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Play-Asia.com Interview – Import Gaming in a Shrinking World

by Ron Duwell | April 21, 2015April 21, 2015 12:20 pm PDT

“The world is becoming smaller” as they say, and you’d find very few places where that is more true than in video games. While traditional giant marketplaces like Japan and the Western world still reign prevalent, other countries in East Europe and other parts of Asia have been taking off as well, wanting to claim their stake in this new gold rush.

Plenty of publishers have found it in their interest to accommodate for them as well, and the future of video games continues to become more of a global effort.

We all have that one game we want to be localized, but deep down inside, we know it never stands a chance. Nowadays though, gamers actually have it pretty easy when it comes to scoring video games from beyond their borders. 20 years ago, we had no knowledge of what was coming out in Japan without the ease of the Internet. The instances we did know always turned out to be a crap shoot, for example, if a hopeless case like Marvelous: Another Treasure Island ever popped up in Nintendo Power.

Will it make it? Will it not? Don’t hold your breath.

In this “small world,” it is impossible to keep the secret of games from other countries for very long, and if something that leaks onto the net from Japan or anywhere else has a potential audience, a publisher, big or small, is going to find a way to get it to them. Plenty of games make it to North America in English from some of the most unexpected publishers and developers in this exciting age of gaming expanding into other countries.

For everything else, there is import video game retailers to catch the titles that fall through the cracks and go unrecognized by Western publishers. Retailers like Play-Asia.com might not be able to translate your favorite game or push publishers into thinking twice about their decisions, but they can provide far easier access to foreign games than the olden days of digging through underground magazines and asking a guy who knows a guy who can get you Super Mario Bros. 4

I was able to ask Play-Asia.com CEO Jan Neuhaeusser several questions about his popular retail site and where he sees its place in the world where digital gaming sales, the Western market, and alternative ways of obtaining video games are running rampant.

Just a disclaimer as well, this comes from both a journalistic standpoint as well as a satisfied customer who has had nothing but positive results from Play-Asia.com.

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Who to attract when aiming at import gaming

Neuhaeusser sees his company as one with a mission “to give gamers as much freedom as they want when it comes to picking their games, as well as “broaden the horizons by introducing gamers to new and exciting titles from the other side of the world.” Not only limited to Japan, Asia’s biggest gaming hub, Play-Asia.com focuses on all countries throughout the Asian region.

“Play-Asia.com is an online retailer with a strong focus on video games,” says Neuhaeusser, “in particular Asian region games and especially hard to find titles or niche Japanese games. Our warehouse and headquarters are located in Hong Kong but we maintain subsidiaries in Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo and the Philippines.”

Neuhaeusser also points out that, “physical goods, most commonly video games, are shipped worldwide with little to no restrictions. Digital goods are accessible to our customers by accessing their Play-Asia.com account, where the content is made available in a matter of minutes.”

Not one to remain just a niche retailer for obscure Japanese and other Asian games, Play-Asia.com aims to attract those from all across the spectrum. Generally, when thinking of ordering from an import gaming store, several categories of people come to mind:

  • Gamers who want to import a game early and play it before everyone else
  • Gamers who want the chance to play a game they might never otherwise get to play
  • Gamers who are expats who prefer to older games from a closer retailer than from the typical marketplaces back home.

“It is a mixture of all three, really,” iterates Neuhaeusser, explaining that he himself is an expat who prefers to buy sport games that can only be bought in his home country. “If a game is released earlier in Japan we will generally see increased interest in importing the title.”

“We also have hard core fans that were incredibly excited for Destiny and similar games as well as games that, as you’ve said, are never released for the western market like Super Robot Wars or Gundam Extreme Vs. The principle holds true when trading in both directions.”

Broadening the gaming library

Despite the flourishing global scene of video games we see today, one in which Neuhaeusser points out that “Japanese games have seen quite a successful comeback in 2014,” the balance is a far cry from the heavy Japanese focus of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Western developers have caught up in terms of a market share, and their call and beckoning is one retailers can’t afford to ignore. Physical distribution is also slowly seeming more and more like a thing of the past as the world becomes more digitally aware and capable of sending games to any place with the push of a button.

Like most retailers out there, Play-Asia.com has made adjustments to its offerings and methods over the years, adapting to the needs of gamers all over its own region as well. Whereas we in North America and the Western world see a niche that needs to be filled with these imported Asian games, much of Asia also looks to import retailers for the opportunity to play Western games that would otherwise not make it to their country. It’s a gateway to another culture that works both ways.

“In 2011, we started to widen our game selection by focusing a lot more on western releases as well,” Neuhaeusser states. “At the moment we carry many versions of each game to fit various demands. We carry games from the U.S., Asia, Japan, Europe (including UK), Korea, and just recently started to include Australian games as well!”

“A lot of our sales are still Japanese & Asian imports that we sell to regions where these are not available, but this works both ways and we trade western games into Asia that don’t see releases here.”

As for the increased demand for digital products, Play-Asia.com has accommodated for this adjustment as well by offering download codes for customers who prefer to do their shopping for foreign game’s through a third-party retailer.

“I think the shift from physical to digital effects nearly all video game retailers. Retailers must actively adapt to the new market changes, something we feel we have been doing by providing our customers with a vast selection of gift codes for all major networks all over the world. Our overall mission when it comes to physical games is no different to that of digital goods, as we provide Japanese/Asia gift codes to gamers in the West and vice versa.”

To keep up with the likes of Steam and PlayStation Network though, which often drop the prices of their digital games to incredibly competitive prices. Play-Asia.com offers a steady stream of “eight heavily discounted titles per week,” but never strays too far from its consistent offerings beyond that.

“We haven’t done any Weekly Specials with serial codes as price-wise there is a lot less room to apply big discounts. Every now and then we are offered good deals and we pass them on to our customers in the form of a Daily Deal that is usually online for 24hrs.”

For example, the shop currently plays home to a special offer which will land account owners a special discount on a recent PS Vita dungeon crawling RPG called Moe Chronicles, from developer Compile Heart, the same company which publishes the expanding Hyperdimension NeptuniaI series. The deal ends May 5 and will land fans the Asian version of the game, which is home to English and Chinese text.

Dropping the region-lock means easier access for all

One final issue we discussed has been one of contention for import gamers even since the practice began: region-locking. Owners of old cartridge based consoles will tell horror stories of having to cut pieces off of their cartridges to fit into machines, or PlayStation owners can relate with boot-up discs and magic springs which allow the CD to spin with just the right amount of speed of and pressure.

It got to the point where gamers just straight up rewired the internal operating system to read discs from anywhere in the world. Can we blame region-locking for the rise in moderated consoles if that were the case?

Nowadays, region locking is a thing of the past on all non-Nintendo platforms. The PlayStation 4 had always teased the notion of being region-free, similar to the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, and the Xbox One infamously followed suit after it was skinned alive post E3 2013 by Sony’s aggressive press conference.

From a sales point, Neuhaeusser claims that that practice doesn’t affect them as much as spreading release dates across different countries.

“With the removal of the region lock on the PS3 came competition as now any online store is ultimately a competitor. But this works on both levels, the retail level but also the wholesale level. With 13 years in business we have established a widespread supply network and we pick up PS3 games wherever we have the chance and pass on the best pricing to our customers.”

“We work with fixed margins, so if we are able to pick up games at a lower cost, our customers will directly benefit in the form of discounts.”

In terms of what the death of region-locking on AAA gaming consoles can actually offer to game design, Neuhaeusser is hopeful that it will be positive for better games in the future.

“Overall I think the removal of the region lock, for both the PS3 and the PS4/XB1, increased competition on every layer of this business. I think that a little bit of competition forces everyone to improve for the sake of the customer, as opposed to an environment where prices are more controlled and regulated.”

On a personal note, it’s also just wonderful to not have to jump through so many hoops anymore.

Still need a middle man

We say that the world is becoming a smaller place, but the truth is that our entertainment laws and the policies of different countries can still greatly interfere with gaming as a medium that people across the globe can enjoy on even terms. That doesn’t even include the growing need for translations as well as many games from Japan and Asia require a decent grasp of the complicated languages to fully comprehend and enjoy.

However, the call of the unknown to other cultures still has an audience in the world, and Play-Asia.com is a wonderful solution if you want to explore a new realm of gaming or just snag up that copy of Dragon Quest VII 3DS that will never make it stateside.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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