NEWS - Friday, February 6, 2004

Getting in Bed With the Customer

You can't take the voluptuous, bikini-clad vixens from Tecmo's Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball to bed with you -- but if you buy an Xbox in Japan this March, Microsoft will give you the next best thing. This month marks the two-year anniversary of the launch of the Xbox video game system in Japan, and so far, things have not gone as planned for the Redmond, Washington-based software giant. In fact, Microsoft's entry hasn't yet sold 500,000 units, making it one of the worst-performing game consoles in the country's history. Still, the Xbox has its supporters -- and by and large, they're fans of the Dead or Alive games that feature a bevy of barely legal, high-resolution digital girls who fight in skimpy outfits and play volleyball in skimpier ones. The DOA games are the only two Xbox titles to break 100,000 units sold in Japan. So, to celebrate the Japanese release of Dead or Alive Online next month, Microsoft is rolling out a special edition Xbox set with an extra-special bonus -- a dakimakura, or "hugging pillow," that features a life-size, front-and-back print of teenage character Kasumi in a skimpy bikini. These character-print dakimakura came into existence in the late '90s as a way for animé fans to get up close and personal with their cartoon sweethearts. "They were originally very popular among fans of doujinshi (manga fanzines)," said Kunio Muto, a technology reporter for the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, "but over the past couple of years they have secured a spot in the otaku (obsessed fan) market." Hugging pillows are printed with life-size artwork of popular animé characters, and are basically life-size teddy bears for adult males, but otaku's relationships with their dakimakura can get a little more personal. "Searching Google Images with the term dakimakura is enough to understand the people who buy these items," said Muto. "I guess they're supposed to be used ... as pillows to hug, of course ... and for other obscene purposes that I would rather not mention." So why does Microsoft think that dakimakura will sell 5,000 Xboxes? "This isn't something that's supposed to attract new Xbox users; it's aimed at current Xbox DOA fans. The Xbox's image was cemented as the 'DOA machine' after Extreme Beach Volleyball's mild success last year. Microsoft has changed its direction from 'winning family users' to 'exploiting hard-core fanboys,'" said Muto. Shinpei Masui, a university student in Kyoto who is the leader of his school's gaming-enthusiast club, agrees. "To the average Japanese gamer, the Xbox is only for DOA Volleyball. Nobody really pays any attention to the other games. That said, the kind of people who buy DOA are mostly obsessed fans, and they buy it because they like the characters, not really because they enjoy the actual game play. And I think the creators intended this game for that kind of person, which is why it's sold more than other Xbox titles." So does Microsoft have any chance of reaching the non-pillow-hugging market with the Xbox? The bulkiness of the hardware might ensure that style-conscious Japanese consumers may not bite unless the system is redesigned to be smaller and lighter. "Among the general public, it's seen as a big game console by Microsoft that's not selling any good. Size matters in Japan," said Muto. "Among hard-core gamers who care about technology, it used to be known as a game console to play American and European games whose 3-D capability surpasses all the other game consoles out there." Masui agreed with this assessment. "Recently, my friends and I have been playing 007: Nightfire, and we've become a little more aware of American games. The high-quality ones have interesting qualities that Japanese games don't, and so we've begun to think about buying an Xbox to play games like Halo." "However," Masui said, "there are really very few Japanese who think this way." The Xbox Kasumi Blue limited-edition set hits Japanese shelves March 25. In addition to the Kasumi pillow, it includes a clear-blue Xbox system, one similarly colored controller, the DVD movie playback kit and remote control, the Dead or Alive Online software and 12 free months of Microsoft's Xbox Live online broadband gaming service. It will cost ¥22,800 ($216). Meanwhile, closer to home, the new game, renamed Dead or Alive Ultimate, is scheduled for U.S. release March 23 -- hugging pillow not included.

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