By Nomad(TWIST AWAY THE GATES OF STEEL)Otto
There’s art, and then there’s the buisness of art. Art is about truth, beauty and associated Bull. Buisness is about making as much money as possible. There’s a fundamental tension between the two ends, and it’s this tension, which exists in the commercial arts, like hollywood film or romance novels, which causes many people to consider them to be a step below the fine arts, like painting. In fact, some people feel that commericial arts aren’t really art at all, but this group of people probably aren’t going to read this blog. A lot of people feel that the commercial aspect of art is in competition with the creative aspect, and that until art is free from commercial concerns, we’ll never have the quality of art that we could have otherwise. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but what I do know is that if there’s an art form which is not commercially successful, it doesn’t tend to get a lot of exposure. Therefore, it’s in everyone’s interest (or, at least, everyone who wants more folks to know about some artform) to ensure that art is successful. Today, I’m going to talk about visual novels, which have a sizable market overseas, and no market here in the states. After that, Otakon!
The first thing that needs to be said is that visual novels != porn. Yes, a lot of visual novels have sex in them. A lot of visual novels, however, don’t, so before you think I’m trying to peddle indecency, I’m not. That said, the attempts to market visual novels in the states focus on teh sechs, as it sells. Whether or not this is a good idea is something that should be asked to the Dark Overlord Psysaiz, who has mastered the arcane arts of B-school, rather than how to write shitty code to analyze probability distributions. Beyond the marketing, however, there lurks a deeper issue for english language visual novels, namely, this business model itself. This little adventure will look at visual novels at the pre-production (limitations of the medium) and post production (selling and regionalizing the damn things) phases. As far as actual production goes, what, did you mistake me for someone competent?
Visual novels are an obnoxious class of games to talk about, because they basically span a range from, well, hardcore pornography with next to zero player interaction, to, well, games about people talking with zero player interaction, with a space somewhere in the middle for games in which you actually get to make choices, and which involve some amount of sex. The important things that distinguish a visual novel from something else, are, in general, the sheer amount of text you have to wade through. and the fact that the whole thing is driven, more or less, by writing (Shingo had a rather different classification scheme ). This, of course, highlights one of the big weaknesses in the medium, namely, they’re not really good “games,” because they’re not enormously interactive. Like the name suggests, they’re novels, but with pictures (or at least they want to be). Below is a good example of what a visual novel looks like.
As you can see, although the art is pretty, it’s not enough to make me buy the damn game in the first place, so much as it is a nice bonus from time to time. Sometimes there is voice, but, again, not enough to make me buy the game. So, visual novels sink or swim mostly based on the writing. This doesn’t mean that visual novels are “well written,” as someone who likes literature might say (in fact, a a lot of them, the text itself ranges from okay to godawful), but, rather, that the whole of the story, from the setting to the plot, to the, yes, text of the game itself, must be something worth shelling out money for, in order for the novel to be successful. Well, that, or it could have fetish porn.
This is the eternal dilemma of a visual novel, because, in a lot of stories, some level of bangin’ DOES need to happen, not because the game needs to sell, but, because, well, that’s what would happen, and even though the characters may live in a magical land filled with elves who love punk rock, when two people like each other very much, sometimes holding hands isn’t quite enough. At the same time, however, there’s a pressure to include more sex than is necessary, because it helps to make up for weaknesses in the writing. Unfortunately, the inclusion of more sex worsens the writing even more, etc. It’s hard to find an equilibrium state. Somehow, a good sized crop of games manage to find some point at which they can survive, and make it out into the wilds of Akihabara. Of course, the trouble doesn’t end here.
(Un)surprisingly, visual novels don’t tend to move a whole lot of units (i.e. you don’t sell that many copies). Since development costs generally aren’t huge, this isn’t a game-breaker for the companies that make visual novels, but, it does put some interesting restrictions on the ways that you make money. Basically, there are two big strategies: the bargain bin approach, and the boxset approach. With the bargain bin, you basically write your title for a niche market, where you’re sure to get some sales, because you’re the only guys who write stuff for, say, the futa-foot-fetishists. You then dump it for cheap at the bargain bin at Tora no Ana, so everyone in the niche market will pick up a copy as they browse through the racks of TnA. This, of course, is generally the approach for lower-end porn-y games.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have games that are pitched to as broad an audience as possible, and try to make up their low sale numbers by having a really high pricetag (80ish bucks). The pricetag is justified by including a shit-ton of extras, and, to ensure maximum exposure, these titles get placed in very visible locations in, say, Tora no Ana. This works great for Japan, but, here in the states, there’s no real place where you can get that level of exposure to the target market, at least in terms of physical shelf-space.
Adding to the problems for a potential english language regionalization are the fact that regionalizing adds a lot of extra overhead, which can’t be made up easily by increased sales volume (even though there are a lot more folks here in the states than there are over there, I don’t think there’s significantly more people willing to shell out 80 bucks for Ef). This leaves the english language visual novel market, to, basically, Zhang and his cronies, who do this shit as a hobby. This is much better than nothing, but, in order for visual novels to reach their true potential audience, they need to become commercially viable. Who can do this and how? Ask Scott Mc. Cloud, ‘cus I don’t know. I just find problems and describe them in amusing ways with pictures. Enough of this shaz, Otakon time!
Otakon was good fun. It was good to see my buddies again, especially everyone’s favorite closet-fan, BigN. I purchased too much stuff, including a good many art-books, and a stack of Moyashimon manga (expect a review in the near future!). I have a great many pictures of the event (or, rather, a great many pictures taken by a friend) which can be found here. Jam project was incredibly epic, especially since, thanks to Wgeneral, I had front row seats in both the friday panel and at the concert.
Game show had some techinical problems in the beginning, which was a damper on an otherwise epic event, but, we fixed the bugs, which, combined the feedback we’ve gotten about the questions and catagories means that there will be more epic next year. Hopefully we can organize a panel for Anibloggers for next year, as, though the meetups were fun, I think it would be helpful (and visitor promoting) to be able to discuss issues in the community with people outside of our little mutual friendshippy bubble.
As a final note, I have found a you-tube video of BigN singing “Motto Motto” with the blogging crew, and I’m tempted to provide a link, that is, of course, if I get then okay from the BigN himself. Anyhow, talk to you chumps later, I have some data to reduce.