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Interview: Natsume on Sony's  Afrika , Niche Development

Interview: Natsume on Sony's Afrika, Niche Development

July 9, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

Natsume is known primarily as the U.S. publisher of the Harvest Moon series, developed in Japan by Marvelous Entertainment. But the company has much more to it than that.

First, theres the Japanese developer of the same name, which is not so much a parent company as a sister developer. Most recently in the U.S., Natsume Japan developed Omega 5 for XBLA, which was published by Hudson, not Natsume U.S.

Also curious is U.S. Natume president Yasuhiro Maekawas very hands-on approach to development. Often he will come up with an idea himself, and hire a developer in Japan to realize his vision. Such was the case when he commissioned the young female-targeted DS game Princess Debut from classic shooting game stalwart Cave.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Natsume has gotten the license to release Afrika, a quirky first-party Sony PS3 title involving wildlife photography, in the U.S.

In this interview, we discuss with Maekawa all of these facets of Natsume, as well as the why and how of the Afrika deal, and how the company uses lower-selling niche titles as a market test for bigger ideas.

We also discuss here the cancellation of the U.S. version of the PSP action title Umihara Kawase, (to be Yumis Odd Odyssey in the States) which had something of a cult following, and was to have a number of bug fixes and improvements over the Japanese original.

Afrika, Umihara Kawase

How did you wind up getting Afrika? This was a big surprise to everyone, because its a Sony first-party title.

Yasuhiro Maekawa: This is kind of a difficult question to answer, because Sony has a lot of third party people. But to make a long story short, Afrika was something we were very interested in. But of course, its a first-party title. So we thought in the beginning, we cant do anything. But there was an opportunity, and it became apparent that we could get the license.

And when I thought about it, if you look at our titles, theyre very much oriented toward peaceful, friendly, type of titles. Afrikas nature perfectly matches with our lineup. So we started talking about it. Just saying this game is really good. Good for Natsumes family of titles. So basically thats what happened.

Is this the beginning of a larger relationship with Sony in that way?

YM: I dont think so. As I understand Sony basically doesnt license products developed by Sony. As is shown with Afrika there might be one or two exceptions to the rule, though.

Yeah, thats why it was something of a surprise.

YM: I know there have been a lot of people walking by saying oh, you got it! How did you get it? (laughs)

Thats pretty much what everyone thought! So when will Afrika be coming out?

YM: We are targeting some time around September. We want to run some special presale promotions. So the game might be ready for release even in July, but wed like to hold until we feel comfortable.

Is this the first HD game published by Natsume?

YM: Yes, its the first.

Do you think Natsume will do more in that direction, or is this just an experiment?

YM: We are not so interested in the so-called value titles. Most of the Natsume games Id say are about in the middle. Sort of normal retail price titles with normal graphical levels.

Like with the DS, we want to price things at $29.99, not $19.99. But for a PlayStation 3 title, this will probably be $49.99. Thats what were thinking. Between $39.99 and $49.99. $59.99 is probably too much.

I also mean whether you think youll publish more games of this level.

YM: If this game is successful, we may. This game is kind of a test.

Whatever happened to Yumis Odd Odyssey (known as Umihara Kawase in Japan)?

YM: Thats on hiatus.

Why is that?

YM: That one, basically with the copyright, there seems to be some issue outside of us between the copyright holder and the publisher in Japan. So we were trying to get the license from the publisher and apparently they have some issue with the copyright holder. I think at the last minute we had to put it on hold. Which means it wont come out. From our side, its canceled. We dont want to be involved in some complicated... stuff.

The DS version is also getting made, might you pick that one up instead?

YM: If theres a chance, or if somebody offers it to us, certainly wed look into that.

Building Niches

How did Princess Debut do, in the end? Was it ok?

YM: Id say it did so-so. Its not like a big hit, but certainly Princess Debut, got a really loyal fanbase. So were now planning to release Princess Debut in Europe in August. So we localized it into French, and German.

Do you think youll ever work with (Princess Debut and classic shooting game developer) Cave again? Because I love Cave.

YM: If theres any chance, yes. Id like to.

I keep hoping someone will release Caves Xbox 360 titles in the U.S.

YM: Right now wed like to concentrate on Sony and Nintendo titles. As you know, we dont have a big overhead. So in the future when theres an opportunity, we will branch out more.

And it looks like youre still trying to expand further into the girls market, because youve got this game Cheer We Go! here.

YM: Yes, were targeting the tween girls market there. Age 8-11, and the storyline is based on something like a popular middleschool cheerleader, with an intriguing storyline.

How do you feel smaller titles like Squishytank for instance, will do on the DS going forward?

YM: You mean like these sort of unknown titles on DS? I think its a niche title. And if you look at what we have now, we have a bunch of niche titles nobodys heard of before. But niche titles are one of our marketing strategies, along with competitive marketing strategies.

For example, with Squishytank, or Cheer We Go, were not thinking about selling a big amount of units. If we can sell even smaller units in the beginning, that should be fine. Then when we think ok, there are some real fans there. Then well gradually expand the franchise.

Like Harvest Moon. Way back almost 11 years ago, the first Harvest Moon for SNES wasnt a big seller. But I realized, ok, this is a niche title. It may have great potential to grow. Then, my idea was correct.

Do you foresee something similar for Princess Debut, since you said there are some devoted fans?

YM: Yes, thats what were thinking.

Natsume and Downloadable Content

What do you feel is the current status of Natsume in the U.S. right now? Are you expanding more?

YM: We are expanding. As I probably explained to you before, we dont want to just jump all of a sudden. We want to grow slowly but surely. One way were expanding now is growing from the package business to download contents business as well.

We have downloadable contents for WiiWare, with Harvest Moon: My Little Shop, and Reel Fishing Challenge, which is exclusively for WiiWare. And also were expanding our business into cellular phone and iPhone business as well.

We have Harvest Moon: Frantic Farming for cellphones, in Java, Brew, and iPhone versions. So this is where were heading. Well keep our packaging business. Of course were trying to expand that too. But at the same time, were trying to grow our downloadable contents business.

What do you think about the DSi hardware, do you foresee releasing games for that as well?

YM: I think it will do well. I dont know how well, but we have a pretty big expectation for the DSi.

So will you be bringing Harvest Moon to DSi?

YM: Yes, yes.

Any plans for when?

YM: That should be probable sometime in summer of next year. For now wed like to wait and see just how well DSi will go in America.

What about the PSPgo?

YM: I think its an excellent idea, just because we are now expanding our business model to download contents business, and as I understand the PSPgo is download-specific. So yes, its a good opportunity for us. Oh and by the way, were already working on the PSP so-called legacy titles, converting them to download.

What do you think about download-only titles? For the PSPgo for instance, do you think download only will make sense for that console?

YM: Yes, and the reason why is I think that Natsume, and also publishers in general have a big issue right now. Basically, there are so many titles out there, but retailers, store shelves are very limited. If you go to Wal-Mart, they have one case there, which may hold 48 titles. However the top row is all Nintendo titles, second row, all EA.

Which means the middle-size publishing companies like us, if its Reel Fishing or the Harvest Moon franchise, or maybe Afrika, they might possibly show interest. But if its our original titles, and we have some more original titles here, its very tough to sell to retail stores.

In that case, the online downloadable content becomed viable. Plus the development costs are not as high as in the package business. So for us, I think itll do well.

One of the difficult issues with some downloadable stuff is that there can be too much on there too, and it can be almost as hard to get noticed, sometimes.

YM: Right. So first we have to establish some brand image. Then after that well extend into different arenas.

Whos developing your iPhone game?

YM: I dont know if youll know the name of the company, its a company called Platinum Egg.

Yeah, they do a lot of stealth development, like Tose and other companies.

YM: Yeah, Platinum Egg, weve been working together for many many years now. So when I thought about the iPhone, all of a sudden it came to my mind, ok, thats the only company that can develop the Harvest Moon game for iPhone and iPod Touch, based on my own idea. You know a lot of creators are not so flexible sometimes. But Platinum Egg is really flexible.

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