The quagmire that is game licensing

This is a continuation of a previous commentary on the Amaterasu patch release

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:

  1. Lack of resources (typically development time, QA time, artist time)
  2. Complex licensing relationships
  3. Risk aversion
  4. Timing

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.

Risk aversion

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.


  1. drmchsr0
    09/07/2011 03:49 AM | #


    You are seriously understating the scale of this… web.

    This is from what I know from the anime industry, but hear me out.

    With regards to anime, there’s usually a group of 20 or so companies (or a few corporations) discussing how to do this and that, deciding on an animation studio to do the work, etc, etc, etc. We’re talking megacorps like Dentsu, who owns Geneon, Bandai, who owns Sunrise, et al. With the case of anime, you could just go to the production committee (the aforementioned group of companies) and stat talking business. With VNs, though, I think that’s another problem altogether. For example, JAM PROJECT, who did the OP for MLA, are artistes of Lantis, who are owned by a bigger company, and so on and so forth. And then there’s the various licensing issues like advertising, the inevitable card game deal with Bushiroad, figure deals, etc, etc, etc.

    And then there’s also the Rapelay fallout you never talked about. I’m sure Bamboo and Katoka are cool people, but even they have to fight the fact that in the West, their works are reviled upon and called “rape simulators”. (Irony: The West has a thriving porn industry and allow some sick shit to go through, yet Japanese eroge are reviled.)

  2. 09/07/2011 07:30 AM | #

    I am assuming that one of the big reasons why anime licensing is easier and takes less time now is because it’s considered up-front (especially now that they’re doing streaming for most shows). So it’s (often but not always) possible to navigate that complicated web so long as it’s part of the original discussions with the Japanese companies and everyone’s clear on how it’s going to work. They’ve done it enough times now that it’s become standard practice.

    Something similar would have to happen in this industry, with companies considering the possibility of foreign licensing right from the get-go and working that into the original plans. I’m sure that MangaGamer’s efforts are starting to get a few companies to start thinking that way (certainly Bamboo’s own company takes that approach now, and I’m sure Circus does the same), but it still took a long time for anime companies to come around (and that was when the market was hot). With these VN companies being so small, and the overseas market also being so small (and perceived as risky, as you say), I have no idea if and when they’ll ever being able to fully come around. I suppose the only hope is a whole new generation of companies and products that think internationally from the start as a core part of the business plan, but who knows…

  3. moichispa
    09/07/2011 07:50 AM | #

    Great analysis. thank you for giving us such a great point of view

  4. DaFool
    09/07/2011 09:12 AM | #

    I’m starting to think epic 50+ hour VNs with hundreds of CGs and made for NEETs are becoming just as risky as AAA console games. They are the ones with multitudes of licensing production committees and CEOs hands dipped into the pie.

    The future could be shorter experiences for 10 bucks. I’m willing to bet Go Go Nippon will be Mangagamer’s biggest selling AND most profitable title. Recettear showed that people are interested in Japanese games if they’re delivered cheaply and conveniently.

    So if you’re a large Japanese VN company renting office space, yes you should be alarmed. But if you’re a doujin circle working from the basement, using indie actresses and composing your own music, the future couldn’t be brighter. After all, it’s easier to negotiate directly with the original creators if they’re only 1-2 people holding all the rights. All that’s needed are the best writers.

  5. 09/07/2011 05:15 PM | #

    Hmmm… the licensing process does seem incredibly complex. Of course, wouldn’t Japanese companies have to go through the same process? I mean, if a Japanese developer wanted to make an Xbox 360 port of a game, wouldn’t that also be very complicated? That said, I guess it would be more difficult for English releases considering the risks involved.

    Anyway, things sure are looking bleak. I hope they improve soon.

  6. AP
    09/14/2011 07:45 AM | #

    When you say “risk adversity” (whatever that might mean), you’re really talking about “risk-aversion,” aren’t you?

  7. 09/14/2011 05:53 PM | #

    Huh, I wonder why I wrote risk adversity to begin with… Must’ve had some wires crossed while I was working on the flow of the rest of the piece in my head

  8. Simone
    01/06/2012 02:32 PM | #

    Im starting to see why anime has been progressively loosing its “spirit” over the last 10 years. Huge conglamations of companies stifles ingenuity and seldom take risks associated with trying new things. Or god forbid, controversial subjects.
    Huge companies are often bound by their shareholders, to produce a steady stream of income.

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