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Dragon Quest XI's Battle to Win a New Generation of Fans is Becoming Urgent

As its fans get older, Dragon Quest looks to the past for answers.

Feature by Kat Bailey, .

Dragon Quest has the same problem as many other nostalgic properties: Its audience is aging out. And its creators know it.

Producer Hokuto Okamoto acknowledged as much when I spoke with him during PAX East, "We know Dragon Quest have been around a very long time, so the players are kind of aging up and growing older."

So what's the team's plan to win over a new generation of fans? By looking backward. Moreso even than usual, Dragon Quest XI is self-referential in the extreme. It contains nods to basically every mainline Dragon Quest to this point. It's such that magazines in Japan have dedicated themselves to unearthing every reference in Dragon Quest XI, no matter how small.

Fans who remember the original Dragon Quest games are only getting older.

Out of curiosity, I asked about references to my personal favorite game in the series—Dragon Quest V, a multi-generational RPG epic in which you grow up, get married, have kids, and raise monsters. Okamoto readily pointed to Dragon Quest XI's own generational story—there's a bit of a time skip near the beginning—as well as the periodic flashbacks to your childhood.

Then he got more specific. "In Dragon Quest V there was a scenario where you were captured and escaping in a barrel," Okamoto said. "After you make your escape and wake up there's some specific music. There's an homage to that specific piece of music [in Dragon Quest XI] as well."

The music Okamoto is referring to is the song "Saint." The scene in question comes after escaping years of slavery (Dragon Quest V could be really dark for an SNES game). It's a piece of music that's instantly recognizable if you've played the original game.

Okamoto hopes that these moments will serve to bridge the gap between older fans and younger ones. "We felt like this would kind of instigate a conversation between generations in regards to a shared experience through past players informing new players."

It may seem odd to leave even more heavily on nostalgia than usual in trying to sell your game to a younger audience, but it's not unprecedented. Indeed, reams of articles have been written about parents in the U.S. wringing their hands over how to properly introduce their kids to the original Star Wars trilogy. Dragon Quest is trying to spur much the same conversation.

The upshot of all this is that, even in Japan, Dragon Quest is in need of fresh blood. As the days of the Famicom recede in the collective memory, it will have to work harder and harder to remain relevant. And that's true even in Japan, the franchise's homeland.

Dragon Quest XI Looks West

On the face of it, Square Enix's approach appears to be working. Dragon Quest XI launched in Japan last year. It managed to sell 3 million copies across the 3DS and PlayStation 4 by November 2017, making it a success in the Japanese market.

The two versions combined were able to roughly match Dragon Quest IX, which roared out of the gate on the DS with 2.3 million copies sold. Square Enix president and CEO Yosuke Matsuda said the two games were able to meet the "lower end" of sales expectations, and hoped that 3DS sales would pick up.

Dragon Quest XI's success is impressive in light of increased competition and lower install base in Japan. It's managed to largely hold serve amid the explosive popularity of mobile gaming, which was much less prevalent when Dragon Quest IX launched in 2009. Whether it actually passes the proverbial torch to the younger generation remains to be seen; but for now, mission accomplished.

A big plus for Dragon Quest XI is that it's a very pretty game.

Now Square Enix is turning its eyes westward as they try to truly break out in the U.S. for the first time. Indeed, Square Enix has made no secret of its desire to build a fanbase here. The decision to release Dragon Quest XI on PC instead of 3DS is emblematic of that. The recent success of games like Nier Automata also give Dragon Quest's developers reason to be optimistic. "At one point people were saying that Japanese games didn't have much of a future overseas. But look at the recent success of [games like Persona 5 and Nier: Automata], we feel that if we put all of our effort into bringing certain titles overseas, it will be properly received and properly evaluated. So in that sense, we're hopeful. And if Dragon Quest XI is received in the same way, we'll be elated," Okamoto said.

I pointed out that this is the first time in a while that Square Enix has prioritized the American market, noting that Dragon Quest IX and Dragon Quest VII respectively were published by Nintendo. Dragon Quest X was never even released outside of Japan.

Okamoto couched it as a strategic decision, "We just felt Nintendo provided the platform to deliver a game to a wider audience. That's why we decided to have NIntendo publish some of those Nintendo platform games. In terms of how famous Nintendo is, they're maybe up here, and we're down here."

He shrugs off concerns that Dragon Quest XI is too slow, too stately, and too old-school for modern audiences. "It may be a little bit off-center in terms of being what is considered standard at this time, but this type of gameplay should be something available. Not everyone will want to play a busy game. Some people may want to take their time and slowly proceed through the game as well."

Can Dragon Quest's stately RPG action continue to translate amid a changing landscape?

Americans don't see Dragon Quest through the same nostalgic lens as the Japanese. There is no older generation to share stories of the first time they found Erdrick's Sword. Many Americans who pick up Dragon Quest XI will be coming into the series for the first time.

Okamoto argues that one of Dragon Quest's key strengths is accessibility, and he's not wrong. It's always been light, friendly, and most import of all, beautiful. It's also supposed to be a bit of slog, as was the case with Dragon Quest VII and VIII.

Square Enix has been trying to make Dragon Quest a thing in the U.S. since the NES days, and Dragon Quest XI is only its latest attempt. But this push is more serious than any since Dragon Quest VIII was released on the PlayStation 2. Even with Dragon Quest XI's success in Japan, Square Enix is no doubt feeling urgency to grow the series' fanbase in North America as its core audience in Japan ages and development costs continue to rise.

Its space to innovate is fairly limited. Dragon Quest IX did some fantastic things in the multiplayer space, but Square Enix felt the sting of blowback from its initial reveal, which perhaps went a little too far in trying to evolve the series. Okamoto seemingly alludes to that backlash when he says, "We can't necessarily go against the experience that many mainline Dragon Quest fans expect. It's always a fine line between evolution and tradition."

And so Dragon Quest is going back to what it does best: warmth, tradition, nostalgia. It's an unapologetically old-school JRPG in a rapidly change space. It knows what it is, and what it wants to be, and it's not shy about targeting fans who just want a classical RPG on an advanced console.

This strong sense of identity is one of Dragon Quest greatest strengths. And that may ultimately be its best chance to build the bridge to the new generation it so desperately desires.

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Comments 29

  • Avatar for ldave #1 ldave 2 months ago
    The coming of DQ XI to the West could have been a celebration for JRPG and DQ fans, but the missing 3DS version puts some sad tears into the joy.

    I know from a business only standpoint it may be the right call for Square, but the DQ name was around for many many years in the West only thanks to DS and 3DS players.Edited April 2018 by ldave
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  • Avatar for moochan #2 moochan 2 months ago
    Super Sentai did something the same a few years ago where pirates had the ability to transform into older version. Pretty much trying to show the younger audience what came before it. Guess the issue come with doing it too much and you alienate the younger one with it being just a winkfest. But Horii and the team always seem to know how much to put into their games. Since all the Dragon Quest games had some winks and nods to older one. XI just seem like it's more of a fond look back to everything that came before it. Which has someone who played the NES games and do have a nice fondness of that time I am all for it. But I hope many people who are picking it up for the first time is able to just smile at the old stuff whether or not they know it and just enjoy the game as a whole.
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  • Avatar for Wellman2nd #3 Wellman2nd 2 months ago
    They could always go the Fire Emblem route... do another DQ mainline game like DQ V but with waifu and breeding party members . Seems to work pretty well with right designs.
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  • Avatar for Cabbage-head-must-di #4 Cabbage-head-must-di 2 months ago
    If they want to really want to grab our attention out here in the west the guys at squenix need to change the pacing. I wish I could just plop on the couch and sink 80 straight hours grinding levels until I'm covered in bed sores. But I don't get summer vacations anymore and bedsores really hurt. Hell, I was only able to get into DQ7 because of its portability and little story segments was perfect for stop and go gameplay.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #5 The-Challenger 2 months ago
    @Wellman2nd Yeah, that would boost the sales by an additional million or so
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  • Avatar for ldave #6 ldave 2 months ago
    @Cabbage-head-must-di with the traditional, slowly paced turn based combat system it will be a tough sell for a wider audience. If you compare the combat speed for Persona 3 and 5, the later is much quicker. I think they should somehow aim for a similar effect here.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #7 MetManMas 2 months ago
    Dragon Quest definitely needs to win over new fans, that's for sure. The kids that were there when the Famicom and NES games debuted are old enough to be parents or maybe even grandparents now.

    I think to some extent, PS SHARE will certainly help the game to sell better in the west than past Dragon Quests did.
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  • Avatar for Gamer-Law #8 Gamer-Law 2 months ago
    It is a relief to see the developer recognize the fine line between evolution and tradition. The last thing long time DQ fans want is the “Noctis-ing” of their games. Warmth, tradition and nostalgia are alluring forces in a JRPG and DQ can succeed by growing its base as opposed to abandoning its base in an attempt to appeal to a new western audience.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #9 riderkicker 2 months ago
    All I want is something like an epic story like Dragon Quest V and the playability of Dragon Quest VIII or IX. As long it's nothing like 7, I'm fine.
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  • Avatar for jihon83 #10 jihon83 2 months ago
    Given the combat system, I wonder if this is serving as a partial testbed for doing the same with the remake of FF7. If it does well, maybe we will just get a prettied up version; and if it flounders, FF7, V. 2, might get delayed and made more like 15. For myself, I am finding the marriage of graphics and systems a weird fit, so I will likely pass on it.
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  • Avatar for sketchlayerjosh #11 sketchlayerjosh 2 months ago
    Honestly, I think this shaping up to be a really well performing entry in the series.

    I mean it! How many actual, traditional fantasy RPGs do we get on consoles here in the West? Not many. Either they're Final Fantasy, with its belts and Japanese Fashion Model aesthetic or it's something like the Tales games, which look super anime-styled. Honestly...I don't think either of those really appeals to general audiences over here. Mostly because they look...well...doofy. It's easy to forget when you're exposed to this stuff all the time, but that look is still pretty weird to a lot more people than the kinds of folks who comment on gaming sites might realize. I know Dragon Quest has that anime look as well, but it's not the sort of trashy anime style that a lot of JRPGs have. The kind that makes you uncomfortable about the ages of the characters in relation to the amount of clothing they're wearing.

    The combat system is traditional, but I don't think that was ever the reason that previous Dragon Quest games never caught on here. I loved IX, but the things that make it cool in Japan (getting maps from people, co-op on the DS) are not things that excite an American audience. VII and VIII for the 3DS came out five years into the system's life? When everyone was already thinking about the Switch. It wasn't an easy time to get people excited about a 3DS game.

    Now though? I think people will get a real kick out of Dragon Quest. As mentioned before, the Dragon Ball resurgence will help a lot. And, honestly, I think once people see the game being streamed, they'll probably get curious and pick it up. We disciples of the Blood God forget, but a lot of people fell off of JRPGs when they got very...Nomura-y. Incomprehensible plots full of people in unrelatable situations with weird battle systems. But I don't think that love for less complicated RPGs ever died. It was just never the right platform or right time for a game like DQ to shine. The stars seem to be aligning for this one, though. Hopefully people get on board.Edited April 2018 by sketchlayerjosh
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  • Avatar for lanmao #12 lanmao 2 months ago
    I've bounced of of this series many times over the years. Is the combat still the first person-y business, or has that changed? It's what's kept me away from the Etrian games as well. Persona Q surprisingly worked for me, just by adding in combat animations for your party.
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  • Avatar for gekiganwing #13 gekiganwing 2 months ago
    I might buy Dragon Quest 11. However, I don't own a PS4, and my interest in home consoles has steadily decreased. The days when I played Dragon Quest 7 on PS1 for ninety hours, or when I played DQ8 on PS2 for sixty hours, seem like a distant memory. Likewise, I don't own a computer which is capable of playing games with 3D polygon graphics. (My PC has a 2.30 Ghz processor and 8 GB of RAM... which might be enough for a handful of 2D freeware games.)

    The video games that I like tend to be whimsical, low-key, and slow-paced. For instance, I just tried Ittle Dew 2 on Switch and thoroughly enjoyed it. I tried the demo of Detective Pikachu on 3DS and found it rather good. Having said that... for many years, I've heard that most of my favorite games sold poorly. I get the impression that games featuring mascots with attitude or angry bald space marines or gangsters gaining respect on da street have sold millions of copies.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #14 Vonlenska 2 months ago
    It's one of my most anticipated games, but I'm already in the target audience; I just want a console RPG with enough of a budget to fully utilize contemporary technology that's actually comfortable in its own skin.
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  • Avatar for CipherStone #15 CipherStone 2 months ago
    @lanmao Dragon Quest switched to a 3rd person camera during combat starting with 8, so the first person battles thing shouldn't be an issue with DQ11.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #16 donkeyintheforest 2 months ago
    This seems positioned somewhat like 8 was on ps2. I remember that being a big deal at the time for being a chance to break out in the west, but I think the main thing that turned people off was the super long play time. I'll prob get this one on the pc.
    @moochan gokaiger was the best.
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  • Avatar for Cabbage-head-must-di #17 Cabbage-head-must-di 2 months ago
    @ldave agreed, if they can take the breezy fun of persona 5's battle system and avoid the grueling dungeons with a nice dose of classic DQ charm they would have a real winner on their hands.
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  • Avatar for slimehunter84 #18 slimehunter84 2 months ago
    @MetManMas " The kids that were there when the Famicom and NES games debuted are old enough to be parents or maybe even grandparents now."
    Parents, yes. Grandparents? That would require that my kid be 14 with a baby.
    If DQ wants to finally break into the West, then it needs to do something drastically different, and I don't see that happening since they're basically the anti-Final Fantasy.

    edit: FF has the same story but always different mechanics. Vice versa with DQ. There's a reason why FF always performed better (beside the comment about marketing by Horii-san). It appeals to the westerner's need for "innovation" and a sense of change and iteration.Edited 2 times. Last edited April 2018 by slimehunter84
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #19 MetManMas 2 months ago
    @slimehunter84 You say "different mechanics" but in the 90s Final Fantasy was content to stick by the Active Time Battle system for six whole games, with the only major change-up being 8. I get what you mean, though. Final Fantasy's more often than not been cutting edge, while Dragon Quest has traditionally been jRPG comfort food.

    Dragon Quest needs to mix things up to survive, especially since the big three won't be around forever. Square Enix has known this for a while. It's why Dragon Quest IX had more of an action RPG look before it got shouted down.
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  • Avatar for Mr.Spo #20 Mr.Spo 2 months ago
    I hope it does well - but without a PS4 I'll be waiting for the Switch version. Disappointed that version seems to be a while away.
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  • Avatar for Thad #21 Thad 2 months ago
    Aw, those slavers weren't so bad. They safely stored all my money and equipment for years, and even taught me to read!
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  • Avatar for benHaskett #22 benHaskett 2 months ago
    I for one am totally looking forward to DQXI. Last mainline game I played was IX which, while good, didn't really have a strong story--reminiscent of III. My favorites have been IV, V, and VIII, which put a heavier emphasis on the characters. This seems to follow that road.

    I... don't think this will make much of a splash here, but I could be wrong. I remember they swung even harder for VIII with action-packed TV commercials, but everyone I knew who bought it said they were in it for the included Final Fantasy XII demo.

    I didn't give the series a chance until IV came out on the DS. That port made a believer out of me, and at this point I've played all the main games and many of the spin-offs. This is definitely the kind of series one needs to play to believe--it's never looked awesome (though several, including XI, look really good), and the music is beautiful but typically lacks anything catchy (You don't see a lot of people, for example, tabbing out Dragon Quest songs for guitar). It all adds up to something incredible, but at a glance, it's pretty modest. Sigh... I love it so much.

    Anyway, I hope it does well, and I have it pre-ordered, but I don't expect to see many friends on PSN running through it.
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  • Avatar for slimehunter84 #23 slimehunter84 2 months ago
    @MetManMas Fair enough. I agree with you also, but maybe I'd like a more drastic change. I really think that the only way DQ would "break into" the western market at the intensity that SE is hoping for could only be accomplished by making something more like Skyrim.

    Hear me out- it wouldn't have to be a main series title, but SE has been willing to farm out the IP and create so many other genres with the DQ IP, that I really think that a 1st-person WRPG in the DQ universe would do well here.
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  • Avatar for benHaskett #24 benHaskett 2 months ago
    Bringing up Skyrim is a good indication of the sort of fantasy Western audiences are into these days--not just with games, but with TV, movies, and books, too. I read a little article on Wired the other day that said something similar with regards to books ( https://www.wired.com/2018/04/geeks-guide-craig-shaw-gardner/ ), where one author refers to it as 'grimdark'--a pretty funny word if you ask me. :)

    In a world with Game of Thrones on TV, Skyrim on consoles, and The Fifth Season in literature, I do wonder with some anxiety where DQ could fit in, and I don't think it's within its own universe with a Skyrim setup--it would have to be gritty and dark and violent. In other words, it would have to be everything DQ isn't. :(
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  • Avatar for mganai #25 mganai 2 months ago
    2d option for the Switch, pls.
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  • Avatar for TheSensationalSean #26 TheSensationalSean 2 months ago
    Great article Kat - the DQ stuff on this site is wonderful. I wished they'd announce a release date for XI on Switch!
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  • Avatar for strangejames85 #27 strangejames85 2 months ago
    Has a JRPG series ever gotten a fresh reboot and just started over?
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  • Avatar for mganai #28 mganai 2 months ago
    Also, it's no less slow paced than, say, Pokemon. A little silly to see that as an issue.
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  • Avatar for Verkambj #29 Verkambj 2 months ago
    Replaying DQ Viii on 3DS right now and loving it. My only issue is that I have to wait for the switch version longer than PS4. Don’t get me wrong, I love my PS4. I hav just grown accustom to these types of games on portables
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