Visual novels have a long and storied history with anime. The wide breadth of characters combined with their deep stories often produced some fantastic anime. But the world of visual novels has, by and large, been closed to Western audiences. There hasn't been a large market for the medium, and for the longest time, JAST USA was the only major publisher of visual novels.
In recent years, though, a new company came into the game: MangaGamer.
I got a chance to shoot a few questions over to John Pickett, translator and head of marketing for the company. We talked a bit on how the company was formed, how the business is doing and why some of their titles are so successful (Hint: Lolis.)
So head on through to see what the folks at MangaGamer have to say, and be prepared for our interview tomorrow with JAST USA!
How did MangaGamer come to be?
The origin or structure of MangaGamer.com is quite complicated. The company itself is run by a relative of Bamboo, the president of OVERDRIVE, which is the game company behind Kira Kira. It was an ambitious project of Bamboo's to start selling visual novels overseas. However, since it was impossible to initiate the project from scratch, he got several other Japanese game companies to join in on the project, acting as financers and backing this project up with their catalog as well. Today, the core employees are kind of spread out through the different companies involved, with the other employees, myself included, being spread throughout the world.
Has the business been profitable? Are you driving around in tricked-out rims thanks to 2-D titties?
We were struggling pretty badly in the beginning, dealing with a new market and the unorganized corporate structure we had, and it was hard to say we were successful. Now, we are running things more smoothly inside and outside the company, which I hope the quality of our upcoming releases will demonstrate. Our sales are gradually yet steadily getting better. Hopefully the rocky road is now behind us, but it's still an uphill climb. As for my car, it barely even sees the road anymore, but I can assure you it would have a Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha paint job long before I ever put tricked-out rims on it.
How do you guys actually market your 18+ material? I would imagine it's harder to take out magazine ads and site skins advertising sex.
It definitely has been difficult marketing the 18+ material, but it's definitely a different whale for us than it is for most other adult sites. In our case, many of our games' true attraction lies not with the adult content, but with the story and the characters. I know you can find many reviews of Kira Kira now, and almost everyone is impressed and touched by the game, but they also aren't going to sit there and say "That was the best wank I ever had," about the title either. So at the same time, since the adult content is more of a bonus in these games, it's been hard to advertise them for the sex either. Where we've had a lot of success is with anime-related sites, because a good deal of our titles have seen anime adaptations, and a lot of people are interested in seeing what the original was like. It's the watch the movie, read the book effect. So between using the anime appeal of these games, as well as the fact that we do have a non-adult site which concerned sites or magazines can direct to, we have managed to get us some of those magazine ads as well as articles on sites our competitors may not have not been as lucky with. As for our clearly adult titles which are meant to help give a good wank, well, those kind of sell themselves once people realize they're there.
What's your most successful title thus far? Why do you think that is?
Shuffle is by far our most successful title. To the point that it's an utter outlier on our charts. Even we don't know exactly why it's done so much better than our other titles. I'm sure the anime factor is one large element, but Da Capo, Soul Link and Higurashi all had anime as well, and none of them have topped Shuffle yet. It'll be interesting to see if Koihime Musou turns out to be our next Shuffle. I'd like it to. I suspect one other contributing factor is the fact that, by almost pure coincidence, our release of Shuffle nearly coincided with FUNimation's release of the anime.
Excluding Shuffle though, our next best title has been Kira Kira, which I feel more proud of. Without an anime or any other sort of pre-established interest, Kira Kira has still managed to do well. Getting it to sell at first has certainly involved more work than some of our other titles, but the strength of the game itself has carried it very well, both in reviews and in word from our customers.
I think Edelweiss also has the same strength to stand on its own once it's given the presentation it deserves. I know our original release of Edelweiss, which was prior to my working with MangaGamer, was anything but difficult to bear, but when we finish the re-translation, I really hope everyone will give it a second chance.
How has the quality control process evolved at MangaGamer over the years? You've gone from having a Dad-off to getting games that are emotionally touching. How are you looking to improve yourselves in the future?
Well, when the company first started out in 2008, it was mostly native Japanese speakers involved in its founding. As a result, many of our early translators responsible for games like Suck My Dick or Die were translated by those who’s native language was Japanese, which lead to some engrish, and obviously some translators were better than others.
It wasn’t until I joined MangaGamer in Aug 2009 that we had our first native English translator on the team. Up until this time, and while I was still working on Soul Link, the only real editor we had was one of our core employees who’d spent several years in the US doing the editing work on the side, in addition to his other work as best he could manage. A few months after I realized this was the case and Soul Link was released, I managed to locate another person with the right skills, so now we actually have a native English speaking dedicated editor who reviews all of our games before their release. Although he started work with Guilty ~The SiN~ in mid-2010, Da Capo Innocent Finale and Da Capo 2 are the first of our releases in which you can see his work.
Likewise, when the Trial version for Koihime Musou first came out, a few of us took a moment to test it, and make sure the combat system worked alright before making any mention or release of it. In this first incidence of testing around late-2010, wherein most of the errors and bugs we found were not with the combat system, but within the text or how the text was displayed, we realized that we needed to add a testing line. Fortunately, this also happened to coincide with the period where we were arranging our partnership with NNL, and as part of this now had access to experienced beta testers from their group. We filled out their ranks with a few additional people we managed to find ourselves, and now we have a firm line of good testers, all of whom are essentially volunteer fans working for more eroge.
One of our followers made quite the analogy, comparing our improvement in quality to our panel at Anime Expo 2010, where the first translators were acquaintances of our Japanese guests and didn’t do a very good job, then replaced by native English speaking AX staff who did well but were followed up by fans who were more intimately familiar with the games.
Also, during the time I worked on Koihime Musou and Da Capo 2, I was going through and weeding out the people responsible for things like that dad-off and finding better, more skilled replacements to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So, while those who have already played DCIF and DC2 probably already realize, our rocky start with quality control is long behind us now.
As for how we plan to improve our quality control in the future, I don’t think there’s much room for improvement left, but I’m sure the continued feedback from our fans will help us find where there is.
Could you describe your relationship with your Japanese partners? I ask this with the news of the voice tracks for your latest title not coming out unless you reach a certain threshold for purchases.
For the most part, we at MangaGamer are a conduit for them. Every single one of our partners is hoping to see a success in the western market and they’re also the ones investing most of the funding into the localization of their games. In exchange, they also make most of the return.
We talk with them fairly frequently, and they play an equally large role in decision-making, especially with regards to their own games.
As for the voice issue with Koihime, this has to do with just how different games are handled and contracts signed. In many or most cases, the creators of the games own everything, including the voices, that goes with their game and are free to do as they want with it. In other cases, like Koihime, the voices are licensed, and creating a new “port”, such as an English version, allows the voice actors’ studio to demand additional fees. In the case of Koihime. which has over 25 different voice actors, many of which are big names in the Japanese eroge industry, or even the anime industry (such as Norio Wakamoto, Koyasu Takehito, etc.), this additional cost nearly doubles the cost of localization for the game.
Since they want to be able to keep releasing games to the English market, they were forced to make the decision they did. If Koihime sells under the target number, it’ll demonstrate their prediction was right and they may choose to focus on shorter, less risky games for a while. If it sells over the target number, not only will everyone get the voices, but it will demonstrate the potential to take the risk on localizing even longer, more risky games such as the sequel.
What guides your decisions in licensing? I'd have to imagine that the US market is largely ignorant of what titles are out there in Japan, unlike the anime and manga markets. Do you go for what already has an illicit fanbase, or do you try to bring the very best in terms of quality (or sales) from Japan?
Well, funny that you mention anime and manga, considering a lot of anime coming out now has origins in eroge. From our catalog, there’s Da Capo, Shuffle, Soul Link, Koihime Musou, and soon ef first tale, all of which were later adapted into anime series. The Da Capo series of games have had just as many animated series. Likewise, many titles that we don’t currently have to offer such as Fate/Stay Night, Kanon, Akane-iro ni Somaru Saka, Comic Party, and many more were all based on eroge from different companies (Type-Moon, Key, feng, Leaf).
We do feel it’s important to tap this interest as best as we can, but we also place a high value on the input we receive from fans. We’d like to do our best to put out all the games fans do indicate that they want, but the irony of course, is that a lot of the requests we receive are for games which aren’t owned or produced by our current partners, which makes it harder to meet these requests.
Still, I’d like to think we’re making steady progress towards our goal of meeting fans’ requests. We’ve recently added two of the top ten requested companies to our partnership, and are making efforts to persuade two more as well.
As for how the actual decision process is made, it’s rather simple. We at MangaGamer present the companies with our suggestions of what we think would be good for this market from each of our partner companies, and they make the final decision of whether to invest in our suggestion, whether to try and push a particular game of their own, or whether to simply hold off for the time being.
Our suggestions are made by combining several factors. The first and foremost factor is requests from fans, followed closely by whether or not a particular title already has a following due to an anime or manga. The last factor usually involves me sitting down in front of my computer and browsing through the catalogs of our partners while chatting to the other translators on the team to decide what we think has the best potential in this market. This part of course can be pretty fun, especially when we start arguing over who gets dibs on a given game if we ever do get the chance to work on it, like with Nomad’s Knight Carnival (based on Malory’s Tale of King Arthur, only gender swapped).
What's the reason for the price drop on your titles, and is this going to be your strategy from here on out?
Well, I've been harping on MangaGamer about the prices for a long time now, especially since they have always been the #1 point of complaint from our fans (Though often competing with demands for hard-copies for that #1 spot). SinceMangaGamer was essentially founded by the original Japanese creators, many of them were approaching the pricing scheme from the perspective of Japanese prices, where a Hard-Copy sells upwards from 8,000 yen, and Direct Downloads at upwards from 5,000yen. In fact, the Japanese DDL of Koihime Musou is 6,800 yen (approximately 61.50 Euros at current exchange rate), while Da Capo's original pricing was a direct reflection of its Japanese DDL price. So the change, which started around the release of Shuffle, is a reflection of finally getting them to understand the difference in price schemes between Japan and the West for games in general.\
One of our goals behind the new pricing scheme is of course, more sales. Both Nexton/BaseSon and ourselves want to see Koihime Musou reach the goal that needs to be met for voices (2,000 copies sold). However, that's not the only thing either. More sales is really only one necessary step for us to do what we truly hope to do: Bring our fans more of the games they ask for.
If the new price scheme helps our other games reach similar numbers or higher as well, then that will also give us at MangaGamer far more bargaining power. Then we'll be even more capable of meeting our fans requests for things like Shuffle spin-offs/fandisks, action games put out by certain famous companies, touching games by certain companies who can't cook, etc.
How do you see this market evolving over the next five years?
The current Japanese eroge market is now well established and stable. In fact, it has started to stagnate and will continue to do so over the next five years unless some kind of change is made. Meanwhile, there lies a brand new, untapped frontier in the west waiting to be pioneered and expanded.
Some companies are content to remain in the east where they’re firmly established, safe, and capable of predicting exactly what to expect from their market. Perhaps they too will make the journey once it is no longer a new frontier. Other companies are only willing to venture forth so far, or are waiting for this frontier to start developing a little more before making the journey. Meanwhile, yet others are willing to take the risk, set forth, and brave this new frontier.
MangaGamer, and other eroge localization companies are like the explorers responsible for guiding them. Some prefer to stay close and play it safe, keeping their risks low and avoiding the responsibility that comes with them, while relying heavily on established trade and commodities to make their living along the way. These will likely remain as they are, with slow development few and far between. Others have already tried to venture into the new frontier only to meet with disaster and perish in the attempt. We at MangaGamer are trying to avoid their same mistakes as we make the journey to the farthest end of this frontier.
Sure, we’ve encountered our hardships early on in the journey, but with the support of those along the way we can reach our goal and help build a flourishing market for eroge in the west—one in which fans and creators can work together hand-in-hand.