The absolute number one complaint that I hear about are people complaining that the licensing and translating process takes too long. Ultimately this is what caused this current turn of events, and I know for a fact that this complaint will never die. There’s a bunch of structural reasons for this that most people apparently don’t seem to know about though.
In broad strokes, the reasons can be described in a few ways:
- Lack of resources (typically development time, QA time, artist time)
- Complex licensing relationships
- Risk aversion
Lack of resources
This one is a very common one, and has mired a huge number of projects that I know of (including a few that are currently ‘in production’ as I write this).
Visual Novel companies are not mega-corps with big budgets and staffs like Electronic Arts, or even a mainstream development house. Many mid-sized brands and companies essentially rent the equivalent of an apartment to use as their main development offices. Until just last week Nekonekosoft’s Kataoka Tomo had his workspace in a kitchen at their development location (shared w/ Cotton-soft since 2006), and they’re a relatively well known brand. (Ref. Cotton-soft’s 100% Journal 8/31/2011 entry)
On top of that, after the March earthquake, game sales across the entire VN industry dropped double digit percentage points (I believe bamboo said sales tanked 20-30% across the industry). So you have companies that are struggling to survive. Plenty of brands went under in 2011, and plenty of brands who were in the middle of finishing a game are betting their continued existence on sales of their next game.
So you have a situation where CEOs of game companies have one thing on their minds, survival. So when deadlines come up (and games are always finished minutes before the master-up deadline) and something has to go, there’s not going to be anyone around to waste time working on the English versions that they agreed to do.
On a related note, I remember back in late 2010 or so, Kycow of Age posted various pictures and things on twitter because he had sold his longtime family home (apparently an impressive one that he had grown up in). The reason being that he had decided as CEO of Age to delay Kimi ga Ita Kisetsu to April due to quality issues (which is due to come out late October now) and he needed the cash to pay employee salaries. The earthquake then struck and trashed their offices. Somehow they managed to scrape together enough cash for another 6 months of development, though I have no idea how. I’ve no doubt that it was a very expensive and painful funding process, either through a nasty loan or a sale of assets.
Complex licensing relationships
No one really “owns” the rights to an entire game in Japan apparently. From my experience talking to companies, and even going down the thorny path of negotiating very small deals myself, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.
Instead, it’s more a web of licensing agreements. The music comes from 1 or more music houses and maybe some freelance guys, the voice actors have their agencies, any other freelancers have a stake, the engine might be licensed, then any spin-offs, tie-ins, and other relationships have to be checked to make sure you’re not stepping on any toes. It’s a bleeping mess.
Unless you’re talking to someone who did everything himself, or had the foresight to flat out buy everything with an expensive “and can use this in other works” type of clause, I don’t think we’ll ever see a case where 2 CEOs can meet, chat, shake hands, and have it all done in a day. Even if they agree, it takes a lot of effort to herd everyone and push the entire thing through.
I can only imagine what licensing hell was involved in trying to untangle Muvluv. Not even counting the licensing stuff for merchandise, the series has a cast so large I wonder if they’ll run out of voice actors in the country first, there’s now a TV anime deal in the works for Total Eclipse, so you can be sure as hell the animation companies are watching the licensing/distribution agreements to the rest of franchise like hawks, 5pb announced the Xbox360 version of the original games in April 2011, meaning they sure as absolute hell would have a say in how an English game license would work out.
Seriously, I’d hate to even be the lawyer who has to draft the contracts for these relationships without causing overlap, let alone try to carve out a new license.
Given the financial state of the industry, you can’t blame companies for being wary of taking on risk. This strongly varies from company to company, so you’ll find some that are still enthusiastic about bringing games over, and some that don’t want to talk about it any more because they might not be around in 2012.
The effects are subtle, because it tends to show up as different requirements during negotiations. Depending on how much risk they’re willing to take on they “pay” a certain cost to transfer that risk (MG would get more of the money in exchange for taking the risk, etc.) But the devil is in the details here. Haggling over these points can suck up time pretty quickly.
If you’ve been reading closely so far, you’ll notice that I’ve been sketching out a very rough timeline of events for things. The timing of events can have a pretty huge effect on things. No one expected the 5th largest earthquake on record to hit Japan in March. I certainly expected to see things to fall apart afterwards, though perhaps not a whole 6 months later.
In any case, the issue of timing has to do with what all the players in this complicated dance are doing. Are they in a dev cycle crunch, are they in need of cash, do they have spare people, what’s the game market looking like right now?
And while you’re doing this, someone just charges in, runs interference, and crashes around like a bull in a china shop. Yeah, I’d flip a few tables.
It sucks, don’t try it at home kids
Maybe some of you happen to remember when it took a year or two to negotiate the rights for an anime license to be announced for a hit series. These days, it’s much better now, with hit series being sometimes announced within the same year (granted usually through the same animation company through a subsidiary). And still people complain that the lag between the two releases is too big.
Well kids, for VNs, welcome back to the dark ages.