Monday, November 21, 2011

CuriousFactory: Merging the Definition of “Indie” for Japan and the World – Interview

The North American and European markets are in the midst of a movement only to be described as an indie game revolution, which only seems to be gaining momentum as game industry veterans are also being enchanted by the opportunity to “return to their roots” in a space where new business models allow for greater diversity and experimentation.In Japan, the concept of the “indie game” or “doujin game” is somewhat of a different beast. While many of the platforms that indie developers in the West are finding success on (PSN, XBLA, WiiWare, Steam, etc.) certainly exist with a degree of presence in Japan, they have yet to become the breeding grounds for experimentation which we’re seeing overseas.

CuriousFactory is braving those waters in attempt to provide both western gamers with more opportunities to experience what the Japanese doujin market has to offer, as well as bring western developed indies to gamers in Japan. In this interview, CuriousFactory CEO Takafumi Sekiguchi discusses the differences between “indie” markets in Japan and overseas, cultural interpretations of “subculture” and “otaku”, and CuriousFactory’s role in contributing to and growing what is still a largely unexplored market for avid gamers and game publishers alike.


 


Active Gaming Media: Could you begin by discussing the origins of CuriousFactory? What sorts of goals were in mind when the company was established? What markets were perceived to be underserved which CuriousFactory could fill a void in?

CuriousFactory - Sekiguchi: Our company was originally established to support the overseas promotion of Japanese subculture entertainment, to include products related to videogames, manga, anime, and the doujin and character industry. Together with the expansion of what’s often referred to as the “Japanese otaku market”, Japanese otaku culture has become accepted overseas as its own form of subculture entertainment, so we decided we wanted to try and support the overseas promotion of Japanese enterprises and doujin creators.
The doujin market is still very niche outside of Japan, but we feel it has the potential to develop. However, there exist numerous hurdles in bringing doujin creators from the Japanese market overseas, such as the complicated procedures related to securing a sales channel, the language barrier during those procedures, localizing the product, etc. By taking on all of these responsibilities within our company, the goal is to be able to help creators reach international markets more easily.

AGM: It’s interesting because the sale of independent video games, or even video games in general, don’t necessarily equate to sales of many products in other markets aside from the hardware necessary to play them on, particularly in markets outside Japan. However the “Japan” emphasis in games tends to drive sales of other media and products, such as film, art, toys and other goods. In what unique ways is CuriousFactory trying to leverage that angle?

Sekiguchi: Nowadays, people overseas have the same knowledge of Japanese products as the Japanese themselves. I can’t really call it a strategy, but we are able to do research on what kind of Japanese products people are interested in by sharing information with the creators we are involved with. Of course some creators know a lot about Japan while others know very little, but because of that we’re able to gather balanced information. We’re then able to supply this information to Japanese creators when we meet with them, and vice-versa, providing overseas creators with information on what kinds of foreign products Japanese creators are interested in.

AGM: What is the state of the Japanese “doujin” game market overseas? How do you view its current state and untapped potential?

Sekiguchi: I think that the doujin market in the West is still rather underdeveloped. Download sites like Direct2Drive and Steam have developed quite rapidly, but if you consider how strictly products are inspected when they are registered, I get the impression that they are still quite a ways from Japanese sites like DLsite.com and DMM.com, where doujin games are sold freely. I think that as soon as a market develops that makes it easier to “announce the product you made and sell it”, the market for doujin games and doujin products (graphics and movies) will then really start to expand.

AGM: CuriousFactory often represents its products and services in reference to Japanese “subculture”. What effect do you feel, if any, that this has on the market or potential market for independently developed Japanese games? In what ways do these ties help you to grow and strengthen your place in the market? On the other hand, do you feel that this emphasis might possibly limit the potential market for Japanese indie or “doujin” games, keeping them from possibly reaching larger audiences who may find the content entertaining but not be an avid consumer of “Japanese subculture”? How do you grapple with that balance?

Sekiguchi: I don’t know what Japanese doujin creators think of the words “Japanese subculture”, but we don’t perceive Japanese doujin products as something of the “main culture”. Doujin products in Japan are mostly secondary products, with very little of it being entirely original. If we could switch this ratio around, we’d have a situation where you could refer to them as part of the primary culture.
This is a somewhat different way of expressing it, but if you look at subculture magazines in Japan, they hardly sell and there’s very few of them around. I think this is because the Japanese aren’t very receptive towards the term ‘subculture’. On the other hand, I feel that in the West people tend to be much more tolerant of this terminology. If we reveal that we’re going to be selling a ‘”Japanese Subculture Product”, a lot of users are going to express interest. Recently, Westerners have become acquainted with the term “Otaku Product” as well, but that’s really just another term for what is normally referred to as “Subculture Products”, it’s just that this terminology doesn’t dwell on the “Subculture” tag. I think we have to adapt the terminology to meet with the times.

AGM: With regards to games and their related products, in what regions have you seen the most growth? Are you seeing growth in regions or markets that you hadn’t originally anticipated such a response from? As a result of this, how has the company direction and activities related to the video games market changed over time? Is the company involved in areas of the industry now that you hadn’t anticipated being active in upon its establishment? How have developments throughout the game industry altered your approach to working with Japanese games and content?

Sekiguchi: I don’t think our basic operating strategy has changed, but for the past 3 years we’ve been getting a lot of requests from overseas creators who want to sell their products in Japan, so we began handling localization and the registration procedures on websites dedicated to selling Japanese doujin products in order to help overseas creators make their debut in the Japanese market. Originally I had wanted to help Japanese creators to move into the overseas market, but we ended up helping foreign creators make their way into Japan as well.

AGM: The mindset and perception of the “indie game market” (doujin game market) in Japan is somewhat different from that of the much of the Western market. How do you perceive these differences and how do you tackle them from a business and/or marketing perspective?

Sekiguchi: I think the biggest difference is the attitude towards copyrights. The vast majority of Japanese doujin products rather liberally borrow from preexisting products. They tend to exist somewhere in that “grey zone”. However, in the West, there are a lot of original products demonstrating some excellent, original ideas. In many cases it is quite difficult to take Japanese products overseas due to issues related to copyrights and such. From a business perspective, clearing copyrights requires checks and royalties to the company holding that copyright, so acquiring permission to publish an individual doujin product is very difficult. I think that this [barrier] is something that can really only be changed by the doujin creators themselves actually reforming their mindset with regards to their creations, and that it probably isn’t going to change because of anything that we do. ASTRO PORT is producing some high-quality original content that is being sold through Direct2Drive. If we can get more of this kind of product out on the market, I’m sure there will be more opportunities for Japanese creators to become more active abroad.

AGM: Currently, the kind of “adult” content you tend to see in Japanese doujin games is virtually non-existent in foreign games. Do you think there is a possibility for a wide range of genres and content to coexist across various products, like in other media? And if that happens, how do you think it will be realized? What will be the role of Indie Games in that process? Or do you think that only major publishers and developers will be able to bring about this change?

Sekiguchi: You’re correct in saying that there are hardly any products containing that sort of sexual content amongst the games published by major companies, however in America there is a real freedom of expression as well, and as a result there are products which contain sexual content and there exist 18+ products amongst the selection of live action videos and some PC games. As for doujin products, 18+ titles are released in rapid succession, and we ourselves have acted as a registering agent for many of these products, so I fully expect this field to keep growing. In other words, I think it is very likely that we’ll be seeing an expansion of 18+ products through the work of doujin games as well.

AGM: There are an increasing number of success stories in the West about smaller, independently developed games garnering major recognition throughout the game market, with many of the more popular games which may have started on PC or only one platform (such as iPhone), eventually branching out to most or all of the major consoles or distribution channels. Have you observed many examples such as this in the Japanese independent games market that you deal in? What sort of potential do you see for small, independently developed games from Japan to see this kind of success, either in Japan or overseas?

Sekiguchi: If you look at the doujin games we handle, almost all of them are PC games, and we don’t have any portable games like for the iPhone. The outlet for portable games is already there, so our help is not really needed. If you look at doujin PC games, most games that are a success sales-wise feature high-quality 3DCG. There are very few doujin products that are available on multiple platforms like the iPhone, Android, PC and Xbox 360 (XNA), and I think that that’s where the new market is. But because expanding to multiple platforms requires a lot of programming knowledge on the part of the creators, that hurdle is still rather high.

AGM: You’ve recently opened up distribution on channels such as DL Site, typically home only to Japan-developed doujin games, to creators from overseas looking to bring their games to the Japanese market. How has this service been going? Have you been getting many submissions? Do you tend to receive games targeted at the perceived market for the site (i.e. Japanese consumers of doujin games), or are you getting submissions of very different content? I’m curious because you make specific mention on your site to bringing games from popular download distribution services in the west such as Steam and Direct2Drive, which tend to be rather thin on the types of game content found in places like DL Site.

Sekiguchi: You might be able to say that the products that overseas creators make aren’t ideal for Japanese players. Most obviously [explanation] would be that the graphical design is completely different. It seems that Japanese “moe characters” are a difficult thing to grasp for foreign creators.
But I also see a lot of products that are much better than what Japanese creators come up with in terms of game system and graphical fidelity. There are also some exceptional creators who do seem to understand the concept of “moe characters”, so I expect there to be more products customized to fit Japan’s market needs in the future.

AGM: How do you decide which games to sell directly through the CuriousFactory home page? Are they all the games you’ve been involved with in some way or other? (Localization, content creation etc.) Or are there other reasons?

Sekiguchi: We basically handle the products that we were requested to localize. If we see another product that we like, we will approach the creator ourselves and offer to help with the localization, as well as to handle the sales in Japan or overseas.

AGM: CuriousFactory offers services related to bringing Japanese games to Western distribution channels. What has this process been like, working with these distribution outlets to bring what many would consider to be very “Japanese” games to platforms dominated by rather different types of games?


Sekiguchi: In the beginning we were fumbling about with little clue as to what was going to sell and what wasn’t. But as we worked with more products, we began to notice that national borders aren’t relevant when bringing foreign products to Japan or Japanese products overseas, as long as the product is of high quality. Some customers may experience some resistance towards the products in the beginning, but I truly feel that if the game they’re playing is enjoyable, they will evaluate it accordingly. The sales figures seem to support this too, so I feel the user response is an appropriate measure.

AGM: What has the reception been like from players who can now access games that you offer via major distribution channels, games which players previously had to be “in the know” about in order to discover?

Sekiguchi: It seems sales figures have increased thanks to downloadable retail channels on the Internet. Word of mouth is something that happens digitally through Twitter and Facebook now, so the spread of information is now much faster than it has ever been and it really feels like user attention hits all at once.

AGM: Have you explored the possibility of bringing more doujin games to platforms other than the PC? What sorts of challenges have you run into trying to expand games to new platforms? Are the developers working on the types of games you provide open to the idea of bringing their traditionally PC-based products to other audiences? Do you think this expansion is a reasonable possibility?

Sekiguchi: We think there is potential to expand to other platforms, but to be honest we’re not really sure. We’re in charge of localizing the products, but we’re not programmers or graphic artists, so we don’t have the right to decide if a game is ported to multiple platforms. If the individual creators come to us and say “We want to go multiplatform, please help us”, then of course we will do whatever we can.

AGM: How do you view the potential for independently developed or smaller scale Japanese games to ride the wave of the currently burgeoning indie games market overseas?

Sekiguchi: I think there’s plenty of potential, obviously. Almost all of the Japanese creators are people who are used to balanced Japanese consumer games. If people like that create a product, it is also likely to be of high quality, so it would seem to me that there is plenty of potential for such games to become a hit throughout overseas markets as well.

AGM: Offering the Blade Engine is a rather interesting way of supporting independent creators overseas who wish to explore developing visual novels, a genre which has elements permeating many popular games and genres in Japan, but with little recognition as an independent genre in the West. What degree of support is offered for the engine? Have you noticed any increase in the creation of visual novels by non-Japanese developers using your tools over the years? Have you seen any interesting use of the tools provided to create content which was unexpected?

Sekiguchi: The Blade Engine was provided to us by a Japanese game developing company we are cooperating with. We wanted people who cannot write code to be able to create an ADV easily, so we released it as a free download available to anyone. It seems that a number of products were created using the Blade Engine, and as a result we were asked to improve the program by a particular group of creators. We then provided those that sent us this request with a customized version of the Blade Engine containing additional features which would allow them to get their product as close to their ideal image as possible. I hear that this particular product created using this [custom engine] was released as a free and download and was played by a good number of people.

AGM: To what degree to you see the role of CuriousFactory as having the ability to assist the growth and expansion of the Japanese game market in ways different from that of other corporate entities in the Japanese game industry?

Sekiguchi: The things that we do are perhaps all things that a larger company is certainly capable of, but what we’re proud of is the way that we’ve been able to work closely with creators and develop a good working relationship. We intend to maintain this stance for future projects while advancing production through good relations with creators. In this way I think we’ll be able to help as many creators as possible to reach overseas markets.

AGM: Lastly, is there anything that you’d care to share regarding the current and/or future activities of CuriousFactory?

Sekiguchi: We would like to continue forming a bridge between Japan and other countries by promoting marketing expansion overseas, acting as an agent assisting with registration for exhibitions at overseas otaku events and conventions, translating related products and such. We are convinced that the creators’ views and ways of thinking [about their products] will change by having the opportunity to expand into the global market. Anyone interested in expanding overseas should feel free to contact us.

Thank you very much for your time!

Those interested in CuriousFactory and their products can access their home page in English here: http://www.curiousfactory.com/


Those interested in games published by CuriousFactory can find products here: http://www.curiousfactory.com/publish/home.php