Pondering a North American Release for The Last Story Part 1

Monday, January 30th, 2012

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Before Xenoblade Chronicles was announced for North America as a Gamestop exclusive, I had completed the first draft of an article.   An article, that upon said announcement, I had believed to become obsolete. The article in question detailed the various alternative means of distribution that Nintendo of America could take to release Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower stateside.  My intention was to not only show how the games could be released, but to show means of release that would benefit Nintendo in ways outside of just profitable game sales.  With Operation Rainfall’s sponsorship of “The Last Story month”, I have decided to revisit the themes of the article as a 4 part series focused entirely on The Last Story.  In order to bring about discussion of the points I raise, I have also organized a short roundtable with other members of Operation Rainfall to close out each article.  These 4 articles will be released as a series over the course of “The Last Story month”.
            Xenoblade Chronicles will release in North America this April.  People who fought in the trenches for the title are excited; vindicated even.  But beyond the initial shock that our voices were seemingly heard some questions come to mind. Who heard our voices and how is it that we are getting this game? The answer: Gamestop. Yes, Xenoblade Chronicles is being released in the United States as a Gamestop exclusive.  In this article, I will explore this move, and what it could mean for “The Last Story”. I will also explore the overall theme of a limited release and its potential benefits for Nintendo of America.
Elza, strolling to his local GameStop to pick-up Xenoblade Chronicles.
            Initially, many might consider Xenoblade Chronicles as a retailer exclusive to be a bad move.  A decision that seemingly limits the potential sales of a great and well received title.  The problem with this line of thinking is that it overestimates the title’s current sales potential, which has been limited by a fading genre’s current popularity, and the console’s evaporating “hardcore” demographic. But consider the benefits.  Very few people will buy Xenoblade Chronicles blind; the people who want the game know they want it by now and are just waiting for their chance to buy it.  A retailer exclusive means that the retailer takes on most of the costs of distribution, and that the retailer has an invested interest in carrying out the marketing and consumer awareness of the title.  Aligning with an exclusive retailer builds a partnership between the publisher and the retailer that could pay off in the future with the ever growing war for shelf space.  For these reasons, I feel that a retailer exclusive in a form of a limited release could greatly benefit a niche title such as “The Last Story.”
            Outside of retailer exclusivity, there are several other ways in which Nintendo could release “The Last Story” with a smaller investment and in a limited release capacity.  One of these methods is to drop any idea of commercial advertisement and instead focus on taking advantage of the ground swell momentum of the title to do the advertising for them. This could then be supplemented by a very small team working primarily on social networks, with gaming media outlets, and perhaps through in store video reels.  Another means of limited release available to them is to make the game exclusively available as a limited edition copy.  Spring for a steel box, an art book, and a soundtrack, and sell the title at a premium, marketing the title as a limited edition event release.  By releasing the title as a limited release, Nintendo can assign an appropriately small team to handle the release in a similar way that publishers like X-Seed, Nippon Ichi, or Atlus handle their releases. With an expectation of limited sales, driven by a significantly smaller budget from the very beginning, Nintendo could appease fans and make a small profit.
Ryan, Current Co-Leader of Operation Rainfall
Personally I think the decision Nintendo made of making Xenoblade Chronicles a Gamestop exclusive is a smart move. It seems Nintendo wants to maximize profits and cut any risk of taking a loss, and it seems they found a way to do just that. I agree with Tyson that “The Last Story” will also likely be a limited release, probably through Gamestop. If Nintendo has success with Xenoblade with a limited release they will likely want to do the same thing again. We don’t know how Gamestop and Nintendo are going to handle the advertising of this game, but I think it is safe to assume that not much money will be spent here in advertising.I think the idea of a limited edition version only for “The Last Story” is also something Nintendo should consider, but only if the edition is only slightly more expensive than what the standard edition would be. Can you sell the limited edition for $60? Then skip the standard and push for the Limited Edition only. For Xenoblade in Europe, the bundle included a controller which meant the price would have been closer to $70. That’s a steep price to ask people to pay, but $60 is what people pay for a game on the Xbox360 and Playstation3.
Mike D., Editor for The Nintendo Enthusiast, former Operation Rainfall PR Staff
A Xenoblade-esque GameStop exclusive would be a wonderful surprise, but I can’t help wishing that Nintendo had struck earlier, while the iron was still hot.  A huge early OpRainfall development was the Amazon pre-order campaign for Monado/Xenoblade.  Utilizing the largest online retailer could have been a boon to pre-orders for The Last Story, but it’s probably far too late to hope that last summer’s magic would return for Sakaguchi-san’s latest.  Perhaps Nintendo just wanted to wait out the storm, but it feels like a missed opportunity to me.A limited edition, metal-cased version would be a fantastic gift to those who have been waiting for this title, but I would think that at this point, Nintendo would want to make a Wii release as affordable as possible for their own bottom line.  Another limited run via GameStop is probably their best bet, in that respect.

Alex B., Editor for The Nintendo Enthusiast
There is a topic that I feel hasn’t been touched on here but which I think is relevant: the image benefit that both GameStop and Nintendo could see out of making a limited/exclusive release deal. Everybody knows that public opinion on both GameStop and Nintendo is divided, to say the least: some flock to GameStop for the latest release, other swear never to visit one of their stores again; some would treat Nintendo as if they were made of gold, others as if they were coal in Christmas. With the limited release of Xenoblade, however, the image of both companies undoubtedly brightened in the eyes of rabid JRPG fans and hardcore gamers in general. I think Nintendo and GameStop would be very wise to try the same strategy with the upcoming JRPG “The Last Story”, and again later with Action game “Pandora’s Tower”.
In addition, it’s important that we, the consumers, communicate this feeling to at least GameStop, then Nintendo of America. First of all we must buy Xenoblade, for it is not only a way of showing appreciation to GameStop, but also one of the best games ever released. Secondly, we should send e-mails and letters to GameStop, thanking them for bringing the game over while urging them to attempt the same with The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower, and of course pledging to buy these games through them if they make them available. It is also important we approach Nintendo of America (or Nintendo Co Ltd.) with the same tactic.
VGChartz weekly pre-order estimates
Richard, current Co-leader at Operation Rainfall
I feel that Nintendo releasing Xenoblade Chronicles as a limited release is a great idea!  I know that campaigning for these games can make you think these games can sell millions upon millions of copies, but the cold hard fact is they won’t, probably not even a million.  While in today’s world selling less than a million copies is somehow bad, that’s just not true.  I remember when Atlus was celebrating the success of Catherine by sending various blogs cakes.  They didn’t initially tell you how much so it left your imagination running wild thinking, “Wow they must have sold 1 million copies!”  Later in the day though, they announced that they sold 250,000 copies.  So it makes you realize that games don’t need to sell gangbusters in order to be successful, they just need to sell a healthy amount.
While I think we can all agree that we would’ve liked for other retailers to be able to sell the game, especially Amazon which was a great help in our campaign, it’s probably for the best.  It will be able to allow Nintendo to spend as little as possible and make a profit much easier than if they tried to do a massive release.  At least they made the choice available to buy the game off of their own website for those who for some reason would rather die than buy from GameStop.
The Last Story’s release can be and probably should be released in the same way.  But a number of factors may contribute to that, such as Xenoblade selling well here and the reception over in Europe for the game.  Once they do announce it, I’m not sure if Nintendo would go with a Limited Edition.  They seem to want to just get the game out there and see if they can get a profit off of it, and while it may be much easier to do such a thing with The Last Story with its’ big name background, the truth is if they never really were that confident with the games to begin with, they probably won’t go that route.  I think the best thing we can do to insure a release for The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower is to make sure we let Nintendo know we still want them and to buy Xenoblade Chronicles.
Chris, former Operation Rainfall PR guy
While I agree with Mike D. that it would have been ideal for Nintendo to better seize on last summer’s momentum, it would be a terrible decision for Nintendo to just release Xenoblade or The Last Story and let it ride.
Face it, the JRPG is not a mainstream genre, and as mentioned above much of the clamoring for these games came from an audience that was already aware of their existence.  Who visits Nintendo’s Facebook page or twitter, and who takes the time to write letters? People who are already part of the base audience.  Part of the group that is far more likely to purchase the game, or at least is very aware of it.
But that buying population is not as large as it would like to think, and that’s where Nintendo did well to shift the risk with Xenoblade and should take a similar approach with The Last Story.  Yes, slapping “From the Creator of Final Fantasy” on the box will get enough people interested.  But that is not going to be enough.  The Last Story’s online component alone means Nintendo will have to support the added cost of an online infrastructure along with the game.  Actual advertising can go a long way to drive sales, but I doubt Nintendo would take that route if they’re already looking to limit the risk of an American release of The Last Story.  Special Editions and preorder bonuses tend to target players who are already planning on purchasing the game.  What’s left for Nintendo is to leverage The Last Story to an expanded audience in a way that doesn’t break the bank  It doesn’t have to reach millions.  It doesn’t even need to approach Monster Hunter Tri numbers.  But Nintendo cannot afford to pull a Ubisoft and release the game only to flounder and die.  Even a limited release needs some kind of push.
Marko, current Co-leader at Operation Rainfall
While I also agree with the sentiment that Nintendo of America had a fully opened window last summer for at least Xenoblade Chronicles, at the very least, Nintendo took the time to acknowledge the fans, albeit in limited form. Nintendo is not a company known for stepping too far out of safe waters, at least in their distribution model. For instance, just now with Wii U they finally have an online infrastructure to allow DLC (downloadable content within games), micro-transactions, and individual online accounts for purchasing retail-level games. So the GameStop limited release is new ground for Nintendo, and hopefully a sign of things to come. In Japan, where the main decision-makers are located, they feel that if a game will not be widely accepted, they historically have not even bothered to release it. With Xenoblade Chronicles selling well in Europe, and the amount of attention it received from Operation Rainfall and the gaming media, Nintendo finally gave the green light to test the waters out.
In my honest opinion, the worst thing Nintendo has done is waiting until April to release the game. Europe will be getting The Last Story near the end of February, and many who were interested in the titles last summer have already played it by either importing the title, or other not so friendly means (As an example, one site reports that in 2011, Xenoblade Chronicles was downloaded over 950,000 times from the United States alone and from a single torrent source. Granted, not all of those would have been purchases, but I’m sure a great many went down that route simply due to the unavailability of the title locally and hassle & expense of importing). Also, it appears that we are getting a straight port of the PAL version of Xenoblade Chronicles, which if true simply means that it simply needs to be modified to run at the appropriate framerate for NTSC-U consoles/television sets, a minor amount of encoding is all. If that’s really the case, then there is really no reason at all, other than stubbornness, for Nintendo to not do the exact same thing with The Last Story. The Last Story is already fully localized and branded for a western audience, and it already has a very strong appeal simply based on the pedigree of its developer. Even with a limited release and zero marketing push, The Last Story will be profitable, simply from the coverage it has received from Operation Rainfall and the gaming media. Sure, it may not sell as many copies as Zelda or Mario, but it will be profitable. If I were Nintendo of America, I would honestly consider making a surprise announcement this month and releasing it near its European release, because giving Xenoblade 2 months to breathe would push any future Wii titles into June, when E3 2012 will take place, and then all eyes will be on Wii U. By that time, although technically not too late, is a precarious position for a so-called niche title.
My short answer? Yes… a limited release would be great, just do it soon to capitalize on the hype.
“What’s left for Nintendo is to leverage The Last Story to an expanded audience in a way that doesn’t break the bank.” – Chris, former Operation Rainfall PR guy
Tyson, Co-founder of  Operation Rainfall
It seems that, for the most part, we are at accordance with each other when it comes to the prospect of a limited release for “The Last Story.” All signs are pointing to good pre-order numbers for Xenoblade Chronicles in its upcoming limited retailer exclusive release.  So then perhaps this is not only a simple solution, but an altogether new way of looking at the release of niche titles in general.
Make your voices heard during “The Last Story” month; Is this the best way to release “The Last Story” in North America?
I would like to thank Ryan, Mike, Alex, Richard, Chris, and Marko for contributing to this roundtable discussion.  We at Operation Rainfall would also like to thank Nintendo, Monolith Soft, Mistwalker, AQ Interactive, and Ganbarion for making the games we are so passionate about.  Last, but certainly not least, we would like to thank everyone who has contributed to, supported, and covered Operation Rainfall since it’s inception last year.  Keep fighting!
Pondering a North American release for “The Last Story” – Part 2 
Pondering a North American release for “The Last Story” – Part 3 
Pondering a North American release for “The Last Story” – Part 4