I like Sekai Project for the most part. I have my share of critique for the organization, who they choose to partner with and some of the titles on their catalog leading that particular charge, however the truth is that they have done extraordinary work increasing the visibility of visual novels in the West by bringing over desired titles like Fruits of Grisaia, World End Economica and Clannad. Sekai Project also showed that the medium can be profitable on this side of the world and without their success, it’s unlikely we would be seeing other visual novel groups working to bring their titles here.
That being said, Sekai Projects biggest enemy is Sekai Project. Outside of understanding how to use Kickstarter and leverage those funds to get maximum profit on the release end, the group has not shown that they have the administrative structure or the business savvy necessary to do anything more than what they’ve already done. For most of its history, you could argue that there was never really a plan for growth other than, ‘Let’s bring some fun titles to the West and squeeze a few bucks out of them’. Moreover, if there was a ‘flagship’ series for the group, it would probably be Winged Cloud’s Sakura series but that has proven to be an unstable foundation to build a future on with WC’s mercurial nature and sales proving to be stable, but much lower than the side-show attraction that was Sakura Spirit.
So, from the outside looking in, if I was advising Sekai Project on how to grow their business, I would tell them to pin a franchise sticker on one of their partnerships. While I’m sure all of the developers affiliated with Sekai consider themselves to be worth that recognition, Sekai would have to ensure it would be one that not only can be built on here in the West, but have some appeal to the East to show their current and potential Japanese partners that the group is capable of building something on their own and not just standing on the shoulders of those who came before. It would require the group best effort in both editing, marketing and publicity but it would be something I would tell them to shoot to the moon and keep pushing far after launch in order to breathe new life into their brand.
Well, since that has happened, let’s see how it worked out!
Last week, Sekai Project and Love in Space released the first commercial edition of the popular Sunrider series: Liberation Day. To say it went smoothly is being very generous. Critics pointed out a predictable and meaningless plot, frequent bugs and glitches, a lack of choices, a short campaign and the removal of several popular features from the free version. To give credit where it’s due, Love in Space reacted immediately and promised to deliver a patch that would address the major criticism facing the game. That patch launched this past weekend and, so far, it seems to have smoothed over a lot of ruffled feathers. However, regardless of what has been fixed, the damage for Sekai Project has been done.
‘But JP, we’ve already forgiven them! It’s fine! This isn’t a big issue!’
Yes, average visual novel player I’m sure you have. Unfortunately, that forgiveness is irrelevant for the moment…but we’ll get back to it. This launch comes on the heels of Winged Cloud returning to the fold after a very public breakup and subsequent stormy relationship with MangaGamer that I talked about at the time, the removal of The Hourglass of Lepidoptera from Steam due to issues with the developers, and the backlash from Yohjo Simulator (which was recently returned to Steam). All of these served as the backdrop to the release of a game Sekai Project has been marketing heavily at every con it went to in 2015. Not only was Sunrider merchandise and advertising standing out, but the Liberation Day announcement was the only English Visual Novel to be profiled during Sekai’s presentation at Anime Expo in 2015. Make no mistake about it; Sekai trumpeted Sunrider to the heavens and it has been the closest the group has come to having a face and a foundation to build itself on.
And here we are on the other end with nothing but the brutal reality: I was wrong.
For those joining this commentary in progress, let’s recap: I like Sekai Project. Because they released several very good visual novels, I felt they could provide a positive example for other VN developers looking to go commercial. Following their heavy promotion of Sunrider, I thought that they were looking for ways to grow and would rally around Sunrider as the face of their company. After nearly a month of questionable business decision and troubling news, I thought that would equal Sekai Project doing everything in their power to ensure that Liberation Day would be their best foot forward. Why? Because, until literally last week and despite all evidence to the contrary, I hoped that Sekai Project was looking beyond the moment and actually build something respectable.
Nope: not even close. You see, average visual novel player; I’m not all that different from you. Like you, my capacity to forgive Sekai Project was endless because, at the end of the day, the cream still managed to rise to the top. However, I cannot use the occasional bone thrown my way to ignore what Sekai Project has, willingly or unwillingly become: the first, official example of a ‘corporate’ entity in EVNs. Yeah, sorry AJ Tilley: you’re not quite big enough for this one yet. But I’m sure with practice, you’ll reach the big leagues!
As a capitalist, I always cringe a little using that term because it’s often use derisively for anyone who makes money. And I want to be very clear that making a profit in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. All of us, on one level or another, are pursuing our own interests and I’m not here to tell Raymond Qian not to make money and just ‘be about the fans’ or some other sugar-coated hogwash. However, with that said, the same man who talked about humanity’s self-interest talked about a lot about ambition and the difference it makes in life. If you have followed me for any amount of time, you know that ambition is something I watch for in all of the titles I review and the developers I cover. And the simple truth is that while Sekai Project have found a way to be profitable, whatever ambition they started out with has long faded away. That always spells trouble for me.
There’s nothing truly interesting coming from them these days; just the soft assurances that ‘we’ll buy it anyway’. No matter how bad it seems to get and how many warning sirens go off, at the end of the day ‘they’ll buy it anyway’. Yes, things can go horribly wrong for one of their larger release days of the year. Yes, their EVN partners can be angry at them for their broken promises and regretful deals. And yes, they can have bad news for a month and in the end, they’ll shrug it all off. Because they have their Kickstarter money, and they have plenty of stuff that’ll grab your attention at some point. So, in the end; they’re right. We’ll buy what they’re selling anyway.
So, without any ambition to help them grow, no competition to spur said ambition and the comfort of continued profit to keep them stagnant, what can we expect from Sekai Project, Inc? After the next inevitable troubled release day? After the next mishandling of a desired translation? After this year passes with Sekai Project selling hype for its Japanese licenses and the shattered dreams of its English ones and only a few in the tide able to get their heads above water to be noticed, what happens then? Well, obviously the same hype and the same dreams for the same ideas only with different names and different features to sell you on the hope that Sekai has learned from the year prior. Unfortunately, just like the years prior, they haven’t. But you’ve believed them: again. Even though you thought you learned from last time. So you’ll make the best of it...until next year when corporate finally gives you what you’ve really wanted all this time. After all; you can trust them this time. Right?
Welcome to Corporate folks. It’s everything you’ve been told it was from console gamers. At least now all gamers, regardless of preferred genre, have something in common eh? JP3: OUT.