Romance games are actually a big deal, you guys. While we were all yelling about The Last Guardian or whatever, Voltage Inc., vendor of some 70 romance adventure titles, has been quietly conquering international app stores and the Tokyo Game Show with its particular brand of wish-fulfillment and whip-smart advertising.
In the first part of my look at Voltage's TGS booth, which was staffed by attractive men, I had some adventures with the Japanese romantic kabe-don maneuver. That was good fun, and it would be easy to write-off as a quick "LOL Japan" newsbite. But we've already established that I'm in this for science, so I talked to Voltage's representative, Mayuko Sugihara, to try and get a feel for where the romance game market fits into the big picture:
Game Revolution: First of all, Ms. Sugihara, could you introduce your company to us?
Mayuko Sugihara: Voltage Inc. was founded in 1999, and have been in business for 17 years. We are run by a husband and wife team, Yuzi Tsutani and Nanako Higashi. Currently we are in the business of making games in the Romance Adventure genre, which are romantic drama games primarily aimed at women.
GR: Is Voltage making any other types of games right now?
Sugihara: We also have been involved in making ringtone apps for Japanese phones, but currently we are focusing on producing romance games, as well as translating games in our catalog into English.
GR: Which countries are you marketing your translated games in?
Sugihara: Well, the United States, and North America in general is very large, of course, but by translating our games into English, we're hoping that customers around the world will be able to enjoy our games.
GR: Can you tell me a little bit about the concept for your booth at this year's TGS?
Sugihara: For our booth, we tried to envision something like a story book, where each section of the booth is like opening a new page to a different one of the stories Voltage is offering. Visitors can move from page to page to experience a little taste of what each game has to offer, but in real life, not just on the screen.
GR: At the Tokyo Game Show, there tend to be a lot of female models, don't there?
Sugihara: Yes, there are usually a lot.
GR: So to see a both with male models is a bit rare.
Sugihara: Yes. The market for the games that appear here tends to be predominantly male, so a lot of the companies employ female models at their booths. But in Japan, especially recently, the number of women playing games has increased, so the number of women attending the Tokyo Game Show has increased as well. Because of that, interest in Voltage's booth has been rising.
GR: What sort of response have you gotten from visitors attending the booth?
Sugihara: I've been seeing a lot of people leaving the booth with a smile! It seems like they're having fun! To be kabe-don'd by a handsome man, or have your hand kissed, or your hair stroked or something like that–it's not exactly reality, but to meet a prince and be touched by him can really make your heart skip. It's a thrilling experience, and I think people are having fun.
GR: You know, I had to try it out once.
Sugihara: Oh, did you try it?
GR: It was really…uh, kind of an overwhelming experience.
Sugihara: Which part of the booth did you go to?
GR: I went to the princess experience–the one with two doors, and you pick one and there's a prince behind it. I totally got kabe-don'd.
Sugihara: How was it?
GR: I was pretty nervous. I mean, I knew that a kabe-don was coming, but when it happened, I was like "Whoooa, that's really close." But it was interesting to try out.
Sugihara: Well, thank you! In July of this year we were at the Anime Expo in Los Angeles. This is the second year we've been exhibiting there, and we also had this sort of "Handsome Experience" set up. I think that the North American audience also enjoyed it.
GR: In recent years, smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices have been dramatically increasing in popularity in the gaming market. What sort of effect has this had on Voltage?
Sugihara: The number of women playing smartphone games and using apps has increased over the last few years, so there has definitely been an effect. Users can now play more freely–whenever, wherever they are–and they are finding small chunks of time to play in where gaming was not possible before.
GR: What kind of experience are you aiming to provide players of your games?
Sugihara: Currently, Voltage has a catalog of about 70 romance games, so with that variety of experiences, players can really choose what stories they can see, what sort of character they want to be, what kind of men they want to meet. We hope that players can find something they enjoy and stick with it for a long time. There are a variety of scenarios: for example, falling in love with a prince, or a historical romance like something from Japan's Feudal Era. We hope to bring the same feeling of storytelling that players get from reading manga or watching a TV drama.
GR: Right now, these sorts of romance games are not really popular in the west. Why do you think that is?
Sugihara: In 2012 we created Voltage USA Entertainment Inc., a subsidiary of Voltage Inc., and have been working on creating original romance apps that we hope can appeal to the western market. There was a time in Japan as well when romance games were not very popular, and since the beginning our company has worked very hard to create quality products in this niche. From that time, we have grown a large female audience and we hope to do the same thing overseas.
However, I'm sure you've noticed that the types of men that Japanese women prefer and the types of men that, say, American women prefer is rather different, right? So we have done careful research to find out what makes American women's hearts flutter and center our games around that.
GR: Has Voltage made any games with the LGBT market in mind?
Sugihara: In Japan, I'm sure that there are games like that. Our company primarily focuses on games where you, the player, can romance male characters. However, we do have one in development at our San Francisco studio where there is an option to romance a lady. We're aware that in this era, especially as attitudes are changing, we need to be sensitive to how we handle these issues and how we approach the LGBT market going forward.
GR: Overseas there is an attitude that some people have that games targeting women aren't really "real" games. Is this a common attitude in Japan?
Sugihara: Certainly, at the Tokyo Game Show, there are a lot of companies showcasing games aimed at a male audience. But especially after the introduction of the Smartphone Area here at TGS, the general appeal of mobile games has increased and the quality of mobile games being produced has increased dramatically. And companies are always thinking about how to change the market and how to change their approach to making games, so the games are constantly improving. I feel that with time, this sort of thinking about "real" games will disappear. There have always been busy, working women, but there hasn't always been game content aimed at them. As society keeps growing and changing, this imbalance is being corrected and I feel that the market is becoming quite lively.
GR: Any final words for the people reading?
Sugihara: We believe that Voltage's games have an appeal to fans of drama and romance, so we hope players will give them a try. We understand if some people might be a bit hesitant at first, but we encourage them to find something that looks interesting for them and see what the genre is all about.
(Editor's note: this interview was originally conducted in Japanese.)
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