Monday, April 28, 2014

Tomodachi Life is a system seller in Japan – can it do the same in the west?

Publisher: Nintendo Developer: in-house Format: 3DS Origin: Japan Release: June 6 (US & EU)

The success in Japan of Tomodachi Collection: New Life hardly came as a surprise. The first game in the series, Tomodachi Collection, had already run away with the sales chart, shifting nearly four million copies on DS following its 2009 launch. If anything, the 3DS sequel, released in Japan in April 2013 and due a European and North American release this coming June as Tomodachi Life, undersold by half, shifting ‘only’ 1.82 million copies by the end of 2013.

But however you look at it, the series has done better than anyone might have expected. The game, created by a team led by Metroid and WarioWare veteran Yoshio Sakamoto, came totally out of leftfield, blending the dolls-house element of The Sims and the gentle social connectivity of Animal Crossing with the deadpan humour of WarioWare and the always-in-pocket portability of a Tamagotchi keyring.

New Life was a system seller for 3DS, with first-week software sales of 404,858 boosting hardware numbers that week by more than double the previous week to 57,089. It was the highest-selling game in Japan that week, and reportedly the world. This popularity was partly down to the built-in audience from the previous game, of course, but it was also due to an interesting experiment by Nintendo in social marketing. The game allows you to take screenshots of the top or bottom 3DS screen at any time with a single button tap, and then share your images online.

Twitter was a huge boon for New Life. The game has no native Twitter integration, and so images must be uploaded using the Image Share tool or transferred to a computer via SD card, but this was no barrier for players in sharing their goofy adventures from the game, especially among older players, among whom Twitter use is as popular as it is in the west. Since the game encourages players to populate their in-game island with Miis of their friends and family, either made by themselves or traded as QR data, the wacky situational dramas and gags were eminently sharable.

The sumos in this minigame have been replaced with American football players for Tomodachi Life’s western release.

Japanese gamers traded QR codes of their own Miis, but also the Japanese internet quickly became awash with QR codes for Miis resembling celebrities. TV is still a hugely powerful medium in Japan, much as it was in the West before the rise of the internet and on-demand viewing, and the lure of watching comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto or the members of J-pop group Perfume interact in homemade Mii form and create digital offspring was a major factor in the game’s success.

Street Pass was also a big deal, as Japan’s densely populated urban areas afford dozens of exchanges a day, bringing with them gifts of in-game items and outfits from visitors to your island.

It’s a shame, then, that Miiverse did not exist on 3DS at the time of the game’s launch, coming to the handheld in December last year and offering an update for New Life months after the buzz had peaked. If it had been there at day one, New Life’s unstoppable viral potency could have helped make Miiverse an unmissable service.

When it is released as Tomodachi Life in Europe and North America on 6 June, Miiverse will be available out of the box, though Twitter seems likely to remain the domain where the game thrives. But what are its chances in the west? Nintendo clearly sees the series as a major asset now, with a dedicated stage in the forthcoming Super Smash Bros. and indeed the very existence of a localised release, which will have required significant resources.

TV-style newsflashes announce the ability to explore new areas of the game’s map.

In New Life, every line of dialogue is spoken by Miis via an automated voice synthesiser, much like the software that powers Vocaloid star Hatsune Miku. The voices can be manipulated using a simple editor tool to control pitch, speed and so on, and their presence is a big part of the game’s charm. But while Japanese is a phonetic language with only five vowel sounds to reproduce, English is a chaos of broken rules and weird pronunciations, and Nintendo Of America’s Bill Trinen has spoken about how difficult it was to make it work well enough for a Western audience. It seems unlikely Nintendo would have gone to such trouble if it didn’t intend to push the game in the west.

The question remains as to whether a Western audience will actually like it. Tomodachi Life is a very odd game, as far from mainstream as can be. Nothing much happens: you tend the needs of your Miis and play rudimentary games with them such as memory tests and catch games. You shop for clothes and dress them up, or keep them fed, and help them to interact with one another. You must invest a fair amount of time in creating or trading Miis, since the game comes completely unpopulated. Scenes of oddball drama occur regularly, but they are somewhat scripted, and so players’ enjoyment will depend on whether the charm of the Mii artwork and bent humour appeals to them personally. An of course the name – “tomodachi” is Japanese for “friend” – may turn out to be a help or a hindrance.

The Japanese game market is built upon such cute and fantastical ideas, making Tomodachi Collection feel somewhat nostalgic to the domestic audience. It will be interesting to see how younger players in particular react when the series reaches our shores.

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