GamePro interview: Microsoft Japan head Pat Ohura
By Fennec Fox
(IDG) -- Microsoft is currently making the final preparations for the Xbox's big Japanese launch on February 22. The company has had to go through a lot to convince Japanese gamers that the system isn't another 3DO, and the fruits of their labor are finally beginning to show. Xbox reserve orders are mostly sold out across the country, and many Japanese developers are pinning their hopes for 2002 on the new system.
GamePro sat down with Microsoft Japan managing directory Hirohisa (Pat) Ohura yesterday to discuss how far the Xbox has gotten in Japan, what Microsoft thinks of the competition, and what they need to do in the future to become king of the hill. If Ohura can keep the Xbox buzz going at the rate it's flying around now, his company's got more than a fighting chance to succeed in the East.
GamePro: Why is the Japanese market important to Microsoft?
Ohura: The Japanese market is a very crucial one to us; it's one of the three major world markets. What's more, the creative software companies there will help us bring out the power of the Xbox, which in turn will make the system more popular in the rest of the world. So obviously we're concentrating on the market.
GP: Which games do you think Japanese users are most interested in?
O: I think all of the 12 launch titles we have are very exciting. "Dead or Alive 3" is probably going to be one with the most initial appeal, but "Double Steal" (aka "Wreckless") and "Genma Onimusha" are also going to be very popular.
GP: What was the decision behind not including games that hit it big in America in the launch, such as "Halo"?
O: We think "Halo" will be successful in Japan, but we're taking our time with the release right now because we want to be sure the product is localized in a very perfect way for the market. "Halo" will be released in Japan within 60 days after the launch; I think the official date is April 25.
GP: Sony recently announced their worldwide online strategy, which includes a full-scale broadband game network for the PlayStation 2. What do you think of their plans?
O: Well, Sony's been promising a broadband strategy for a long time now. There are a couple of interesting titles lined up for online, with "Final Fantasy XI" probably being their main selling point. But the thing is, the company is still trying to figure out a scenario where PlayStation 2 users are going to get a hard drive and broadband modem into their PS2s en masse, and after all the announcements they're still not up to the level of the Xbox in terms of hardware.
GP: Do you have any kind of market-share goal in Japan?
O: Well, our ultimate goal is to be number one in the market. Our vision everywhere is very long-term, so we're definitely in this business to win.
GP: Do you think there's room in the marketplace for three different game systems at once?
O: I think so. Especially considering the upcoming market for online, we think there is enough base for three different companies to be able to do well.
GP: What steps does Microsoft still have to take to overcome any barriers that might prevent the Xbox from doing well in Japan?
O: Well, in the beginning there was the problem of perception. Industry people wondered, "Can Microsoft make hardware? Do they really understand the gaming entertainment business?" But then when they saw how well the U.S. launch went, the problems they had with the hardware suddenly went away. That perception is largely gone now, so that has left us with the ability to get some great games made on the system in Japan.
GP: Japanese people haven't had any problems with the size of the system?
O: Interestingly enough, when we showed the system to the Japanese media, every one of them thought the Xbox was too big. However, after we held a usability study and gauged the impression of real users, I think people began to like it. It's big, but not in a negative way; I think users are going to start thinking that bigness is going to sort of equate to a high-class system. The image is "big equals lots of goodies packed inside." We're emphasizing the fact that there's a hard drive inside, there's a modem inside, and we can do better graphics. Also, home theaters are becoming a big thing in Japan, so having 5.1 Dolby sound in the Xbox is a great thing. We're trying to make the 5.1-channel system a standard in gaming.
GP: What kind of games do you like personally?
O: Well, I was born in Japan but raised in the U.S., so I like sports games like football, baseball and basketball the best. NFL Fever was really a big surprise for me, too.
While Ohura has high hopes for the system he's been charged with selling, the Xbox still faces an uphill battle in a heavily populated field. The system will hit Japan February 22, but it'll be a while before we see how well Microsoft has fared selling the Xbox to the world's most advanced video game market.
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