Interview: Rising Star Games President Martin Defries

European publisher arrives in the States.

Rising Star Games, whom you may know from their Japanese game localizations out in Europe, has set up shop in the United States. Out on tour in New York City, we sat down with company president Martin Defries, who gave us insight into the publisher’s history, its goals for the future, and a few teases at what’s currently cooking.

Gematsu: What’s the history behind Rising Star Games?

Martin Defries: The company was founded in October 2004 – so that makes it heading towards 8 years old. It was set up between two investors, one European and one Japanese. And the Japanese was Marvelous Entertainment, famous for the Harvest Moon series, Rune Factory, and then going forward No More Heroes.

It took us a little while to get up off the floor, probably about a year before we put out our first products. We licensed some IP from Taito – Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands – we did those on DS and PSP. And then the Marvelous products started coming through, which are the Harvest Moons and Rune Factories.

[pauses] Man, that’s a long time ago, I don’t know if I can remember all the others. We’re 80 products down the line now. Within 18 months, we started a 9-product deal with Hudson [now merged within Konami] to bring back Bomberman and a handful of other games from them from Europe, and that was cross DS and PSP, as well.

And we’ve grown from there, and we’ve developed a kind of position in the market around two and a half to three years where we really broadcasted we were the home of Japanese games. And that kind of pissed Konami and Capcom off, but we said it first and we said it loudest, so we created a little space for ourselves and that really worked for us. We’ve got a fan base that understood what we were doing very quickly by broadcasting that message that we’re dedicated to Japanese games, at that time.

So we developed a loyal fanbase – the kind that did a lot of our passing on information themselves. Before it became a buzzword, it was kind of crowd marketing. We also set up – this is all specific to Europe – a fan club, like a Mario club, which we called Hoshi, which is star in Japanese, and we did a co-promotion with Virgin Airlines and another Japanese company. The three of us put together a promotion to win a trip to Tokyo, and we ended up with 35,000 people opting in to our website. We built that further over the last couple of years. And that’s a fan community that does all the things you would expect a fan community to do.

Eighteen months ago, we tried a little revolutionary experiment – or what we thought was revolutionary. We put a media [press] release through the fan club before releasing it to the media, and that really took a hold. I mean, we told them [the fans] first. We gave them a day to take on in the propoganda before we announced it to the media. We spiked up in membership – I suspect that’s because other media people then suddenly joined our club, realizing what we were doing.

To give you that story probably gives you the insight that we’re a small boutique publisher; we’re very close to our community – these aren’t just buzzwords – we’re understanding engaging with people that like our games; we understand talking with them about it; that we’re not a company you send an e-mail in and nothing happens for three weeks. We’re online all the time, most of the staff. Me and the finance guy are probably the only ones who don’t have a Twitter feed. Social networking stuff, we’ve got Facebook, YouTube – it’s going on all the time. And this isn’t some intern that does it for six months, this is permanent staff that are dedicated to doing this stuff. And that’s really engaging with the community of people that gives us a lot of support, which actually drifted over to the U.S., as well. We get a lot of traffic from the U.S. pulling for us. They notice that we’re bringing these products out and Europe, and want us to bring them to the U.S. And that really is sort of the germ of the idea of, “Can we take the step into this huge, huge risky market?” But we got some confidence from that community of people talking to us from here.

How did it evolve from an idea to an action?

That’s the boring stuff. That’s all administrative, and all that.

Can you give me an exciting, action-packed version of the story?

[laughs] It’s basically going to a board and saying we have ambitions to go elsewhere. In part, the downside is that bits and pieces of Europe are finding a struggle with the recession, so we’ve got to continue to build our business, so we look elsewhere in how we can do that. That’s the boring part.

The interesting part is that we do have people talking to us particularly with their Cave stuff, of how can they get their hands on it in the U.S. So we thought this product – Akai Katana – we’ve got a ton of things in the works at the moment that we feel will work both in Europe and the U.S. with our brand, with our marketing efforts being very similar, so we can reach a bigger audience.

You mention Cave shoot-em-ups… a lot of titles you’re bringing to Europe – I know you’re bringing Way of the Samurai 4, I’m not sure if it came out yet—

We’re not doing that. We reversed that. But Xseed is doing it [in the U.S.].

Ah. I wasn’t informed! Well, RSG brought Rune Factory Oceans to Europe. What I’m getting at here is, a lot of titles Rising Star Games has brought to Europe have been brought to America by other publishers. So aside from Cave shmups, which other titles or franchises are you eyeing for the States?

I can’t give you titles – there are a few things cooking at the moment. Hopefully in a week’s time [this interview was conducted on April 19], we’ll be able to announce – I think we’re heading towards perhaps something I should have mentioned. One of the reasons we opened the U.S. branch was because we weren’t being offered some products from Japan which were not getting a publishing deal in the U.S. We were doing them in Europe, but they weren’t finding an avenue in the U.S. Or, if they were in the U.S., the publisher was different than it is in Europe. So catching it all in one publisher – us – is what a number of Japanese studios are interested in doing. Either because they don’t have a U.S. outlet, or they don’t want to deal with two companies doing two different multi-campaigns, two different boxes, two different release times, that kind of thing.

If you look back at the history of our stuff, rather than looking forward, the Harvest Moon series is looked after by Natsume here, and Rune Factory as well. So that won’t change. They’ve looked after that all their lives. There will always be those two, sort of separate tracks of what we do here in Europe and what happens in the U.S. But there are a number of products, and I’m sorry I can’t tell you today, but there are a number of products that we can bring to both territories at the same time.

That’s pretty exciting! I’ve seen a lot of Europeans become upset over the gap between U.S. and European localizations.

Yeah, people get mad about different things. The Europeans get mad because we’re tracking behind the U.S., which is usually because the Japanese version is translated into one language for the U.S., and then for the European version, we have to do four or five languages. So that’s four and five bits of QA – it just takes a little longer. So we get a lot of Europeans on our forums complaining, ‘why the heck are you guys taking so long?’ Alternatively, we get a lot of U.S. guys on our forums asking, ‘why couldn’t you bring this product over to the U.S.? Why hasn’t the Japanese company found a publisher?’

You mentioned having been offered deals in the past to bring games to both Europe and U.S. at the same time. Are there any notable deals that didn’t fall through? Anything you can mention?

Well, there’s all kinds. Deadly Premonition, we weren’t part of when it was released on Xbox 360 two years ago. Ignition did it over here. I think they did a great job. I think we did a really good job with it in Europe. We would very much like to have been part of that – simultaneous launch, co-operative marketing, we didn’t do any of that. No More Heroes – that was Ubisoft over here. You know, we loved working with that product. It was just one of the greatest periods of the company’s life, working with that product. I would love to have been part of that [in the U.S.].

What’s fallen through the gaps? I couldn’t remember. There were a couple of things we had to walk away from because we’d been outpunched by bigger companies that have or had a U.S. presence that we didn’t have at the time. I’d have to really dig deep to think of a couple.

You mentioned Deadly Premonition. I beleive the PR e-mail for this whole thing told us we could ask you about the latest project from its director, Swery. Can you tell us anything about that?

No, no. [laughs] Yeah, close. Really close. We’ll be involved.

Does it have anything to do with the Deadly Premonition director’s cut for PlayStation 3?

That was Wada-san back at the Game Developers Conference. Yeah, I’m going to have to plead the fifth on that. Just give us a little time on that, we’re working on a couple things with those guys. But we’re not in a position where we can confirm anything yet.

I’m sure many of our readers would be interested in the localization process. Can you give us a brief summary of what’s involved?

It’s tough. It’s really, really difficult. We’re looking at a game at the moment to localize which is a million Japanese characters. Japanese characters are text. That’s roughly, and I’ll get slammed for not doing the math, about 600,000 English words. So that has to be translated from Japanese into English. That then has to be checked to make sure it’s good English. That then has to be put into code, which takes a lot of time. That code then has to be sent back to us, so we can review that code to make sure everything has been spelled and inputted properly. Sometimes you’ll be working with a development team that doesn’t speak English at all, so they’re just punching what they see into the code. So they don’t know whether they’re mistyping or misspelling, or if it’s poor grammar, so we have to check for all that again. Then we have to make corrections… that process can go on three, four times. That process comfortably now – we’re talking about a year for that to happen. And all the time we’re banking on the fact that the developer is open and available to edit whatever and they have the work for us available to do that. Ordinarily, they’re not just sitting there waiting for us command something. So we have to book time with them to give them the work we’ve done, and they send it back to us, and then we’ve got to do the same thing. We’ve got time which is constantly on our hands waiting for them to respond. So you lose time while everyone’s in the queue waiting for them to do what they’ve got to do.

[pauses] 600,000 words in English, then we’ve got to pull them into French and German, because those are the three biggest markets in Europe. German is a longer language than English by another 15 or so percent longer, so then we’re looking at another 700,000 words. The grammar structure is slightly different – that’s gotta be checked by a German speaker, then sent back to Japan, then it comes back – French has got to do the same thing. Then we sometimes do Italian and Spanish, as well. It’s a lengthy process. We try to do it well, I think we’re pretty good at what we do. We won’t get it perfect every time, but I think amongst the localizations of Japanese products, we’ve got a decent reputation because we’ve taken a little more time to do things properly. I know that’s almost a cliche, but it’s the right thing to do. We’ll get slammed if we put out a product with a poor localization. So we take a little longer, we spend a little more money, and we try to get it as right as we can.

It just takes time. It really, really takes time. It’s about that localization process, and then it’s about testing that localization process, as well. Really, really tough.

Now with Rising Star Games in the U.S, you mentioned earlier that you were the “Home of Japanese” games during one point. So what’s your focus with this new venture?

To answer your first question, our founding company was Marvelous, they had a huge influence on the outlook of the company, the DNA of the company, and the people that work for the company in Europe are Japanese gaming enthusiasts. It’s sort of the staff has become the company, the company has become the staff kind of thing. I don’t think we’ll ever lose that primary purpose of what we do. But we have to recognize that the market has changed in the last couple of years, it’s a tough market for a small boutique publisher to just stay in one category. So we’ve brought in a handful of casual games and added that to our lineup and they exploded, and we did incredibly well with them. This Cradle series – and this isn’t the sound space to try and get some of your Japanese people interested in some games that we’ve published in Germany – but those games just took a hold and we did fantastically well with them.

So we’ve added them to our lineup in the U.S. because it gives us a certain bulk of product to bring to market, and it gives us a mixed lineup, as well. The “Home of Japanese Games” thing is a really, really good thing for us. We were able to say who we were in one sentence. You know, very quickly, ‘we publish Japanese games.’ But it marginalizes us in a certain way, as well. We couldn’t do anything else other than Japanese games. So we pulled back from that communication about a year ago, and now we make games from anywhere, games that we like, that we enjoy playing – perhaps that’s something I should beat the drum about.

So is RSG in talks with any U.S. developers?

At this very second, no. But that’s not to say we won’t be. We just haven’t gotten around to talking to people yet. Our whole announcement about coming over here was about three weeks ago? Our broadcast about who we’re working with – Aksys, also known for their Japanese content – was about a week ago. They’re our distribution partner. So there’s been a hell of a lot of activity in our first three weeks being here.

Do you see RSG publishing anything the industry would consider “AAA” in the future?

We haven’t already? [laughs]

Without doing ourselves a disservice, we are a small publisher. We’re ten people with a couple of people in the U.S. We punch above our weight, we’re dedicated to what we do, we like what we do, and we don’t have a raft of development studios – 200-300 guys – on 3-year, 20 million dollar projects. We just don’t have that reach at all. Our hope is that amongst the 12 to 14 titles we put out a year, that there’s an absolute gem in there that flies. That’s not to trash the other products we publish – they’re all important to us they make a difference to us every day.

If we go back to No More Heroes – the way we treated that in Europe – we thought that was absolute triple-A. It’s not Battlefield and TV advertising, that kind of thing, but that was a huge product for us, and a huge leap in profile, and a great product to work with. We put a lot on the line for it. It’s a different day, two or three years on, the big boys with their big gambles, and they always make money. It’s a tough business. We hope that amongst our lineup, we have a game that will catch fire and do very well.

How does RSG plan on making itself apparent in the digital space?

Some of this will be what’s going on in Europe, but that exposes itself to what will happen in the U.S. So in Europe that the moment we have a number of products on Xbox LIVE Arcade that have already been released as packaged games. Then we have products on the PlayStation Store. And then we have iterations of those games, whether they be follow ups or sequels, and then we also have themes and icons, all that stuff.

That’s our half-step into the digital space. The products we publish have a digital connection. Akai Katana will have two or four bits of downloadable content. And then a few months down the line, it [the entire game] will be released on Games on Demand.

If the question is, are we putting out product for the digital market only, we have one in Europe for the digital market only. It’s one called Blazing Souls, which Atlus published in the U.S. and is developed by Idea Factory. We don’t have an on-and-off packaging / digital strategy, at all. We still think there’s a lot of interest in the packaged business; we still think there’s a lot of mind in our business in publishing packaged games. We will evolve into the digital space, but it will be an evolution rather than a flip?

So you’re saying you think the industry will eventually become entirely digital?

Eventually. I can’t say how many number of years, though—

You really think so?

I don’t know, really. I don’t know that everybody is completely at one with just downloading them [games]. People want to have it in their hand, turn it around, have a look at what’s written on the back of the box, take it up to a counter, and pay some money for it. But that’s not everyone, that’s some people. Some other people are happy to have it downloaded, and off they go.

I’m not going to give you any wise industry sayings here. I’m uncertain, and I think a lot of people are uncertain – unless you’ve got big balls and are prepared to say this is what’s going to happen in a couple of years. I’m not one of those people.

I don’t know. That’s my very non-helpful, non-commital answer.

If a wealthy investor were to come to Rising Star and offer the company a ridiculous amount of money, but wanted good reason to invest, what would you tell him?

We’re profitable. That is a wise-ass answer, isn’t it?

Yeah, we make more money than a handful of big companies in the U.S. with their triple-A products and million dollar advertising. If somebody is going to put a lot of money into our business, I’ll show them the company is profitable. The other thing is, we have a passion for what we do and we have a very good team of people. Businesses are made up of people – I know that’s obvious but people forget that sometimes – and we have a good team of people who really do enjoy what we do. You’ll have to spend five minutes at Tyrone’s company [he was demoing Akai Katana] to find that out. And I have half a dozen people who are like that. I think we have a position in the market that we’ve grown over the last eight years where we have a good consumer brand, good consumer reputation, and those are tough things to come by.

I just hope we don’t mess up.

Getting a bit more personal, what have you been playing lately and what are you looking forward to?

Akai Katana [laughs]. I’ve been in the U.S. for a week and I’m fried with playing Akai Katana. I’m seeing bullets in front of my eyes every time I go to bed.

[laughs] Well, aside from your own games?

Well, we’ve been playing Skyrim a lot… damn, we played Skyrim a lot.

Enjoying it?

Yeah, you can’t not enjoy it, can you? It’s a nice product.

And then I’ve got a little boy, so we’ve been playing a lot of Wii games. He still likes his Mario stuff. There’s a lot of Pokemon going on at my house right now, now that I think about it. I’ve been away for a week, but yeah, a hell of a lot of Pokemon.

What are you looking forward to?

Can I say Akai Katana again? [laughs]

I’m looking foward to hardware. I’m looking forward to platform holders telling us what we’re going to do in the next couple of years. You know, it’s been too long. So I guess I’m looking forward to E3 and what they do there. Please do something there.

Would you say this generation has over-extended itself?

If you look back at the cycle, yeah, because this is the longest cycle, yeah.

But the guys at Xbox are saying there’s still market to be had. PlayStation will say the same things. But corporately they may have other plans. We’ve published probably more products on Nintendo platforms than anything else, and we’re big fans of Nintendo, so I’m really keen to find out what they’ll do with the Wii U this year and how the 3DS will evolve.

Thank you for your time, Martin!

Rising Star Games went on to tell us how astonished they were of the support they received after announcing their U.S. subsidiary; how they’re a small company that will talk to the fans directly (they publicly display their vice president’s e-mail on their corporate information page); and how their staff consists of fans themselves.

Rising Star’s first game localization to hit U.S. shores, shoot-em-up Akai Katana from Cave, is due for Xbox 360 this spring. Find out more about the game here. View a plethora of screenshots at the gallery.

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