Sex sells. Except when it doesn't.
Two years ago, when the people at Atlus tried to convince big-box stores to distribute their newest game, Catherine, they found that companies like Walmart and Target weren't interested in selling sex. Store reps were turned off by the game's box art, which features a shirtless man trapped inside a woman's giant cleavage. Perhaps because of that—or because of the fact that the game's deluxe edition shipped with boxers and a body pillow—they thought that Catherine was an explicit sex game.
We don't carry games like that, the stores would say, unaware that Catherine actually doesn't show much sex. The 2011 Japanese puzzle game is suggestive, but not lurid.
Atlus needed to find a way to get big stores to see that. So they did what any reasonable company would do: they made a sex tape.
The scheme was simple: just before the company met with retailers, Atlus's video guy put together a reel of explicit scenes from big-budget video games that those stores already carried. Sex scenes. Shower scenes. The works. Their PR manager at the time, Aram Jabbari, narrated the video in a nasally voice, describing every scene as it happened.
After every juicy section, Jabbari would add: "That's not in Catherine!"
Catherine's risque box art caused some problems for Atlus, so they made an alternate cover to sell in more conservative stores.
At the end of the video, they showed off Catherine's most explicit sex scenes—which aren't really all that explicit—and explained that the game wasn't even close to as graphic as some of the games that they could find in Walmart and Target right then and there.
It worked. Big stores agreed to sell Catherine—and started to worry about what else they were selling.
"They were surprised that they were actually carrying games that had that stuff in there," said Tim Pivnicny, Atlus's vice president of sales and marketing. "It eased their fears [about Catherine], but I think caused them some distress about the other things."
Atlus's executives—who met with me late last year—didn't want to say which scenes or which games they used, so as not to embarrass anybody. But senior marketing manager Robyn Mukai assured me there was "a lot of sex."
"For the video guy, that was really uncomfortable to work on," she said, laughing. "‘Cause it wasn't like it was announced to the office that we were doing this. So people just passing behind his desk might wonder why in the world he was watching videos like that."
This is business as usual for Atlus, a quirky Japanese publisher that has spent the past two-and-a-half decades releasing hundreds of strange and interesting games across the world. While Atlus might not be as much of a household name as larger game companies like Sony or Nintendo, their hardcore fans have fallen in love not only with RPG series like Shin Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey, but with the warmth and strange humor that the company seems to offer in every website update and press release. The Atlus Faithful, as they're called, are a devoted bunch, and they've helped turn Atlus into a successful publisher of niche Japanese games worldwide.
But success comes with struggles, and Atlus has dealt with plenty of both—even while cranking out critical and commercial darlings like Persona 4 and Radiant Historia, the company has missed out on the sequel to the game they made famous, suffered through sluggish console transitions, and released at least one game that in retrospect, they really wish they hadn't.
It's early December, and I'm driving a rental car through southern California, trying to figure out why there are so many freeways. I'm headed to the headquarters of Atlus USA, which I soon find out is a friendly, quiet office on the ground floor of a sterile office building surrounded by palm trees in sunny Irvine.
I might think this was just another corporate office if not for the giant cleavage on a poster in the entryway. Next to the Catherine art is a reception desk, totally bare except for a bunch of media-distributed awards that the company's games have won over the years, like Best Story and Best Fighting Game.
The office is cozy and fun to walk through, filled with games, posters, and shelves of Japanese manga and video game strategy guides. I scour the floor for corporate secrets or hints as to what might be coming next, but I can't find any clues. No Shin Megami Tensei IV teases here.
I say hi to new Atlus PR manager Alex Armour, who gives me a glass of water and plops me down in Atlus's conference room, which is also Catherined out. I spend the rest of the morning chatting with some of the company's top U.S. executives: Pivnicny, Mukai, and director of production Bill Alexander. We talk about Atlus's history, their goals, their accomplishments and their mistakes. They don't tell me anything about Persona 5.
This is the U.S. publishing arm of the Japanese company, and the people here don't make the Atlus games you might recognize, like Shin Megami Tensei or Trauma Center. Instead, Atlus USA has two main roles: 1) to localize games made by their Japanese base and other developers they work with, and 2) to sell and market games in North America.
It's tempting to believe that all it takes to get Japanese games to America are a few coffee-addled translators and a big boat, but the localization process is significantly more complicated than that.
Step one is deciding which games to bring over in the first place, a difficult and competitive process. Atlus USA not only localizes games developed by their parent company in Japan, they also help bring over titles from smaller development studios like Sting and Vanillaware.
"If it's something that our parent company is working on, a lot of those titles have more of a fast track to getting approved for release over here," said Alexander. It's the other ones that are much harder to secure. Deals can take months and sometimes years to put together, and sometimes a great deal just falls apart at the last minute.
"We get a lot of questions from our fans on the forums—'What about this title, why didn't they pick up this title?'" Alexander said. "I can't comment on any specific title, but we always have our ears to the ground. When we think there's an opportunity and we think there's a quality game, we're certainly investigating that."
ETERNAL PUNISHMENT? For a while now, fans have been wondering if the U.S. will ever see Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, the PSP remake released last year in Japan. When I asked about it, Atlus marketing manager Robyn Mukai gave the most boring response possible: "We have no announcements at this time."
So Alexander and his team will play Japanese games at trade shows, meet with developers during events like the Game Developers' Conference in San Francisco, and even read about interesting-looking titles on websites like Kotaku. After deciding to pursue a game, they get a build and play around with it. If it meets their standards, the team will start negotiating.
"The whole process of publishing video games has a lot of complexities," said Pivnicny, "but the most anguish is involved in trying to figure out what games to publish... That is the area that causes the most distress among individuals and I think collectively, as a company. Because there's a lot riding on it."
Once Atlus has decided to publish a game, the team will start working on an English translation, which is much harder than it sounds. Alexander, who joined the company as an editor back in 2001, oversees this whole process.
"We work in localization teams," Alexander said. "At the start of the project, the team will meet, we'll kind of discuss the characters, what their personalities are like, how we're gonna represent that in English. We'll create term lists for key terms that are used in the game and try to find English equivalents to those."
"Like what?" I asked.
"So in the Shin Megami Tensei series, ‘Demon Fusion' for example could be a key term," he said. "The term ‘Fusion.' Words that—there's not always like a natural English word that you can use in place of it, or a term that's used consistently throughout the game. You want it to be true to the original but also sound cool in English."
Their teams have a fair amount of flexibility, Alexander said. Even a game like Persona 3, chock full of Japanese honorifics like "san" and "senpai," still needs a translator's touch to be more palatable to American tastes.
"You can't go with something that's such a literal translation that it just sounds very stilted. Then it's no fun for anybody to play."
"You can't go with something that's such a literal translation that it just sounds very stilted," Alexander said. "Then it's no fun for anybody to play. We're very aware of the fact that you have to find the right balance. Some jokes—they may work in Japan, but they may completely fall flat in the English version."
So the team will find substitutions, trying to stay as accurate as possible to the original script. "Rather than coming up with something totally brand new, we'll try to find something that's at least a parallel of what the Japanese joke was," Alexander said. "Even if it's a more North American-type joke."
Once a game's script is translated, someone needs to plug it into the code, which means bringing on programmers. Sometimes Alexander and his team will send scripts back to the game's original development team in Japan; other times they'll outsource localization programming to an outside company.
Next up is quality assurance, and if you ever head to Atlus's offices, you'll undoubtedly find a group of QA people playing and testing out games on one of the televisions in the back. While an Atlus-translated game has usually been tested by the original developers in Japan, the new programming might have led to some new bugs. It's QA's job to find them.
And then it's time for Tim Pivnicny to go to work.
Step 1. Make game
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Profit!
Nobody in the video game industry really knows how to fill in step 2, but it's Tim Pivnicny's job to try. As Atlus's head of marketing and sales, he's the guy who gets video games from the company's desks to our hands—ideally in exchange for lots and lots of money.
"I'm responsible for ultimately anything that the potential consumer sees of our products," Pivnicny said. "And then when they actually go and buy it, where they buy it. I'm responsible for getting it out there."
So Pivnicny spends his days working with first parties like Nintendo and Sony, who print the discs and cartridges you can buy in stores. He and his team put together boxes. They figure out what's going to be in the premium-priced special editions of each game. They make sure everything prints on time. They talk to all sorts of game shops, from tiny mom'n'pop stores to mega-corporations like Walmart. Sometimes they have to make sex tapes.
"We always think in relative terms. We can't think in millions of units and all that-we don't have those numbers here."
But even Atlus's biggest games—Trauma Center, Persona 4, Demon's Souls—aren't all that big compared to the Call of Dutys and Maddens of the world. While massive publishers like Activision and EA might need to sell millions of games just to turn a profit, Atlus has different standards.
"We always think in relative terms," said Pivnicny. "We can't think in millions of units and all that—we don't have those numbers here."
When I asked what they consider a "successful" game, Pivnicny wouldn't give any numbers, but he said there are a lot of factors involved. For example, thanks to the Internet, today's games have longer legs and more of a shelf life than even a decade ago—which is how a company like Atlus can get away with releasing new games for the PSP, a system that most consider to be dead, even just a few months ago.
"Back in the old days it was just retail," Pivnicny said. "Once it went out at regular price, ultimately it would get marked down. Nobody would really want more. But retailers now have online stores and some of them like to have back catalog, so we have a way now of continuing to rebuild the PSP games. And in fact, this month, this week, this day we're actually bringing in [PSP game Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time] into our distribution center. The majority of those are already sold.
"Also right now we're selling it digitally on the PlayStation Network. So it's not something we have to look at: well what's the launch quantity and that's it. One of the great things about many of our titles is that they do have a long period of life because sometimes the word of mouth is good... For us, sometimes the immediate first month is like okay. But then when we look back 6 or 12 months later it's like, ‘Oh, that's pretty good.' Re-orders for physical goods and orders online make it okay."
In addition to last year's Growlanser, an excellent strategy-RPG, Pivnicny also cites the stellar DS role-playing game Radiant Historia as a successful release that has continued to deliver for them. Even Persona 3 FES, a 2008 PlayStation 2 game, still sells copies every week.
"We can't operate the entire company on just [smaller PSP games like Growlanser and Gungnir]," Pivnicny said. "We do have to have something a little bit bigger than the really small niche game, but the mix is kind of interesting and fun."
Handheld games can't pay the bills, especially in the United States, where DS and PSP games have traditionally sold for $30. In Japan, they cost the equivalent of $50. Good for U.S. customers—not so good for Atlus USA.
"During console transitions, for example, sometimes we'll get more handheld titles from our Japanese partners," Alexander said. "So those are challenging periods because there are times when we had to kind of beef up on the handheld games. You can do the math—we've got the same costs to run the office, but we've got fewer console titles. We're doing more handheld titles to try to make up for the difference."
Which means longer hours. More all-nighters. Harder work for translation teams.
It's no wonder Atlus prefers to work on console games. But even the company's biggest console success was bittersweet.
In 2009, Atlus published an action-RPG called Demon's Souls. Brutal and fascinating, Demon's Souls was critically acclaimed and commercially successful. People loved the game's old-school, punishing style, and the game did so well that Atlus wound up re-releasing it under Sony's coveted "Greatest Hits" label, a sign of financial success.
"We knew it was a good game, but we also knew it was extremely difficult," Alexander said. "So we were optimistic and we were planning conservatively, but we didn't know it was gonna blow up like it did."
"When it came to the sequel, we just weren't big enough to handle that."
"Blow up" is almost an understatement: to this day, Demon's Souls is Atlus USA's best-selling game. So to people paying attention, it came as a bit of a surprise when, two years later, Atlus didn't publish the game's sequel, Dark Souls. Namco Bandai, a significantly bigger competitor that had brought the last game to Europe, won the rights for both Europe and North America this time.
"When it came to the sequel, we just weren't big enough to handle that," Pivnicny said. "Which was unfortunate because we helped set the table for [Dark Souls]."
I asked what happened. "They're a much bigger company," Pivnicny said, rubbing two fingers together.
Not long after the game's release in late 2011, Namco Bandai said they shipped over a million copies of Dark Souls. That's gotta hurt.
Atlus's track record is pretty impressive. Scan through a list of games they've published in America and you'll find some gems, even outside of their biggest series: Rock of Ages, Odin Sphere, Ogre Battle 64.
But there's one high-profile blemish: last year, Atlus released a game called Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy book and television series. Developed by a French studio called Cyanide, the game was awful by most accounts. Kotaku called it an "unpolished, joyless slog."
"The game wasn't done. It's not like we evaluated the game in its initial form. It was early in development at that point."
So what was Atlus thinking? For one, they told me, most of them are fans of the show and the books. The series is great, and people seem to love it—why wouldn't they jump at the opportunity to publish a game like that?
They also signed on before the Game of Thrones game was actually finished.
"The game wasn't done," said Mukai. "It's not like we evaluated the game in its initial form. It was early in development at that point."
"Some of the strengths were the story, and the characters, and it was very gritty," said Pivnicny. "And very much in the vein of what the books are."
"They were working with the author," said Mukai, "so we knew that the quality of the story had to be there.
"And the quality of the gameplay?" I asked.
"It took a while for it all to sink in," said Pivnicny. "And so we ended up with a game that was okay at certain respects, kinda good in other respects, very good in a few others. The ultimate mix was something that just didn't click."
"If you could do it all over again," I asked, "would you still do the same thing?"
Tim paused. "No."
In the coming months, Atlus will release a number of interesting games: the dungeon-crawler Etrian Odyssey IV in late February, a co-op shooter called God Mode, and a 3DS port of niche RPG Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers this April. They've just announced Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, an upcoming Wii U game and one of the most bizarre crossovers in recent memory.
But the video game industry is going through tumultuous times, especially in Japan, where nearly every big game company seems to be losing money. Should we be worried about Atlus in 2013?
DRAGON'S CROWN While visiting Atlus's offices, I had the chance to sit down and play a bit of Dragon's Crown, the Vanillaware game that Atlus will release later this year for PS3 and Vita. It was an early build, but it feels very much like Vanillaware's other games—slick and beautiful. As I wrote in my notebook: "It's Odin Sphere with co-op!"
"You know, I think first and foremost we want to recognize that Atlus is where it is today because of our fans," Alexander said. "We want to continue to support products that appeal to our loyal fans and address that need in the hardcore niche kinda area. So we'll continue to try and do Japanese RPGs and kind of just really unique high-quality games that our fans know and love, and that will be our bread and butter moving forward, even as we do other initiatives into the digital realm like Rock of Ages—which are still high-quality unique games just something different from the Japanese flavor maybe."
In other words, more experimentation. As we approach new consoles and new types of media, Atlus is going to continue to try new things. They can't survive on Etrian Odyssey alone.
"It's a prudent thing to do as a business," said Pivnicny. "And we hope that we will make decisions that will entice some of the current fans to come with us on that journey, but [sometimes] we'll do things that are completely outside of their interests, in hopes that it will be good for us as a company and therefore continue to bring the funds in so that we can support the niche games from Japan. So we sort of have to look outside what we would really I guess love to do, and do some things to support that core."
"More importantly," I asked the team, "when is Persona 5 coming out?"
Pivnicny laughed. "Well. Japan has only mentioned a few things about it. That's as far as we are."