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Dark Souls changed everything. There were Japanese games on PC before Dark Souls, of course, some celebrated like indie darling Cave Story, some infamously messy, like 1998’s trapezoid box Final Fantasy 7. But Dark Souls was different. It hit all of videogames like a bomb: on impact we reeled at how boldly it embraced challenge and obfuscation and how badly we had missed this particular flavor of Japanese game design. And then came the shockwave: that design seeped into the brains of players and designers and it stuck, driving a wave of games big and small inspired by the popularity and sales of this strangely new, strangely old game. PC gamers wanted in. 90,000 petition signatures later, FromSoftware said sure, we’ll bring it to PC.
Dark Souls came to PC a year late and half broken, and neither of those things ultimately mattered. Today nearly three million PC gamers own Dark Souls, and that demand was a sky-piercing beacon for Japan: a whole lot of people in the West own PCs, and we want to play Japanese games on them.
Since Dark Souls in 2012 new consoles launched with hardware very similar to PCs, once-niche games like Valkyria Chronicles rocketed towards a million sales, and visual novels that would once have required fan translations plastered Steam. It’s been a slow accrual of momentum, a boulder gathering speed as it prepares to tumble full-tilt downhill. Sales numbers alone weren’t enough to lead to change overnight. To understand why Japanese games are now poised for a huge breakthrough on PC—and why it’s taken so long for that boulder to get up to speed—I spoke with developers and publishers in the US and Japan about the rise of Japanese PC games in the West and at home.
The first obstacle to PC gaming’s growth is a simple one: very few people own PCs in Japan. But there’s much more to it than that. There’s the challenge of using Steam in Japanese. There’s the frequent need for a champion—sometimes a single person in a huge company—to boldly fight for a PC port. There’s the long history of ‘doujin’ fan games in Japan and a struggling indie scene finally beginning to find its footing. There’s a genetic predisposition to motion sickness that turns Japanese gamers away from first-person games. And there’s 7-Eleven.
What the hell do convenience stores have to do with Japanese PC games? We’ll get to that. But first: how Japanese games have come to thrive on Steam in the Dark Souls era.
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