el­e­ments Ja­panese play­ers are fa­mil­iar with, al­beit cou­pled with new, fresh con­cepts. It’s hard to pre­dict what will work and what won’t, but we have no­ticed that the Ja­panese mar­ket re­sponds well to strong nar­ra­tive fo­cus and vivid, recog­nis­able char­ac­ter de­sign.

What are the el­e­ments fa­mil­iar to Ja­panese play­ers that you’re at­tempt­ing to seek out?

We look at gen­res that are pop­u­lar, or ubiq­ui­tous in the mar­ket. For in­stance, while FPS games have picked up steam in Ja­pan, it’s still not a huge mar­ket. An FPS is a tough sell here if it’s not a known fran­chise. That isn’t to say that we won’t even look at a game be­cause of its genre. We might end up tak­ing a chance on a ti­tle purely be­cause we be­lieve in it.

What makes for a good Ja­panese lo­cal­i­sa­tion?

When you pick up a Dan­gen game and play it in your na­tive lan­guage, you should not im­me­di­ately know the coun­try of ori­gin. For ex­am­ple, we don’t want you to be able to tell if a game was orig­i­nally a Ja­panese, Eu­ro­pean or Amer­i­can project. Games such as Icon­o­clasts, Devil En­gine, Cross Code and Mi­no­ria all bridge the re­gional gap, tak­ing el­e­ments from dif­fer­ent cul­tures, and in­flu­ences from all over the world.

Aren’t there in­stances wherein a par­tic­u­lar cul­tural style can be a virtue for a game’s suc­cess, or even, in some cases, is en­tirely in­trin­sic to its iden­tity?

The cul­tural in­flu­ence of the game world is im­por­tant, but I don’t nec­es­sar­ily think the ori­gin coun­try of the de­vel­op­ment is as im­por­tant. Take a game like Okami, a game about Ja­panese myth made by Ja­panese devel­op­ers. If this had been made by western devel­op­ers, I wouldn’t want the Ja­panese player to be able to tell the dif­fer­ence.

What’s next for you and the com­pany?

To sign more ti­tles. We’re hit­ting a point where a lot of our ini­tial slate ti­tles are close to ship­ping, and we’re go­ing to need to seek out devel­op­ers that are look­ing to ship their ti­tles in 2019 and be­yond. It’s an ex­cit­ing time.

“The Ja­panese re­sis­tance comes from western games be­ing so dif­fer­ent for such a long time”

Dan­gen co-founder Nayan Ra­machan­dran

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