[The doujin gaming movement has seen little exposure outside Japan, but publisher Rockin' Android's Enrique Galvez discusses his mission -- bringing top niche Japanese indie PC titles to the West.]
gaming scene has exploded in popularity over in its native country of Japan with an intense community of fan created games that often rival their commercial counterparts.
If the term 'doujin gaming' sounds relatively new, it's no surprise. There's been little exposure of the movement outside of Japan. That's all about to change now that publisher Rockin' Android
has hit the scene. We sat down with President and Founder Enrique Galvez at Anime Expo 09 to get the low down on how Rockin' Android is poised to inject the Western market with a heavy dose of doujin gaming.
For a guy whose company was making its public debut at a major convention, he seemed surprisingly cool and upbeat, like a young kid anxious to show others his prized possession at show-and-tell. When I asked him if he made any special preparations for the event, his response couldn't be any more nonchalant.
"Yeah, I drank three big glasses of rum last night," he laughed. "To be honest, at 2:30 in the morning I was still finishing up cutting the trailer reel on display at the show floor today. It's a bit rough sometimes, because it's a very independently-run company. We've only got four people at this company working day and night."
With less than a handful of employees under him, Galvez is practically a one man wonder. As president of Rockin' Android, he has a hand in everything from foreign negotiations and play testing to localization and marketing.
It's a type of passion and involvement that's rarely seen among company executives and it emulates the very developers of the doujin games his company seeks to publish: indie game makers who are self-taught and responsible for the programming, music, character design, and every other little nuance involved in game development.
"They're just fans of gaming," he explains. "They learned on their own with the software through trial and error until they finally got the confidence to build their own full game. These are regular people with full time jobs who code and design like crazy in their free time."
Galvez then takes a moment to prove his street cred and establish that he's well aware of what he's gotten himself into. "Back in the day, I was a correspondent and writer for Play Magazine, Gamer's Republic, and GameFan; all enthusiast magazines with an eye towards the Japanese gaming scene and they're a major influence," he explains.
At the very least, it helps illustrate just how in tune Galvez is with the Japanese gaming scene -- enough to take a huge risk in starting a company that specializes in localizing relatively unknown doujin Japanese games for a Western market.
"Five years ago I started noticing that [Japanese] people were making some great fan-made games. But the one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb was that they all featured licensed characters from existing properties," he says. "It stayed as a super underground scene until eventually someone said, 'hey we're actually getting pretty good at this and we're quite talented, so let's create our own original characters.' In the last three years or so there's been a slew of original content."
"Take, for instance, mastermind ZUN over at developer Team Shanghai Alice
. Their Touhou Project
games all feature original characters in original games. I think he personally started a little revolution in the doujin scene. That project really opened doors for so many people and that's when I started really getting into to the scene. I've played and collected close to 300 doujin games by now."
Even more impressive is that he's mastered most of those games, helping him ferret out the very best. That sort of dedication doesn't come easy and it started to impact his personal life. "My girlfriend at the time was concerned. She would always ask me, 'what are you doing? You're spending so much time playing video games. I hope you do something with this.'"
He immersed himself so deeply into the scene that he was willing to brave Comiket's crowd of 500,000 rabid otaku at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center. "I went to Comiket
two years ago and it was a true eye opener. I started buying every doujin game I could get my hands on, playing them, testing them. That's when I found Suguri
, our first title, and I was absolutely blown away by it. That night I found myself in a coffee shop in Tokyo and penned the outline of what would eventually become Rockin' Android."
It's a gutsy move, but he explains that it wasn't quite as arduous as it could have been had he never done business in Japan beforehand. "Last October I went out to Japan and started licensing games," he recalls. "I went out there without a translator, and just started calling friends of friends, did some meetings, cold called people. I was lucky I had a history of licensing and distribution in Japan because of a company I used to own called Banzai Anime."
"Banzai Anime was actually the third anime store in Los Angeles, and this is going back 14 years ago. That's what allowed me to initially travel back and forth to Japan for business, licensing, conventions, you name it."
When I ask if it was easier to get an audience with doujin developers than it was with major commercial developers, Galvez immediately breaks out into laughter. "I'll tell you this much: the first thing they did was test my gaming knowledge by asking me what my favorite developers and titles were," he says. "The second I mentioned Treasure
, Gradius V
) and Cave
, Death Smiles
) they instantly welcomed me as a hardcore gamer."
"So we all related and it was great to see that our likes and dislikes were pretty much the same," Galvez continues. "This is the only reason I got these games [for localization]. For them it's not about the money. They could give a rat's ass if I threw in 50K or 100K; they just wanted their games in good hands."
So why has it taken so long for a U.S. publisher of Japanese doujin games to crop up? "Because everyone sees it as a small niche market," says Galvez. "Even some of the doujin developers themselves were hesitant. One developer even said that they just don't see American fans playing [doujin] games. I actually had to convince them that games are a universal language and that a game can be enjoyed by anyone so long as it's fun."
"Afterwards, they called me to say that they totally wanted to see their games in the U.S. market and thanked me for reminding them that [doujin] games can be enjoyed throughout the whole world and not just Japan. That was a really cool thing to hear them say."
Support from the original developer is one thing, but actually doing a game justice with solid localization is another. Despite the veneer of simplicity, many doujin games have a fair amount of text and any fan of Japanese games can attest to how a poor translation can create an overall unsettling experience and cast doubt upon the publisher and localization team.
While Rockin' Android has a full time translator on board, it's also going about the doujin scene in a rather unique way by encouraging community participation, reaching out to hardcore gamers, and even enlisting the help of fan translators. "Our first game Suguri Perfect Edition
has over 3,000 words. It might not seem like that because it's a shooter, but there's plenty of in-game story and omake
(bonus material). We were fortunate in finding a fan group, an entire community, dedicated to Suguri
"Within that community we found a very cool girl named Sara Lene
that had already started to translate these games on her own," he continues. "So we have an in-house Japanese translator who now works together with Sara on all our projects where Sara does the initial translation and our in-house translator does the final touch ups. We're so happy that we got to work with a fan because the doujin scene all comes down to independently produced, fan based content."
That's probably as grassroots and indie as it gets. Galvez goes on to explain why he chose Orange Juice as the first doujin developer to go after, claiming that their pedigree and their dedication to fans had a lot to do with it. "A couple of the guys at Orange Juice who do backgrounds and programming are old mainstays from Treasure. They do a lot of great work in the doujin community so we definitely wanted to work with them."
Fans of shmups
(shoot 'em ups) who love classic arcade gaming will feel right at home with Rockin' Android's scheduled lineup of games from developer Orange Juice. It's an interesting genre to start out with, especially considering that the hardcore difficulty
of arcade shmups can drive some people absolutely mad. Galvez is well aware that bullet hell
shooters can be a bit overwhelming for newcomers.
"As a player you're going to do one of two things: you're either going to look at the game and want to throw your controller because it's so difficult or you're going to want to play it over and over again to get a perfect run because it's so addicting," enthuses Galvez. Rockin' Android is hoping the latter case of addiction reaches critical mass as they come out with guns blazing, releasing no less than four titles (Suguri Perfect Edition
, Flying Red Barrel
, Gundemonium Collection
) in the second half of 2009 alone, all of them available at Direct-2-Drive at price points below $20.
Fans of Japanese niche games will be particularly pleased as Rockin' Android is using a very Atlus
-like approach with the release of their first game Suguri Perfect Edition by including tons of extra bonus content, an expansion pack, and two soundtracks.
The doujin scene, however, is so much more than just shmups and Rockin' Android isn't a one-trick pony. Along with the aforementioned shmups from Orange Juice they're looking into bringing over both side-scrolling action adventure and fighting doujin games. The front page of Rockin' Android's Rockin' Android
currently has a poll asking visitors what genre of doujin games they would like to see released stateside, clearly hinting at the publisher's future plans.
Galvez didn't pull any punches when discussing the games he was going after either, listing RosenKreuzStillette
, Dread Lock
, Crescent Pale Mist
, and Big Bang Beat
as target titles. It'll be interesting to see how things work out, but the prospect of these games getting a Western release is exciting in its own right.
It won't be an easy task introducing the doujin scene on unsuspecting western gamers, but there's a genuine enthusiasm within Rockin' Android that most gamers can relate to - that feeling of wanting to share something completely fresh and exhilarating with other gamers and friends is unparalleled.