How Operation Rainfall succeeded
External factors helped spur the release of Xenoblade, but OpRa's fan camapigns and marketing efforts helped make Xenoblade and The Last Story commercially successful beyond publishers' expectations.
Frustrations voiced on internet forums usually don't result in any real changes. This is the internet. Everyone is (largely) anonymous, everyone has an outspoken opinion, and nobody needs to back up their words with anything tangible. As such, forums just don't influence the conversation in the industry.
The outcry over Mass Effect 3 and BioWare's subsequent concessions are one rare example of effecting change, but it's an outlier. The people complaining were consumers who'd already purchased the game, and who BioWare needed to sell DLC to. It probably made commercial sense for BioWare to appease the masses in the hopes that they'd lay down more hard cash for not only ME3 DLC, but future BioWare games. The bad PR was simply astounding, and when combined with the slowly faltering Star Wars: The Old Republic, the developer could be perceived as desperate to put it all behind them.
Yet Operation Rainfall, as explained by a wide range of gaming press sources, is unique. They were asking for a company (mostly Nintendo) to market a product with the promise that they'd buy it. In economic terms, they were asking Nintendo to spend money first in the hopes that OpRa and other fans would reward them in the future.
First, to explain: Operation Rainfall organized on the IGN forums. It pushed Nintendo to release three JRPG titles outside of Japan: Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower. Their argument was that the titles would be profitable, and so Nintendo should let consumers prove it.
Did Nintendo think it was a good idea? No.
Fact 1: Japanese RPGs are widely perceived (and at least to some extent, they are) declining as a genre.
Fact 2: Towards the end of a console's life cycle, game sales plummet. (One potential reason is that consumers are saving up money for the next console)
Fact 3: The games industry as a whole seemed to be in a downturn. Hardware and software sales were declining by double digits year-over-year beginning in 2010.
And now let's revisit OpRa's premise: Nintendo spends money to release a JRPG (1), towards the end of the Wii's life cycle (2), in the midst of a downturn for the whole industry (3). All in the hope that some dedicated fans would buy it in large enough quantities to turn a profit.
Yet it happened. There were a few things going in OpRa's favor: They had open wallets (and were willing to demonstrate it), GameStop (more on that later) and a European release was largely planned anyway. (The European release was only announced after OpRa's formation, but it takes a number of months to translate and port a game. NoE must've planned to port Xenoblade, the most prominent of the JRPGs, since at least 1-2 months prior to E3 2011.)
OpRa had a number of huge campaigns. They organized a mass pre-order for Xenoblade and pushed it to #1 of all video games on Amazon. They had people buy Final Fantasy on the Virtual Console. They organized email and letter-writing campaigns (which I participated in). And the leaders were responsible. They stuck to talking points: that if Nintendo would take a chance, OpRa would prove that JRPGs were still profitable.
In August 2011, Nintendo of Europe (NoE) released Xenoblade in their territory. It sold...poorly to moderate. In its first week, 30,000 units were sold. It's a paltry number, but over the first 6 weeks, it sold in a steady trickle. Enough to certainly break even with a modest profit, but nothing spectacular.
However, NoE had just done all the heavy-lifting. The costs of porting (rewriting menus, English voice-acting, etc.) were done. It would cost NoA virtually nothing to release it as well.
And here we come back to the final factor: GameStop. Given NoA's reluctance, GameStop probably did its own analysis, realized its potential for profitability, and struck a deal with NoA to make it a GameStop exclusive with an April 2012 release.
So yes, a number of factors outside OpRa's control aided it, but that's typical for all successful movements. The Civil Rights Movement wouldn't have been nearly as successful if images of brutal police responses weren't being broadcast into every TV in the US, changing people's opinions. But OpRa capitalized on everything aiding it.
Of all the marketers for Xenoblade, OpRa was probably the most prominent. GameStop advertised it as an exclusive, but OpRa advertised it as an amazing game. And thanks in large part to OpRa's efforts, US pre-orders (187k) exceeded total sales in Japan (160k).
Before Xenoblade even got released, Nintendo announced in late February that The Last Story, another of the three desired JRPGs, would be published by XSeeD in North America. The announcement was made around the same time that it was being released by Nintendo in Europe and Australia (February 23 and 24, respectively), so the timing was likely made to increase publicity, but the result was the same: 2/3 complete.
What helped with The Last Story? A combination of its pedigree and XSeeD's mission. The Last Story was being produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the same person behind the first six Final Fantasy titles. Moreover, its music was composed by Nobuo Uematsu, who might as well have a fifty-foot gold statue erected in his honor. He's legendary, and the soundtrack in The Last Story is jaw-dropping. Look at “Toberu Mono” and “Invitation to Madness” if you need a reference.
XSeeD is a unique publisher, but is perfectly suited to titles like The Last Story. For reference, XSeeD's mission is to "cross pollinate the avid gaming culture of Japan and North America" by bringing niche Japanese titles to American audiences. They've published games like Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, Little King's Story, Valhalla Knights, and the Ys series. So it's no surprise that they talked with Nintendo about publishing rights in North America, given The Last Story's quality, critical reception, and pedigree.
XSeeD has publicly stated that Operation Rainfall had no impact on their decision to publish The Last Story, and we'll take them at their word. Yet OpRa did engage in a marketing push for the game. And to XSeeD's unexpected but welcomed surprise, The Last Story became their most successful title in the company's history.
How to Get Pandora's Tower?
XSeeD prompted a new mode of thinking for OpRa. If Nintendo didn't want to take the financial risk, that doesn't mean that other publishers couldn't obtain the rights and do it on their own. The result was an appeal to ten different niche publishers whom OpRa deemed most receptive to Pandora's Tower. They raised the money needed quickly, and made the push during the summer.
...and nothing happened.
Not until today (January 16, 2013) was there any sign that Pandora's Tower still had life in it. Of the 3 JRPGs, it was easily the weakest link. Its critical reception didn't match the other two, and its developer, Ganbarion, was a relative unknown.
Yet XSeeD announced today that they'll publish Pandora's Tower this spring.
In retrospect, there is one clear reason why the Pandora's Tower announcement didn't come until today. The Wii U.
When XSeeD realized that The Last Story was highly profitable, Nintendo was already busy rolling out the Wii U and working to ensure a successful release. The high-level executives whom XSeeD would approach for Pandora's Tower's publishing rights in Nintendo of America (NoA) would be busy. Nintendo wouldn't have time to discuss last-generation's console in the midst of a new marketing push and worldwide console release.
In addition, Nintendo wouldn't want any announcements to occur anyway. Who wants announcements about your previous tech when you're trying to create an install base for your next product? The answer is nobody, and NoA would have every incentive to ignore XSeeD until the holiday season was over.
Thus, either Nintendo ignored discussion of Pandora's Tower until after the holiday season, or they prevented XSeeD from making the announcement until now. For good or for ill, that seems the most likely explanation.
Pandora's Tower is not going to receive much corporate advertising. Nintendo is busy with the Wii U and 3DS, and XSeeD has never had a great marketing arm. Pandora's success will depend almost entirely on OpRa's ability to boost publicity and mobilize its community.
In other words, OpRa went from imploring Nintendo to give them a chance (to prove profitability) to becoming the main organization to shoulder the burden of ensuring a game's commercial success in just 18 months.
Pandora's Tower will be released in the spring. Because of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner's slated April release, I'm betting that XSeeD will plan for March. But this is pure speculation. It could easily be in May. At any rate, XSeeD had to push back The Last Story's release by five weeks due to unpreparedness.
Bottom line: Operation Rainfall, a fan movement, achieved the impossible: between the marketing push for Xenoblade, the unprecedented sales for The Last Story, and being de facto entrusted with Pandora's Tower's sales, it has demonstrably influenced the games industry.
OpRa has begun hosting a hub of other fan campaigns, including Project Crystallis, We Desire Breath of Fire and others. It also regularly reports news on niche JRPGs that most consumers (including me) would never have heard of otherwise. After Pandora's Tower, OpRa's initial mission will be completely accomplished.
So now, the only question is what's next?