Gematsu recently spoke to the upper echelon of United Games Entertainment, owner of the brands ININ Games and Strictly Limited Games, which have made a name for themselves localizing and publishing niche Japanese titles for the west, including the Cotton series, Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World, Darius Cozmic Revelation, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends: The Baron is Back, and more.
During our chat—with United Games Entertainment CEO Helmut Schmitz, CCO Roman Jud, head of publishing Dennis Mendel, and head of sales Dominik von Cetto—the group discussed ININ Games’ role in Japan, partnerships, desire to bring back more unheard-of titles, and more, as well as Strictly Limited Games’ role as a separate brand and how it differs from similar limited print physical game distributors.
Get the full interview below.
Gematsu: Clockwork Aquario will be the first Japanese game by ININ Games to be published in Japan by ININ Games itself. And as we understand, there are plans to open an office in Japan. What’s the timeline for that and will we see more first-release Japan titles from ININ in the future?
Roman Jud, CCO of United Games Entertainment: “We are really looking forward to publishing Clockwork Aquario in Japan since it is a hidden treasure that we will bring back to the Japanese gamers. There is a huge interest in the game, and we hope the gaming community will be happy when we finally release Clockwork Aquario just before the end of this year.”
Helmut Schmitz, CEO of United Games Entertainment: “It is too early to talk about plans for ININ, which is just one brand / label of United Games Entertainment, to open an office in Japan but we will consider it for the future if it helps to grow the business in the local market. And yes, there will be further releases, but I can’t give you any details yet.”
What’s ININ’s goal for the Japanese market? Are there any plans to localize western titles for Japan similar to how you localize Japanese titles for the west?
Schmitz: “Retro games and Japanese pop culture is in ININs DNA. Aside from Clockwork Aquario we have additional rights acquired for cult Japanese Arcade and console games from the 90s we are currently remastering. One of these franchises is Cotton, others can’t be disclosed yet. It is an honor to bring these titles also to the Japanese fans.”
With your feet now on the ground in Japan, are there any plans to establish a Japanese development studio?
Schmitz: “We loved to work with Japanese developers and artists for Clockwork Aquario and do so for the upcoming projects. Surely, we will intensify this in the future. A Japanese studio could be an option for us in the future.”
ININ Games has an ongoing partnership with Taito, publishing games like Dariusburst Cozmic Revelation, Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, and more overseas. Taito was also there for ININ Games’ debut as a publisher. How did talks begin with Taito and how did it grow into the deeper partnership that you have today?
Dennis Mendel, Head of Publishing for United Games Entertainment: “While I cannot go into details here (it’s like with the recipes of those beloved restaurant chains, they would never reveal them, would they? *wink*), we are greatly enjoying working with such great partners and of course we are happy that everything has developed so favorably since the first meeting in 2018.”
Has your partnership with Taito—a major Japanese company—helped ININ Games get its foot in the door with other publishers?
Mendel: “As someone who grew up with video game magazines (my mother ran a bookstore) and consoles imported from Japan (which resulted from having read all these magazines) I’ve always been interested in the Japanese game industry. To the extent that I studied Japanese at university and then focused on Japanese video game history as well as gaming literacy during my time in science. Of course, I am not the only one in our company with this passion and I think all this affection and the respect that we all have for video games in general and Japanese titles was and still is a powerful catalyst for great business relations.”
ININ Games has over 30 games planned for release between August 2021 and December 2021. What sort of new titles can we expect, and are any of them a “curveball” considering the types of games ININ Games has already released? Or is there anything you can tease?
Mendel: “ININ and Strictly Limited Games together have planned a great selection of titles for the coming months (some of them may slip to 2022), and I guess it would come as no surprise if I said that many of them will have their roots in Japan. We are also looking forward to some more announcements regarding Cotton after the great success of Cotton Reboot.”
Clockwork Aquario is a rare case of an abandoned title rescued. Is ININ Games looking into rescuing any other abandoned titles?
Mendel: “Before Aquario we salvaged Ultracore (formerly Hardcore) from DICE—another great title which shared a similar fate as it got cancelled in the 1990s due to 2D Mega Drive titles being regarded as outdated. As the video game industry seems to be even worse than the film industry when it comes to valuing their own products, there are still plenty of titles waiting for rescue and we hope we can continue to make our contribution to bringing more of those titles back to the place they belong.”
Is ININ Games considering bringing west any older Japanese games that never got a chance for a western release? There are some unlocalized PlayStation games that I’d love to see brought west for modern platforms like PlayStation 4 and Switch. London Seirei Tanteidan for starters… Oh, and Ryuichi Nishizawa told us he wants to bring back AURAIL…
Mendel: “There are indeed many fantastic titles that never got a western release before (just like Cotton) and we see it as an important part of our role as a publisher to make these gems available to gamers outside of Japan. Depending on the genre, these titles pose different challenges to our team.
“For example, with Aquario we had to restore a lot of graphics that could not be recovered from the source code. Fortunately, the original Westone developers were able to help us, but to work within the confinements of what the original hardware allows (in that case Sega System 18) is quite difficult. Everything needs to be programmed low-level.
“With text-intensive RPGs or visual novels the challenge lies more in providing a proper translation that sticks close to the original Japanese text without alienating its new audience. And then we must not forget that in many cases the original source code does not exist anymore which makes it even more complex to make alterations to these retro titles.
“Being in close contact with our customers is very important to us so if we hear that there is an actual demand for a certain title, then this will definitely help, so please keep the suggestions going. (London Seirei Tanteidan is a very interesting game indeed. *wink*)”
Are you currently working with any other Japanese publishers you haven’t announced publicly that you can tease?
Mendel: “It’s still too early to reveal more.”
—Darius Cozmic Revelation
Strictly Limited Games is a separate entity from ININ Games. While ININ publishes at retail, Strictly publishes at a strictly limited capacity. Why set up two separate distributors rather than, say, one distributor that releases everything at retail? Some decisions have also been a bit perplexing, such as Strictly publishing Dariusburst Cozmic Revelation, which includes both Dariusburst Another Chronicle EX+ and G-Darius HD, but ININ releasing each title individually for $40. What’s the reason behind these decisions?
Mendel: “Strictly Limited Games publishes games that are tailored to the gamers’ needs. By doing limited print sizes the risk is much more calculable and there is much more flexibility—let’s take for example adding the Japanese Sagaia (with Japanese in-game menu) to the western Switch version of Darius Cozmic Revelation.
“For a retail release on the other hand, the production costs are immense due to the high(er) print size and so is the risk that needs to be taken when bringing such a title to a broader audience. There hasn’t been a retail release of a Darius game in the west for many years, so nobody could foresee whether it would appeal to the market or not.
“It is always a balancing act of making the core gamers’ happy by providing them with very special releases handled by Strictly Limited Games, but also helping our partners through ININ to reach new audiences.
“The first is mostly about celebrating the games and tailoring products to fans’ wishes (as far as it is economically at least somehow feasible). For example when we created a completely new version of Sayonara Umihara Kawase together with the developer just to be able to realize a physical western release for the fans.
“The latter is about making it possible for our partners to think about sequels and new development by successfully selling their products and raising awareness for their works.
“As much as we enjoy our Collectors’ and Limited Editions in the here and now, history has taught us that it is equally important to think in the long-term to warrant that there will be future releases of the companies and developers we love.”
What is ININ Games’ relationship with Sega?
Mendel: “ININ, as a publisher, is always looking for great titles and IPs that can be brought to the North American and European market. In the case of Aquario, Strictly Limited Games and ININ took care of the development (i.e. restoration process and porting), so it is basically a licensed title from former Sega / Westone, which Strictly Limited Games (physical versions in the west) and ININ (digital downloads and Japanese physical edition) publish themselves. Sega is the distributor in Japan for ININ.”
—Wonder Boy: Asha in Monster World
ININ Games titles are available at retailers like Amazon and Walmart in the United States, with GameStop soon to come. What is the significance of that journey for a small publisher such as yourselves? What is the process of approaching these major retailers?
Dominik von Cetto, Head of Sales for United Games Entertainment: “It was not easy to start with almost nothing in hand, an unknown brand, without a product range or a great track record to attract the attention of distributors and retailers. Both in the United States and in Europe. Having a well-known partner like Taito definitely helped. We started by getting listed on Amazon, while in the United States we built a team of professionals who could showcase our titles to retailers on the ground. With a growing lineup, stronger titles, and very good reviews and customer ratings, we’ve been able to draw more attention to our catalogue and brand, making it more likely that we’ll get buyers’ approval. We are now listed with all major retailers and online stores in Europe, and continually expanding in North America. It’s an amazing feeling to build a brand from nothing and suddenly be able to find your titles in retail stores when you go shopping with your family.”
How does Strictly Limited Games differ from a company like Limited Run Games?
Schmitz: “Limited Run does a great job bringing digital titles to physical. Strictly Limited Games focuses on collectors. Each copy is individually numbered and there will be no re-prints in the future. And all games are exclusively available via Strictly Limited Games and not in retail chains.”
Mendel: “Being a collector myself, it is really great to see that so many limited print publishers are taking good care of preserving previous digital-only releases in physical form. One alone could never take care of all these wonderful titles. In addition to that we build a dedicated development team that allows us to take preservation to the next level by going on an exciting treasure hunt, looking for lost titles or hidden gems, buried by time. Now that we have seen the sheer pixel beauty of Aquario it has become even more clear to us that we must follow this route, and I don’t even dare to imagine such a historically important masterpiece to be lost forever.”
What image does ININ Games ultimately hope to craft for itself? What’s its philosophy?
Jud: “At ININ Games we do everything we can to bring the most interesting games to the broader public so everyone can enjoy the incredible diversity and hidden gems of game culture. The purpose of United Games Entertainment and therefore also ININ’s purpose is to give great games an immortal legacy.”
How many staff does ININ currently employ?
Schmitz: “ININ Games and Strictly Limited Games are working under the same ‘roof,’ but we have two separate core teams working for each of the two labels. It must be mentioned that we share services and admin staff at United Games Entertainment, which includes other brands beside ININ and Strictly Limited Games. We are growing fast now and have increased our staff considerably, but we also work with a range of external specialists and contributors to ensure success.”
What’s the next step for ININ? What are its major goals—or rather, where do you see the company in the next five years?
Schmitz: “We are very happy with the positive feedback we received for ININ so far. Since we started the publishing label in 2019, we have grown very quickly. In Germany, we are already among the top 25 international publishers. We want to achieve the same results in all countries where we are active and develop into one of the leading publishing labels in our segment.”
Ryuichi Nishizawa, creator of the Wonder Boy series and co-founder of Westone Bit Entertainment, also shared the following comment on working with United Games Entertainment on Clockwork Aquario:
Ryuichi Nishizawa, Game Creator: “Working with United Games Entertainment has been a very enjoyable experience, and the language barrier has not been too much of a problem as Dennis and the rest of the staff speak Japanese. Dennis has studied Japanese games and is very knowledgeable about them, which is always a surprise. I think he knows more about the games developed by Weston than I do. He has always had a strong love for games that radiates from his body, and his projects always seem to be full of dreams and hopes. That’s really great. I’d love to work with them again.”
Thank you for your time, everyone!