Three months ago, Koei-Tecmo revealed Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 (the latest in their spin-off series of volleyball sims featuring the cast of their Dead or Alive fighting games) and announced that they weren't planning to release it in the West unless they saw evidence that there was high demand for it. That evidence never materialised, and so the game isn't going to be release outside of Asia.
Normally that would be the end of the story, except for some reason someone at Koei-Tecmo decided to invoke the spectre of Western feminist criticism while explaining the decision on Facebook. I quote:
"Do you know many issues happening in video game industry with regard to how to treat female in video game industry? We do not want to talk those things here. But certainly we have gone through in last year or two to come to our decision. Thank you."
There's a certain degree of ambiguity surrounding the statement - it's not very clear how the treatment of women in the games industry relates to DoAX3 in the author's eyes, but the general consensus seems to be that they expect negative feedback from Western critics, and they are so unwilling to engage with criticism that they'd prefer not release the game at all.
It doesn't make much sense, really.
If you've never played a DoAX game before, you are far from alone. Fortunately I happen to own both previous games in the series - I've been saying for years that I bought them "for research purposes", and this very article has finally given me the opportunity to legitimise the shit out of that.
Let's begin with the obvious suspicion that they're making shit up, possibly to deflect their fans away from the disappointing truth that their virtual titty game just isn't popular enough to justify a worldwide release.
A lot of supposed DoAX fans - some of them legit, no doubt - have been crawling out the woodwork recently to wail about how DoAX2 sold twice as many copies in North America than it did in Japan, implying that it doesn't make sense to deprioritise a US release. I went looking for sales statistics, and according to VGChartz (who our tax exile accountant in Cambodia warns us are not always grounded in reality) this appears to be true - the game sold 140,000 copies in North America and 60,000 in Japan.
But when you dig a little deeper into the sales figures, you see that pretty much all those Japanese sales were made within the first ten weeks after launch. During the same timeframe, North America only managed 32,000 - just over half as many, and bear in mind this was at a time when the 360 was dominating in the US and barely getting off the ground in Japan.
I can't speak for everyone, but I know I bought my copy of the game for about £5 out of a clearance bin, and when you look at this pattern of very few sales during the launch period but then a steady climb in the following years, it suggests that many other people did the same thing. When retailers can only sell your game at rock-bottom prices, it really doesn't matter how many units they shift - you're not going to make much money off it.
While we're on the subject, the original DoAX sold almost 2.5x as many copies, so there's a pretty fierce downward slope on that front too.
Let's also reflect on the philosophy going into this game's design. The character roster for DoAX3 was determined by an online "election" held on the PSN Store. A set of character themes were released for the PS4 and PS Vita priced at $3 each, and the nine most popular characters were put into the game. This might sound like a weird take on democracy, but it's not so unusual in otaku circles - large JPop outfits like AKB48 often pack ballot papers in with their CDs to elect which members will feature on their future singles (which are then bought by the thousand by some of their more obsessive fans, in an effort to purchase a greater sense of control over the group).
Events like the election campaign mark DoAX3's development as a transparent effort to produce Profitable Content - in this case, by stuffing the game with only the most popular characters (and charging fans for the privilege of providing the feedback required to do so). To suggest that it is the result of anything other than utterly conventional product management is a joke. And the worst thing about this "crowdsourced design" bullshit is that it means Tina and her power spike didn't make it into the game.
Between the sales figures, the game's development process, and the fact Koei-Tecmo themselves brought it up three months ago, I think there's a pretty compelling case for this being purely a business decision. But clearly someone at Koei-Tecmo thinks Western criticism of the game was an issue worth talking about instead, for whatever reason. Could it be that they were being serious?
The thing I don't understand in all this is that the DoAX games simply aren't very controversial. Comparisons with the swimsuit issues of Sports Illustrated are apt - it's very open about its content and intentions, and it never gets any more vulgar than ogling pin-up girls in bikinis. There's no creepy sex scenes, or women being robbed of their agency - it's just a group of gal pals who go on a cool holiday together, buy each other presents, and play lots of volleyball. That's sort of... really great??
Okay, that's not the whole story. There's no denying that the games are absolutely sodden with male gaze - the thing that sticks in my mind are the creepy-as-hell photography scenes where your character reclines against a tree, or splashes around on the beach, or sunbathes by a pool, and you get to fly around the scene with a camera and take photos of their virtual curves glistening in the sun, but this kind of exploitative ethos runs through most of the game's presentation. The thing is, if you can look beyond this, there's really a lot to like. The original Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball is one the best sports games on the Xbox, and the most common complaint I hear about DoAX2 is that they removed the local multiplayer mode.
There was an article on US Gamer the other day talking about all this, which confirmed what had been on my mind - there simply isn't much criticism of DoAX. It's often brought up as an example of how women are represented in games in general, but I don't recall seeing many specific complaints about the game in the 9 years since its release. If you look through the Amazon reviews for DoAX and DoAX2, you'll notice they're far more concerned with pre-emptively waving away the sexist aspects of the game, rather than complaining about them.
Personally, I think the underlying design of the DoAX games is quite feminist - a melange of consensual competition and managing relationships. Your opponents aren't just one-dimensional enemies to be crushed, but potential allies; if you talk to them, learn about their likes and dislikes, buy them gifts and hang out with them between games, yesterday's opponent could become tomorrow's partner. They're much more rounded individuals than conventional gaming opponents, and that isn't just a funny joke about their heaving breasts.
In fact, I'd even say that these progressive mechanics are part of the reason why the game doesn't sell very well. There are a lot of people who are totally into perving on babes in biknis, but think that buying hats and maintaining a relationship with their volleyball partner is stupid and boring; similarly, there are a lot of people out there who would love a game where you go on holiday with your friends and play volleyball and hang out and stuff, but feel really put off by DoAX's voyeurism. The substance of the game doesn't match its presentation. What's striking is that many of those random Amazon reviewers reach the same conclusion - if they can see it, why can't Koei-Tecmo?
I don't have all the numbers to support this argument, but I think if you just substituted the Dead or Alive girls for the cast of Magic Mike, and kept everything else exactly the same, it would sell millions. Think about it... Kevin Nash played Bass in the Dead or Alive movie, and Tarzan in Magic Mike. And what is that, if not a sign from the universe?
What kind of criticism are they so afraid of anyway? I've read a lot of people going on about "SEXISM BACKLASH FEARS" and the like, and I still have no idea what that's supposed to mean - there's zero explanation as to what that phrase is describing, what form that backlash would take. Are they afraid feminists might stop buying voyeuristic titty games? I don't think they have much to worry about on that front. Is a critic going to say "this game is kinda sexist"? Oh no! Best not release it, guys!
And how on Earth is not releasing the game in the West supposed to prevent criticism? Especially when they're simultaneously advertising how easy it will be to import a region-free copy of the game from Asia with full English translation. Whatever risk lies in game critics having opinions about their game (*gasp!*) will be fully realised as soon as it comes out in Japan anyway. It's a completely facile argument and I'm kinda disappointed that anyone would take it seriously??
While we're on the subject of Shit Other People Have Written, I think this guy at Crave may be onto something by framing this whole episode as a bizarre (perhaps even accidental) marketing stunt. I can absolutely imagine that some fed-up Community Manager, sick of being pestered by fans who won't take "THESE GAMES DO NOT SELL" for an answer, making some throwaway excuse about Western critics as a kind of joke. But at this point in time - when this kind of remark is used to fuel harassment of progressive voices in the industry - I think it's irresponsible of Koei-Tecmo to let it stand. Spare a thought for their Western CMs, who now have to navigate this ridiculous minefield - "Yes, the game isn't coming out in the West; no, we don't blame feminist critics; yes, it still isn't coming out".
[02/12/15: A few days later, a more detailed retraction to the effect of "Our spokesperson doesn't speak for us"]
One other possible explanation for the game's Western non-release comes in the form of series newcomer Marie Rose. In case you're wondering who she is, take a look at the above promo pictures - she's the one who looks about 12 years old. It's okay though, because her in-game bio says this particular assemblage of polygons represents an 18-year-old, so it's all fine, yeah?
If the specific kind of Western criticism that put them off releasing the game relates to this, then yes, that was probably a good call - I expect most age rating bodies would have raised concerns. Although if the developers' plan for the future of the series is to double down on fans' taste for disturbingly young-looking characters at the cost of ruling out Western releases, that doesn't seem like a great strategy.
Incidentally, she won the character election.
Whichever way you slice it, this kind of shit would not have happened in Itagaki's day.
For the uninitiated, Tomonobu Itagaki was the head of Team Ninja (the developers of the Dead or Alive games, including the DoAX series) and the primary force of nature shaping their games. He likes ninjas, whisky, rock and roll, and sexy women, and all these things feature prominently in his games (well, the whisky usually went into the development process, rather than the games themselves). That might sound silly, but I think it's important to understand: the reason why Dead or Alive is full of sexy women is because Itagaki really likes sexy women, and he makes no apologies for that. For better or worse, his personality is stamped into the DNA of his games - for my money, he's up there with the likes of Peter Molyneux and Will Wright in the "design auteur" stakes.
So when he left the company in 2008, that obviously put Team Ninja in a difficult position. They're still making sequels to his games, but the absense of his personal touch is showing - it's hard to imagine him letting fans decide which characters to put in his game, for example. Without him on board, there's a real sense that these games are slowly going adrift. Can anyone imagine Team Ninja coming up with a concept like Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball without him? And, with that in mind, is it realistic to think they could reinvent the series in the face of falling sales? The real problem they face isn't Western criticism, but their lack of a clear direction in Itagaki's absence.
On the subject of Japanese developers' reaction to Western criticism, here's a weirdly prescient quote from a 2005 interview with the man:
"What is good about the Japanese people is that they are hard workers, and know themselves well. Nowadays, a lot of people here are forgetting such basic concepts. Most of them don't realise what they are capable of, and what they aren't capable of. This situation is resulting in criticism from Western game users. Under such circumstances, their minds close, and their vision gets narrower and narrower."
If Itagaki was still in charge, DoAX3 may or may not have had a Western release, but you can bet he wouldn't have made some limp excuse about wanting to avoid criticism.
The most mind-blowing thing about all this is that issuing a public statement to the effect of "We don't want to hear people say how sexist our game is" is probably the most interesting contribution Team Ninja have made to games culture since releasing the original DoAX twelve years ago.