While titles like "Street Fighter" and "Mortal Kombat" may ring a bell if you ever spent any time in arcades as a kid, you may not have heard of "Persona." So why is Japan going totally nuts over it, with American otakus quickly following suit?
This August, "Persona 4 Arena," debuted on the U.S. market. The game features popular characters from a Japanese franchise of role-playing games that was founded by gaming company Atlus in 1996. Since its Japanese release on March 1st, the game has sold more than 128,000 units for PlayStation 3, making it the fasting selling fighting game of all time.
Persona's tremendous success as a franchise can be chalked up to a mix of well-defined characters and marketing savvy that the Japanese know how to execute with finesse.
If there's one thing most gamers excel at, it's devotion. Ever since I discovered the first "Final Fantasy," I have stood dutifully at the door of the local game store at the midnight launch, waiting to get my copy.
I fell stone cold in love with "Persona 3" first and worked backwards: The modern fantasy settings, great dialogue and character development have me hooked like a helpless fish.
The latest installment, "Persona 4 Arena," is a perfect example of the power of the Japanese franchise. By appealing to a hardcore Japanese fan base - and the American fans that carefully follow the same trends –and creating a game that features already beloved characters, Atlus is swinging for a home run. Square-Enix did the same in 2008 with "Dissidia Final Fantasy," which featured characters from every major Final Fantasy game and gave fans a chance to fight against one another. The game nailed a spot as the best selling PSP game of 2009 as a result.
However, the way franchises work in Japan is a bit different from the way they work in America. This is a key element to the reason games like "Persona 4 Arena" and "Theatrhythm Final Fantasy" have performed so well.
Patrick Galbraith, author of "Otaku Spaces" and "The Otaku Encyclopedia," said the biggest difference between media franchises in Japan and the US might be the amount of material and speed of production and distribution.
"Manga, anime and games are really everywhere, part of everyday life in Japan. In a place like Tokyo, where most of this stuff is produced and promoted, it is really easy to surround one’s self with them. It becomes the very air that people breath, part of their environment, history and lived experience," Galbraith explained.
He said that when it comes to the way the Japanese support their franchises, constant access to the material breeds an intimacy that resembles cult fandom in the U.S. - but with the object of affection changing on a regular basis. Imagine that, for example, you were really into "Star Wars," and read all the novels and comic books, watched all the cartoons, wore all the costumes that had anything to do with the "Star Wars" universe. Then imagine that devotion was easily transferable to another franchise from some other galaxy, far, far away.
"Because of this, it is really easy to get into franchises since so many points of entry exist, and it is really easy to stick with them because of the amount of material available," Galbraith said.
The way some Japanese franchises are funded is also different from the way the American model works, according to Brad Rice, Editor-in-Chief of Japanese culture website Japanator. He said when a production company prospects any new animated series, it has to gather financial resources from various groups to create a 'production committee,' which in turn funds the venture.
"Once the show is produced, it's put on a satellite/cable channel and aired at an early morning time slot such as 2:00 a.m.," Rice said. "Up until this point, the production committee has made next to no money. Ad revenues are barely there, and thus the only hope of making money back and breaking even is through DVD sales and licensing opportunities," like collectible figures, merchandise, and a small portion from overseas licensing of the show.
In contrast, Peter Yoder, vice president of consumer products in North America for Cartoon Network Enterprises, said fan favorite animated series "Ben 10" was developed very differently. Cartoon Network, which, like CNN, is owned by parent company TimeWarner, is a company that exists to produce and air content that appeals to children, Yoder said. When Cartoon Network debuts a new franchise, it is aired at a time when children are watching television - between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. EST. In fact, new show creators and Cartoon Network programmers work together to determine a precise time for the broadcast, in order to reach a targeted audience.
Likewise, the consumer products team works with show creators early on, to identify the new show's core attributes and voice, Yoder said. It's that information that guides consumer product development. "Our focus has always been, and will continue to be, producing and airing great content that resonates with kids," he said of Cartoon Network's approach. The consumer extensions of "Ben 10," like apparel, action figures, and a video game, while successful on a global scale, are secondary.
"At the end of the day, we strive to create great product from great content, and never the other way around," Yoder said.
While new intellectual properties (IPs) can be a monstrous success if they strike the right tone with the market, Rice explains that this is not Japan's preferred approach.
"If you're a businessman, you go with the easy option and license something," Rice said.
The thing is, fans don't mind. Because of the devotion we feel when we fall in love with a franchise, we're happy to always have more of it. As a hardcore fan of the Persona series myself, I never get tired of seeing new manga, games, anime, even collectible figures from the series I enjoy.
On the other hand, the business side of it may be suffering from that same passionate fandom. Decades-old franchises like "Evangelion" still have a multitude of merchandise for sale. As Japanese companies continue to market to a passionate, yet niche crowd, newer IPs - unless they capture the Japanese imagination on a large scale, like "Bakemonogatari" - are not as thoroughly monetized.
Other mediums have this a bit easier in Japan, Rice said. Live-action television shows generally air during primetime and have better ad revenues, and the production costs are a lot lower. Books and manga are cheap to produce and publish, so it's proven to be a fertile testing ground for new ideas.
But what makes fans react so strongly to certain franchises?
Galbraith says that when it comes to the Japanese "media mix," success is all about the characters.
"The character business is nothing to sniff at. The Japanese government estimated in a 2005 report that the market for licensed merchandise based on fictional characters is 10 times that of anime itself," said Galbraith.
He explained that these characters attract, focus and hold the attention of fans, gaining momentum as they move across media platforms.
"As Marc Steinberg says in his book on Japan’s Media Mix, it is the character that organizes the experience of heterogeneous media (and material) production and consumption," Galbraith says. "Each iteration of the character moves differently – it moves the fans and is moved by them."
"By building a prolonged relationship with a particular character through a process of branding, the consumer fan seeks greater engagement across media platforms. Further, because the character has been 'environmentalized' and can be engaged 'anywhere, anytime.' It becomes an intimate presence in everyday life."