Operation Rainfall: How a fan campaign brought Nintendo to its knees
Never underestimate the power of a dedicated fanbase. That's the lesson we should learn from Operation Rainfall, a fan campaign started in 2011 to convince Nintendo to release in North America three Japanese RPGs for the original Wii: Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora's Tower. Now that the first two have been released and Pandora's Tower is slated for a March 26, 2013 release, Operation Rainfall seems like it will be a success. This fan campaign had all their demands met, despite historical precedence to the contrary. But the real value of Operation Rainfall and campaigns like it isn't in the games they champion, but the communities they create.
To understand why Operation Rainfall is so important, you have to know the full story. The project began in June 2011 on an IGN message board, where fans organized a letter-writing campaign to "absolutely flood Nintendo of America" with a heavy rain of correspondence—hence the name Operation Rainfall. Although email and social media played a role, old-fashioned postal letters accompanied by trinkets representing the games (a toy sword for Xenoblade Chronicles; a small book for The Last Story) were the primary form the campaign took. "You can easily click and delete an email," said Richard Ross, co-owner of OperationRainfall.com. "With a physical piece of mail, you have to open each and every one."
Although Ross can't say exactly how many participants the campaign recruited, when pressed he estimates it was in the thousands. "About three months into the campaign, we did get quite a few unhappy [Nintendo] employees saying, 'Please stop.' So they do know we exist!"
Operation Rainfall also organized month-long discussions focused specifically on The Last Story and Pandora's Tower, culminating in a day of outreach to Nintendo. "It was to hype the game up and get people interested in it," said Ross.
Operation Rainfall gave itself 18 months to pursue its agenda, terminating once the Wii U was released in November 2012. But the RPGs' release on what is now a last-gen console isn't too little, too late: although the Wii is in the twilight of its life, the Wii U's backward compatibility and drought of games make the release of these RPGs timely, at least according to Ross.
Of all the JRPGs that launch on foreign shores, the three titles specifically championed by Operation Rainfall were chosen for their pedigree: Xenoblade Chronicle's heritage lies in the Xenosaga series, and The Last Story bears Hironobu Sakaguchi's influence. According to Ross, "The father of Final Fantasy is behind a game and directing for the first time since Final Fantasy V—why do we even have to ask for it?"
Ross admits Pandora's Tower, lacking such a backstory, was a bit of an outlier, but it shared the same Japanese publisher as the other two games and "looked really cool."
Not only had all three games already been translated into English for the European market; each also received positive reviews from publications such as Famitsu.
"It's not just about what games you want; it's also what stands a chance of coming over," said Ross. "A lot of people were asking if we could request Earth Seeker, but it bombed critically and commercially in Japan. It'd be really hard to justify pushing that game."
Operation Rainfall's success was unexpected, as Nintendo has not responded favorably to similar campaigns regarding the Mother series. With only the second RPG in that franchise having been released in the USA (as EarthBound for the Super NES) the fan community Starmen.net, founded in 1998, launched three campaigns of its own—first to release Mother 1 (also known as EarthBound Zero), then the cancelled EarthBound 64, and finally Mother 3.
In an era before Facebook and Twitter, Starmen.net nonetheless accrued 10,000 signatures on an online petition to release EarthBound 64, mostly through grassroots marketing.
"We somehow got email addresses for IGN's Peer Schneider and Fran Mirabella and would contact them directly," said Reid Young, co-founder of Starmen.net. "And any tool we didn't have that we needed, we fashioned ourselves. Petition sites didn't exist, so we had staff working around the clock vetting online signatures, looking for joke names and checking IP addresses."
It's impossible to say whether campaigns like Starmen.net or Operation Rainfall were successes or failures, as game localization is ultimately a decision of finances, not passion. Operation Rainfall benefited from the ability of fans to pre-order Xenoblade Chronicles from Amazon.com before its release had been announced, making it the retailer's #1 video game for a day. Such pledges would carry more weight than petitions.
"The only thing Starmen.net users could've done was gone on eBay and maybe bought EarthBound," said Ross, "but [Nintendo] wouldn't see the profits in that."
EarthBound sold half as many copies in North America as it did in Japan, discouraging Nintendo from future releases. "Like most fans, we've been kind of naive about the business aspects of Nintendo," said Young. Though Reid understood the decision not to localize the rest of the Mother series, he still didn't feel it's the right one. "We've given so much marketing to these games—if Nintendo had been paying attention, they would've taken advantage of that," he said.
When publishers don't fulfill such expectations, fans are often left with no recourse. In the case of Mother 3, Starmen.net's other co-founder, Clyde Mandelin, took matters into his own hands, producing a patch that would translate a Mother 3 ROM from Japanese to English. Such efforts often lag well behind a game's commercial release—and not just because of the relative complexity of modern, disc-based games.
"When kids grow up with a console, it takes time for them to grow up and gain the skills to go back and tinker with that system," said Mandelin.
Whether or not gamers get gratification from publishers, the community that develops around such campaigns can be its own reward. After The Last Story's release was announced, Operation Rainfall's coordinators asked themselves what they'd set their sights on next. The result was oprainfall, a news site covering not just Operation Rainfall's original three titles, but any Japanese games desired for import or localization. The site also features a "campaign hub" that promotes other fan petitions.
Similarly, Starmen.net led directly to Young launching Fangamer, an online retailer that sells both unofficial and licensed merchandise inspired by older video games, including EarthBound. "You start out as a fan of this game, and you find other people with similar interests, and you realize: we all get along really well, we all have the same interests, we can do stuff—we can cooperate," said Young. "That happens to lend itself pretty well to business, too."
Both Operation Rainfall and Starmen.net improved awareness of Japanese RPGs, making the games a more visible aspect of pop culture and knitting together communities of like-minded gamers. I think that makes both campaigns a success, whether or not the original goals were achieved. As Ross said to detractors who questioned the effectiveness of his campaign: "I'm having fun—and if you're enjoying doing something, why stop?"