As a follow-up to our MangaGamer interview, we took some time to sit down with JAST USA, the company behind a huge number of titles such as My Girlfriend is the President, May Club and Three Sisters' Story. Oh, and they're J-List.
You know, the company that brings you pocky, study materials and bento boxes.
Specifically, I spoke with Peter Payne, the man behind it all at JAST, J-List and the other companies under that umbrella. Peter is able to give a much more storied background into the world of visual novels and dating sims, having gotten started in this business all the way back in 1996.
What made you decide to take a leap from importing Japanese products to the world of localizing and publishing ero-ge titles?
Well, back in 1996 (which was a really long time ago, in Internet years), I was looking around for something to do related to this new "Internet" thing. A friend and I hit on licensing and translating the dating-sim games, and since I was in Japan I started contacting game companies to see who might be interested. We actually started J-List to tide us over while the game company took off. As it turned out, J-List was a huge success, which helped the ero-ge side of our little business, too. The two really complement each other, I think.
Has the venture been terribly successful? You seem to have only a handful of partner companies on the Japanese side -- are there plans to expand out more?
We've definitely met all of our goals, which has been to make a profit (sometimes very small) off of every dating-sim game we published, and to always grow and do interesting new things. The eroge business is a major pillar of J-List (others being our "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" T-shirts, bento boxes, Tenga toys and what not), and we love it a lot. One thing we did right was essentially making our own distributor to carry the games to anime retailers in the U.S. Unlike Japan, where there are several national retailers of adult PC games selling to all manner of shops and other retail businesses, there's nothing like that in the U.S., so we had to do it ourselves (which is our PCR Distributing company in San Diego.)
Of course most fans have hopefully seen our newest announcement, My Girlfriend is the President, a really excellent game about aliens making your childhood friend the president of the planet. It's very recent release by a great company and the YouTube video with English voiceover has introduced the game to a lot of people. We've got more games we'll be announcing soon, some of which will make fans of ero-ge very happy, and we think there's a lot to look forward to in 2011. We'll also have Demonbane out with its revamped game engine, with a beautiful package and included artbook, something that fans will love.
In the past, I've seen a lot of flak against JAST titles -- is this just a vocal minority, or do you see only a few repeat buyers of your products.
There have been a couple of titles where we just had no choice but to make a small change because of the content of one game or another. It's been a very infrequent thing, but when it happens some fans get very upset. I think most fans understand both sides of the issue -- we're fighting the good fight for the English H-game industry, arguably doing more than anyone else on the planet for English ero-ge, and when we have a small change we feel we need to make (or at times, that the original publisher feels needs to be made, and we have to go along with), sometimes it gets made.
Where we've failed sometimes is not communicating this enough to our customers ahead of the fact, since often changes are last minute. Before any game comes out, we've promised to make a post to the JAST USA BBS detailing anything we changed in any game (and the changes really are rare). By and large most customers purchase many titles from us, an average of six to eight I think it was, for which we're very happy.
What difficulty have you run into trying to reach out to the potential ero-ge market in the US? What is your main way of even advertising your products?
We've been doing this a long time, since 1996 actually, so we've seen many changes in how we've approached things. Basically, there is essentially zero "traditional" retail market for adult games, so we've had to work hard to build demand, with online retailers (since H-games are essentially an online phenomenon for most fans), selling at conventions where we can explain what makes visual novels unique, making sure our products were available via download, and so on. We were contractually required to support the awful "V-Mate" online activation system for a while but we've happily ended that, releasing patches or DRM-free installers for all the V-Mate games. So we're trying to work hard to make each game as successful as it can be, so that Japanese companies will give us better and better games.
Obviously one big problem is piracy. For every loyal fan who casts his or her "dollar votes" for our games -- which are a niche within a niche within a niche, let me tell you -- there are a hundred or so "fans" who can name a dozen great ero-ge companies, tell you who their favorite artists or even voice actresses are, yet they think it's acceptable to download all the games for free. It's a sad situation, no different from anime in general, yet a bit more painful since we're likely to sell so many fewer copies of a given game than, say, a mainstream anime will sell DVDs. We definitely don't stress out about piracy like some companies, but it does suck, and if fans would just buy stuff they'd like to see more of, there'd be more games for them to play.
Do you feel much, if any, competition with the other licensors out there (namely, MangaGamer), or is the pond still plenty big for titles out there?
If you watch what we've done over the years, it's mainly to work cooperatively with every game company that's come along. This has taken the form of us working as a distributor for them, helping them move another 500 games or whatever. I think MangaGamer is a great company with some great titles, but since they haven't got a physical package for us to help them sell, it's been harder for us to work with them. Maybe we can do more with them in the future, but there are other issues too.
It's been my experience that any time a company does business entirely from a Japanese perspective, strange things happen. One company called Himeya Soft/C's Ware did pretty well for a while, yet they behaved in a way that confused fans, like releasing games with mosaic censoring, or trying to get retailers to accept Japanese style price structures. (In Japan, shops are lucky to capture 20% of the profit from a game sale, yet in the rest of the world shops can expect 50% or higher markups depending on the product). Companies that work with a strong local partner (like us) hopefully have a smoother time interfacing with international markets. Sometimes there has been confusion by fans who can't understand why company X (MangaGamer, whoever) does what they do, and the answer is usually, that's how they do it in Japan and they're having trouble making a jump to a new paradigm.
Could you describe your relationship with your Japanese partners? Are they fairly hands-off when it comes to the US market, or do they stick their nose in a lot?
Since the Japanese are very conservative and risk-averse most are not interested in having us sell their games. When we're looking for new games to license, we try to find a company that would be able to offer us a variety of titles, and we try to talk with them. Often the answer is no, a word we've heard a lot of over the last few years. Still, if we can find the right mix of good games that are known to fans outside of Japan and a company president with a personality (read: ego) that is in line with wanting to have their games played by fans around the world, it can work out well. To them, we represent a "secondary use" opportunity, e.g. a way to make money from a game that's already paid for itself in the Japanese market, and also to reach fans around the world. This makes sense to some game companies, but others -- ones that are xenophobic about the outside world, or who are very risk-averse, or games that are worried about offending their Japanese fan base -- are sadly not interested.
Say I'm one of these fake fans who refuse to pay -- why should I pay for something to jack off to? Isn't that what the Intenet is all about? Giving me free tits to look at?
There will always be people who get stuff for free from the Internet, I know. I'm hoping the unique and niche nature of the ero-ge being published in English, which often must make a small profit off of 2000 copies or fewer sold, will make fans do the right thing and buy every game they would like to see more of. Think of all the crap a person spends $25 or $30 on, which brings them so much less joy than a really well written ero-ge like Yume Miru Kusuri or Family Project or the Raidy games. Think of how much good you can do helping us bring out one more title per year by buying the games you want to play?
I also think there's a bit difference between (most) ero-ge and straight porn, which is going to serve one purpose, that of quick fappage. Anyone who's been really affected by a good visual novel story arc, who joyously found the key to unlock that one difficult in a game they were into, will realize they're not the same at all.
Where do you see JAST USA and the industry going in the next five years?
Hmm, good question. While there has been much rending of garments over the Tokyo censorship bill, I think fans don't need to worry about their favorite games (or manga,or whatever) going away. Japan is really into tatemae (the way we pretend things are) and honne (the way they are in actuality), and there will be a lot of this, e.g. certain companies taking token steps to be seen as complying. Remember, any 18+ game is unaffected by the new rules anyway, since they're already being sold to adults. (Right, Kirino? Ha, I jest.) Maybe they'll start requiring people buying some of the more ecchi anime to be 18, that's not going to affect things that much.
Download sales have really taken off both in Japan and for us as a company. We will never publish a game that doesn't have a physical package, but if download sales are going to be as strong as they have been, eventually we might seen very small runs of packages being printed before we make the games be download only. Which means collectors shouldn't wait to get the games they want. (We regularly hear anguished customers who want to buy some of the games we no longer have packages for.)
What was the strangest thing that ever happened to you while selling bishoujo games?
The CD-ROM pressing factory we use sometimes makes errors, which is a pain. Once they managed to switch an erotic game CD-ROM with a CD of Orthodox Jewish wedding music. We suddenly had customers complaining that their games weren't working and were playing Yiddish wedding tunes. I guess there were probably some Orthodox Jews with giant sweat drops on their heads when that happened.
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