Québec firms explore Japan market
Tokyo is famous as the home of some of the biggest and most innovative video game development companies in the world, with a game-playing public that has plenty of titles to choose from and is constantly on the lookout for the next ground-breaking release — but is discerning and not easily impressed.
Getting a foothold in this market would be a major achievement for any foreign developer, but the rapid development of a technology and games cluster in Québec has given Canadian companies a head start on their rivals.
On a recent trade mission that took in both the Tokyo Game Show and the Busan Indie Connect event in South Korea, a number of companies got a taste of the potential for their businesses in nations synonymous with tech.
“We are a very young studio working on our first game, Aeolis Tournament, so any kind of business trip is a new experience for us,” admitted Sébastien Gauvin, joint founder of the Québec City–based Beyond Fun Studio.
“We didn’t really know what to expect, but we were open to exploring any possible opportunities to market to the Japanese and Asian markets.”
The five companies taking part in the trade mission, organized by Québec Export, had exhibitors’ booths within the main convention facilities for the Tokyo Game Show, held at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba Prefecture over four days from September 14. Traditionally one of the largest events of its kind in the world, this year’s show attracted more than 200,000 visitors.
As well as demonstrating Beyond Fun Studio’s creative prowess and finished products at the booth, Gauvin visited other companies’ booths, had pitch sessions with potential investors and collaborators and got a better feel for the industry, he said.
“It is a market that we feel is relevant to us,” said Gauvin. “Asia is a huge gaming market and although it has been shifting to mobile games, there is still a big demand for console and PC games. Japan is the home of both Nintendo and Sony — and if we want to create a good relationship and maybe get some opportunities with them, it is obviously important to be present in their local market.”
For smaller companies, geography and cost have always been hurdles.
“It is literally at the other end of the world for us — a market that can’t be reached easily through our own marketing efforts, so we needed some help and extra work to get there.”
That task fell to David Brulotte, executive officer at the Québec Government Office in Tokyo and formerly with Investissement Québec for eight years.
“Companies joined the mission for a variety of reasons, including to help find a local partner, to gain a better understanding of the market and to try to get a foot in the market,” he said.
“Japan has served as the inspiration for many of the companies in this industry, but it’s a very Japan-centric market, with only a small percentage of the games produced here going on to other markets,” Brulotte pointed out. “That means it is a very strong domestic market that is dominated by a couple of large Japanese firms. But Québec does have an advantage.”
During the past couple of decades, Montréal and Québec City have evolved into hubs for game producers, in part thanks to some of the biggest names in the industry setting up in the region. As well as Ubisoft Entertainment SA, with its 4,000 employees, Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd., Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and numerous medium-size and smaller firms have set up shop in Québec.
And many experienced and capable designers have left established firms to set up on their own, building on their knowledge and advancing the industry.
Still, making the leap from the North American market into Japan can be a daunting experience, said Guillaume Boucher-Vidal, CEO of Nine Dots Studio, which is headquartered in Québec City. As part of the mission, he was paying his first visit to Asia.
“When getting started in such a large territory, it can be difficult to gain access to the right people, those that are relevant to you,” he said. “This is when joining a trade mission seems to pay off the most.
“There is not only the difference in language, but in culture as well. To be accompanied helps develop self-awareness about what could be considered a faux-pas,” he said.
“Our goal was to meet potential new investors and publishers for the games we develop, or co-development partners, and — given the distance between Québec and Japan affecting the frequency with which we can meet with the people here — we can’t afford to miss a chance to make a good first impression.”
Boucher-Vidal said it was “very refreshing” that the Japanese companies he spoke to in Tokyo were more concerned with the “vision of the company or with the product.” U.S. and European firms, in contrast, are “more focused on the raw numbers.”
“Our job is to make the right game and execute well”
“Our job is to make the right game and execute well”
Another surprise was the head count at firms here. Thus, while Nine Dots only has 11 employees, a company in Japan making games for consoles typically will have more than 100 employees.
Nine Dots does, however, already have a track record in Japan as its most recent title — Outward — sold thousands of copies here before it was even localized in Japanese.
Yet Boucher-Vidal knows that his company needs to appeal to a specific niche of players in the game sector because it would be “foolish” to go head-to-head with a local developer in making a Japanese game.
“To distribute our games in Japan effectively, we need to find local partners,” he said. “We wouldn’t try to pierce this market on our own. There are already publishers who are distributing Western games in Japan successfully, such as Square Enix and Kakehashi Games.
“Our job is to make the right game and execute well on its concepts; we aren’t focusing on the challenges of distribution ourselves — especially not in territories where we face a language barrier with an impractical time zone difference,” he added.
Gauvin is similarly optimistic that taking part in the mission will pay off. “We have met and have been talking to multiple publishers since the show and there are opportunities arising. It’s only a question of time before something concrete gets done,” he said.
“While maybe nothing will come out of it soon, we got to make initial contacts with a lot of people from various backgrounds — game developers, publishers, media and so on. It was also nice to simply get a feeling for what the Japanese public likes or doesn’t in our game, and how different they are as customers and gamers.”
Our game has a distinctly Japanese look to it. It’s accessible, arcade-style gameplay and has Nintendo-inspired art direction with very cute characters. [It’s] in a genre where there are not a lot of Japanese games, so we feel there is an opportunity there,” he added. “Indie games are also slowly growing in popularity, so we will try to get ahead while the market is not crowded with quality indie games.
“At the end of the day, if the product you have to offer is a quality one, people will be receptive and there will be opportunities I think,” Gauvin said in an email interview. “That’s why going there and meeting the right people seemed to be the best way to get a good feel for things.”
And while business opportunities and growth are naturally in the forefront of Boucher-Vidal’s mind, there are ulterior motives for wanting to have a presence here, he admits.
“One of the reasons is that my interest is more emotional than rational,” he said. “I grew up on games made in Japan. Who I am today was influenced by their beautiful work and I want to be able to send a little something back in return.”