Still fresh from E3, I caught up with John Hardin, PR Manager for Atlus USA, and spoke at length about their catalog, his opinions on DLC, game pricing, and more, focusing on Persona 4: Dancing All Night and Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight.
“E3 was really good,” he tells me. “We’ve been steadily increasing our E3 presence and this one was our biggest yet.” This year, Atlus had a badge insert for all attendees emblazoned with art from Persona 4: Dancing All Night and Persona 5, and Atlus had a bigger booth than last year.
Persona 4: Dancing All Night is the latest spin-off game featuring characters from Persona 4. It went through quite a bit before finally being released in Japan a few weeks ago. It was announced at the same event that had Persona Q and Persona 5 but looks very different today. “The development for Persona 4: Dancing All Night did go internal. Dingo contributed initially but the Atlus team helped finish it up I believe.” On how the interface changed and how P4D’s story mode fits in, he added: “There’s not a ton I can tell you about the story because we don’t want to spoil it since it isn’t out in North America for a couple of months, but it is canon. The story takes place after the events of all the Persona games. There’s this great scan in a recent Persona Magazine that lays out the timeline but basically Persona 4 Golden ends at the start of summer. P4D takes place afterwards. I don’t think it addresses anything from Persona 4 Arena or Ultimax so you won’t miss out on anything if you haven’t played the fighting games. It does reference events from Persona 4 Golden. It involves Rise and her junior group Kanamin Kitchen.” Even if you haven’t played Persona 4 Golden, it will appeal to rhythm game fans. “The non story stuff is still fully standalone.”
P4D has a Disco Fever edition that comes with a full 2-disc soundtrack which is a nice change from a 4-track remix CD or rough sketch soundtrack that Atlus’ first print releases usually have. “It’s a testament to how important Persona music is. P4D is very much about the music. It’s important we let fans experience all the music and I hope they enjoy the soundtrack. It is pretty amazing.”Atlus Japan has been posting short clips for the remixes present in the game and there’s no clarity on whether these lyric videos will be in P4D. “I’m not sure right now but I hope they show up in some form eventually.
When Persona 4 Golden was released in the West, we got Laura Bailey’s voice (that is a feast for the ears) in True Story. The theme from Junes is heard with English lyrics as well in the original game. “We did have the Japanese versions playing at E3 for the Junes theme, with ‘Everyday Young Life Junesu’. To tempt fate I’m going to talk about Stella Glow where we are keeping the full Japanese as is. I’m not sure what we are doing with those two yet. Hopefully soon.”
When asked about voice acting changes for beloved characters in Atlus games John explained: “I cannot comment on any of the voice actors in Persona or any other games just because of the nature of voice acting. It is a performance. Our company is not allowed to disclose any of the voice actors without prior written content from the actors themselves. I did see her (Laura Bailey’s) tweets. Obviously character voices are really important to us. If we do get someone to replace the original actresses, as we have done in the past, we try and stay as true to the past one as possible. That’s what Atlus USA works on. We try and make sure the voice performances are great. Look at Persona Q or Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. There’s a ton of voice in both those games. We had people recording for a very long time. I did get to interview a few of the actors for P4D just like we did with Persona Q and we should have those videos up soon. I talked to the voices of Kanji and Naoto.
On how much of a difference voice acting makes to turn around time for localisation of games like P4D, there were some interesting points raised. “It is just kind of the production schedule we have. We did finish Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold and Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker fairly early. We may be using someone different for the actual programming from outside and those external people affect the schedule as well. How fast they can get the text and voices in with a number of other factors. The discrepancy on this one is making sure we have enough time for the game. We can’t just randomly say X game is coming out next week. Every game is different and we give ourselves enough time for submitting to certification and getting certified. It is a little tricky. With this Persona 4: Dancing All Night in particular, we had to make sure we had enough QA since it is a different kind of game. Our QA is working on the title right now. I don’t want to say there’s no reason for delays but there isn’t a pattern. We are a really small company. There are less than 40 people in the office. We are tiny.”
One thing I’ve noticed with Atlus first-party games is the user interface. Their games are consistent with interfaces and they look like well-designed apps in many cases thanks to the menus and animations. A lot has been said about the classy look the menus in Persona 5 have from the trailer footage. “I haven’t spent a lot of time in the menus of Persona 4: Dancing All Night because we aimed at getting ‘Free Mode’ ready for E3, but I have noticed this stuff. It is funny. My wife is a designer and while she isn’t a super huge fan of video gamers, she appreciates good design. She saw articles about the first Persona 5 video and said ‘Wow. Is the interface really this good?’ It’s one of those elements that’s often overlooked in games, but you can easily tell the difference between a well done interface and an exceptional one.”
Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight is a 3DS remake of the Nintendo DS game, Etrian Odyssey 2: Heroes of Lagaard. It contains an all new story mode, reworked maps, a new class, and other improvements over the DS game. On giving games like Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold to reviewers early, John stressed how important it is to make sure reviewers get enough time to spend with a game and why it helps everyone in the long run: “It’s a testament to our production team. They have been working on getting their schedules free to work on our second half of the year titles. They did a really good job with making sure QA finished early for Etrian Mystery Dungeon, Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker, and even Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold so we could get them through Nintendo quickly. We try to get really early review codes for these games. They are really long JRPGs and we try our best to give reviewers enough time.”
“You always see stories in the media where titles ranging from indies to AAAs involve people complaining about late or release-day codes. I just try to really make sure that for a game that takes 60-80 hours or however long to finish, reviewers have enough time to properly dig in. Think about reading a review for a JRPG based on an hour of gameplay. If you played one hour of Persona 4 and reviewed it, you would have no idea what the actual game was like. This way, reviewers have enough time to sink their teeth into these experiences and fans get the benefit. I’m more than happy to do whatever I can to make sure reviewers have early code.”
The dungeons in EO2U look fantastic. I’ve been playing it on my New 3DS XL and this is one of the few games I’ve played nearly all the way through with 3D turned on. The story has really sucked me in and the boss battles are a lot of fun, albeit quite difficult. The new class introduced in EO2U is also really fun to experiment with. “I like the story in this one a lot,” John told me. “I’m 40% into it and I’m really enjoying the characters. From what I’ve read, the story in this one is really solid. The Fafnir is a very unique class and I like his switching form ability a lot. Sometimes I feel a bit over-levelled, but I still get my butt handed to me by the bosses. Honestly I think there’s been a lot of fun conversation online about the DLC but there are some really great boss battles in there. Barring Persona Q, backgrounds are the least noticeable bits in an Etrian game and the attention to detail really shows with this one.”
Newer mechanics introduced in a mainline Etrian Odyssey game like Cooking and Advertising also add to the enjoyment. “I do like cooking a lot. It is kind of something Etrian Mystery Dungeon turned us on to. It is fun making sure you have enough ingredients and I actually made use of the advertising and liked it. I haven’t seen the best returns but I like the thought of supplementary income. It kicks me around 1600 EN once in a while.”
EO2U’s Picnic difficulty mode is easier than the Safety difficulty in Persona Q and it allows even people completely unfamiliar with dungeon crawlers to get their bearings before things get difficult. “I’m not sure how it gets in the later floors but I’m playing on Normal right now and haven’t turned it down. We don’t want to make every difficulty feel too difficult. If we did that people would wonder what the hell is going on when they come into a game blind. You need time to figure things out. Picnic mode is a good starting experience. You can also switch difficulties on the fly.”
Etrian Odyssey as a franchise has only gotten better with each new game. “There are proper Etrian moments and they are fun. I died in the tutorials in Legend of Legacy. That game has the same kind of feeling. If you aren’t using the systems the game sets up, you will have a bad time. EO2U is the 7.5th entry if we count Persona Q as a half entry into the franchise. There has been a lot of learning from the first game. I think that this is a combination of seeing fan feedback and trying to fine tune it with the Etrian franchise. It is an ever changing battle. We do have a lot of experience with the franchise and that started showing with Persona Q as well. Multiple save slots and difficulties are things everyone loves and has asked for. EO2U has 9 save slots.”
I believe this is a great place to dip your feet into the Etrian franchise along with Persona Q if you’re a fan of Persona 3 or 4. John had similar thoughts. “Honestly, I think Persona Q maybe the best place to get into the franchise with EO2U following after. The Untold games are great because they have the story modes and the ability to switch difficulties for people who haven’t tried an Etrian game before. Persona Q is better if you’re already a fan.”
FOEs (Formido Oppugnatura Exsequens) are no strangers to Etrian games and EO2U has some really well-designed FOE puzzles and FOEs. I’ve had my fair share of horrid situations with FOEs in the latter dungeons of the game and eventually ended up powering through and grinding to defeat them. John on the other hand tries running away from problems (which you should do as well early on). “I got into a bad situation with a salamander FOE and something else rolled up into the fight. I tried leaving and it did not end well for me. That was the first time I had to reload a save file.”
I also got to talk to John about Legend of Legacy, a game I’m looking forward to. “Legend of Legacy is officially official now. I can no longer leak anything else. We’ve been working with Furyu for a couple of titles now. We are working with them on Lost Dimension already. We have a great working relationship with them. Furyu’s Legend of Legacy caught our eye because it received positive mentions in Famitsu. It was one of the top new IPs that people were looking forward to. I really like it. It’s a properly difficult JRPG and I think fans of the SAGA series in particular will love it. The text is presented in little speech bubbles and it really has that classic JRPG feel to it. It is one of those games that, a couple of years from now, will end up in people’s collections and they will say ‘If you’re a fan of JRPGs and don’t have Legend of Legacy in your collection, you don’t have a complete collection.’”
John confused Legend of Legacy and Stella Glow when he accidentally leaked it on a podcast. Both of these games are very different from each other. “It was really fun being able to show Legend of Legacy and Stella Glow at the same time at E3. They are so unashamedly JRPG but at different ends of the spectrum. I think Legend of Legacy has more subtlety to the story and characters. Stella Glow is super easy to get into. Legend of Legacy also has a pretty aesthetic. When you’re walking around in the world, the background scenery pops in and even though the draw distance is small, the effects are a lot of fun and it looks awesome.”
A lot of games announced by Atlus this year have first print editions. When asked about a first print edition for games like Legend of Legacy, John offered insight on their decisions. “We are working on it. Nothing concrete to say right now but we are working on getting it taken care of. I don’t think there will be a different priced edition like Persona Q’s Wild Cards Edition but we will do the typical Atlus release with a first run printing. It is nice having something physical to go along with the game. We can’t make an infinite supply of these editions and it is the nature of niche gaming. It is super helpful for our fans if we add something extra for them. I know we sometimes get blasted on the internet for not offering enough but we try and do something special every time. The good news is, there is a lot of time for that. Legend of Legacy is coming out in the back half of 2015. We are also looking at what they did with the music release in Japan. (He confuses Legend of Legacy with Stella Glow here). We are working on getting things sorted out and stay tuned for more info. Thank god that both these games are announced. Haha.”
Stella Glow is Image Epoch’s last game and was published by Sega in Japan. It has a strong music mechanic and it is priced at $10 higher than the standard 3DS game at $50 which seems to be reserved for first party Atlus titles. “I’m not sure if it is being considered Atlus first party with its price. We are trying to get it sorted out and working on this and Legend of Legacy. The song magic is really interesting and is very integral to the story. People will see this once they start the game and prologue.”
John said that Atlus was a team of under 40 and yet they are pumping out lots of releases this year, and haven’t even started properly talking about Persona 5. I was wondering if they were saturating the market with too many games of the same franchise in the case of Etrian, or just too many JRPGs in such a short period of time. “It is always something to consider. The Japanese gamer has slightly different tastes. A lot of them can really plough into the Etrian series because they have a lot of time to play with the public transport there. I think we are kind of getting close to the point where we reach Etrian saturation. Hopefully we will see what it means in terms of getting titles out of the Etrian franchise and see where things go. But we can’t let games sit complete for too long. We will earn the risk of losing fans because we haven’t released a game that released much earlier in Japan. This is a fine balance and we are working on figuring it out. If we knew it perfectly we would be much richer people.”
P4D has a Disco Fever Edition. Persona Q had the Wild Cards Edition. I was wondering if we would see proper collector’s editions for other Atlus games. “I do hope we can do that for some of the other games. They are a lot of fun. We have a solid couple of people working from our design team doing really good work on not just premium editions but even first print editions like the one we did for Record Breaker. I hope fans enjoy the Disco Fever Edition and I want to see more of that in the future. It all depends on what we can offer and what makes sense to offer. If there’s enough of a fanbase to justify doing something.”
Persona 4 Dancing All Night has a lot of announced DLC in Japan already. “We don’t have news for the DLC characters yet. We haven’t gotten news about what will happen with those in NA yet. We want to make sure our content here is on par with Japan, but we‘re still trying to figure out everything internally especially with the other DLC. There’s a lot to get through. We will follow our path and try and do a fair and attractive pricing model for the DLC.”
A lot of fans were unhappy that the Persona 3 protagonist’s canon persona wasn’t available in Persona Q without buying the paid DLC that unlocks Thanatos. It was also handled horribly with you being able to summon DLC personas you paid real money for only once in-game for free. You had to pay in game with yen to summon it again across all save files.
Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold’s DLC announcement has already caused an uproar in Etrian fan forums like Into The Labyrinth and on the Etrian Odyssey sub-reddit. I was wondering if it even made sense to announce all this content prior to release because it rubs many consumers the wrong way. “It clearly does rub people the wrong way. I do look on the forums and everything after we announce something and I think everyone has a different feeling about DLC. It is such a strange topic. If you look at some of the recent big releases that had missteps or had a really strong backlash, Arkham Knight in particular comes to mind. I think a lot of people just freak out when the word DLC is mentioned no matter what. There are good and bad practices for DLC. A lot of Etrian fans are upset that some of the map in some floors is locked away behind DLC quests. That’s important feedback for future titles, but the maps have all been redone from scratch so it isn’t like we are locking content that was previously available on DS behind a paywall. That’s why with the US release, we are trying to offer free periods for some DLC for EO2U.
“Some people say if there is DLC in a game, the game isn’t complete. I don’t believe that’s true. The bottom line is what you spend your money on in terms of DLC has no bearing on anyone else. People say don’t buy a game because it has DLC and don’t support it. I saw this a lot with Arkham Knight. I think everyone overestimates how much other people want to hear how they spend their own money. No one wants to be told how to spend their money when it comes to gaming. Also, I don’t think any publisher looks at a game and says they should take out this arc and make it DLC when it should be in the base game. I’d like to believe that, as a gamer and someone who works in the industry.”
In the case of a lot of AAA games, we get a Game of the Year edition or a complete edition a few months later with all the content at a lower price. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen with niche games and especially not portable ones. The main problem is announcing DLC much before a game is out and when a game costs more than the average game on a platform, it really annoys consumers. “That’s a really good point. I think part of the reason DLC is announced early is because people move on from games so quickly. Think about how long they spend playing a game. After 2-3 weeks post launch, people are looking for something else. We’re at this amazing stage where there are too many games for consumers in every genre and it is awesome. Tons of games coming out make people happy. If you say you have DLC 3 months after a game has been out, a lot of people have probably moved on or traded the game in. Maybe they think DLC would be better closer to launch. I think people appreciate honesty, and being told ahead of time what to expect is the best.
Atlus games don’t have season passes or a combined discount on buying all the DLC for a game for a lower price. “I’m not sure why actually. It is tough to tell because it isn’t just Atlus on platforms like 3DS. It depends on the game and platform whether we would bundle DLC at a discount. It’s definitely something fans have been asking for. I have been trying to see if we can do it. I have no idea about the status right now.”
Barring standard DLC, there are also consumable DLC like easy fatalities in Mortal Kombat X that have been in the news lately. “Just from my personal background in games, I worked at an agency that had a good amount of free to play titles and still play a fair amount of them. I don’t mind them. If someone wants to pay money to do something faster, I don’t see the issue. If it is game breaking, yes it is a big deal. It may not be for everyone but hey if you beat this game using consumable items from microtransactions, it doesn’t make you less of a gamer. So what if they paid? It is entirely up to them. I don’t see this as the blight on the industry people claim it is. If you don’t need it, that’s fine. Someone else may and I don’t see why people want to deprive others of ways to enjoy or complete a game quicker. No one is forcing you to pay for this stuff. I have a very liberal stance on DLC and it’s not one that will make me friends after this interview goes up either!”
With Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker and even Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight, the first print physical editions have some nice bonuses like the decal set and the staff art book. I’ve always believed that digital games should be priced lower than physical ones and asked John if Atlus had any plans to offer people who pay full price digitally something extra – maybe a theme or some DLC at least. “That’s definitely something I’ve seen and tried to elevate internally. We will see what we can do to offer the digital customers, but nothing concrete is in place right now to address it.”
Europe seems to be getting a few Atlus releases later than North America, and there have even been some listings for 2016 for Persona 5 published by Square Enix. “That’s just completely wrong. A lot of people assume that this is correct because they published something back in what, 2008? It just isn’t true. I’m working on getting those incorrect listing removed. We are trying to get publishers locked in for our titles in EU and will announce things when they are locked in. We don’t want another Shin Megami Tensei IV or Devil Survivor Overclocked situation. We are very aware of what happens when we make premature announcements for Europe. At least I am. The only thing I can confirm for Persona 5 is 2015.”
There’s no update on getting Atlus music released digitally outside Japan either unfortunately, but I did ask about Shin Megami Tensei II and if on iOS or Android. “There’s been so much transition happening that those have definitely circled down to the bottom of the priority list. I don’t know the status as of now.”
No interview at The Geek would be complete without the Ketchup Question. Atlus USA had some fun teasing Attack on Titan with ketchup so I wondered where the ketchup in the office was this time. “I think we are out of ketchup right now. We have a thing of Sriracha in the kitchen right now!
Thanks to John Hardin at Atlus USA for his time. This interview was conduced very soon after the Japanese release of Persona 4: Dancing All Night.