Opinion – How Japan never learned to love PC gaming again (Part 1)

I’m in Akihabara with my family, admittedly they’re tired and don’t really want to be here. They don’t understand, but I’m in heaven. More specifically five floors of PC gaming heaven. On this particular floor, there a whole bunch of shooters, RPGs, hack ‘n’ slash games, and MMOs. Another floor is home to flight simulators, truck simulators, train simulators, and all the other simulators that Europe is fond of putting out. Not to mention the joysticks required to play them.

In fact, all five floors are filled nearly exclusively with PC games imported from the UK, Europe, Australia, and America. There are very few Japanese PC games here. The majority of those have their own floors. Floors I admittedly don’t visit with my family this time round.

The year is 2007, and I conclude my game purchasing by picking up an Australian version of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. As always the friendly staff are quick to point out, “This is an import game, it’s only in English. Is that okay?”.

It is of course okay for me. But it is a good reminder that PC gaming in Japan for a fair few years now has been limited to English language games. Even those published by Electronic Arts for sale in Japan, Such as the Sims series and a variety of Valve games, are sold with Japanese language manuals but the games themselves left unlocalised.

As cute as Peashy is in Re;Birth3, she does not represent the PC. She wouldn’t be anywhere near as happy if she did.

That isn’t to say there aren’t any non-eroge Japanese language PC games. There are. But they’re hugely expensive, more so than the import games and they’re in limited genres, mainly strategy, such as A-Train, or one of the Nobunaga series of games.

Over the next couple of years, I watch helplessly as my gaming heaven shrinks. First to only two floors, then one. Finally it’s reduced to only half a shelf, hidden at the back of a store. That shelf itself is in the most inconvenient of places, it blocks a door to a staff only area. They have to constantly move it out the way.

By 2012, there is essentially no longer a PC import market in Akihabara. Similar to the online importers, such as IFeelGroovy — where I got my lovely wooden box edition of Dragon Age Origins, and turned to for Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 — the stores have either shut down, or moved on to selling Russian Roulette Japanese confectionary.

The Japanese import PC gaming market was viciously murdered. The killer, Steam. More specifically, the IP blocks on activations in Japan that Valve and third party publishers had started employing. For a while stores offered VPN access, etc., to help get past the blocks.

Dragon Ball Xenoverse available in Japan on Xbox 1, but not Steam.

Eventually, they gave up entirely. But around that time gifting games on Steam had become possible. I, like other PC users in Japan, soon switched to finding people in other countries to help with buying games (I still do). The death of the local import market wasn’t going to stop us.

So what is my point in all this? Earlier this year PC Gamer published an article titled “How Japan learned to love PC gaming again“. On the surface it looks like a well researched and informative article. It is not. The claims it makes are completely silly and often false. For example, they claim:

The first obstacle to PC gaming’s growth is a simple one: very few people own PCs in Japan.

And yet, during the mid to late 2000s, there were enough PC gamers in Japan to justify huge import markets as seen in Akihabara. There was an increase in the appearance of PC specific stores such as PC World, Century 21, and Dospara which sell parts as well as pre-built PCs. Not to mention the booming eroge market which supports both Windows and Macs. Perhaps that’s where PC Gamer first became confused. PC gaming isn’t termed PC gaming in Japan. It’s Windows gaming; named after the OS, not the physical hardware.

It took a long time for Capcom to support Steam in Japan, but when they did they referred to it as Windows in all advertising.

Skipping chunks of the article (I’ll come back to those in a later instalment), there was one comment in particular which annoyed me and many others in Japan. Even now, months after the article was published (and forgotten by many I’m sure) this comment credited to John Ricciardi still stings:

Nobody knew what Steam was five years ago in Japan

Which is complete and utter bullshit. Many people in Japan knew what Steam was ten years ago. Even more knew what it was five years ago. For the record many of my Japanese PC gaming friends created their Steam accounts in 2003, 2004, or 2005. I made mine in 2004.

Of course, what Ricciardi probably meant by “nobody” is that Japanese publishers and developers didn’t know what Steam was. But even that isn’t entirely true. Japanese publishers knew what Steam was. But outside of those few strategy games I mentioned previously, most of them had a hugely apparent aversion to supporting PC gaming in Japan. Some still do.

You can buy Yaiba: Ninja Gaidan Z in Japan, but you won’t like the price.

It’s important to keep in mind that this “five years ago” comment refers to around 2012. Important, because one of Japanese PC gaming’s biggest milestones was achieved in 2010. That being the convincing of then CEO, Yoichi Wada, via Twitter to release Square Enix games on Steam in Japan.

Before then, they were not available for purchase. In fact Japan has been subject to the highest number of regional restrictions on Steam since regional restrictions were first introduced. Things were so bad Steam-wise that by 2011 a new word had entered the Japanese language, “omakuni”.

This slang word originally specifically related to regionally restricted titles sold on Steam but not available for purchase in Japan. These days, its use extends to most digital distribution services. The fact that this word was in use before 2012 once again proves the claim that “Nobody knew what Steam was five years ago in Japan” is completely unfounded.

If Japanese PC gamers didn’t know what Steam was, they would not have coined a word for describing a Steam specific issue in 2011. Most likely before, but a post made in 2011 (in regards to Modern Warfare 2) is the oldest usage of the word that I can still find via Google today.

None of the Naruto games are available on Steam in Japan.

Likewise, if Square Enix didn’t know what Steam was in 2010, they would never have started selling some of their games on the service in Japan at that time. Yet they did. It was a small, yet important, victory for Japan based Steam users. And it happened seven years before the PC Gamer article.

I know I’m repeating this point. But to be told you, and many like you, didn’t exist five years ago — when you clearly did — is insulting. It spits in the face of everything Japan’s Steam users have fought for, everything they’ve suffered. It hurts a lot and it’s damaging.

Steam users in Japan have actually had a lot of problems with the Steam service. While it’s impossible to lay the blame for these issues squarely at Valve’s feet, they are naturally, the only common party involved. And with Steam being their platform, they are certainly responsible for coding the systems that are so easily abused.

I won’t recount every single instance, but I do feel its important to cover some of them, so you can have an understanding of how Steam has been perceived in Japan. Jumping back again to the year 2010, Mafia II pre-orders went up on Steam with advertised staggered August release dates. By the time the last of those dates arrived (the one advertised for Japan too), Mafia II was unlocked across the globe; with one exception.

Mafia II, delayed for over half a year, before releasing as a Japanese language only version.

It didn’t unlock in Japan. Instead, the release date jumped to an unspecified future date, represented simply with a “Coming Soon” message. “Soon” as it turned out, meant a seven month wait before Mafia II became playable in Japan. But that wasn’t all. The version originally sold on Steam was replaced with a Japanese language only version. Again, I ask, if people didn’t know what Steam was five years ago, why publish a Japan specific, Japanese language only, version of a game on the service in 2011? It certainly doesn’t help the expat community that makes up a small part of the Japanese PC gaming scene.

A similar incident also happened with FEAR 3. Again, the release date was pushed back with no warning just minutes before it was meant to unlock. This time the wait was a further five months. Despite the fact that there was a Japanese specific publisher for the Steam release who had set a local release date (not advertised on Steam by the way) for just two months after the US one. Which meant that for an additional three months that Japanese publisher was essentially selling a virtual brick — an unplayable product. When asked about it, they were unaware that Valve had not unlocked it on time.

By this point, Steam was certainly known in Japan, by not just customers but publishers too. Unfortunately, it was getting a bad rep. Not for the lack of Japanese language support so much, but for being unreliable. This image has stuck throughout the years. Several publishers, including Square Enix, have been on the receiving end of mistakes made by Valve, such as pushing out the wrong build of the game to Japan, back when publishers, etc., didn’t have direct access to such tasks.

So when Dark Souls released on Steam in 2012, there was little surprise that it did not release on the platform in Japan. From Software, like most Japanese developers and publishers had found a preference for Games For Windows LIVE. But then, Microsoft did provide local support during Japanese business hours. Which naturally made it far easier for Japan based developers to work with. Valve still do not offer the same level of support for potential Japan based business partners.

Dark Souls wasn’t sold on Steam in Japan until 2016.

Now this raises another issue with the PC Gamer article. For its insistence on claiming Dark Souls was the turning point for Japan’s love of PC gaming (Steam in particular; which to me seems to be the only form of PC gaming they’ve focused on), they completely fail to acknowledge that it was anything but.

Dark Souls remained absent from Steam in Japan until November 22, 2016 — and when it did turn up, it was overpriced to say the least. Which does little to encourage previous GFWL version owners to repurchase. Of course given the huge four year wait, those in Japan who did want Dark Souls on Steam had already obtained it via other means.

Overall, things have improved a lot over the years. But ask any long-time Steam user in Japan and they are bound to have a few horror stories to tell you similar to the ones I’ve recounted here. Some of which will be very recent. Ask them about the Steam release of Far Cry 4, for example.

It’s not just delayed releases that Japan based Steam users have to contend with though. There’s the afore mentioned regional restrictions too. Some which are only in place because the publisher or developer has been given inaccurate information (sometimes by Valve). It has become clear over the years that Valve do not understand the CERO rating system. Nor that it technically doesn’t apply to PC games.

Square Enix now sell many of their games on Steam in Japan, sadly Dragon Quest Heroes II is not one of them.

Even now there is no legal requirement for a PC game to be submitted to CERO for rating. This means that selling uncensored, uncut versions of mainstream games on the platform is entirely possible. A fact that, thankfully, both Bethesda Japan and Square Enix Japan are aware of. But Valve and others, have apparently remained unaware of.

Revelations 2012, for example, was originally restricted in Japan due to a misunderstanding of CERO’s scope. This was one of few instances where the error was corrected by reaching out to the developers. Saints Row IV was originally sold as the low violence version based on advice from Valve who thought Japan was like Australia.

Many times, such attempts to explain how CERO works and why a game shouldn’t be restricted or sold in a “low violence” version, go unanswered. This naturally leads many Japan based Steam users to do what they’ve been doing since gifting was first introduced sometime in 2011; asking people outside Japan to purchase the games for them.

There’s a knock on effect as a result of these instances. When a game is restricted, censored, or delayed at the last minute with no notice and no communication, many will seek an alternate source outside of Steam (gifting, trading, third party sites; Uplay in the case of Far Cry 4). As such sales from Japan based users will appear to be lower than they actually are. Japanese are still buying the games, but from avenues that Valve (and third party tracking sites) can’t track as a Japan based sale made through Steam.

The sequel may not be sold on Steam in Japan, yet the original Dragon Quest Heroes is.

Couple that with constantly being told by ill-informed articles, or so called experts in the field, that “no one plays PC games in Japan” and it’s hardly surprising that the chances of getting more support in Japan from publishers is difficult. Hence, how such comments are damaging to the Japanese market.

So if Bandai Namco Japan representatives are constantly being told by overseas based ones at the start of meetings that “Steam is a platform used outside of Japan, blah blah blah” and that “there’s no PC market in Japan so only concentrate on English language versions”, then it’s little surprise that Bandai Namco continue to ignore a growing domestic market.

The fact that Japanese developers and publishers are somewhat reluctant to listen to their own Japan based customers doesn’t help the situation any. While their Western counterparts are happy to converse on social media, similar accounts for Japanese customers are mainly used to disseminate information one-way only.

Even Idea Factory / Compile Heart’s recent move to support Steam in Japan for some of their releases was not due to the pleas from Japanese customers. Instead, it was solely based on how well Megadimension Neptunia VII sold on Steam outside Japan. For the record, that game is still not sold on Steam in Japan (and is unlikely to ever be made available).

Sadly I am not exaggerating when I say being a Steam user (and essentially a PC gamer) in Japan feels like constantly fighting a never ending battle. We’re fighting with Japanese publishers to get local support, we’re fighting ill-informed press who like to treat Japan as a joke (well, okay, that’s the same for console gaming too), and we’re fighting people who read such articles as PC Gamer’s one and come away convinced that PC gaming in Japan is still done on a 286 and focuses solely on wanking to eroge.

End of Part 1

And we’re still fighting!

Screenshots were taken by the author.

  • Naofumi Noda

    Well one thing is for sure: PC gaming was never a mainstream genre in Japan. If you ask about their childhood gaming experience most gamers around the age of 20s to 30s they would say “famicon/super famicon was their childhood gaming console” or “Playstation/Playstation 2 was my childhood”. Sure we had Ys, Sorcerian, and Nobunaga no Yabou, but PC games like those that were made by Japanese devs were even more niche than most of the Western CRPGs back in the 80s and 90s. Probably Falcom isn’t even remembered as PC game developers by most of my Japanese friends.

    If you enter a store labelled as “PC game store” 99% of the time those stores would be selling Gal-ge visual novels, and dating sims. PC gaming is partially ingrained in our mind as “otaku console” because of those Waifu games (even though I respect them). Not to mention there is a market for PC operation teaching class, which suggests how many people are newbies when it comes to basic PC functions. A lot of people feel like paying money to learn it even to this day. Smart phones and Galake (ガラケー) are their PCs.

    I’m sure a lot of Japanese devs are aware of steam, but when you see most game release trailers they advertise those games as console games first, and maybe announce via twitter that they ported them to PC. Which is not surprising when you see all of these lack of PC awareness in Japan.

    That being said, I do believe there are salvageable amount of PC gamers in my country. I know quite a few let’s players (or commentating person (実況主) as we call them) and one of my teacher is a steam user. But considering how rare it is to find a PC gamer even among an Otaku community, it is a miracle to find a person who has played a PC game among casual gamers in this country. So I think this is why game developers over here has no idea how profitable to participate in this PC gaming market: there are simply not enough data to validate that decision.

  • PC gaming as a mainstream thing occurred a lot earlier in Japan by all accounts. It’s why the Famicom, PC Engine, etc., were named as such. They were competing with the PC presence that existed in the 8-bit era. Of course those PCs were more 8-bit computers and not the PCs we think of today. The fact that consoles won over at that time is not surprising either given how difficult it is to render Japanese in a very limited number of pixels. Not to mention challenges with language input.

    I also think the fact that visual novels (especially the eroge ones) having a huge physical presence in Japan has played some part in keeping “normal” games more low key, but that’s something I’ll be talking about in a later article.

    The PC classes you speak of, are not a Japanese only thing. They do seem more noticeable here as many tend to be privately run classes with their own office/store space, but they do exist in other countries too. While I was in the UK, the local college used to offer several such courses.

    Japanese publishers and devs are indeed still very shy of mentioning Steam versions of games. I’ve only seen two publishers who even reference “normal” games on in-store advertising posters. Those being EA and Capcom. Even Square Enix still keep most mentions of Steam releases to their websites, Twitter, and rarely some printed magazine ads.

    Thanks for the comment! I look forward to more of insights with later pieces.

  • Naofumi Noda

    Oh yeah that makes sense. I should’ve guessed PC gaming was popular at one point since Akihabara used to be the center of PCs and other IT markets. I have no idea why I ignored that fact even though I knew about it , but I guess I was a little drunk last night.

    While I had brief interactions with machines like the first Macintosh and played some games with it when I was like 5, I quickly moved to Windows 95 as soon as it came out. I might not sound like much of a PC enthusiast, but I must have been an outcast among my Japanese friends because no one knew what I was playing.

    Anyway, you’re welcome! I hope Japan is treating you well enough.