Writing a Case Study
I joined Namco in 1987. Realizing that to increase relevancy with North American players, Namco would need a piece of the fighting game market. Observing the genre for years, I saw the potential from a business perspective. Like a SWOT analysis, I analyzed the top fighting games for their strengths and weaknesses, what opportunities could be exploited and what market forces were in play. Sources included player interviews, sales estimates, earnings reports and domain knowledge.
The main points in my report to Namco Japan:
- Head-to-head competition: Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter had firmly established the competitive fighting genre. The social interaction and competitive nature of these games were both infectious and empowering for players. Average playtime was short (2 min or less), meaning a high turnover and more money in the cashbox.
- Hand-to-hand combat with an emphasis on real-world fighting techniques: Close hand-to-hand fighting was more intense and drove higher moment-to-moment action. The long-range attacks in Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were to me less important.
- Skill-based, not a button-masher: Emphasize skill and technique. Easy enough to play for beginners, but empowering and deep enough for skilled players. Include depth in joystick and button combinations to create a wide variety of moves.
- Avoid gratuitous violence: Fighting was the main attraction, but be careful not to cross the line. Mortal Kombat went over the top with fatalities, where a fighter would rip out the spinal cord of an opponent as a final “piece de resistance”. Even Namco’s own Splatterhouse took it too far. The subject of violence in gaming was on center stage. Members of US Congress, media, cities and states were doing their best to moderate it through censorship and the closing of arcades. Some countries went so far as to ban games with excessive violence.
- Dark-themed, edgy look and feel: Mortal Kombat featured a dark, evil backdrop and story that was a large part of its appeal. This was in stark contrast to the often plastic, pastel-colored anime style found in Namco’s games. The ability to emotionally engage players was successful in Mortal Kombat and even Splatterhouse.
- Price and configuration: A list of competitive prices included Mortal Kombat II and Street Fighter II. Upright cabinets and kit games (PCB, game controls, artwork, documentation) were the core of the American market. The game had to be priced right to reach street locations.
- Arcade collection reports showed the dominance of the fighting game genre and specific fighting games in American game rooms. It was not just a passing fad.
NCL’s management was intrigued in the concept, but definitely not sold. Few American games ever succeeded in Japan. We shipped a Mortal Kombat II to Japan for testing, where to no surprise it failed. We used to think it was a conspiracy how Japanese players would reject American games. But the failed test planted a seed that would later prove beneficial. Japan has always been very good at taking something American and modifying it to become Japanese.
Come to Japan and Pitch the Idea
A week prior to the 1993 JAMMA Show, Frank informed me I would be joining the contingent visiting Japan. Together we would pitch the fighting game idea at the large group meeting. Masaya Nakamura, R&D and the sales department would attend this meeting. No pressure. An imposing figure, Mr. Nakamura commanded respect. Within the company, he’s referred to as “kaicho”, meaning “chairman”. He is regarded by many as the father of the Japanese video game industry.
In the meeting, my report was just one of many items on the agenda. It had already been distributed to the appropriate staff, so it was just a confirmation of key facts. The project was not verbally “green lit”, but we felt affirmation from the group. It was my first meeting with Mr. Nakamura, Toru Iwatani (Pac-Man) and Kazunori Sawano (Galaxian). That alone was hugely gratifying.
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