Culture is more than just a difference in language or traditional outfits, it’s also about taste and perception. In gaming, that cultural divide is best exemplified by the division in the East and West when it comes to what defines a blockbuster game. In Western countries, the uncontested king, every year, is Call of Duty. In Japan, however, it’s the Yakuza series that proves to be one of the biggest draws for console gamers. But here’s where we run into a curious barrier. Call of Duty still manages respectable sales in Japan with some COD games selling as much as 200,000 copies, while titles like Yakuza 3, for example sold over 500,000. The same cultural ambassadorship doesn’t happen in the West. Yakuza 4, managed to sell about 120,000 copies in the West, compared to the 26+ million copies that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 sold in the same year.
So clearly, while the Japanese are willing to embrace some COD shooting with respectable sales given the population of country, Yakuza is not as warmly received over here. Games with a heavy Western bent can be accepted in Japan, but apparently some games are “too Japanese” for the West. Sales of the Yakuza series are so poor in the West that Yakuza 5 still hasn’t been brought over, despite its 2012 release in Japan, and despite all the hype for it at the Tokyo Game Show, there’s no word—for English speakers about—about Yakuza Zero, the 80s nostalgia trip prequel Sega has recently announced for the franchise.
The reason for this is simple. The games, while monumentally popular in Japan—the closest thing Japan has to an “event game”—just don’t sell as well outside of its borders. The most recent game, Yakuza: Dead Souls, a bizarre, non-canon, zombie spin-off game, barely made a dent in the West with abysmal sales of 41,000+ in North America, and only 30K more in sales in the years since. For a PS3 HD game with voice acting, motion capture and extensive cut scenes, less than 100,000 is a strong argument to debate whether the cost of localization is really worth it or not. Sega already cut corners by not providing an English voice over, but that doesn’t mean that turning all those reams of Japanese text into English is cheap.
Yakuza is a fantastic series, with a compelling, addictive story, satisfying, brutal combat, and a quirky sense of open world exploration that lets you do everything from play UFO Catcher to singing soppy Japanese ballads in karaoke joints. Despite all this, not many people in the West are enjoying the game, which brings us to a scary question; have we seen the last of the series for people outside of Japan?
In the end, Sega is a business, they need to make money in order to continue producing games and paying salaries. Yakuza is a great money maker in its native Japan, but, as much at Yakuza is regarded by critics and a niche group of fans, there’s no arguing with sales numbers, and in the West, those numbers are low. Too low, perhaps to consider bringing the series back.
The only hope fans have—and it’s a small one—is that Sega hand the duties of localization over to Atlus, one of their more recent acquisitions, and perhaps limit the next game to a digital only release to save on the cost of packaging and shipping. Atlus has a history of producing low budget games, as well as localizing more obscure Japanese titles for Western consumption. They have the experience to bring a quality but relatively low budget localization process to titles, ensuring that even with more modest sales, those games can still produce a profit. Sega’s own internal expenses make it difficult to justify the time and cost of localizing a Yakuza game when they’ve got other things to worry about (notably making sure the upcoming Alien: Isolation doesn’t blow up in their faces the way Colonial Marines did).
It’s always sad when quality games from abroad don’t make it over, but it’s understandable. These games need to make a profit and in order to do that, they need to sell. Yakuza is not a game that has sold well in the West, but if Sega can find a way to localize it at minimal cost, there’s still a chance it might yet continue Kiryu Kazuma’s saga for English speakers.