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From Issue #26 September 26, 2013

The Dragon Invasion

How the role-playing game came to Japan.

By Simon Parkin Twitter icon 

On February 10, 1988, a Wednesday, 392 Japanese schoolchildren were arrested for truancy in what a National Police Agency spokesperson described at the time as “a national disgrace.” Dragon Quest III, a role-playing game (RPG) released for Nintendo’s Famicom games console, sold 1 million copies that day. Its release proved so disruptive that its publisher, Enix, promised the Japanese government that it would release subsequent Dragon Quest games only on the weekend or during national holidays.1

To date, the Dragon Quest series has sold more than 60 million copies around the world. Its closest competitor, Final Fantasy, which is published by the same company, boasts even greater success, with in excess of 100 million global sales. The Japanese RPG is not only a financial success but also one of Japan’s most potent and enduring exports.

But in 1983 the role-playing game was almost unknown in the country; it was viewed as an American curio that had little relevance in the Japanese context. Henk Rogers, a Dutchman who arrived in Tokyo by way of Hawaii, saw things quite differently.

Henk Rogers.

Henk Rogers today.

Idea man

The American author Saul Bellow wrote that humans live amid the realm of ideas much more than they live amid nature. For Rogers and a group of like-minded students at the University of Hawaii in the late 1970s, those ideas lurked in dank caverns of the imagination. Some of them even breathed fire.

Dungeons and Dragons — a board-less board game in which players assume the role of a fantasy character and tour a fictional world to battle monsters and befriend strangers — quickly spread across university campuses following its release in 1974.2 “We had our own rules in Hawaii,” says Rogers, who moved to the island from his native Holland to study in 1975. “We played constantly, using photocopies of the three original Dungeons and Dragons books. There would be a game in the campus center that almost never ended. People would drop in and out of the adventure around class. Some weekends we’d start playing on a Friday evening and we wouldn’t stop till Monday morning. It was a huge part of my life.”

Although Rogers was a socially confident young man, he was also an academic misfit. “I knew I would never work a 9-to-5 job,” he says. “So I took any class that would secure me computer time. That was my passion.” Rogers studied any module that interested him, from psychology to zoology. At the end of his fourth year he met with the college advisors, who told him that he had an additional year of core requirements ahead of him if he wanted to graduate. “I declined their offer and left that day.”

Rogers departed for Japan (“I chased a girl to Tokyo”), where his father worked in the gem business. Unable to speak, read, or write Japanese, he joined the family company and worked for room and board. “There was a gap left from Dungeons and Dragons,” he says. “I later found out there were a handful of people playing the game in Japan, but there was no community and certainly no cultural familiarity with the language of ‘rolling a character.’”

After a couple of years working in the gem business for no salary, Rogers decided he wanted to make a video game, despite having no experience in the emerging field. In February 1982 he took the subway to Akihabara, Tokyo’s neon-lit electronics district, and began to tour the shops, sizing up the computer hardware on sale and the accompanying video games. He decided that the computer manufacturer NEC had the best hardware on offer at the time and spent $10,000 on an NEC-8801.

“Next I looked at what kind of games were doing well in Japan,” he says. “It was immediately obvious to me that the core difference between the two markets was that there were no computer role-playing games in Japan. The US had Ultima and Wizardry. But there were no such adventures in Japan. I thought, I could do that.”

Lost in translation

It was a reckless and, in some ways, baseless decision. “My only experience writing code was some college assignments,” he says. “I had never built a product. I had no idea what I was getting into. But I did have a bold vision for the game: a full Dungeons and Dragons game featuring fighters, warriors, wizards, clerics. All of that stuff.”

However, with only 64K of memory available, Rogers was forced to confine his concept to technological constraints, reducing the number of character classes to just one (“Warrior: I figured the Japanese could identify with that.”) and removing any inventory so that items, armor, and weaponry could be seen on the character rather than being nested in some menu screen. “Everything was visible,” says Rogers. “Except, of course, for the ‘hider’s cloak.’ That was my crowning achievement. If you defeated this one invisible enemy in battle, then you’d win his cloak. It cost me no memory at all to include that item.”

Rogers set himself a grueling schedule. He wanted the game to be released before Christmas 1983, which gave him just nine months to construct the adventure from scratch. “I divided time into blocks,” he explains. “I thought about how important each part of the game was and gave myself time accordingly. Then I’d work my ass off trying to get ahead. I would have an extra day or hour, and that would buy me the time to go back and fix earlier work that I wasn’t happy with.” It was arduous work, but he had a workable plan and, by this point, a title for the game. Drawing on his family’s experience within the gem industry, he settled on The Black Onyx.

Unable to read Japanese, Rogers was forced to rely on the girl he had chased from Hawaii to Tokyo, who was now his wife. “She had no understanding of computers at all,” he says. “It was the blind leading the blind. In the end I had to work a great deal out for myself.” To support his new family during the development, Rogers approached a friend who worked in the gem business in Bangkok. “I told him, ‘I can make a game but I don’t know business.’” The friend asked Rogers how much money he needed. “I said $50,000. He replied, ‘Man, you really don’t know anything about business, do you?’”

Rogers gave up half of the company for the capital, but his new partner had little interest in becoming meaningfully involved. “He told me he would handle all the accounting for me, but he never showed up once,” says Rogers. Three years following the game’s release, Rogers bought back his share of the company for $200,000.

As the game neared completion, Rogers tasked his brother with testing. “The best thing about that game is that I listened to those test players carefully and fixed every bug they found,” Rogers says. While his competence as a programmer and producer was evident, Rogers’s inexperience in business was revealed in a poor deal struck with Softbank, the largest software distributor in Japan at the time. “They advised me to place a few advertisements in magazines and get my wife to answer the phone, rather than securing a publisher. The video game industry was so young at that time; nobody really knew what they were doing.” Softbank promised to buy 3,000 copies of the game, but Rogers says it later reneged on the deal, buying just 600. This financial blow was compounded by Rogers’s failure to create effective advertising.

He commissioned a friend back in Hawaii, one of the members of his former D&D group, to create a piece of artwork for the advertisement. “It was a drawing in the style of Frank Frazetta: a hero standing on a pile of monsters swinging a sword. The problem was that in Japan nobody knew what the hell that meant. During the first month of the game’s release we received just one phone call.”

Rogers hastily remade the advertisement, this time including screenshots. But again the role-playing game proved alien for the Japanese audience. “The second month we sold four copies,” he says.

Dropping gems

By January the investment money was almost all gone. As a final attempt to drum up interest in the game, Rogers hired a translator and visited the offices of every computer magazine in Japan at the time. “I sat down with each editor and asked them for their name. I typed this in and then asked them to choose the head that looked most like them. In this way I taught them how to roll a D&D character. Then I left them to play.”

The ploy worked. In April every magazine carried an extensive review of The Black Onyx, with pages of coverage explaining the arrival of this new genre. “It was unbelievable,” says Rogers. That month the game sold 10,000 copies. It sold the same number in May, and again in June, and so on. By the end of the year, The Black Onyx was the best-selling computer game for that year across Japan.

Despite his partner’s assertion that Rogers did not understand business, the young programmer made a string of savvy decisions. “All computer games at that time were sold for 6,800 yen,” he explains. “I priced The Black Onyx at 7,800 yen and explained to retailers that, with 40 hours of gameplay, the game represented far better value for money than its rivals. More importantly, it also granted a bigger cut for the store.”

Rogers also packaged the game in a plastic case, which was more durable than the cardboard inserts used by other game publishers at the time. “It made the game appear more valuable,” he says. “It was something people would keep out, on display; their friends would see the game and ask about it.”

Rogers showed further marketing nous when he leaked to the press news of a real-world prize for the first players to complete the game. “The first 100 on every game platform would receive a real black onyx gem if they made it to the end of the game with a perfect karma score (achieved by not battling anyone weaker than your party). If they achieved this feat they could send in the passphrase Iggdrasil, and I sent them a gem along with a certificate proclaiming their success.”

The Black Onyx was such a success that Rogers immediately began work on a sequel. But by the time his team started on a third game, Japanese video game studios had begun to release their own take on the genre. Dragon Quest launched in 1986, and Final Fantasy followed the year after. “I was flattered on one hand,” says Rogers. “But I also realized that I didn’t quite understand the Japanese aesthetic and way. These games were quite different to mine, and just struck a more effective cultural chord.”

Black Onyx III was never finished. Then in 1988, Rogers, who had left programming to hunt for successful foreign games to bring to Japan, encountered a game called Tetris at a Las Vegas computer show. Rogers arranged a license from the Soviet Union government, which he sold to Nintendo. Tetris’s success forever changed the course of his life.

He looks back on those days with peculiar fondness. “It was the most ridiculous thing,” he says. “I picked the most complicated game possible and I had no experience. But I slammed it. Programming is like that. Once it works, it’s so perfect it’s just sublime.”

As for Dungeons and Dragons, Rogers still plays the game with his brothers from time to time. But no fantasy campaign can compete with his first quest for The Black Onyx. “If I think back on that journey, thirty years later, it’s like a ludicrous dream. It was the kind of project that’s so unlikely to work you’d only attempt it when you’re young and brave and stupid.”

  1. Kevin Purdy told the sad tale of a never-released fan-created sequel to Chrono Trigger, a game developed by Squaresoft in “The Everending Story” in issue #23 (August 15, 2013). Squaresoft later merged with Enix to become Square Enix. 

  2. Scott McNulty recounted his emergence from introversion through playing D&D in “Roll for Initiative” in issue #14 (April 11, 2013). 

Simon Parkin is an award-winning writer and journalist from England. He has contributed to The New Yorker, MIT Technology Review, The Guardian, and many others over the past decade, writing both criticism and journalism from the front-lines of video game culture.

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