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Thu, 03 Mar 2005

More on the Japanese and Xbox2

One of the most interesting changes in the Japanese entertainment
software market over the past few years has been the gradual move away
from in-house development at publishers, with the key creative staff
behind some of the world's biggest game franchises stepping away from
publisher studios and forming their own independent developers.

At a time when exactly the opposite is happening in the west, this
phenomenon is fascinating in itself - but what's even more interesting
is the opportunity it has presented to (relative) industry newcomer
Microsoft, which has leapt into the breach to offer publishing deals to
these newly founded Japanese independents.

The last week has seen the first fruits of this approach, and
consequently, the first official statements from Microsoft about its
plans for a next-generation console - not in the form of hardware
announcements, or confirmation of specifications, or a gala unveiling of
a mock-up system, but rather in the form of the news that three Japanese
development legends are set to produce exclusive titles for the machine.

In ways, this is a curious announcement. After all, we don't even know
the name of the next Xbox console yet, its release date hasn't
officially been announced, and Microsoft still maintains a stony-faced
insistence that it isn't even thinking about the next-generation yet,
because it's still focused entirely on Xbox. In other ways, however, the
timing and tone of the announcement is perfect, and reflects the
company's determination to increase its focus on games, rather than the
somewhat spurious specification and performance arguments which it
occasionally fell back on with the Xbox.

The three creators themselves were named as working with Microsoft -
Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshiki Okamoto and Tetsuya Mizuguchi - rather than
their respective development studios, namely Mist Walker, Game Republic
and Q Entertainment, which is an interesting distinction. They bring to
Microsoft Game Studios' portfolio talent which worked on the creation of
the likes of Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Sega Rally and Rez, which is
no small catch for the publisher, and more importantly, they bring a
level of credibility in the Far East which the original Xbox so sorely

As a first tacit admission that Xbox 2 is on the way, the announcement
that developers with such a portfolio of hits behind them are working on
exclusive titles for the system is an excellent piece of publicity. It
reaffirms Microsoft's commitment to focus on quality games, on working
with developers, and on getting it right in Japan, and cleverly diverts
attention from the looming specification battle between Xbox 2 and
PlayStation 3 - which Microsoft knows that it will probably lose,
although probably only by a relatively small margin.

Of course, at the end of the day, first party titles only go so far - as
Nintendo has discovered in this generation. For Microsoft to succeed in
the next generation, it isn't just going to need the Japanese
independents, it's going to need the parent companies that they escaped
from; just having the Father of Final Fantasy on board won't be enough,
they'll need Final Fantasy itself. However, in terms of establishing
credibility in an entire market, and with an entire section of the
gaming public in the west, this week's announcements are a solid step in
the right direction. 

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