Can Dragon Quest XI* Turn Around the Franchise's Ailing Fortunes in the West?

Can Dragon Quest XI* Turn Around the Franchise's Ailing Fortunes in the West?

*(Or whatever Square Enix announces tomorrow.)

Has it really been nearly two years since I lamented the "new dark age" of Dragon Quest? Indeed it has, and so little has changed in that time.

Yes, Square Enix has announced their intentions to publish Dragon Quest Heroes in the U.S., but that's a slim trifle — an almost insignificant bump on the classic RPG franchise's long, painful road to alienation in the West. Aside from some not-so-great iOS remakes, all we've seen of Dragon Quest since 2011's Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 for DS has been heartbreak and absence. Meanwhile, Japan has seen a sequel to Rocket Slime, no less than four 3DS remakes (Dragon Quest VII, the upcoming VIII, Monsters, and Monsters 2), Theatrhythm Dragon Quest, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 3, and of course the latest main entry in the franchise, Dragon Quest X. A few weeks ago, the publisher announced Dragon Quest Builders, a pretty brazen Minecraft-alike that sees players rebuilding the kingdom of Alefgard, which featured in the original "Loto trilogy" of games for NES; and there's also a sequel for Heroes on its way to PlayStation 4 as well. Tomorrow evening in Japan — that's 4 a.m. ET — series creator Yuji Horii will be adding an 11th (and possibly 12th!) title to that list.

If you squint, the Japanese characters appear to translate to "In Search of Departed Time," so maybe it's a remake of Dragon Quest IX's post-game content. [Source]

Not only that, but this prospective 11th title is a big one; the biggest, really. By all accounts, including a purported leak of the game's logo in advance of the event, the next step for Dragon Quest is a proper numbered sequel, Dragon Quest XI. This will be the first Roman-numeral entry in the series since 2012's Dragon Quest X, and (going by Horii's remarks over the past couple of years) the first single-player, offline chapter since 2009.

We don't know which platform will play host to DQXI, but we know it will be for a console of some sort; Horii has repeatedly assuaged fears that the series' next step in its evolution will be to enter the tainted realm of mobile games. Not that mobile games can't be good; it's just that they so rarely are. And Dragon Quest itself certainly hasn't fared so well in its mobile ambitions. No, it seems almost a given that the next adventure will end up either on 3DS or PlayStation 4. Much less certain, however, is the question of whether or not it will end up in the U.S.

The one Dragon Quest game to make its way overseas (of the 10 or 11 announced in Japan) since 2010 is barely a Dragon Quest game at all: Dragon Quest Heroes. While Heroes is perfectly entertaining action title in its own right, it's ultimately yet another Omega Force "dynasty" game, which means it's only sort of an RPG and plays very much like nearly half a dozen other games this year. Between Samurai Warriors, Dynasty Warriors, One Piece, and Hyrule Warriors, Dragon Quest Heroes has an uphill battle to distinguish itself from its spiritual siblings; its main appeal, in fact, rests in its connections to the Dragon Quest universe. With the games that provide essential context for Heroes' cameos and aesthetics having dried up outside Japan, though, it's hard to say just how many prospective customers will actually recognize or appreciate Heroes' referential nostalgia.

Dragon Quest Heroes is great, but despite its wanton abuse of nostalgia it's still not really Dragon Quest.

This is all well and good except for the fact that series producer Yu Miyake recently told Polygon that the future of Dragon Quest in the West hinges largely on the success or failure of Heroes. "We can gauge whether the American people might want to go back after Heroes and see some of the other Dragon Quest games" he said. "Hopefully we could use that as leverage to get those out over here."

In other words: If American and European Dragon Quest fans want to see more games from that series — including, one assumes, Dragon Quest XI — they need to buy Dragon Quest Heroes.

This approach — "vote with your wallets," as Polygon writer Phil Kollar puts it — is hardly new in the video game business. We've seen it before, including from Square Enix; several years ago, the company declared the Chrono Trigger series effectively dead because more people didn't buy a full-priced remake of the game for DS. More recently, a Capcom representative blamed consumer disinterest for the dissolution of the Mega Man Legends 3 project. And so on, and so forth.

At its worst, this sort of statement comes off as horribly callous: Denying the biggest fans of a property the sequel or content they're clamoring for, then placing the blame at their feet. The message, essentially, boils down to: As fans, you are obligated to do the work of a company's marketing department for them. Fandom is a commitment, and you didn't live up to yours. For enthusiasts who have spent months, even years, proselytizing a game on forums, websites, and social media, it can feel like a heartless slap to the face.

Of course, the truth is far more boring than "they hate us and want us to be sad." Video game localization and distribution cost money. Dragon Quest games include a ton of text, and that costs money to translate and edit into one language, let alone into the five that would be required for European releases. Of course publishers are keeping an eye on the performance of related games. Of course they're making multi-million-dollar business decisions around the likelihood of profitability. They'd be fools not to.

Still, video gamers tend to be quite passionate about their interests, and even the most evenly measured explanation of the cost-benefit analyses that determine game releases will inevitably be taken as a proclamation along the lines of National Lampoon's famous "we'll kill this dog" cover:

Image copyright National Lampoon Publications

That is, "If you don't buy this spin-off, we'll kill this franchise." The difference, of course, that National Lampoon was meant as satire rather than a statement of business policy. While they surely don't mean to, publishers needling consumers to buy one thing in order to get what they really want create the sensation of a hostage situation, with publishers playing the role of masked gunmen. We've seen time and again that game enthusiasts often see the world in adversarial terms, good guys versus bad guys, and I wince any time I see well-intended creators cast themselves in the villain's role.

Thankfully, I do think the incipient arrival (or so it seems) of a Dragon Quest XI announcement could mark a change to the way Square Enix approaches the series' localization. Since the series' resuscitation in the West at the end of the PlayStation era with Dragon Quest (née Warrior) VII, we've seen every main entry of the series in English barring Dragon Quest X — and the absence of that episode seems less like an act of spite than a simple saving throw for a sanity check. As a massively multiplayer RPG designed for Nintendo consoles, DQX would have represented an enormous localization and maintenance effort for a game that almost certainly would have bellyflopped with a resounding, bottom-line-shattereding detonation. And if there's one thing we know for certain about the creators of Dragon Quest, it's that they like making money and have zero enthusiasm for risk.

While it stings to have missed out on DQX and the phenomenal-looking 3DS remakes of VII, Monsters, and presumably VIII, DQXI is the one that really counts. Realistically, however, Horii's choice of platform for this next major entry will play a deciding role in its localization prospects. While we can be almost 100% certain it'll show up either on 3DS or PlayStation 3/4, exactly where it shows up will be a coin-flip of utmost gravity for Western fans.

Eight's posture here symbolizes how Dragon Quest games on Nintendo platforms have turned their back on the West.

If DQXI goes the Nintendo route, its chances of coming West drop precipitously. Square Enix has been gun shy about publishing much of anything in the West on 3DS; even the sidelong Final Fantasy reboot Bravely Default had to rely on the good graces of Nintendo itself to reach the U.S. There has, however, been a decided lack of Nintendo-published Dragon Quest since Jokers 2, and by numerous accounts the dismal performance of Jokers 2 and the DS remake of Dragon Quest VI has inspired Nintendo of America to wash its hands of the series. That would be doubly tragic, since Nintendo only published those two games because Square Enix had already localized them and decided not to release them after previous Dragon Quest releases fizzled in the West.

In other words, the idea of localized Dragon Quest games on Nintendo platforms appears to have become toxic to the two companies in a position to make it happen. No doubt any number of smaller outfits like Atlus or XSEED would be more than happy to step in and bring those games overseas, but as often happens with major Japanese franchises that never quite catch on in the U.S., Dragon Quest is a premium property that would be prohibitively expensive to license out to a small third party (or too precious to license at all), yet struggles too much for its owners to translate.

Alternately, things begin to look far more upbeat if Dragon Quest XI marks the series' return to the PlayStation fold. DQVII and DQVIII were two of the best-selling Dragon Quest games ever, and Horii has indicated his desire to play the series on a big screen; one assumes he didn't mean a 3DS XL. A PlayStation 4 DQXI seems almost a given for international release; not only has Sony become wonderfully aggressive about bringing fans they games they want (see their E3 hat trick of Final Fantasy VII, Shenmue III, and The Last Guardian), the PS4 market exists almost entirely in the West. Of the 23 million-plus PS4 consoles sold through to date, less than a million of those have ended up in Japanese households. [Edit: Japanese PS4 currently total somewhere between 1.5-2 million — still less than 10% of the console's total install base.] In order to be profitable, a PS4 game would have to head overseas.

Of course, if Square Enix really wants to make money in the West, they'll localize brazen Minecraft knockoff Dragon Quest Builders.

Of course, those very same dismal Japanese figures are precisely what throws that prospect into doubt. Again, Horii and his crew are decidedly conservative about their business, and they always bring numbered Dragon Quest titles to the platform with the largest install base... that is, the largest install base in Japan. The series' numbered entries are like a tour of each console war's victors: NES, Super NES, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, then DS, and finally Wii. Dragon Quest goes where the money is. And there is no money in making PS4 games for Japan right now.

Then again, the presence of Dragon Quest exclusively on PS4 would do a great deal to lift that platform's ailing spirits in its homeland. I suspect what we're most likely to see is Horii hedging his bets with DQXI by following in the footsteps of Dragon Quest Heroes: It launched on both PlayStation 3 and 4 in Japan, while only the PS4 version is making its way overseas. That seems like the perfect scenario, not only for Square Enix (which loves its guaranteed Dragon Quest money) but also for Western fans (who would very much love to see a guarantee of Dragon Quest of any kind at all).

We'll know soon enough how it will all shake out; the game announcement live stream is set to run in about 16 hours. No doubt any localization news would come much later down the road, but at least we'll know tomorrow what our chances are... or, in a worst case scenario, which platform we'll need to import the game for. But hopefully, we'll see a solution that will throw a much-needed bone to Western Dragon Quest fans. And without the need to threaten any puppies.

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