Sunday, May 15, 2016

Perspective: Nutaku and the difficulties of marketing adult games

Nutaku comments on the difficulties of marketing and distributing adult games. But is their upcoming adult gaming store the silver bullet they say it is?

As part of their effort to promote their upcoming adult gaming store, adult game publisher Nutaku commented on their official blog about the difficulties of marketing and distributing adult games.  They implicated systemic bias against adult games, and positioned their store as the solution to these problems.

In Nutaku's eyes, the main culprits are ratings agencies like the ESRB which de facto limit where games can be sold, and the financial network that processes payments (including banks, credit card companies, and intermediaries).  While rating agencies and payment processors certainly play a role, the problem is actually far more complex.

Steam sells games that aren't rated by the ESRB, but they refuse to carry games with explicit adult content.  Beach Bounce developer AJTilley commented that the main obstacle to selling adult games on Steam is the tangle of regional laws regulating sexually-explicit content, which Valve isn't ready to tackle at present.  Developers circumvent Valve's ban on adult content by releasing non-adult versions on Steam and then posting links to adult content patches in the Steam forums, but as Nutaku pointed out this doesn't work for games where sexual content is a core part of the experience, like Lightning Warrior Raidy III or arguably even Song of Saya.

Mass media also plays a role in suppressing information about adult games.  For example, I approached RPGFan about Yumina the Ethereal, and they refused to review the game--refused to judge it!--simply because it contained sexually-explicit content.  Siliconera also wasn't interested for similar reasons, even though they'd covered games like Kara no Shoujo.

Ratings agencies limiting access to mainstream distribution channels (such as GameStop, Walmart) aren't the source of the problem, but rather the symptom of a more systemic issue.  Retail outlets aren't mindlessly carrying the titles the ESRB "approves" simply because the ESRB said so.  Quite the opposite.  Entities like the ESRB exist because consumers (especially parents) demand that access to certain types of content be restricted, especially in physical outlets.  Since out of sight is out of mind, a game that isn't prominently displayed is generally a game that isn't worth stocking.  Rightly or wrongly, we've condemned adult games to obscurity in the interest of protecting our children.  The rise of the Internet has broken this chokehold somewhat, and nowadays companies like Fakku are even selling adult games on Amazon with Amazon's official backing (Fulfilled by Amazon and eligible for Prime shipping).

Nutaku comments that making and selling games in Japan is one way to circumvent Western restrictions on pornography.  It's true that adult gaming has flourished in Japan due to a relatively benign regulatory climate.  Yet Japan has its own set of restrictions, chiefly government enforcement of mosaic censorship (blurring of genitals) in sexually-explicit images featuring both real and fictional actors.  Japanese eroge developers have their own industry organization called the Ethics Organization of Computer Software (EOCS), which regulates the content allowed in adult games that are sold in physical shops--much like our own ESRB.  While the rules would seem to be "flexible", at least nominally content like lolicon seems to be restricted, which explains why the "loli" tag is extremely rare on sites like Getchu, and ages and concepts linked to age like "high school" are generally not explicitly mentioned in eroge (doujin games are an exception because they are not reviewed by the EOCS).

Patreon and other crowdfunding platforms are another alternative, yet Patreon has had their own issues with payment processors.  FurStarter provides a useful overview of the crowdfunding platforms available to adult content creators and their respective advantages and disadvantages.  Note that Offbeatr is now defunct.  PledgeX, an upcoming platform dedicated to adult content that will utilize a recurring payment model (like Patreon), has pledged to support projects with loli content as well.

Nutaku sees their upcoming store (press release) as a dedicated adult gaming platform that will surmount the challenges that have plagued adult game distribution in the West: a Steam for adult games.
Nutaku’s upcoming store is a means of circumventing these problems. We specialize in adult games and can’t be held hostage by the ESRB or advertisers. We also work through the same payment processors used by adult giants such as PornHub or Brazzers, meaning that we can push the envelope on content as far as possible without running afoul of crippling fines.
What Nutaku isn't saying is that Nutaku too is shackled by its own expansive list of restrictions.

Nutaku is partnered with MindGeek, a massive conglomerate which oversees the PornHub network and has a near-monopoly over the online pornography market.  MindGeek is the Microsoft of Internet porn, and Nutaku's pact with them is why they can boast 13 million monthly visitors to their site.

As a single cog in the vast machine of the PornHub network, Nutaku must abide by their content guidelines or have their lifeline of new visitors cut off.  These guidelines appear to be severely restrictive: Nutaku has censored a wide variety of content in their games, including lolis, tentacle scenes (bestiality), blood, religious garb and symbols, and symbols of bondage.

Visit my project page for a list of Nutaku games with known censorship, including image comparisons.  The list also includes games from other publishers with links to restoration patches, when applicable.
Eroge with a censored official English release, a comprehensive list

I also wrote a brief recap of Nutaku's checkered history with censorship.
Censorship in Girls Kingdom and other Nutaku eroge

As we can see, unless Nutaku makes a major about-face, their platform will never be the Steam of adult games--a place where any developer can release their games free of the constraints imposed by The Man.  Nutaku's shop will be just be yet another censored platform with a different set of restrictions: restrictions that happen to be uniquely hostile to Japanese erotic games.

Edit (5/16/16): Nutaku has informed me that they are legally based in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and thus not legally bound by Canadian content restrictions--at least directly.  They also claim that they reverted some of the content alterations mentioned in this article and described in my censored eroge list, though they did not specify which.  To my knowledge, no official statement has been made declaring the alterations that were originally made nor the alterations that were subsequently reverted.  Their e-mailed response to this article can be found here.

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