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Monday, May 1, 2017

On bringing Lost Dimension - and other niche JRPGs - to PC


Interview by Matt S. 

Ghostlight is one of the veteran localisation outfits out there. Founded back in 2004, the company got its start in bringing various Atlus games into Europe and Australia, starting with Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer's call in 2005, and then the excellent Digital Devil Saga titles after that.

After moving on from Atlus, and the console business in general, Ghostlight turned its attention to PC in 2014 and has been focused exclusively on bringing niche Japanese games to the platform from console since then. It has worked regularly with Compile Heart (Mugen Souls, and the upcoming Omega Quintet), and has also worked with Acquire (Way of the Samurai) and Starfish (Elminage Gothic).

Now it's working with one of the rising stars in the JRPG space, Furyu Corporation, to bring Lost Dimension, a tactics JRPG that we really enjoyed on PlayStation 3 and Vita, to PC as well. I had a sit down with Ghostlight's senior employee and community manager, Ross Brierley, about the work that the team does on the games that they localise, as well as what might be next for the company.

Matt S: What was it about Lost Dimension that made you think it was good for a PC port?
Ross Brierley: We were already aware of the high quality of games coming from Furyu Corporation so our expectations were high when assessing Lost Dimension for a potential PC port. One of the first things we look for when choosing a game to port, is the quality of the game itself. With some solid reviews and a Gold Award from a highly regarded Japanese publication, Lost Dimension struck us all here as a fantastic game from the first time we played it. Aside from looking great and reminding us visually of some of our favourite JRPGs, Lost Dimension has a genuinely compelling tactical battle system, with lots of opportunities for creative thinking, while the traitor system provides a very interesting test of logic. The storyline is engaging and although it takes a little time to develop, the wait is well worthwhile it as the ‘big reveal’ comes as a genuine surprise and ties the whole story together really well.

We’re confident that the turn-based battle system will work very nicely on PC and with the PC's extra power we’re confident that we’ll be able to reduce loading times significantly. Following our programming team’s evaluation of the very well written source code, we could quickly see that this title would be a great fit for PC from a technical stand point, plus it will provide us with a few opportunities for graphical improvements enabling us to provide a great port for PC fans.

Lost Dimension

While obviously financial details such as expected sales, are a deciding factor, I personally don't get involved in that side of things so much. From my point of view it's a truly great game that we’re sure will be hugely welcomed by fans of the genre on PC.

Matt S: You could say that the original game never got the attention it quite deserved on PS3 and Vita. Why do you think that was, and what about the game do you think might resonate better this time around?
Ross B: I think it's getting harder and harder to get media attention for any game outside of the big triple A franchises and the biggest publishers. With so many new games being released all the time, there are only so many titles that any review site can cover in depth. Having said that, I do feel that while it might not have had the amount of coverage it could have received a few years ago, many of the reviews it did receive were very positive. Not just on DDNet, but on sites like Destructoid and Polygon too. And personally I do think that the more strategic battle system may appeal to many PC players, perhaps more so than it did on console.

Matt S: Furyu Corporation is a publisher that we're starting to pay more attention to; it's also the publisher behind the excellent-looking Caligula. Do you see this as a potential long-term partnership?
Ross B: As with most of our Japanese clients, we are dealing with Furyu Corporation on a game-by-game basis. However, we’re all such huge fans of the work that the company does that we would of course welcome further collaborations with them in future, and hopefully our relationship will develop in to a longer term arrangement. The company is creating some really fantastic games, and while I’m not ultimately responsible for the games that we license, I would say that we have to be interested in working with them again soon.

Matt S: What is your role as a localiser/publisher for the game when it has already been localised previously?
Ross B: When porting a console game to PC, the localisation is only one aspect of the whole development process. Of course, having a translation in place for the original Japanese text certainly simplifies the process but there are still many tasks that we have to complete before releasing on PC.

Often we need to conduct a full rewrite of the game libraries in order to run on PC, which is no small task. Our coders may also need to emulate middleware and add SDKs where necessary. Obviously there are also many adaptations that need to be made to the game in order to function cleanly on a PC setup, along with the removal of any references to the various console manufacturers. For example, we may need to redesign the front end or add new options screens. In-game movies have to be re-rendered or edited for PC and we need to adapt or upscale graphics to take advantage of the greater processing abilities of PCs in order to meet the justifiably high expectations of PC users. In the case of Elminage Gothic we even redrew all the dungeon backgrounds, as the originals didn't cope well with the move to a larger screen.

Elminage Gothic 

PC players also have different expectations on control systems to people playing on handheld and console and we spend a lot of time ensuring that everything plays as smoothly as possible on PC control systems. We also tend to try and take advantage of Steam features, such as cloud saving and the ever-popular Trading Cards.

You also need to think about issues like how people will quit or pause the game - issues that on console would be taken care of by the system itself, but on PC need to be implemented into the game.

Perhaps one of the key additional complexities when developing for PC rather than console, is that there is a huge variety PC setups out there and we have to make sure that our product maintains the highest degree of compatibility possible. We tend to organise closed betas with some very carefully selected (and massively helpful) testers from within the PC community which we manage internally, although we still conduct our own testing in-house too.

Understandably, before releasing the game we have to get the final build approved by our partners in Japan, as well as working with them on pricing and getting the various marketing materials approved. It is essential that our Japanese partners are happy with the final product and where possible we involve them with every stage of the development and marketing processes.

As you can see, while working on a game that already has a localisation does simplify things, there's still plenty for us to work on!

Matt S: The depth and range of Japanese games that are being localised to PC is incredible at the moment. What do you think has driven the new interest in Japanese games - or at least, what has encouraged Japanese developers and publishers to bring them to the west?
Ross B: I think our early success with Idea Factory’s Agarest: Generations Of War (which topped the charts on its Steam release) and also XSEED's success with Nihon Falcom’s games, have helped to demonstrate that there is a real appetite for Japanese games on PC.

Way of the Samurai 4

We believe that some of these sales were from console gamers who enjoy having access to games on multiple systems, while others might be lapsed Japanese gaming fans who had drifted away from console but were still interested in playing them on a PC system. More importantly perhaps, was that by putting these games on services like Steam, publishers have made their games easily available to millions of gamers worldwide who may not have previously played many Japanese games, but who have been curious about them. This made it very easy for people to try Japanese games on an existing system without having to buy a console.

Matt S: There are also so many more publishers and localisation outfits working to bring Japanese games out west now. Is that making it harder to find and commercialise projects?
Ross B: To some extent I’d have to say that it is, but at the same time it is also helping to grow the market too, which is great for fans of Japanese games. Having said that, it does mean that we need to work harder on acquiring new games and on convincing fans that our games are the ones for them.

For us though, I think we have quite a clear advantage over some of our competitors as being a publisher with an internal development team does make it a little easier for us to acquire games. And to some extent the growth in the PC Japanese game sector has been, in a strange way of benefit to us, as we've been hired by several publishers to handle their PC ports for them. So from our point of view, we’ve seen our business improve in terms of publishing and development, while at the same time Japanese gaming fans are getting more content so it’s a win-win for everyone.

Matt S: What kind of games does Ghostlight look for in general to localise?
Ross B: We tend to focus on Japanese games, but beyond that we're fairly open minded in terms of genre.

While our Steam releases so far have been a mix of JRPGs and action games, with one dungeon crawler (Elminage Gothic), we've also looked at shoot 'em-ups and in the past came very close to signing two visual novels.

Lost Dimension

When we're evaluating games for porting to PC we look firstly at the quality of the game and whether we feel there's enough potential interest in the particular game to justify porting it. Gauging popularity of a title is difficult so we usually rely on fans’ feedback letting us know which games they’d be interested to see on PC.

Beyond that, we also look at how difficult the port will be on a technical level by examining the source code and the volume of text or audio, and how we feel the gameplay will translate to PC.

Obviously having a pre-existing relationship with the Japanese companies involved helps with all of this, but we are always prepared to try talking to new clients that we haven't previously dealt with. I should say that we are helped massively by our agents in Japan who do a fantastic job both alerting us to the availability of new opportunities through their network of contacts and in helping us maintain good communications through the negotiation and development processes.

Matt S: I get the impression that the Japanese games industry is, after many years of trying to compete with western game development on its terms, coming to the understanding that it's essentially the "foreign film" industry in gaming now. What's your take on the general feeling of the Japanese games industry and the opportunities that developers and publishers see in the market?
Ross B: That's an interesting question. I think attitudes tend to vary between the various Japanese developers and publishers, who seem to have taken very different approaches towards this. Certainly there are now fewer Japanese franchises and developers who compete in the mainstream/AAA market with more commercial products, although some still manage that.

Some Japanese companies seem to have taken a more proactive approach towards getting their games released in the West and actively pursue things like Steam releases, either porting games themselves or actively looking for partners to release their games on Steam. On the other hand, plenty seem to focus on the Japanese and Asian markets with the impetus for a western release coming from Western publishers. Some Japanese releases can be seen as being quirky by the western market, but in some respects that’s a positive for us as the fanbase for niche products is perhaps wider than many publishers might think and releasing on PC enables us to reach out to the widest audience possible.

Omega Quintet

Matt S: Finally, the Japanese love mobile games, and I'd happily argue that Japanese mobile games are leagues more in-depth and interesting than what we see in the west. Would you ever consider taking on a project like Hortensia or Granblue Fantasy; the kinds of Japanese mobile games that for some reason don't get localised (or, generally speaking, are poorly localised leading to their failure; see Chain Chronicle)?
Ross B: At the moment it's not something we're actively pursuing over bringing console games to PC and we’re already very busy with that side of the business. Having said that, we’re always evaluating lots of games across a variety of platforms and I’m sure that if the right mobile game became available to us, then we'd seriously consider bringing it to PC. I totally agree with you that there are some truly great mobile games out there so I’ll have to have a word with the team here to convince them that the Japanese mobile sector may be worth a closer look - as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained and after all that’s exactly how so many Japanese games have now found a home on PC.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
On bringing Lost Dimension - and other niche JRPGs - to PC
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