'The road less traveled' seems the mantra for Irvine, California-based Atlus USA. With an impressive catalog of obscure titles to its credit, Atlus is looked to by many North American gamers as a beacon of originality, having localized such titles and franchises as Odin Sphere, Persona, and Growlanser, among many others. But why does this company remain dedicated to games of such niche appeal? Unable to come up with a consensus, we marched upon Atlus USA itself, and spoke with some of the employees who didn't duck out of sight when they saw us coming, including editor Clayton S. Chan, PR and sales assistant manager Aram Jabbari, production director Bill Alexander, and QA lead Victor Gonzalez.
What did they have to say? Read the complete interview, including in-depth insight into the company's upcoming PS2 and Wii 'hardcore' dungeon crawler Baroque, after the jump.
Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about what your company has been up to. It's great to know we can always count on Atlus to deliver games slightly different from the lion's share of games on retail shelves. Does this thinking, particularly how different or niche a game is or isn't, play into what titles Atlus USA opts to localize?
Clayton S. Chan: Well, the niche factor only plays into what titles we bring over in a roundabout fashion. The quality and publishing availability of the title is what we look at first. We strive to seek out good games that may have been overlooked for one reason or another. The game doesn't have to be niche for it to be something we think is worthwhile, but sometimes the fact that the game is a niche title means we're able to jump on the game before it shows up on another company's radar.
Aram Jabbari: How "niche" or "outside the box" a game is alone rarely determines whether it will be picked up. A number of factors, from the quality of the game to how marketable it will be for a North American audience, all contribute to the final decision. Of course, very often it just so happens that the titles that do the most things right are also the ones that try something new.
We also benefit greatly from a fantastic development team in Japan, responsible for such titles as Etrian Odyssey, the Trauma Center series, and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, to name a few.
Your next title is Baroque, a PlayStation 2 title. Should we consider this an indication that Atlus will continue to support and bring out new releases for the PS2 for some time to come?
AJ: The PlayStation 2 continues to be a viable platform, offering affordable quality entertainment with one of the most impressive software catalogs ever. Relative to the PS2, the new generation of systems is still quite young, and as such there is no reason to abandon a veteran system just because it isn't the newest thing around.
It's interesting that Baroque is also a remake of a game originally developed for the PSone and Saturn. What, beyond visuals, have been changed to make this a new and fresh experience?
Bill Alexander: Aside from redone graphics and sound, the actual gameplay - the experience of playing Baroque - is relatively unchanged. This could be bad news for most other games, but the fact that Baroque has never before arrived on North American shores means that the experience will still be a fresh and novel one for gamers who check it out.
There is new content exclusive to this version of Baroque, such as the Baroquemonger character, who will give the player extra information about the universe if you give him crystals that the Meta-Beings drop. Another example of an improvement is the save system, which has been made a bit more player-friendly.
Baroque is also headed to the Wii, a platform that has taken on the rather dubious distinction of being a destination for quick ports from last-gen platforms, particularly the PlayStation 2. Is Baroque still a PS2 game at its heart?
AJ: Baroque will not be a radically different game on the Wii, although it will benefit from a solid set of enhancements. The Wii release is not a ploy to trap fans into buying both versions, but rather to make it easier for gamers who may only have one platform or the other.
It's about giving the gamer more options. While the versions are very similar, the Wii version, being more recent, affords the player support for 16:9 and progressive scan, in addition to an intuitive control scheme. Not to mention, the system could definitely use more hardcore games.
Baroque traditionally refers to an intricate style of art. What does this term have to do with the game, which at first glance looks like a post-apocalyptic dungeon crawler?
Victor Gonzalez: The term "Baroque" in the game is used to define a state of being that survivors had to undergo in order to persevere the harsh existence after a cataclysm known as the "Blaze."
What makes Baroque "hardcore," a term you've used to describe the game?
AJ: Hardcore, a term we're obviously comfortable using in describing Baroque, refers to a number of facets of the game (at least in our minds). The game will not go out of its way to hold your hand, which can be a change of pace from recent titles, but ultimately offers a more profound sense of accomplishment when progress is made. Furthermore, there are greater rewards for more patient and dedicated gamers. The more perseverant the gamer, the more content they are likely to experience. With its challenging play, Baroque will entice veteran RPG gamers while providing an excellent test for less skilled players.
Atlus recently announced plans for Operation Darkness and Spectral Force 3, your first pair for the Xbox 360. Does this mean that you're warming up to Microsoft's console? What took so long?
CC: As you can see from our long history, we really don't have a console preference. We basically just had to wait until there were enough Japanese developed titles on the 360, because most of them were snapped up by a US publisher pretty quickly.
AJ: Since most of the titles we publish are developed in Japan, and with the 360 still fighting to find its place in that market, the short supply of 360 games has been prohibitive to our jumping on board sooner. We hope that Operation Darkness and Spectral Force 3 are just the beginning of what we'll do on the 360. In fact, we already know there's more on the way, but how about we just let you get surprised?
Sure, but then could Atlus-branded PS3 releases be far behind?
BA: We would love to add a PS3 game to our portfolio. I'm sure it will happen eventually, but at the moment, I'm afraid we have nothing to announce. As excited as we are about publishing for the system, we wouldn't want to rush things; we'll wait for a good title to become available for licensing-a game worthy of the Atlus brand and our intense localization efforts.
You also recently shipped Trauma Center: New Blood for the Wii. Has the game been selling as well as expected, particularly compared to the previous version?
AJ: Trauma Center: New Blood has met sales expectations, but the increased competition and it no longer being the hardware's launch (although you wouldn't know it for lack of lines) have tempered things somewhat. We also shipped a week from Super Mario Galaxy. Not something we had initially planned, but something that was unavoidable as we worked to get the game out before the holidays.
CC: Obviously, if you and your Wii-owning readers go out and buy more copies so we can exceed our sales expectations, we'd be really happy about that. In fact, I would highly recommend this course of action.
Is this a franchise that we should expect to see more of down the line?
AJ: Trauma Center has been a tremendous franchise for Atlus, well received by fans and critics alike. Whether you're looking at the great touch screen controls of the DS original, Under the Knife, the novelty of the Wii controls in Second Opinion, or the addictive 2-player cooperative mode in New Blood, the series has delivered innovation and excitement in every incarnation. As well as the games have done for us, I think it's safe to say that we haven't seen the last of Trauma Center.
I think that about covers it. Before we call it quits, could you tell us something we probably don't know about what goes on at Atlus?
AJ: On the third Friday of every month, we setup an arena in the middle of the office using our desks, chairs, and whatever else is lying around. We then force the testers into the middle in a fight for their lives, while the rest of us sit around and bet copies of rare Atlus games on the victor. I got a copy of SMT: Nocturne last month... It was pretty cool.
CC: There's also foosball. In all seriousness, there's a whole lot more to working at a game company than most people would ever realize, and at the same time there's a whole lot less of certain aspects than you'd expect. You'd basically have to work here to understand what I mean. I'd say more, but I've been told there's some graphics on level 3 that need tightening up.