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The Failed Launch of the Xbox One in Japan – Not How But Why

Anyone else besides this guy buy an XBox One?

By 6 min read

For most of the world, and for all intents and purposes, the eighth generation of video game consoles began in November of 2013. Sony’s PlayStation 4 was released in North America and Europe on the 15th and 29th of November, respectively, and the Xbox One was released simultaneously in North America, Europe, Australia, and Brazil on the 22nd. The Wii U was actually released in November/December of 2012 in North America, Europe, and Japan, but that’s basically the equivalent of Nintendo’s Super Soaker to Sony’s Glock and Microsoft’s Luger. Both the PS4 and the Xbox One boasted a wide variety of new and exciting features, and even the prices were relatively close: the PS4 sold for $399 at launch, with the Xbox One coming in at a slightly steeper $499.

After both consoles had been released in North American and European territories, Sony quickly began to take the lead in terms of units sold. By August of 2014, the PS4 had sold over 10 million units, while the Xbox One had reportedly sold around half of that. Five million units sold – although not as impressive as Sony’s numbers – is nothing to laugh at. For comparison: the Delorean DMC-12 sold less than 9,000 units before the company collapsed, but the writer digresses, as under close scrutiny that comparison makes no sense. The point is, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have both been doing rather well in most territories and one would assume that neither Steve Stationfour nor Mike Boxone – probably the inventors of the PS4 and Xbox One, respectively – have been hard-pressed for bus fare recently.

“Most territories”, that is, except for two small, virtually insignificant regions the likes of which are barely worth mentioning. These two territories are known as “Lost Springs, Wyoming, USA” (population: 4) and “Japan” (population: 127 million).

Oh wait.

The fact that you are reading this article at this moment would lead one to believe that the probability of you being aware of the generally dire state of Xbox One sales in Japan are approximately somewhere between “very high” and “why is this sentence still going?”. From the day of its launch in Japan earlier this month – which was almost a full year after the North American and European release – reports of the utter dearth of fanfare for or even slightly piqued interest in the Xbox One among Japanese consumers have been rampant. When the Xbox One was released, major electronics dealer Bic Camera in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district was filled to the brim with customers clamoring for whatever it was they came to purchase that day.

Also, some guy named Kazuyuki Wakai bought an Xbone.

As previously mentioned, news reports of the utter failure of the Xbox One launch in Japan have been widespread and comparative sales figures have been tossed around left and right like a toddler in a suspicious foster home. But the question is: how and why did this happen? It’s true that the Xbox, which is the product of an American corporation, has never been as popular in Japan as the domestically-produced PlayStation, and this is not especially surprising considering the strong national pride of the Japanese consumer which can almost be indistinguishable from xenophobia in the right lighting. But with the somewhat lukewarm Japanese reception of the previous two Xbox incarnates (not to mention the derision of many people in the industry), one would assume that Microsoft would really beef up their marketing research to ascertain what it is that Japanese gamers want and put a significant amount of effort into their media campaigns to ensure that these gamers knew that they would be getting it with their newest console.

The writer, not being employed by Microsoft Japan’s marketing/PR department but being the owner and frequent user of both a television set and a personal computer, cannot say with any amount of certainty exactly what sort of research has been done, but can report based on his own observations that said media campaigns amounted to a glaringly halfhearted effort that gave the impression of “we had to run SOMETHING, so this’ll do.” It’s almost as if Microsoft only even bothered to release the Xbox One in Japan on account of some sort of contractual obligation, not because they had any sort of confidence that their console would sell and possibly even prove to be a legitimate competitor to the PS4.

Abercrombie & Fitch made a huge mistake a few years ago, when they opened their Japanese flagship shop in Tokyo – using almost solely non-Japanese executives and consultants. They ended up driving away possible customers in droves, apparently unable to understand neither their “cultural needs” nor the reason why they shouldn’t simply try to force their own Western values and business style upon them. As far as marketing strategy is concerned, Microsoft seems to made both “exactly the same” and “the exact opposite” mistake at the same time, almost disrupting the entire space-time continuum and subsequently destroying reality as we know it in the process (the writer has only a vague-at-best understanding of the workings of the space-time continuum.).

On one hand, with the Xbox game lineup widely perceived as being “FPS-heavy” and the console itself being known amongst many circles as a “Netflix machine”, Microsoft probably should have taken into consideration the fact that Japanese gamers generally don’t care much for first-person shooters and that Netflix is not even officially available in Japan. Upon taking this into consideration, they could have done themselves one better and actually acted on it. Instead of focusing on and really pushing a few popular RPGs or fighting games that would have likely attracted more buyers, they instead chose to simply NOT focus on or push Call of Duty as much as they did in other regions. In failing to do so, they basically made the same mistake as A&F by ignoring the wants of consumers and the cultural makeup of their customer base. At the same time, however, they made the opposite mistake as A&F by not even really bothering to push their own style and values on the consumers, either.

In a way, forcing their own thing down the throats of consumers in Japan may have actually been (albeit only slightly) more effective strategy-wise, because if nothing else, at least it would have shown that Microsoft actually cared about Japanese people buying their console. Unfortunately, with the direction in which they decided to go (“nowhere”), it almost feels as if they deigned to release the Xbox One in Japan simply out of spite towards Sony and Nintendo.

On a slightly more personal note, the writer had the opportunity to meet and interpret for Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Studios’ Xbox division, at an indie game event at the Tokyo Game Show this year. Being tasked with making a short speech to hype the Xbox One at a conference that appeared to be mostly dominated by Sony and its collaborators and fans, he seemed to be slightly nervous and half-jokingly requested that the writer “make (him) sound intelligent and like (he) knows what’s up” when interpreting his message to the crowd. The writer in turn half-jokingly replied, “I promise not to say anything overtly racist, but apart from that I’m not sure there’s much I can do to help you there besides apologize.” A laugh and a smile were shared, but deep down inside, both men knew that they were basically totally correct, and for a single moment, the writer caught himself actually feeling a bit sorry for Microsoft.

The writer then returned home, drank a beer, and watched The Order: 1886 previews. On his Windows 7 PC.

Guest Contributor: AUTOMATON is a video game-based media website owned by Active Gaming Media Inc.

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  • nor_he says:

    It took Japan a few years to embrace smart phones. I have been there numerous times from 2008-2014 while the “smart phone” change was happening. Japan seemed to lag by 2-3 years. It was quite obvious when everyone on the JR was still using domestic flip phones with lanyards in 2010.

    • Susukino says:

      Lanyards are still found on alot of phones in Japan, including most smartphones.

      And the flip phone might have looked unspectacular, but they had stuff on them that the so-called smartphones didnt for years to come. So wouldnt say they lagged behind, they rather choose a different path ( that some still prefer…)

  • Serious Sam says:

    I’m surprised they didn’t bother making a Steel Battalion or paying for a popular franchise to be exclusive for the Xbox One.

  • Microsoft clearly announced even before the Xbox One launched that they weren’t even going to make the Japanese market a priority for Xbox One because they know it has no chance of success, but they were at least going to make it available to the few people who did want it. They know Japan as a console market is declining horribly and there’s no point to try selling a console there. Even their beloved PS4 and Wii U are utter failures there since everyone in Japan just plays mobile and portable games. It’s a pretty smart business decision to not care about Japan, if you really look at the bigger picture.

  • Josh Radick says:

    Is there differentiation between JRPGS(Final Fantasy & Persona) and western RPGS(Fallout Elder Scrolls) in your analysis becaus they are two entirely different animals.

  • Vamp898 says:

    I think the reason is that no Japanese jizz his pants shooting Russian or Aliens as an American GI

    And if they want, they could do that on a PC, so why buy a Xbox at all?

    I dont see any reason why i would want to own an Xbox over an PC but there are tons of games for the PS4 which are most likely never released for the PC or even Xbox

    I think games like フェアリーフェンサーエフ of リトルバスターズ are the reason why Japanese buy an PS4 and dont want to play stupid PC Games on a gaming Console.

  • Kai says:

    Just to expand a bit. Sony has a big presence also in the RPG side of things. PS3/4 has and will get released a lot of Japan only RPG titles which the XBone/360 won’t have. Japanese really are more into a good RPG over FPS (Should be evident in which companies make what games e.g Square/Enix (Both Japanese) making RPGs and E.A/Activition,etc (American…mostly) making FPS games.

    • Josh Radick says:

      Are we going to ignore that Square/Enix makes the Just Cause series which is the most over the top TPS game I have ever beheld.

  • F.Y. says:

    Whether its true or not, XBox is seen as the FPS console. As Japan has never latched on to FPS’s its always going to be tough sledding for Microsoft in Japan. Unless they can land land FF as an exclusive on the X-box of course…..

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Why didn’t FPS take off in Japan?

      • Josh Radick says:

        I guess that the cultural values of guns and explosions didn’t carry over to the Japanese market.

        • GeneralObvious says:

          Japanese kids love guns. You can buy all kinds of fake guns (incredibly realistic looking ones) in stores here, unlike America where they became virtually impossible to find after the 1990’s. I see kids running around pretending to shoot each other with their hands in my school all the time. They don’t get suspended for it either, like you always read about in America.

          I would say the reason is that many Japanese pass-times involve story related content, i.e. manga, anime, phone games, dramas, etc. Japanese people as a whole love a good story especially if it has a lot of plot twists or a “wow” or “Ehhhh?!?” moment. FPS games are usually severely lacking in this department, with the single player campaigns wrapping up within a few hours of play and the focus shifting to an online competitive grind. Conversely many Japanese games focus heavily on the story from beginning to end, frequently with very simple game mechanics (especially in the case of phone games).

          • Josh Radick says:

            Good point. I didn’t consider online gaming; probably because I hardly ever use it. I prefer to get wrapped up in immersive games that offer a lot of freedom.
            It’s also probably for the best that american kids can’t get realistic toy guns(on account of all of the real ones floating around), although that didn’t stop my friends and I from spray painting ours. I do think that some schools overreact to harmless play fighting though.

      • F.Y. says:

        Not sure. But those kind of games just don’t sell well. Maybe it’s the military themes, maybe its lack of story, who knows. For a numbers example, 500 thousand Japanese bought Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 for PS3 (with its 11 million units sold). While 6 million American people bought it for PS3 with its 30 million sold. 4% of Japanese owners bought Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 while 21% of American owners of PS3 did.

        • Hugo van der Heide says:

          I’ve been asking around a bit for this too when I lived in Japan for a year for my study. Most Japanese gamers, and me too for that matter, prefer to play RPG’s because of the long and well-though-of stories. They can identify with the protagonists of those RPG’s and they prefer this feeling of playing the hero in a grand story. I think the work-pressure might also add to this, as playing through a big and emotional story takes your mind off work for a while.

          I wish RPG’s were bigger in western countries, because I also like these games for there stories. Furthermore I’m not that big on online gaming and 10 hour single player campaigns instead of stories that can occupy you for over 100 hours.

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