Gaming: why Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 doesn't travel well

The absence of a Western release of the latest in the salacious and scantily clad beach volleyball series has caused controversy – but such sensitivity isn’t censorship

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2015, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 December, 2015, 5:46pm

Ten years ago, Japanese video game publisher Tecmo had a brilliant money-spinning idea. It decided to take the female characters from its successful fighting game series Dead or Alive and put them into a beach volleyball simulation set on a tropical island. There would be a lot of bikinis and, thanks to a graphics engine that was then at the cutting edge, a lot of bounce physics. Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball sold hundreds of thousands of copies. A new gaming franchise was born.

But now that same franchise is in trouble. Kind of.

In November, a community moderator on the Dead or Alive Facebook page was answering questions about the possibility of a Western release for Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, the latest title in the series. The staff member informed fans that an official release was unlikely outside of Japan and Asia, and when pushed on the reasoning wrote: “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.”

In other words, it seemed to some that Koei Tecmo’s decision not to release the game in the West was due to fears of a feminist backlash. This seemed to be confirmed later when a moderator on Koei Tecmo Europe’s Twitter account, added support for the statement.

Unsurprisingly, the minor revelation was leapt on both by fans of the series and by libertarian cultural critics, who quickly blamed “social justice warriors”for inhibiting freedom of speech (and bikini wear) thanks to their incessant hand-wringing over sexism in the games industry. Internet forums and gaming Subreddits enthusiastically linked the “announcement”with Nintendo’s recent decision to change some of the skimpy outfits in Wii U titles Xenoblade Chronicles X and Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water for Western release. To some, it was a sure sign that authoritarian lefties were imposing their killjoy values on the industry.

But of course, things aren’t quite that simple. For a start, Japanese publishers have always edited explicit video game content for Western audiences. Back in 1991, the original version of Final Fantasy IV featured a semi-naked dancer who was fully clothed for the US release, while popular Mega Drive brawlers such as Streets of Rage III and Mystic Defender saw scantily clad female characters dressed more modestly in Western versions. This is not a new phenomenon.

It’s also not one guided purely by fears of a moral backlash. There is a historic awareness that Western markets aren’t as exposed to the mass of anime and manga that heavily inform gaming content in Japan, and which comfortably embrace many seijin (adult) subgenres that often seem weird beyond the domestic market. Indeed, when games like Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball are appraised in the West, it tends to take place beyond the context of Japan’s wider otaku culture – a culture of somewhat obsessive fandom. “The women in DoA belong in a particular niche – it’s the characters themselves that are popular,”argues sociologist Casey Brienza, who has written extensively on manga and anime. “There’s a huge culture around what are called ‘character goods’ – things like Hello Kitty – which become multiplied across different media, from comics to action figures.

“There are fetishes around physical types, like girls with big breasts, or around particular clothing or personality types, like the girl next door; there’s a fetish around girls who wear glasses (meganekko), and blue hair became popular after the success of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion … That’s why these video games are made – they cater to particular fans of very specific tropes. People who write academically about this in Japan focus on the way that [in otaku culture] the symbolic is often reiterated outside of any narrative frame. DoA is a good example of that: unlike, say, the Final Fantasy adventures, there’s no real story, it’s just about the characters – that’s the appeal.”

According to Brienza, this kind of introverted, compartmentalised sexuality has its roots in the vast sociological changes that have taken place in Japan over the past 30 years. “I think it’s about how unequal the country has become, gender-wise,”she says. “Women are still expected to quit their jobs when they get married and become full-time homemakers – however, the concept of lifetime employment has broken down and that puts pressure on both men and women; the stereotype of man as sole breadwinner and the woman at home taking care of the kids doesn’t work financially. And because the country is still so rigid, it just means that young people don’t have serious relationships. They can’t make it work.”

The effects of this sociocultural crisis are manifested through pop culture. A popular manga genre for young women, for example, is Yaoi or “boy’s love”, in which young male characters indulge in homosexual relationships. “What’s appealing about it is that there are no women in the story,”says Brienza. “If you want a romantic fantasy, the culture is so rigid that a lot of young women cannot imagine a truly equal heterosexual relationship with a romantic partner.”

The equivalent for young men is the moe subgenre in anime, manga and games, where the focus is on the sweetness and innocence of the protagonist and the protective feelings those qualities engender. It is, according to Brienza, a direct response to the rise of the career woman, who doesn’t necessarily want to marry or have children. “That sort of femininity is threatening because the expectation is that you, as the man, will be the sole breadwinner and if you’re not, you’ve somehow failed,”she says. “In moe, we’re seeing the characters becoming younger and younger, but the attraction is not sexual, it’s sort of like the feeling you get when you see a puppy – ‘oh my god, it’s so cute’ – but for guys. These characters evoke care and cuteness; it’s as though sex itself has become too threatening.”

There are elements of moe appeal in the Dead or Alive Xtreme series. The characters are overtly playful, they giggle and pose like kids, and the gameplay involves helping to manage their friendships and holiday activities – like virtual pets. (Indeed, the extremely young appearance of one character, Marie Rose, may be a key factor in Koei Tecmo’s decision not to publish in the West.) However, the series fits more obviously into the ecchi genre, which refers to manga, anime or games with a softcore, playful sexual nature. It’s these titles that often make it across to the West, usually via specialist publishers like PQube, Idea Factory and NIS America. Titles like the beat ’em up Akiba’s Trip, the card strategy sim Monster Monpiece and the fighting game Senran Kagura are all strong genre experiences – but the emphasis is on female characters who tend to shed clothing as battles progress.

Geraint Evans is head of marketing at PQube and helped oversee the company’s translation of the controversial Senran Kagura. He feels that these titles are often unfairly critiqued in the West. “The pretty girls aspect does play a major part, but it’s not the entirety of the game,” he says. “The overall atmosphere isn’t about sex, it’s more about happiness, colour and cuteness. From the outside looking in, however, it’s easy to dismiss those games as titillation.

“If you look at DoA X3, I’m not going to pretend that the women aren’t the main focus, but it’s also the fact that they’re in this fantastical paradise environment – the skies are a deep blue, it’s almost like a holiday. It’s a breath of fresh air, a move away from the endless man murder of Call of Duty. Compare a Western role-playing game like Fallout, which is bleak and gory, to a Japanese RPG, which may have those sexy elements in them, but is as much about love and happiness. They’re a welcome alternative to the gritty realism that Western games seem to be obsessed with.”

So Koei Tecmo’s decision not to publish in the West can be read as the continuation of a cultural understanding – that mainstream Western audiences see games like DoA Xtreme in a very different way to domestic fans. But there are also commercial realities to think of. Although the original Xtreme Beach Volleyball sold well, its successor was a comparative flop, shifting an estimated 150,000 copies in North America and 30,000 in Europe. Funding a Western launch for a third title would be a big risk.

“You often know there’s an audience for these games, but you can never prove how big it is,”says Martin Mathers, a project coordinator at Rising Star, another publisher specialising in cult Japanese titles. “The problem is, minority audiences are the loudest so it looks like there’s a market – then you take a risk and it turns out there isn’t. Alternatively, you may find the audience will wait until the game is discounted. With DoA X2, UK sales were just 30,000 copies, but that’s not day one, that’s lifetime. You have to think about how many copies are sold at a budget price.

“The thing is, Japanese studios generally want minimum guarantees – they ask for a hell of a lot of money upfront [for publishing rights]. Then you have packaging and distribution – and the fact that there’s a minimum number of discs that the manufacturer will print. Finally, you have the retailer cut – and that’s after convincing stores that it’s a game worth taking. You have all those costs to factor in. Then you put it out for £40, but the audience only wants to pay £20.”

What this really isn’t is a freedom of speech issue – even though some fans are trying to make it into one. A corporation that decides to alter content or withhold its products from a certain market is making a business decision. Indeed, Koei Tecmo later released a statement where it dismissed the Facebook statement as “that individual’s opinion”and not representative of the company’s “business strategy”. Whatever you think about DoA, it’s not a game that is going to trouble certification boards or censors. Even if it provoked fury and condemnation (it really hasn’t), it’s debatable whether any sort of direct action – such as petitioning retailers not to carry the title – would have any effect apart from some free publicity.

As it stands, DoA X3 will be available worldwide, in all its ludicrous, objectifying glory, via specialist importers – and it seems Koei Tecmo is happy with that for now. There’s always a chance the company will organise a digital-only release in the US and Europe if demand is there. Whatever happens, this little controversy is just the latest instalment in a cultural rift between Japanese publishers, mainstream global audiences and niche fan bases, where myriad sensibilities, preconceptions and sociological factors come into play. But of course, in modern online discourse, no one really wants to hear about nuance.

Tribune News Service