Thursday, July 30, 2015

Crowdfunding visual novel localization: An eroge enthusiast's perspective

Kickstarter is growing in popularity as a sandbox for jittery Japanese VN developers.  Are English consumers getting the short end of the stick?

Crowdfunding is the latest fad in visual novel localization, first popularized by Sekai Project and now catching on as players like âge join the fray.  Notable crowdfunded localization projects (all by Sekai Project) include fault milestone one ($35k), World End Economica ($95k), the Grisaia trilogy ($475k), and Clannad ($541k).  Upcoming crowdfunding campaigns include the MuvLuv series (Degica and âge) and Root Double (Sekai Project).

Like it or not, crowdfunding of visual novel localization is picking up momentum.  As Sekai Project CEO dovac put it, "Welcome to the new normal."

I've expressed my general skepticism of the crowdfunding model previously.  As I commented a month ago on Fuwanovel:
I'm not a big fan of crowdfunding for-profit projects.  I find it exploitative.  If I'm investing in a for-profit enterprise, I expect a return on my investment--i.e., if I contribute 1% of the funds to create a game, then I have a 1% stake in that game, and I expect a cut of the profits that result from the game's sale.  Now, it would be different if crowdfunding was used to develop a game and the game was then freely distributed afterwards.  But that's not what's happening.

I'll grudgingly support a new developer that needs the funding to get their first project off the ground.  But after that?  They better start funding themselves using the profits they withheld from investors.

I'm extremely skeptical of traditional crowdfunding campaigns, and I would only support them for a product that I really want, or for an innovative cause that I think is worthy of donating to (to date, these requirements have not been met).  And more than likely, I would contribute at the minimum level to obtain the primary game assets.  Sekai Project's continued reliance on crowdfunding is just one more reason I continue to regard them and their business practices with suspicion.

As for a glorified pre-order campaign, I'm not necessarily opposed to that concept, though I'd be extremely wary if they said they would charge me in advance for a product that is still in the planning stages with no projected release date.  I'm not opposed to pre-order campaigns to gauge customer interest (similar to Steam Greenlight).  I'm opposed to assuming financial risk for the profit of others--i.e., being exploited.

Since then, I've reflected on the matter and my stance has softened somewhat.  I think we should draw a distinction between crowdfunding game development and game localization. I  argued above that routinely asking users to assume financial risk for a for-profit project can be viewed as irresponsible and exploitative. However, the degree of risk assumed by both sides is an important factor in that argument. With game development, you never know if the final product will turn out the way you expected--if it even gets released at all. Game localization is a different matter. A product with known qualities already exists, and the task is simply translating the text into another language. The risk to users of a defective or unexpected product is much lower vs. funding of game development. A skilled translator will produce an excellent product; a skilled developer MAY produce an excellent product. In the end, a lot more creativity goes into game development, and the creative process is inherently risky.

On the other hand, crowdfunding localization allows newcomers to the market (like Degica and âge) to assess demand for their product--and it's probably the most effective means of doing so. In a market where software piracy is a major problem, crowdfunding can be seen not only as a short-term remedy, but as a forward-thinking long-term solution. While users are forced to assume some degree of risk, this risk is outweighed by the benefits to the developers--and these benefits can be passed down to the backers via price discounts.

Now, this argument comes with a major caveat: Japanese visual novels are primarily eroge, and the most popular crowdfunding platform (Kickstarter) does not allow adult products on their site. THIS is the major barrier that prevents me from throwing my enthusiastic support behind crowdfunding of localization projects. When I fund a project like Grisaia's on Kickstarter, will I actually get the product I want out of it (an adult release)? Will it be delivered in a timely manner? Will I be forced to pay extra for it? Will the release have mosaics? Every time a company does a Kickstarter campaign for an eroge, these questions have to be asked all over again--and publishers have to dodge these questions all over again. This is not an ideal situation. It's not transparent. It's not professional. Using Kickstarter to fund eroge localization is questionable at best.

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