Why isn’t Monster Hunter popular in the west? Our fear of singing out of tune.

Monster Hunter lords over Japanese gamers like Black Diablos over a herd of cats. The influence and popularity of Capcom’s team-oriented giant-killing simulation in the east is hard to overstate. The game single-handedly kept Sony’s PSP handheld afloat against the Nintendo DS juggernaut.

And its move to the 3DS last fall showcases the tidal strength a single franchise holds over a market where portable gaming matters far more than both PC and console; without its predecessor’s killer app, Sony’s PlayStation Vita handheld is, to be kind, slow to gain momentum. So how does Capcom, infamously known for sapping popular franchises of their virulity through overexposure, build an audience in the much-larger western markets?

Short answer: It can’t.

– – –

Ian Milton-Polley sifted through a recent article on Japan-only video-sharing site Nico Nico that shared promotional campaigns for Monster Hunter, and the results are telling. In addition to game demo kiosks and press conferences, promotion included:

cute character merchandise to attract female players, branded T-shirts in Uniqlo, a collaboration with Universal Studios in Osaka and even a themed hot spring retreat. Capcom also partnered with Karaoke chain Shidax, organising events where players could rent karaoke themed booths to play in and purchase branded dinner sets.

This kind of whimsical approach to brand-building in Japan will not fly in America. Capcom is trying to re-launch the brand in the west this spring, with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate coming to both Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. Cross-platform functionality is being stressed; though you can’t play online in the portable version, you can build up your character and continue your quest, with hunters around the world, on the home console version.

But for MH to be the system-selling success it is overseas, Capcom needs to tap into the same kind of cultural wellspring in America and Europe that it has in Japan. Due to circumstances outside their control, however, this looks to be impossible, and is a reminder of how very different Japan is as a market for games from its worldwide counterparts.

But why? Sure, Japanese players are more likely to commute to/from school or work, so the dominance of handhelds makes sense. The mainstream success of a challenging, hard-to-learn fantasy world is harder to link to geographical necessity. Cue the Karaoke and Hot Springs. Singing in public, though popular with a small audience in the west, is a massive sector of Japanese culture, from teens all the way through salarymen. No single cultural activity comes close in either America or Europe, with the possible exception of live sporting events. But there the interaction is indirect; you’re watching others play.

This kind of whimsical approach to brand-building in Japan will not fly in America.

The bigger question isn’t how Capcom will try and make Monster Hunter a mainstream success in the west, but how did Activision do the same with Call of Duty? A “realistic” military shooter seems an arbitrary genre to rack up historic opening-day grosses, as it has each of the past four years. Its popularity paralleled the growth in online gaming, burning slowly on PCs for years before Microsoft introduced Xbox Live and blew the doors open.

While Japan’s internet speeds blow ours out of the water, their digital culture reflects its own national sensibilities. Ryozo Tsujimoto, series producer for Monster Hunter, knew this, and focused on what could be done to bring gamers together.

There are a million ways to communicate digitally. But we went in the opposite direction, chasing after ‘analogue communication’ between players. Having players in the same room instigates real conversation between them, and also heightens the excitement. The key theme of Monster Hunter is ‘co-operation’.

Another fantasy game might show Capcom the way. World of Warcraft took the lessons of Everquest and created a mainstream market for massive online cooperative gaming. Just as Monster Hunter logos crop up throughout Japan, from saunas to mall fashion, so did WoW crack into the ultimate mainstream audience, showing up in a car commercial. Will Capcom finally introduce Monster Hunter to the unaware masses beyond Japan? We’ll find out soon; the 3DS and Wii U games release simultaneously on March 19th.