The Journey To Make Dragon Quest Thrive In The West
The Dragon Quest series has a long, rich history, starting with its impact on the early console RPG genre, providing a turn-based template and style that would define Japanese RPGs for years to come. The franchise has reached its share of milestones, including its 30 year anniversary, making it the longest-running JRPG franchise. Despite these achievements, the series still hasn’t conquered the Western market, never reaching the height of popularity as Square Enix’s other major properties, such as Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Dragon Quest is such a cultural phenomenon in Japan that it launches on weekends so kids don’t skip school for it, was the first video games series to receive live-action ballet adaptations, and even has a whole restaurant devoted to it called Luida’s Bar in Roppongi. While it will probably never reach this level of fanfare in North America, the team hasn’t given up on Dragon Quest making an impact here and the upcoming XI is Square Enix’s next chance to turn the tides.
The Ups And Downs
Dragon Quest hasn’t had consistent showings in North America, with sales and review scores fluctuating. Early on, Nintendo Power had a promotion giving away copies free copies of Dragon Warrior as a way to introduce American gamers to the series and garner their interest in role-playing games in general. PS1’s Dragon Quest VII, which was still under the Dragon Warrior branding due to trademark issues, was when things first started shifting in a more positive direction. Square Enix continued to lure in Western gamers by including a PS2 demo for Final Fantasy XII with the purchase of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (the first game to use the Dragon Quest name stateside) and had mall tours to promote the game.
The series began selling better with the last few mainline entries; Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies broke new ground selling over 1 million copies between US and Europe. This was encouraging progress, but Square Enix had stopped publishing the remakes and spin-offs long before IX, with Nintendo picking up the mantle since 2011 for the Dragon Quest VI remake and Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 spin-off. Neither company attempted to release MMORPG Dragon Quest X stateside, though.
The reason the series has also been in limbo is most likely the time investment and cost of localization. Dragon Quest games are extremely text heavy, and creator Yuji Horii spends a lot of his own time making sure the translation is how he intended it to be, right down to his dad jokes. Because of this, new entries have often taken some time to make it to our shores. “It has a disadvantage in that way,” says produce producer Yuu Miyake. “It’s really the speed of localization; it takes a long time because of how the game is and the text by Mr. Horii is a very important part of the game and appeals to the fans. Obviously, we have to look at making that process shorter and more efficient.”
Miyake shares an estimate of Dragon Quest VII’s text count, which was 1.2 million Japanese characters and says XI is just over double that with 2.4 million. “For the quality of the translation, the translators really have to understand the world itself and get it just right,” Miyake says. “We really do make sure to add the accents of the people in the world to make it work for each individual region.”
Dragon Quest XI will be the first mainline entry published by Square Enix since VIII in North America. Why the change of heart for a series without a great track record alongside a laborious task of localizing a game packed with content that lasts players anywhere from 80-120 hours? A different market and more prep work by Square Enix to reintroduce the Dragon Quest name in North America is giving the series better odds than it’s ever had before.
Leading Up To XI
It’s entirely possible that Dragon Quest faces the same fate it always has in North America, continuing to foster a niche but dedicated fanbase but never making a splash with the larger audience. However, this time things could change with various aforementioned factors changing the playing field. Speaking with the development team in the ramp up to XI’s launch has shown me a positive and hopeful attitude about the series’ future in the West. The developers honestly look at this as a new beginning for the franchise – a chance to appeal to a new, modern audience alongside its diehard fans.
The last few years have been spent slowly reintroducing the Dragon Quest brand to Western gamers, with Square Enix publishing mobile ports of earlier entries and spin-off games such as Dragon Quest Heroes and Dragon Quest Builders. It helps that Nintendo has continued to bring over the remakes, such as the much desired VII and VIII for the 3DS.
To its advantage, the RPG market is also completely different than when Dragon Quest VIII launched on PS2; it’s not nearly as competitive and handhelds became a cheaper alternative as development costs rose. The amount of JRPGs on the PS2 was massive to the point where it was a case of quantity over quality, making it easy for any game without a big name to get lost in the shuffle. We don’t have JRPGs debuting at nearly that rate now, making plenty of gamers pine for the genre to thrive again. Square Enix has certainly caught on to this, launching games like Star Ocean V and I am Setsuna that feed our nostalgia for beloved series and RPG design. It helps that a selling point is also it’s a mainline Dragon Quest game on home console, which we haven’t seen in over a decade. According to the team, Horii was adamant about bringing the series back to the big screen. That being said, the team is fully aware of where Dragon Quest currently stands in North America and wants to change its relevance with XI’s release. “From our point of view, [the series is] still not where it needs to be [in the West],” Miyake says.
Staying True To The Series
In many ways, Dragon Quest XI is a celebration of the long-running franchise, a culmination of everything the series has been building toward. It was crafted with plenty of callbacks as its developers stuffed as much as possible from the series’ history into one game for the 30th anniversary. “Something that’s special is you have the same three people, this dream team of the music from [Koichi] Sugiyama, [Yuji] Horii’s story writing, and [Akira] Toriyama’s art style. It’s been the same guys making the games for over 32 years and the fact that they can keep bringing up the motivation to make these games over this [long] period,” Miyake says.
While critics have said the entries don’t make drastic changes or evolutions from one game to the next, the creators are comfortable enough to let Dragon Quest embrace its simplicity and the mechanics that made it such a popular and important series in RPG history. The core philosophy has always been that anyone can pick up and play a Dragon Quest game, making it appeal to a wide range of gamers. With those values in mind, don’t expect it to stray from its roots or shake up its formula like Final Fantasy XV did. It also doesn’t mean abandoning its turn-based battle system or silent protagonist either. The latter is something Horii is adamant about keeping. “The whole idea is that the player, themselves, becomes the protagonist, becomes the hero,” Miyake explains. “If we have a written line and the player thinks they wouldn’t say that, it breaks the immersion there.”
After changing the series’ presentation with VIII, having a main game on handheld, and creating an MMORPG, Dragon Quest XI is more of a homecoming. “It’s going back to its roots in a lot of ways, which makes it feel fresh for us too,” Miyake says. “It’s got a certain level of nostalgia about it that I think people are looking for in games,” adds producer Hokuto Okamato.
The series wants to retain its classic gameplay, and the big lure this time around was just creating an entry by using the technological advances of the hardware to upgrade the graphics and provide a more realistic world. “We put in monster habitats, upped the amount of enemies you find on the field, and the ways the villages move and interact," Miyake says.
Dragon Quest XI launches on September 4 for PS4 and PC, with a Switch version coming at a later date. As for the latter, which isn’t even out in Japan yet, all Okamato would say is “We’ll make it. We’ll make it. Don’t worry.” The North American version comes with a few enticing extras, such as English voice overs, a hard mode, and a dash function. This year at E3, the recent trailer and demo generated a lot of buzz for the series. People are taking notice, spreading the word via social media. The team is delighted by the reception. The game sold well in Japan, but it really looks at North America as a whole other ballgame – one they want to win.
Perhaps the story is shifting and Dragon Quest XI will be the game-changer for the franchise’s popularity in North America. That also leaves it with a heavy weight to bear, trying to retain its classic vibe and still tantalize new and modern fans. “I’m very confident we’ll be able to satisfy old-school fans and what they’re looking for,” Miyake says. “But at the same time, I think a lot of new players will also come in and I think those new players will not see it as something old-fashioned or outdated, and they will be able to accept it and play it as a modern game.”
As a longtime fan of the series, I know I’m rooting for XI, hoping it sets a new high bar for the franchise and proves that these niche experiences still have value. Who knows? Maybe it pulls a Persona 5 and brings the series into the mainstream consciousness. For now, we can only keep our fingers crossed.
For more on Dragon Quest XI, check out our recent gameplay impressions.