Microsoft's Xbox division said yesterday it has hired Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the "Final Fantasy" franchise, to develop two games exclusively for the next-generation Xbox console.

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Looking to gain a stronger foothold in Japan, Microsoft’s Xbox division said yesterday it has hired Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the “Final Fantasy” franchise, to develop two games exclusively for the next-generation Xbox console.

Sakaguchi and his studio will create two role-playing video games, which will be published by Microsoft Game Studios and released to the Japanese market. Microsoft would not say what the games would be or when they will be released.

Analysts are expecting the company’s next-generation Xbox console to debut in the U.S. before the holiday season, but Microsoft has not confirmed a launch date.

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The Xbox has not become the success in Japan that Microsoft had hoped for. The company has only sold 1.7 million Xbox consoles in Asia, compared with 13.2 million sold in North America and 5 million in Europe. The company has not given a breakdown of sales in Japan.

Peter Moore, corporate vice president of worldwide marketing and publishing at Microsoft, said the Xbox’s missteps in Japan were caused by several factors. The console itself seemed bulky in a country that adores consumer electronics and puts a premium on style. Perhaps even more significant, Microsoft never released a Japanese role-playing game — a staple for video-game players there.

“We haven’t done anything of any magnitude in the role-playing game area and that has been our Achilles’ heel,” Moore said. Microsoft produced six games directly in Japan, including the action war title “Magatama,” the fighting game “Phantom Dust” and a dinosaur-collecting game called “Dinosaur Hunting.”

Microsoft has said it plans to do a few things differently with its next-generation console. For one, the company plans to launch the console earlier than rival machines made by Sony PlayStation and Nintendo, or at least simultaneously. Sony’s PlayStation 2 debuted in 2000, the year before the Xbox, and was able to get a head start on sales.

Microsoft also plans to do a better job in Japan, the home of its two rivals, and key to that strategy is releasing a solid role-playing video game.

Enter Sakaguchi, a game creator known in Japan for his work on the “Final Fantasy” series. Sakaguchi began his career creating games for the Apple II computer and spent nearly two decades at Japanese game developer Square, which is now called Square Enix.

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Hironobu Sakaguchi created the first “Final Fantasy” game in the late 1980s, and since then 11 titles in the franchise have been released. He also directed the 2001 movie “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” which featured animated character Dr. Aki Ross, pictured, voiced by actress Ming-Na.

He created the first “Final Fantasy” game in the late 1980s, and since then 11 titles in the franchise have been released. Sakaguchi also directed the 2001 movie “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” a box-office bust.

Hiring Sakaguchi “is kind of our opening salvo for how serious we are about the Japanese market,” Moore said.

Japan has been the most difficult market for the Xbox to crack, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

Bringing Sakaguchi on board “will definitely help,” he said. “They have an opportunity to reset the market, and if Xbox 2 beats the next PlayStation and the next Nintendo box to market, I think they have a very good chance of getting a head start.”

Brian O’Rourke, a video-game-hardware analyst with In-Stat, said that Microsoft has had a tough time persuading Japanese software developers to create games for the Xbox. Additionally, he said, Sony and Nintendo have a home-court advantage in Japan, which likely made them more appealing to developers and gamers there.

But Microsoft is an extremely tenacious company with almost limitless financial resources, O’Rourke said, and is committed to learning from its experiences with the first-generation Xbox console.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com