You've no doubt heard some blogger or another refer to a Dragon Quest release date as "national holidays in Japan". This isn't really true. Today, for example, was not a holiday. It was, however, the release date of Dragon Quest IX for the Nintendo DS.
You may have also heard someone or another say that, in Japan, Dragon Quest game are released on Saturdays instead of the typical Thursday game release date because would skip work or school, and entire institutions of business or education would implode and suddenly no one would know or do anything anymore. Some people say the Japanese government intervened when the exciting, white-hot role-playing game series simply got too awesome, and some politician presented some bill that eventually became a law, cementing the Saturday release date. Who knows whether this is true or not!
One thing that is for sure, however, is that today sure is Saturday. And they sure did release a Dragon Quest game today.
I was in a rock and roll venue until after five in the morning. I won't say what I was doing! (This accounts for the terrible scratchy quality of my voice in the videos, which, when combined with its natural weaselly tone, adds up to something pretty excruciating. I'm not going to lie: in the name of entertainment, I had screamed like a girl without a microphone for about thirty continuous seconds.) I exchanged my tight jeans for a pair of loose Adidas basketball shorts and took the first train out to Akihabara. A few schlubs were lined up in front of the Sofmap, and maybe five dozen were lined up at the Yodobashi Camera super store. The management of the Yodobashi super store, which is about as big as fourteen stacked football fields, mistook the size of the building for the length of the line, and had something like three dozen grimacing rent-a-cops on crowd control duty. They almost outnumbered the people in line.
At this point I decided to go back to Shibuya, where a bunch of the guys behind the game were slated to be posing for a "photo op" with the first eager customers.
The Tsutaya shop where the launch-celebrating photo op took place sits opposite Shibuya Station, on the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. The Tsutaya is also home to the World's Busiest Starbucks, which is so busy that they don't have time to allow customers to order any drink size other than a Tall. (For the price of a Grande.)
We arrived in Shibuya just as the loudspeakers perched about the intersection blared the Dragon Quest opening fanfare. They'd been counting down the minutes to the release of the game. At 7am, all three of the great big video screens at Hachiko crossing lit up, showing the nuclear-apocalypse-worth of early-morning weekend pedestrians the news: Dragon Quest IX had arrived. The trailer segued quickly into a tutorial, explaining to players what is different about this particular Dragon Quest. Basically, they explained the character customization and the multiplayer aspect in the most baby-talking terminology.
I stood outside the Tsutaya for a few minutes. The crowd mostly looked like the type of people who would wake up before six in the morning in hopes of shaking hands with the creator of a game series. Which is to say, they just looked like normal people. You can't tell, sometimes.
Shibuya on a Friday night is a haven of drunkards; on Saturday morning it is a hive of the hung-over. While I was filming the people in line and trying not to be too rude, some man in terrible pants (gray plaid, cut just above the ankles, suspenders, yellow T-shirt, stupid little hat) came by and started breakdancing on the sidewalk. He wasn't hung-over, he was spilled-over: he had not slept at all. I thought his little breakdance was his attempt at being funny or entertaining, though once the camera was turned off he came up and started talking to me. It turned out he was full of the shit of the world: he had had it up to here with all these squares. "This is what Japan is turning into", he said. "A bunch of people who wake up at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning to buy a videogame". I told him the game was an RPG they could play with their friends. He asked if I was one of them. I told him, well, I'm not in line, am I?
People purchasing the game received a Slime-shaped paper fan with a number on it. A man stepping out of the Tsutaya with a fan marked "29" got accosted by some NHK reporters. They asked him the fluff piece equivalent of softball questions. "Do you like Dragon Quest?" "How long have you been playing Dragon Quest?" A real journalist would ask why he felt it necessary to have to shake Yuji Horii's hand in addition to purchasing Dragon Quest IX.
You know why we don't see lines for games, anymore? Because people preorder them. You can preorder any game at any 7-Eleven in Japan — and there are a lot of 7-Elevens in Japan — and then you can just go down and pick the game up on release day. You probably won't even need to walk more than five minutes. What possesses someone to get on a train?
The numbered fan?
When we left Akihabara — at around 6:30 — only the Sofmap and the Yodobashi had any customers lined up outside at all. Every store had a sign saying they would open at 7am to sell the game. So the numbered fans at Tsutaya, apparently meant to indicate that the owner of that particular fan was the #__ person to purchase Dragon Quest IX are probably kind of meaningless. I'm willing to bet that someone was able to beeline for the register outside a shop in Akihabara — or the Bic Camera down the street from Tsutaya — and buy the game while Tsutaya customer #1 was still thinking about shaking Yuji Horii's hand.
We have had maybe three months in a row where it has rained at least twenty minutes a day. The weather widget on my iPhone has shown consistent six-day forecasts of lightning-bolt-clouds for more than six weeks. I haven't been struck by lightning yet. Today was a beautiful day. Mild, pleasant weather. Japanese retail outlets hand out paper fans constantly during the summer because the most popular topic of conversation in the summer is "it's hot!" By printing advertisements on fans, which people use to fan themselves so that they don't look like some psychopath impervious to heat when all their friends are cyclically chatting about the weather, said retail outlets conceivably drive up incidental revenues by appealing to passers-by.
#1 It was not hot today. It won't be hot tomorrow, either.
#2 By making the fans individually numbered, and thus something of a collector's item, you're only ensuring that the customers will never use them to flap themselves — or risk devaluing their future eBay auction sale — or advertise your product.
Good work, genius marketers!
That said, I did see no less than ten human beings step out of Tsutaya with a bags full of Dragon Quest (one of them, even, had The Works — a red DSi, the Slime Stand, everything) and, on their way to the edge of the intersection to rush back to the station and then home, stop and turn around, stunned, shocked, surprised, attracted by a large television screen showing the tutorial / introduction video for Dragon Quest IX. One man stood there, with the game in his hand, watching that video for five whole minutes.
So, yeah, there's that. Proof that marketing might just work most effectively when it comes to reinforcing someone's self-esteem after they drop $60 on a one-inch square piece of plastic.
I wanted to buy Dragon Quest IX, and not just stare at people in a line, so I walked around the corner to the Bic Camera. Bic Camera, like all the other shops in the area, wouldn't open until 11am, though they had a table set up out front with hundreds of copies of the game — and not a single customer. This is interesting. Maybe. People would much rather wait in line for something than not wait in line for the exact same thing. Why? You know the thought experiment about what happens if you place a donkey perfectly equidistant from two absolutely identical bales of hay? He starves to death! Bic Camera and Tsutaya were not identical bales of hay. At the end of the day, however, they tasted the same. (From the Tsutaya exit, I could just barely see Dragon Quest series producer Yuji Horii standing inside, numerous flashbulbs going off like popcorn all around him. I recalled that time I saw him smoking a cigarette outside of Tokyo Game Show, and I said hello to him, and he did an amazing job of pretending that he didn't think I was a psycho.)
This is what I found most interesting, however.
At Tsutaya, the lines were absolutely well-behaved. At Bic Camera, there was no line.
At Tsutaya, the crowd control guys calmly, quietly stood holding sign boards: "This is the line to purchase Dragon Quest IX".
At Bic Camera, where there was no line (and nary a customer in sight), the employees charged with crowd control duty held megaphones, and screamed: "This is the line to purchase Dragon Quest IX! Please proceed inside in an orderly fashion! Do not push! This is the line to purchase Dragon Quest IX!"
So here's the scenario:
The duty of a crowd-controller is to make sure the crowd is orderly and calm and quiet.
In the presence of an orderly, calm, and quiet crowd, the crowd-controller is either "not needed" or "doing his job".
In the case of no crowd at all, the crowd-controller can't do his job, because there's no job.
Assuring that the crowd stays orderly is a task accomplished by means of (among other things) barking into a megaphone and being surly.
It is possible that the crowd will naturally be calm and ordered without the need of barking and surliness.
However, what does one do about a crowd that doesn't exist?
Oh! I'm sorry, we've veered into my thesis concentration! We're not even talking about Dragon Quest IX anymore!
So at Bic Camera, they had a table loaded down with empty Dragon Quest IX cases. A sheet of paper that someone with a mother and a father took the time to laminate, these words were printed:
"THESE BOXES ARE EMPTY. DO NOT TAKE THEM UP TO THE REGISTER (LOCATED BEHIND YOU). SIMPLY SAY THAT YOU WOULD LIKE A COPY OF DRAGON QUEST IX."
I thought this was priceless, to be honest. It moved me, a little bit, all over the place. It was especially endearing given that the display with the empty boxes and the laminated sheet of paper stood in front of a closed metal shutter, and that there was kind of plenty of room next to the register for these empty boxes. I guess putting them too close to the register would make the customers feel like they were buying something, and Bic Camera's management had made a snap decision against being pushy. Someone should have informed the guys with the megaphones!
Inside the shackled-up vestibule stood maybe twenty guys in Bic Camera vests, at karate ready stance.
So, right there, next to the register, they had a big endcap (that's a retail term (long before I was driving this Ferrari and banging supermodels, I too worked in retail)) loaded with accessories and what have you. The accessories included the aforementioned Slime DS stand (squishy, with a speaker inside it!), more tacky brittle plastic DS cases than you can shake a copper sword at, and . . . and . . . wireless routers and Nintendo Wi-Fi adapters? I thought the game wasn't compatible with online play? They really were pushing all things wireless-paraphernalia-related. It was a little weird. I took a photo.
Then I bought Dragon Quest IX.
Eventually, we decided to go somewhere and get some breakfast. We ended up somewhere terrible, and on the way walked past Sakuraya (a third-string electronics shop). Located just six seconds' walking distance from Tsutaya, Sakuraya simultaneously possessed the most impressive absence of Dragon Quest IX buyers and the fattest, loudest, most plentiful number of employees working crowd control. I stood and stared at them for maybe two minutes. While I was doing this, the fattest, baldest of all the Sakuraya employees rolled a decent-sized speaker out of the store, plugged it into some phantom audio source, and there it was: 8-bit Dragon Quest music, filling the street, shaking the windows.
"WE HAVE DRAGON QUEST IX! WE HAVE DRAGON QUEST IX! WE HAVE DRAGON QUEST IX!"
There must be a law against using the words "please buy".
If my digital camera batteries hadn't died, I would have loved to show you what happened in the terrible restaurant we ended up in. A table of six club-going late-twenty-somethings were Still Drunk and lolling it up over glasses of complimentary water. They were noisier than the political vans patrolling my neighborhood these days. You want to know what they were doing? I wish there was some easier way to get you to believe this. They were playing Rock Paper Scissors, just going around in circles, and laughing hysterically at the girl who just couldn't seem to get a break. She kept using scissors, and everyone kept noticing, and telling her not to use scissors! "I'm not going to stop using scissors because you tell me to! How do I know you won't all start using paper?" They shot her down for literally an hour, as I just sat there feeling the world implode. It seems that
#1 They knew her better than she knew herself
#2 No one knows anything, not anymore!
This is the world we live in! You, and me, and everybody! It's not pretty! In fact, sometimes, it's pretty fucking sick!
I wanted to tell them, hey, with this game right here in this magic paper sack, you can get basically the same thrill, without even needing to talk to your friends. Then, maybe-unfortunately, I realized that this time around, Dragon Quest IX is about community. It's about being like Monster Hunter. It's going to give people something to do at ungodly times of day.
Maybe this table of humans had walked out of a bar at four in the morning and come to this restaurant to wait out the first train. Well, the first train had come four hours ago, at this point. They hardly had an excuse. It couldn't be that they had an appointment early in the morning — they were too drunk! They were too happy.
On the train home, the television commercial for Dragon Quest IX — starring idol-group SMAP, as all new Dragon Quest commercials tend to — played on a tight loop, over and over again, on all the TV monitors. The other monitor reported that there had been "an accident involving a person" (that's what they call a suicide) on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line.
Anyway, here I am at home, and I have Dragon Quest IX. I guess this is maybe the happiest day of my life. What do I know! I'm going to go to sleep, and dream about having Dragon Quest IX all to myself! I am planning this dream right here and right now so that I might wake up — and it will already have come true! This is how we get a day off to an excellent start!
To any of my friends and relatives reading this: I probably won't be going outside for about six months, at the least.