Circle Entertainment Interview – Finding Success Bringing Niche Games West

Nindies are, without a doubt, on the rise. Basically, the Nintendo Switch has become a wonderful indie gaming machine as several fantastic indie games have made their way onto the console. What I personally love about the Nintendo Switch is that I can play big-budget games on it, like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for instance, but also be able to play more niche games that I love to take on the go.

From the Nintendo DS days till now, Circle Entertainment has been a leader in successfully bringing niche games, games that we never thought we’d have the chance to play, to Nintendo consoles and handhelds. However, they’ve also brought titles over to other consoles and handhelds as well. All of us at Noisy Pixel have been wanting to find out more about how Circle Entertainment works, especially after enjoying so many of the publisher’s titles like The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa and Mercenaries Wings: The False Phoenix.  At GDC 2019, we had the chance to sit down with Thomas Whitehead, product manager at Circle Entertainment, to get the scoop on all things Circle Entertainment.

The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa 2

Brad Crespo: You’ve been releasing Nintendo eShop exclusive titles in the west. Given that these titles are more niche and indie-like, what’s the reception been like over here?

Thomas Whitehead: Well, I think it’s been really good. Our output now is probably more diverse than maybe it was in the DSi to 3DS era. For our titles on the Switch, in the earlier days, they kind of hit a nerve — caught people’s attention — especially when KAMIKO released. Even though a playthrough of that game takes just an hour, you can play through it many times, and I think it’s retro style hit a nerve. It was really well received.

Other games, like VOEZ and DEEMO, have also been well received. The developers for both of those games are huge in Asia, and they always do well in Japan, so I think a bit of word of mouth gets around and people hear about these more niche games and want to get these games immediately. So yeah, the reception has been really good. We’ve [Circle Entertainment] really created a niche and cool game reputation for ourselves.

What’s also helped [our reception in the west] is that we release frequent updates for our games, like DEEMO’s Nintendo Labo support update and VOEZ’s song updates, which has made players come back to our games. I think what’s most important is that you have people who have had the games for ages that really enjoy getting these extras, and it helps that people think kindly of you as a publisher and it helps when working with developers.


BC: How do you find an audience for your games?

TW: We have quite a variety of games, especially for the Nintendo Switch, which is really a console that caters to everything. Some of our games are more portable games, while others can be seen as more TV, at-home games. I think that fans of our previous games, especially those on Nintendo’s previous handhelds, have gravitated towards the Switch, and so because of that, we were able to easily retain and build the audience that we’ve had throughout the years.

BC: Circle Entertainment has done an excellent job of bringing many indie Japanese titles over here. With that said, how has publishing and localization been for Circle Entertainment? Have you noticed any major changes in the past few years?=

TW: I think changes with the localization process aren’t quite huge, really. One thing that has changed, though, is the quality of translations. I remember that during the DS era, especially, many titles had sort of shonky translation work. Every game has a different audience, and sometimes, this audience doesn’t focus too much on the translations of certain games. However, I think for some games, we’ve been really focusing on the localized text.

Either I or someone else will actually go through documents with entire scripts and make changes — which are sometimes minor changes — and tidy them up. For our more recent titles, they’ve gone through more checks and edits and really stepped up the quality of the scripts. For our older titles, we were more forgiven for errors, but now, things have definitely changed as we, along with several other developers, try not to have wonky translations.

As far as publishing goes, for now, I’d say half of them are from Japan whereas the other half are from western developers, which is pretty incredible. We’re a bit more global now. I think the reason for this or at least part of the reason, is because of our past titles being successful and catching the attention of different developers. The company [Circle Entertainment] is still essentially based in Asia, but we’ve been growing over here.


BC: One of the devs you predominately work with is Flyhigh Works who has done and is currently working on a number of titles. Flyhigh Works’ Fairune received some love from reviewers and fans when it was released on the eShop back in May 2018. Now, there’s a physical version coming out, and I’m curious to know how’d that came to be.

TW: Yeah, so we partnered with Super Rare Games for the retail version of Fairune, and actually, all 4,000 copies, that were available for pre-order, have actually been sold out and it only took one day for that to happen. They [Super Rare Games] told us that that was their fastest selling title to date. It’s cool to see how rare game collectors have been picking up these limited editions of games, especially Switch games.

Fairune did pretty well on the eShop and it was Super Rare Games actually came up to us about doing a limited edition for the game. The developers of Fairune was really pleased about that.

BC: Could we expect other titles, like perhaps Mercenaries Wings: The False Phoenix, to get a limited retail release?

TW: We’ve done quite a few limited releases, like for VOEZ — for example, but basically, we determine whether or not to do a limited edition depending on how a game performs with its digital sales. It’s a tricky thing, at the moment, since we make this decision on a game-per-game basis, and the limited edition area, is quite a new area for us. We didn’t do it during the DS and 3DS era, so it’s essentially been only about 12 or 16 months.

Fans are normally quite quick to tell you, especially through social media, if they’d like a physical version of a title. We’re always actively looking at options to bring a game to retail.

World Tree Marché

BC: Going back to Flyhigh Works, Circle Entertainment has worked with the studio for a number of titles. What’s the partnership like?

TW: So, the CEO of Circle Entertainment and the CEO of Flyhigh Works are almost like brothers — they’re very close. They’ve worked together on a lot of projects, so the partnership is basically that Flyhigh Works staff will help with our projects and we’ll help them with theirs as well. The two companies aren’t formally merged, or anything like that, they’re two distinct companies. Flyhigh is very strong in Japan and Circle is a bit more well-known in the west, so the two pretty much work as one company. We’re like one big team or family. I don’t know of any other arrangements quite like it.

BC: What are your plans looking like for 2019? 

TW: We’re quite busy. We got《Cytus α》coming over here, which is from the developers of VOEZ and DEEMO. A lot of the Circle projects we got coming up are actually more Western-focused. We also got more games from Skipmore coming up. So yeah, we got a number of great titles coming over the next few months.

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Brad Crespo

Editor-in-Chief - On a quest to play as many new games as possible while trying to finish an endless backlog.