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A Sales Story | OT | E04 | Fire Emblem Awakening

E03 | Persona 5 New

Phantom Thief

The Ghost of Tsushima
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The story of Persona 5 is a fascinating one, for a multitude of reasons – not only does it mark one of those rare occasions where a cult classic property gains momentum through sheer word of mouth and fan evangelizing over a period of years, it is also one of the first games that showed there is still a market for full priced turn based games in the west, as well as a market for quintessentially Japanese content, after the rapid shift to western themed content that we saw in the HD era. The PS4 era has often been seen as a return to form for Japanese games (outside of the obvious exception of Nintendo products of course) – in a lot of ways, you can say Persona 5 is emblematic and representative of this by itself. It was an anime themed turn based JRPG set in the most Japanese of settings (the high school) and addressing social ills and issues in Japanese society. And yet, it ended up becoming one of the most beloved games of the modern era (and indeed, of all time).

This is the story of how that happened.

THE CONTEXT

The story of Persona 5 does not begin with Persona 5 – you’d actually have to go back ten years in time to get to the start of the line that can be traced through to Persona’s eventual mainstream success. In 2006, after a more than half a decade long hiatus for the series, Atlus released Persona 3 for the PlayStation 2, a total rethinking and structural reboot of the IP that had given them their most successful game to date. Persona 3 was fairly successful – its game sales weren’t that high (in part because it came in the middle of the decade of “gamer drift”, a phenomenon in the Japanese market that Ishaan covered well in the previous episode), in part because Atlus was still a small company developing low budget niche games with little to no marketing, and probably because the Japanese market was in the midst of multiple transitions – the transition to HD gaming and the PS3, the transition to blue ocean console gaming with the Wii, and the transition to portables with the DS and PSP.

Nonetheless, Persona 3 ended up doing well enough. Most importantly, it provided a lot of merchandising and trans media opportunities to Atlus, opening up a whole new avenue for revenue for the company – and kickstarting what would snowball into Persona becoming what it eventually did.

Persona 3’s western release was generally well-received as well, and Atlus followed up P3 relatively quickly with Persona 4 (releasing in Japan in mid 2008, and the west at the tail end of that same year, more than two years after the PS3 had launched).

Persona 4 did pretty well in Japan – but it underperformed relative to expectations pretty severely in the west, which had moved on from the PS2 far quicker than Japan had (the transition from the PS2 would end up being arguably the most eventful generational transition Japan has seen to date).

In spite of its poor performance in the west, however, Persona 4 became a beloved cult classic. It had won rave reviews, and almost everyone who played it recommended it wholeheartedly. Longform Let’s Plays (remember when those were a thing?) such as Giant Bomb’s further contributed to the game’s popularity, and the anime adaptation and Persona 4 Arena both kept it in the limelight, albeit as a decidedly niche, cult hit property.

Until the PlayStation Vita.

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Arguably the biggest beneficiary of the failed Vita was not Sony, but Atlus – more specifically, Persona. Even more specifically, Persona 4 Golden. An enhanced re-release of the 2008 game (much in the vein of Persona 3 FES and Persona 3 Portable), Persona 4 Golden released exclusively for the Vita relatively early on in its life cycle, and it would go on to become the system’s signature game, as well as its highest rated one to this day. Persona 4 Golden sold well in Japan, but it marked the first time on record that a mainline Persona game posted more sales from the west than it did in Japan. It also ended up contributing to a massive lift in awareness for the series’ profile. It was the game to get with the PS Vita (a system that was otherwise lacking in must-own games for most of the market), and winning rave acclaim like Persona 4 Golden had, a lot more people suddenly found themselves aware of this niche Japanese role playing game series.

FROM REVEAL TO LAUNCH

The rave acclaim and sudden limelight for Persona 4 Golden, combined with the zealously evangelical fanbase that would not stop talking about how incredible this game (and indeed, this series) was, as well as a slew of spinoff and transmedia releases, kept Persona in the limelight for years. Overwhelmingly positive coverage from mainstream western outlets increased the hype and profile for the series – and right in the middle of all this, Atlus finally announced Persona 5, as a PS3 exclusive, due out in late 2014.


From the very first real showing, Persona 5 caught everyone’s attention. It helped that it looked overwhelmingly stylish to a frankly absurd degree – even the menus looked like they were dripping with style and movement. The sense of style, character designs, striking color scheme, the quick battles, and the Phantom Thief-esque superhero story trappings about trying to fix a broken society bound by the corruption and inertia of the generations that had come before, all made the game seem instantly captivating and arresting.

Persona 5 ended up getting delayed numerous times, but in the end, even that ended up working in its favor. The delays meant that it would also launch on PS4 alongside PS3 (the first time a new mainline Persona game had released on a “current” system since the original), and the repeated delays, combined with the tantalizing showings for it, just fomented hype even further. Persona 5 was topping lists of the most anticipated game of the year every year from mainstream western outlets such as Game Trailers, over major titles such as Final Fantasy XV and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. All eyes were now on the game. A decade of word of mouth, evangelizing, and slew of quality releases, meant that the timing was right. Now all that was left was for Persona 5 to actually deliver on its promise.

THE RELEASE – PERSONA 5 DELIVERS ON ITS PROMISE

Persona 5 released in Japan in September 2016. Among other things, it benefitted from a last-minute delay of the eagerly awaited Final Fantasy XV, an opening that allowed it to sell 550,000 copies in Japan across the PS3 and PS4 – finally breaking the record for fastest selling game in the series held by the original Persona game until Persona 5. Those sales also represented something else, something that was vanishingly rare in Japan at the time, and still remains rare for the PlayStation ecosystem – it represented a series not in decline, but actively growing. In a generation that saw so many long running franchises see some pretty severe declines in Japan (including, but not limited to, Final Fantasy, Tales, Yakuza, Resident Evil, and Metal Gear Solid), Persona saw growth, and pretty convincing growth at that.

Persona 5’s true success, and what established it as a big player, however, came with the western release. The long awaitedwestern release finally happened in April 2017. The game launched, as expected, to incredible reviews, with its 93 at the time making it stand out in a ridiculously crowded release window and suddenly drawing more eyes to it. Rather than getting drowned out in a release period which included titles such as Resident Evil 7, Ghost Recon Wildlands, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Mass Effect Andromeda, as well as other niche Japanese IPs, including Nioh, Nier Automata, and Yakuza 0, as well as a major heavy hitting PS4 exclusive from Sony in the guise of Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5’s incredible quality and reviews led to insane word of mouth, and extremely strong sales, as well as mainstream end of year awards consideration.

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Out of the gate, Persona 5 sold strongly, with Atlus announcing just days after its western release that global sales had reached 1.5 million. Unlike most JRPGs, Persona 5 also exhibited ridiculously long legs. By the end of 2017, global sales stood at 2 million units. By the end of 2019, sales had risen to 3.2 million units globally. Persona 5 was selling massive numbers, far bigger than anyone may have imagined from a turn-based anime styled entry in a niche series that is dripping with how quintessentially steeped in Japanese society and culture it is.

Those numbers only continued to go up. Persona 5 Royal, the enhanced re-release for P5, released on the PS4 in Japan in 2019, and while the system choice kept its Japanese performance relatively muted, its incredible reviews (it has a 95 on Metacritic, making it the single highest rated JRPG of all time, and one of the highest rated games ever) caused it to see strong sales in the west. The reviews, as well as the series being a known quantity by now, plus stronger localization efforts (Persona 5 Royal becoming the first Atlus game to get a proper EFIGS localization, suddenly opening up entirely new markets for it) led to surprisingly sharp sales results for what was ultimately a re-release – with 1.8 million units sold as of June 2021, bringing the total for Persona 5 to 5 million copies.

LEGACY – THE “PERSONA 5 MOMENT”

Persona 5’s success suddenly made the brand a hot commodity, and the series’ profile was irrevocably raised, to the point that a full-priced re-release like Royal sold almost 2 million units, and spin-offs like Persona 5 Strikers sold 1.5 million (becoming among the highest selling games in Atlus’ history – the brand was so strong now that a Persona 5 spin off was outselling almost every other game Atlus had ever made). Persona 5’s imagery became iconic and essentially shorthand (to this day, look at how many JRPGs and anime styled games get described relative to Persona 5), with everything from its color scheme, music, characters, story, to, yes, the aforementioned menus, becoming embedded in gaming and enthusiast culture.

Its popularity is reflected not only in the sales numbers or the reviews, or the performance of the spin-offs – but also in the reaction that Persona 5’s protagonist, Joker, coming to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate elicited. Or the relentless requests for the game to be ported to other systems (to date it remains a PS4 exclusive) that continue day in and day out. Persona 5 ended up becoming somewhat of a fixture of “nerd culture” (such as it is), and became a standard bearer for its genre to such a degree that comparing things to Persona 5 has almost become a meme – a bit like “the Dark Souls of __” or “the BOTW of __”.

Atlus suddenly found their profile raised too, with a lot more attention and scrutiny being placed upon what had until P5 been a small publisher of niche products. Major Atlus games and products now get all eyes on them from the get go, because “from the makers of Persona 5” kind of demands your attention. A rising tide lifts all boats, and Persona 5’s incredible success and Atlus’ enhanced profile ended up trickling down to their other games as well – in addition to the already mentioned Persona 5 Strikers, Shin Megami Tensei V ended up selling over 1 million units in less than six months (a result flat out unimaginable for the IP until just a few years ago), and the belated PC port of Persona 4 Golden also sold a million units.

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The fact that so much of Persona 5’s success came from outside of Japan was extremely important as well. It opened Atlus’ eyes to the fact that there is a huge market for its games outside of Japan as well, leading to Atlus’ efforts to have simultaneous releases for their games, and also for them to start exploring multiplatform development. How those initiatives bear out for Atlus remain to be seen in the long run. In various ways, Atlus has experimented with both already – SMTV was their first simultaneous global release, albeit Nintendo assisted them with it, while Persona 5 Strikers, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, and SMT: Nocturne HD were all simultaneous multiplatform releases – albeit all outsourced to external parties. Atlus’ first fully internally developed and published simultaneous global and multiplatform release is Soul Hackers 2, a new game by them hoping to launch Soul Hackers as a flagship brand that sits besides Persona and SMT. Whether or not it ends up being successful, however, is going to bear no reflection on Persona 5’s place in history.

This was a game and IP that brute forced its way out of niche obscurity to mainstream success and acclaim on the back of nothing but its intrinsic quality, and insane fan goodwill earned over a decade of great releases, with very little marketing or support from either the publisher or platform holder of the system the game was going to release on. We have not seen anything like it happen since, and who knows when it will happen again.

That’s the thing about a “Persona 5 moment”. It happens organically, it can’t be manufactured.
 
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E04 | Fire Emblem Awakening New

alpaca_apple

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"The Emblem series isn't making the numbers, so this is going to be the last one."

Looking at the sales numbers and popularity of the Fire Emblem series today, it might be hard to believe the series was on the verge of death a little over ten years ago. The latest release, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, has 3.4 million total sales as of December 2020. During the Game Awards of 2019 there was a 100% fan-voted award where users would decide their favorite game of the year out of 30 selected titles in a competitive vote; Fire Emblem: Three Houses was the winner of the first Player's Voice award. In 2021 around 50,000 Japanese citizens voted for their favorite TV videogame software throughout the years, Fire Emblem: Three Houses receiving an impressive 23rd place of the top 100 games revealed. Clearly, across the world there is appeal and a sizable following for Fire Emblem games currently. Looking back there’s one factor that altered the course of this franchise into its growing popularity- and its name is Fire Emblem Awakening.



Context

With the GameCube, the Fire Emblem series had made its triumphant return to home consoles after three GBA titles. Path of Radiance had required more time and money to develop compared to the portable games, and unfortunately hadn’t sold better despite the increased cost. It sold 100,357 copies in its first week in Japan. That game would receive a sequel Radiant Dawn which was developed for Wii hardware instead. When producing a sequel game, one would assume that development and production cost would be reduced due to returning characters, reusing assets, maps and mechanics, etc. However developing for the Wii had required the developers at Intelligent Systems to scale up, doubling its staff, just to produce the title. Despite the increased effort Radiant Dawn released on Wii to first week sales of 73,337 in Japan.

The next two Fire Emblem games had smaller budgets and moved back to portable systems, with Fire Emblems 11 and 12 being Shadow Dragon and New Mystery of the Emblem. These were remakes of the 1st and 3rd FE games, with the original Mystery of the Emblem being the bestselling FE of the franchise before the series was localized. These remakes were also released on the Nintendo DS, a gaming system flying off the shelves worldwide. Despite these boons, Japan’s first week sales of both titles was 147,704 for Shadow Dragon and 147,045 for New Mystery of the Emblem. Overseas Nintendo didn’t bother translating the 12th FE game, New Mystery of the Emblem.

After seeing the sales trend of the recent FE games Shinji Hatano, the former head of Nintendo’s sales department, gave the development staff at Intelligent Systems his verdict. "The Emblem series isn't making the numbers, so this is going to be the last one."

If the thirteenth title of the Fire Emblem franchise did not sell at least 250,000 units, the series would come to an end.



Awakening

With their backs against the wall, the developers at Intelligent Systems discussed at length various ideas of what a final Fire Emblem should be. When looking at the number of copies sold for the Radiant FEs and the recent DS titles, they all sold similarly despite being on different systems with very different budgets. From this, one can concur that IS was able to capture and sell to the core FE fanbase who bought and supported each title in the series. But what could the developers do to improve Fire Emblem's selling power and capture a new, larger audience?

One direction was to move away from the old look of Fire Emblem, an example shared by staff was to set the next FE on Mars instead of being in medieval times. Moving away from the look of Fire Emblem games of the past also could be interpreted as utilizing an art direction for this final title that separated it from its predecessors and had the potential to bring in a new audience to Fire Emblem. The team at IS had a difficult time deciding what road to take but ultimately the idea that landed was to make a culmination of the series’ best features. After all, if this was the very last Fire Emblem game, the developers wanted to include their favorite features from the series’ long history.

Some notable inclusions and the Fire Emblem game its from:
  • Casual Mode (where there is no permanent death of units) -FE12
  • Character Creation -FE12
  • Marriage and Child Units -FE4
  • Skill System -FE4
  • Traversable world map -FE2
  • Multiple promotion options -FE2
  • Support conversations -FE6
  • Weapon forging system -FE9

Wanting to have a fresh start to the franchise, the team went with Awakening as the name. To have Awakening’s art direction be distinct from previous Fire Emblem titles the staff brought Toshiyuki Kusakihara as art director and Kozaki Yusuke in as character designer and illustrator, two people who had little to no involvement with Fire Emblem before Awakening. Additionally, there was a stronger focus on the characters in Fire Emblem Awakening through the new Pair Up mechanic easily forming bonds between units with quirkier personalities.


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By combining beloved strategic features from past games which would satisfy longtime FE fans with a new, more contemporary art style with endearing characters that should capture a wider audience's interest into the Fire Emblem series, the developers at IS laid every chip on the table- bet everything and used all they had- to make Awakening.


Reception, Release, and Legacy

Fire Emblem Awakening was announced in September at Nintendo's 2011 3DS Conference with the first trailer shown at Tokyo Game Show that year.



The critical reception to Awakening was filled with high praise. Many critics were grateful for the inclusion of Casual Mode which lowered the entry bar of difficulty, while others commended the game for its story and characters. Overall, the title was recognized for its high production values while retaining strategic challenges and accommodations for people new to strategy games. Awakening is still the highest rated Fire Emblem title on Metacritic with a 92 metascore.

When the game released in April of 2012 in Japan the initial sale figures were staggering- Awakening was the fastest selling Fire Emblem in the series history, selling 81% of its initial shipment. With first week sales of 242k units it was fair to say the development team had ensured that the Fire Emblem series would not be canceled. Sales numbers overseas matched the fervor in Japan for Fire Emblem Awakening. In North America the game sold 180,000 units in the first month, which was the best first month sales for the franchise in NA.
As of December of 2020 Fire Emblem Awakening has reached total sale numbers of 2.33 million units, the first title in the series to surpass 1 million units sold.
The success of the game led to a revival of interest in the series and green-lit two games immediately; Awakening's successor game, Fire Emblem Fates, and an enhanced remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, eventually being named Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Additionally when DeNA and Nintendo partnered to create mobile games, Fire Emblem was chosen as the 2nd Nintendo property to be represented on mobile. Fire Emblem Heroes is the top-grossing mobile gaming title owned by Nintendo, generating close to $1 billion in revenue in 5 years since launch.


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To restate the beginning statement, it can be difficult to believe that in 2010 this franchise could have been shelved for good due to low sales numbers.

The work Intelligent Systems put into Awakening was the turning point of the series, by taking a risk through changing the art direction of Fire Emblem and placing their focus on the characters, as well as providing easier options to play the game, the bar of entry was lowered significantly and the scope of consumers increased as well. The success of Awakening may have saved its franchise’s future, but it also provided an example of a SRPG that sold well in Japan and overseas. Without Fire Emblem Awakening and future FE games sparking consumer interest in the genre, new SRPG titles like Team Asano’s Triangle Strategy and Square Enix’s The Diofield Chronicle may not have been greenlit for production. As videogames get more expensive to develop it makes logical sense for larger publishers to create fewer titles that appeal to the widest variety of people, like funding an open world RPG instead of a game from a less popular genre.
The fact that Fire Emblem Awakening was a game so successful that it revitalized not only its franchise but a dying genre makes its Sales Story one to be remembered.


If you're still interested in learning more about Fire Emblem Awakening, I would recommend reading through the Iwata Asks for FE Awakening and Fates found here. The First Week numbers used in the Context Section was sourced from the Game Data Library, linked below as well. A table organizing the sale figures of all the Fire Emblem titles is in the fourth link, and a comment and link below that about FE's history:
There's a fantastic summary of the Fire Emblem series history by StardustTraveler just a few posts below this one (Post #104 of the thread). Highly recommend those who are curious about the FE franchise to read through it, Fire Emblem has quite an interesting past and this Sales Story only focused on a small piece of it!
 
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