Operation Rainfall: The Deluge of Localization Problems with Nintendo

Those who remember the Nintendo 64 particularly fondly either also owned a PlayStation or were extremely young at the time.  The system suffered from among the worst gaming droughts our industry has ever seen and often a customer could be waiting months before another title of note (no offense to Iggy’s Wreckin’ Balls, but it bears no mention because it offers no reputation) came to store shelves.   Those who do remember this time, though, may feel a wave of negative nostalgia when they see the current Wii lineup.  Were the Wii 2011 lineup a hand of cards, it may very well be a winning hand: The Legend of Zelda, New Kirby Adventures, Rhythm Heaven, all but guaranteed to be amazing games.  As a deck of cards, however, it falls woefully short.

And that’s where Operation Rainfall comes in.

Operation Rainfall is a fan campaign designed to bring over unlocalized Wii JRPGs to America by pre-ordering the games on Amazon and writing letters to Reggie Fils-Aime, the current president of Nintendo of America.  The name comes from a desire to see the Wii drought end.  There are several Wii games, produced and published by Nintendo, that are being released in Europe but not in America.  A recent article by Wired’s Chris Kohler, “Nintendo’s Game-Killing Policies Alienate Biggest Fans,” probably serves as a better explanation than I can provide right here.

It does beg the question, though, of why would Nintendo actively pursue a policy of limiting game releases to the smallest possible number.

Before I start, I want to make one thing clear.  I think Nintendo’s current localization strategy is bad long-term business.  Hell, it’s probably bad short-term business, as people are more likely to buy profit-makers (Zelda) if they have their system hooked up and enjoy it.  I find it personally frustrating because I desperately want to play these games.  That said, what I’m only offering here is a theory of Nintendo of America’s current logic, not evidence and not a defense.

To ask the question “Why doesn’t Nintendo bring these JRPGs to America?” is sort of answering the question before you ask it.  JRPGs are a rough market here.  While there is a hardcore crowd that would eat up everything Japanese from Arc Rise Fantasia to Zoids Assault, even nearly-unanimously praised JRPGs such as Tales of Vesperia cap out around 150k in America by what should ostensibly be that same crowd.  Add this to the fact that the Wii software marketplace is the metaphorical equivalent of Fallout 3’s Wasteland, one wonders if there is a chance even a game like Rhythm Heaven would do okay in America if released today.

The counterargument to this is the crux of Operation Rainfall: go to Amazon, pre-order the game, and rocket it to the top.  For the most part, this worked.  Xenoblade (going by the announced title from several years ago, Monado) spent several days over the weekend as the number one game across all of Amazon’s storefront, warranting a front page placement next to the Kindle and the Lord of the Rings Blu-ray set.  Where this falls apart, however, is that the pre-order pledge is relatively non-committal.  It requires no money down and can be cancelled on a whim.  There have even been people bragging about pre-ordering 999 copies, an order Amazon apparently takes no issue with, and some suggesting that others pre-order the game wherever they can and simply cancel the orders later.  This throws immediate suspicion on the numbers – are they less than we think?  Will people inevitably bail on their orders when it’s shown that they get what they want?  Were I someone at Nintendo of America that made the decision to not bring Xenoblade over and I was looking for some way to justify that in the face of the Amazon numbers, I’d only really need to point at the people claiming they have no intention of buying it.  Perhaps the greatest weapon, and likely the greatest Achilles’ heel, of this campaign is how easy it is to opt in and opt out.  It would be like presenting 10,000 signatures for a new park where all the signatures looked like they had the same handwriting – they could be different people, but it’s kind of suspicious.  It’s handing reasonable doubt on a silver platter over to people who are actively looking for it.

Though this is all ultimately a moot point; does the tug-of-war between releasing and not releasing really matter when the question is “Why” aren’t they releasing something?  What possible reason could they have to be so ultra-paranoid and unflinchingly conservative about losses?  Nintendo of Europe is releasing three of the titles Operation Rainfall is requesting (Xenoblade, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story, and Ganbarion’s Pandora’s Tower), why can’t Nintendo of America?

Before I answer that, let me establish the following numbers.  These are the numbers Xe.com lists at the time of writing this article:

1 EUR is equivalent to 116.522 JPY
1 GBP is equivalent to 129.747 JPY
1 USD is equivalent to 81.1141 JPY

I don’t think I need to explain what those numbers mean, but worst case scenario, it is obvious that the USD is worth less yen than the Euro and the British Pound right now.

Since 2008, every single year that Nintendo has issued a financial report, they have had to cut the profit forecasts in that report due to the Yen getting stronger and the dollar getting weaker.  America being the bigger market in terms of raw sales, the losses it incurs through poorly performing software are converted to yen for an even bigger hit.  At that point, investors get unhappy.  They recently bailed on Nintendo in a huge way after the Wii U announcement out of a suspicion, from the press conference day of E3, that it would not sell as well or as quickly as the Wii.  This is the surprisingly tenuous position Nintendo is in now: they have billions in the bank but are constantly teetering on the edge of a pit of angry investors.

So how does Nintendo solve this?  It has a lot to do with one of the questions I asked above, why would a regional branch purposely limit the games it can sell?

In Nintendo of America’s case, they are trying to limit the losses they suffer because the dollar is weak.  This means they can’t afford (as in, in a business sense, not in a “we don’t actually have the money” sense) to release niche JRPG after niche JRPG in hopes that they do well based on quality.  I beat this drum a lot, but Sin & Punishment 2 was one of 2010’s best games that got completely ignored by the hardcore Wii game buying crowd despite a targeted commercial and web ads.  Nintendo of Europe has no such burden.  With the Euro and the pound (and hell, even the AUD) being better than the dollar, they can afford to take losses on the chance that they’ll meet success.  Basically, Nintendo is wrapping a mesh around a bleeding hand to limit the amount of blood that leaks, but not completely stop it.

The problem is that these goals are often at complete odds with the idea of a creative industry.  You can’t go insane with limiting losses while still trying to establish brands.  Nintendo themselves have no consistency on this.  In an attempt to establish (and inextricably tie to Nintendo systems) the Dragon Quest brand in America, they are bringing over games like Fortune Street (a Mario Party-esque board game for Wii featuring Nintendo and Dragon Quest characters) and Dragon Quest Monsters Joker 2, a game that has a larger title than it does a fanbase.   These are games that are more than likely going to suffer losses, but they’re releasing them for the long-term goal of keeping Enix, and Yuji Horii, happy with the way Nintendo is trying to push the series in America.

At the end of the day, as a consumer looking forward to Xenoblade, there is no argument to be made that will make me actually content.  To the extent that I loathe what NOA is doing, I also understand it, but I still feel they should take those losses, anyway.  Release Xenoblade, release The Last Story, release Fire Emblem DS 2.  Yeah, the weak dollar is a problem, but as with the Dragon Quest games, you know there is a larger benefit in the end.

Perhaps my biggest fear is that, even if this all succeeds and Nintendo of America does bring Xenoblade to America, these Amazon pre-orders are very likely to bail and the game will do much worse than hoped.  If that’s the case, and I sincerely hope it’s not, I kind of wonder who would take the blame in that scenario.