If the Xbox's performance in Japan last year has taught us anything, it's that Microsoft is more than willing to make up for its lack of business knowledge by waging full-out war for the hearts and minds of users.
Even though Japan accounts for a tiny fraction of worldwide Xbox sales so far, nothing Microsoft's Japanese division does over there is small. Case in point: the Xbox Live online service, scheduled to launch in Japan on the 20th. In America, Microsoft commemorated the grand opening itself with nothing more than a press release and a wave. Over in Japan, though, they rented out the enormous Velfarre dance club in Tokyo, invited 200 beta testers (along with a bunch of Japanese athletes and pop stars), and opened what was possibly the most happenin' party ever held on a Wednesday night.
"I wish I could've invited all 5,000 beta testers," said Masahiro Koide, Microsoft's Xbox Live guru in Japan, at the start of the event.
If he did, it would've likely broken every building-capacity law in the book -- the Velfarre floor was packed with gamers and invitees all night, every one of them trying to have some personal time with Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II, Capcom Vs. SNK 2 EO, Thousand Land, Whacked!, and the other titles MS and others have prepared for Xbox Live's Japanese launch.
Playing each kiosk gave you points, and these points could qualify you to receive presents at the party, meaning that the booths were never really empty all night. However, Microsoft had a separate drawing for the top-tier prize: a cream-white Xbox with the signatures of pop group R.C.T. scrawled all over it. Rowr.
Game designers from across the industry, most of which were already working on Live-compatible Xbox titles, were on hand to wish Microsoft good cheer. Yuji Naka of Sonic Team commented to the audience on the rabid fan base that's already built itself around the Xbox PSO. "A few people have already built up two level-100 characters just during the beta test," he said, adding that "one woman on the staff is in the beta, but she was complaining to me that her boyfriend is addicted to PSO and won't go out with her anymore."
The party, however, was not entirely held just for Xbox fans to get drunk and yell at each other while playing PSO -- it was also an opportunity for developers to report on how their Live projects are shaping up.
Chief among them was Toshihiro Nagoshi of Sega's Amusement Vision development team, who announced arcade fighter Spikeout X-Treme for the Xbox and then disappeared for six months. "We are being very careful while creating this game," Nagoshi commented at the party. "We've already given up on a port (of the arcade game), so everything from the story to the graphic design will be completely remade. Spike probably won't even be the main character anymore."
Atsushi Inaba, producer of Steel Battalion, couldn't resist revealing a little bit more about the Live-enhanced version of his hardcore robot sim. The basic structure behind the game is already complete -- Steel Battalion Online is already finished within my head," as Inaba put it -- and now the team's concentrating on product design, play balance, and all the other things needed to make an online team-warfare game work. (Yes, it'll be team warfare -- Inaba's picturing small or large groups of players fighting each other online. Very nice of him.)
At the end of the party, Masato Hayashi, head of partner relations for Xbox Japan, went up on stage and fessed up on a little secret he'd been hiding. "Xbox Live is supposed to start at 10am on the 16th," he said, "but actually, it's already wired up. If you've got an official kit, you can play on it right now... We can't keep this going without all of you, so I hope you keep on supporting us. We'll try our best to respond to that support, and we'll keep on releasing good titles." Oooh, that devious trickster!