Why 'ninja' developer Tose published its first game in 32 years

After 32 years of secretive, behind-the-scenes game development, Tose has broken its own rule of "never" publishing games. Speaking exclusively to Gamasutra, the elusive company explains why.
Tose is one of those rare companies that is so bizarre that it keeps the video game industry constantly interesting. Established in Japan in 1979, Tose has been making games for over 32 years, and has shipped over a thousand of them. With twelve offices spanning three countries, Tose is one of the largest independent video game studios in the world. And yet, outside of its publishing partners in Japan, the name has never been very well known. Gamasutra first exposed the company six years ago in what was probably its first English-language profile. At the time, Tose described itself as a "ninja" company, working behind the scenes and not taking credit for its titles. Since then, independent research has linked hundreds of games to the company, and while the majority of its work has never left Japan, there are some surprising revelations here. Nintendo in particular seems to be a surprisingly long-term partner, with ties going as far back as the original 1986 version of Kid Icarus. When we first met Tose, the company's tiny U.S. branch (consisting of exactly two employees at the time) was trying to expose itself to American game publishers, without much luck. The idea of the then-recently-opened branch was to try and replicate the business model that had worked so well in Japan, but for a new market: rapid, reliable, secret game development. The company had no ambitions to publish games itself: in fact, in a presentation we saw, a slide specifically called out that Tose would "never" become a publisher. And yet, six years later, Tose Software USA has done just that. In March the company released Susume Tactics!, a "strategic puzzle game" for Sony's portable PSP. The move is somewhat surprising for the company -- which didn't even develop the game, it was done by another company in Japan -- but this doesn't represent a drastic change in philosophy. "We're hoping that it will give us more exposure to American markets," a Tose employee tells us (in Tose ninja fashion, we were asked not to reveal the names of any of the representatives we spoke to). "[Publishing games] from the Japanese office takes time, takes money, but we're hoping that doing it through the American branch will give us a speed advantage. We'll try to use this position again to possibly do more publishing deals." The well has been drying up for Tose in the United States. In past years, it was able to secure deals to create games for the Wii and DS. Now, we're told, with both of those platforms on the decline, publishers assume Tose's incapable of much else. "U.S. publishers usually think Japanese developers can just make Nintendo platform console games, but those platforms are [declining]," says Tose. "Other big platforms like 360, PS3, and PC are getting bigger here, and they think Japanese developers cannot make big titles for those platforms." It's not only that: exchange rates are also making the idea of outsourcing game development to Japan increasingly unrealistic for an American company. "We do get regular RFPs from American publishers. And we do submit bids on them," says Tose. "But the exchange rate is really bad." Susume Tactics! is available digitally for $4.99 on the PSP. Moving forward, Tose says it hopes to continue its publishing experiment: either by distributing other Japanese games with no American outlets, or by self-publishing its own titles.

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