Microsoft will launch its Xbox 360 game console in Japan on Saturday, completing a three-continent launch that began in North America on 22 November and continued in Europe on 2 December.
The launch is important for the software maker as its previous Xbox console never gained much traction in Japan despite doing well in the US and European markets. Not only would success in Japan mean higher sales for Microsoft, but it would also give the console a better image among Japanese software developers – and that could mean more and better games on sale everywhere.
Microsoft began its Japan market push early. In May, when the rest of the world was learning about the Xbox 360 through a 30-minute sponsored program on MTV, Japanese media and retailers heard details direct from the company and game developers at an event in Tokyo. Japan was the only place where Microsoft held a live event that day.
The game console even has its own building in Japan: the Xbox 360 Lounge, a purpose-built structure in Tokyo's trendy Omotesando district where people can walk in and try out the console. The facility opened on 2 November, three weeks ahead of the US Xbox 360 launch, giving Japanese users an early taste of the machine.
One of the criticisms that local gamers levelled at the original Xbox was that its software line-up was heavy on first-person shooting games, which are popular in the US and Europe but not so popular in Japan. Microsoft has commissioned three well-known Japanese game developers to produce titles that are more appealing to the Japanese audience. The games include N3 Ninety Nine Nights, by Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Q Entertainment and Every Party by Yoshiki Okamoto of Game Republic. Developer Hironobu Sakaguchi is also working on a game for the console.
More than elsewhere, Microsoft faces significant competition in Japan from both Sony and Nintendo. Both companies plan to launch new consoles in 2006, so some local gamers may hold off on choosing a next-generation console. Sony and Nintendo have yet to demonstrate prototype systems, so it remains impossible to tell just how well the three consoles will compare with each other.
Microsoft's wish for strong sales has already given Japanese users one reason to smile. The company is making just one version of the console available in Japan, but it is broadly similar to the higher-spec version available in other countries and costs less. It will cost ¥37,900 (about £180), compared with UK prices of £210 for the basic system and £280 for the higher-spec system.
Sales are set to begin in Tokyo at 7am local time on Saturday morning (10pm GMT Friday).