In my column this week I make the case that I see an opportunity where Microsoft could attempt to win over Japanese consumers. To be clear, I’m not suggesting Microsoft will do this. In fact, I’d bet heavily against it. Reaching out to the consumers Nintendo has abused and taken for granted would require pretty much the opposite of the corporate culture Microsoft has now.
The problem is that in Japan, Microsoft needs to act like a hungry young startup. When you’ve got single-digit market share, you need to be willing to take risks. When you’re on top you can be aloof and interact only via PR and press releases, but when you’re on the bottom you need to adopt an approachable and human company face. Talk directly to your (potential) customers, give stuff away for free, and make jokes at your own expenseThis is how you do it in the west. I have no idea if self-deprecation is really a good strategy in Japan. to show your self-awareness. You need to be able to present yourself as an alternative to the cold corporate entities that consumers are used to. I seriously doubt anyone in Redmond has the license to do that sort of thing.
Back in 1980, IBM was a bloated, bureaucratic machine. The joke was that it would take them nine months and five million dollars to ship an empty box. Their size and ultra-conservative company culture made them slow and risk-averse. Sensing that they were arriving late to the personal computing market, they did something radical. They created a small team and cut them off from the bureaucracy, effectively giving a small group of people leeway to design whatever they wanted. This enabled them to enter the market quickly and maneuver as if they were a small company. It worked pretty well for most of the 80s, until clones choked out their hardware and feisty youngblood Microsoft punted them out of the operating system market.
So here we are about 30 years later, and now Microsoft is the staggering behemoth that wants to enter a new market but lacks the dexterity to make it happen.
I think the position of the Xbox in Japan is really interesting. Microsoft is in the position of an upstart newcomer, but they have the deep pockets and business connections of a giant. I think that’s an exciting place to be. You’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose, and you’re not under time pressure because you don’t need to penetrate this market to secure your survival. If you blow ten million bucks on a strategy that doesn’t pan out, it’s no big deal because there are literally billions more where that came from and you can always just try something else.
I didn’t want to bog down the column with too many disparate ideas, but here are some other strategies I’d try:
- Our attempts to break into the Japanese market were troubled from the start, and often hampered by problems with the language barrier and cultural blind spots. We had a number of bad / awkward meetings with Japanese business types when we launched the original Xbox. If we really want to make a dent in Japan then we can’t just throw our goods onto the shelves and expect people to buy it. We need to spin up a proper Japanese division run by native Japanese people who understand local law, languages, politics, and culture. (And if we have one already, then we need to start listening to them.)
- Japanese consumers are reportedly really sensitive about space. Let’s talk to the engineers and see if we can design a version of the Xbone with a smaller footprint. This might not work out for thermal reasons, but it’s something worth exploring. Even if it doesn’t help us in Japan, a leaner and quieter version of our hardware could still be welcome as an alternative “special edition” unit in the west.
- If we can’t make the unit smaller, can we at least make it friendlier? Let’s market-test a white unit with rounded corners rather than a black slab with sharp edges. Let’s see if we can position ourselves between the Nintendo and the PS4, rather than as a direct PS4 competitor with fewer games.
- Mobiles are a big deal in Japan, and we have nothing in the mobile space. The PS Vita is dead, which means the Nintendo Switch is now king of mobile gamingOr if we go by units sold, that title belongs to the Nintendo DS. Either way, Nintendo is king of the hill.. Integrating console / PC gaming with mobile gaming is a big deal, and we should be dumping R&D into it. Whether it works in Japan or not, we need to make sure we have a solution in place. We don’t want to chase a fad the way we chased the Wii motion controller, but we also don’t want to be caught unprepared if there’s a huge demand for cross-platform play.
- Can we do anything to encourage more of these titles with Japanese appeal to release on the Xbone? I realize this feeds into our chicken / egg problem, and is made worse by the fact that most of the developers of these games are themselves Japanese. It’s like we need to break into Japanese gamedev culture before we can break into the Japanese gaming market. Once again, this is still a good move regardless of whether or not it’s successful in Japan. A lot of these games are also popular in the west, and offering them on Xbox would still be a win for us.
- Indies can provide us with rapid access to a large variety of games. Let’s make a deal with indies developing for the Xbox: “Make your game so that it works for Japanese consumersAnd if we start our own “Xbox Japan” division like I mentioned in #1, we should have people qualified to judge this. and we’ll give you a better deal on our storefront”. We can even offer to waive our cut for sales made in Japan. That money is peanuts to us, but could be alluring to indies.
- Since Nintendo is so dedicated to being assholes, let’s exploit that. Let’s advertise the Xbox as something free to record, stream, and publish to YouTube, without needing to ask us for permission. Let’s frame Nintendo as the miserly oppressor and ourselves as laissez-faire gaming enthusiasts who just want everyone to have fun. Our original design for the Xbox One proves that this isn’t remotely true, but since the Japanese have been ignoring us for years I don’t think the stench of that original authoritarian design will cling to us.
I’m not saying any of these ideas are 100% brilliant. As a westerner, I’m not really qualified to explain what the average Japanese consumer wants. I offer this as a list of possible low-risk moves. Given the billions of dollars at stake, I think Microsoft can afford to risk a few million looking for a break in Japan.
 This is how you do it in the west. I have no idea if self-deprecation is really a good strategy in Japan.
 Or if we go by units sold, that title belongs to the Nintendo DS. Either way, Nintendo is king of the hill.
 And if we start our own “Xbox Japan” division like I mentioned in #1, we should have people qualified to judge this.
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