JAST USA founder, Peter Payne, has been selling visual novels in English for a long time. Recently, the company licensed and released their first all-ages title, Aselia the Eternal, a visual novel RPG developed by Xuse.
We caught up with Payne to discuss his company’s future goals, its day-to-day dealings, and how the negotiation process with Japanese publishers goes.
I wanted to begin by talking about “image,” which is somewhat of an uphill battle for companies publishing visual novels and eroge. How do you want to shape JAST’s image over the next few years as a publisher?
JAST USA founder, Peter Payne: It’s definitely a problem. Basically, America is a difficult place to try to widen the awareness of a genre like adult PC games, because we are a freedom-loving society that was nevertheless founded by Puritans, and both traditions are struggling to defeat the other. Our goal is to be a professional publisher of unique visual novels and eroge from Japan and do whatever it takes to get more people playing these games, which we believe are an awesome way to interface with Japan.
You have so many different labels between Jast Densetsu, G-Collections, Peach Princess and so on. Do you plan to stick with these same labels for the foreseeable future or maybe re-categorize games based on their characteristics?
We often take our cues from Japanese companies, and one thing a lot of them do is create brands for publishing of different games. Some of our “brands” came about as a result of our history, for example G-Collections was established as a separate company by CD Bros. before we took it over.
We’ll probably continue the brands but change how they function as we go forward, with each doing slightly different kinds of titles.
Aselia the Eternal is going to be an “All-Ages” game, and is being pushed as more of a role-playing game. Provided that reaction to Aselia is encouraging when it goes on sale, what other all-ages games do you have your eyes on?
Aselia is out now and we’re very happy with it. We certainly want to reach out to more fans, and hope that titles like Aselia will do well for us. It depends on what games might be available to us and of course if the companies involved would be open to us publishing their title outside of Japan.
I have to ask about your relationship with Nitroplus. In Japan, Nitroplus have a close relationship with 5pb. with Chaos;Head and Steins;Gate. When we spoke to 5pb’s president, he said they were keen on bringing their games overseas. What are the chances that we’ll see you bringing over 5pb’s games in the future?
It’d all be up to them. They know that we’re interested in doing any titles they’ll allow us to do. Nitroplus is a hugely successful company in Japan and are also a very cautious one. They would basically like us to publish a title, wait two years to see how the sales are, then decide the next title to publish. This is too slow for us and for our customers so we’re pushing them to let us release more games, several of which we’ve announced and published in our 2011-2012 game catalog.
How many people work at JAST USA and how have you managed to remain profitable despite issues such as the size of the market and piracy?
Two main staff, not counting the guys in our San Diego company who ship out the games and manage our wholesale accounts.
Definitely one of the most important things to us is being able to reach the customer directly, to have a great relationship with them directly and make it easy for them to buy titles from us directly. If it weren’t knowledgeable for the Internet, there’d be no English visual novel market, since there are no retailers who will carry adult PC titles, so reaching our customers directly becomes very important to us. I think one thing we did right was build something besides the visual novels, which is J-List. Being able to sell a Hello Kitty shoulder massager to someone and possibly interest them in a visual novel down the road has been a big help. They’ve helped us survive the many changes the wider anime world has gone through since 1996.
A word on piracy. Obviously we’re against it, being a tiny publisher of very specialized “indie” PC games as we are. Piracy will obviously exist for every kind of “soft” media and we make sure we don’t let fear of it stop us from moving forward, but it is a huge frustration all the same. People who are passionate about something, as I know many eroge fans to be, should be purchasing the games they want to see more of so we can make more and better games in the future.
When I see extremely knowledgeable fans who follow artists, voice actresses and scenario writers of visual novels posting on pirate sites it really gives us pause. Bottom line, companies like Nitroplus are very focused on the raw number of copies sold as a bellwether to success, so fans who fail to cast their “dollar votes” for titles they want to see more of in the future will be sorry later.
When you approach Japanese publishers with the prospect of licensing their games, what do you usually say to them? What’s the pitch like, and how does your approach differ, depending on the company?
We basically approach them, explaining our history and knowledge of the U.S. market and what we can do for them, allowing their game to be legitimately played by fans all over the world.
It usually comes down to the personality of the president of the company. If he’s an outgoing person who wants to see lots of people play his games, that’s usually all it takes. Companies that are afraid of any possible downside will usually not consider our proposals — this is one of the most frustrating things about working with Japanese companies. A single possible downside to any new idea is often enough to kill it.
There’s also a frustrating “catch-22 zone” where a game is so famous in Japan, it could never be licensed by anyone for any amount of money. This is a combination of the realities of the Japanese market — the company is selling 100,000 copies a year at $110 per copy and is fearful of disrupting this flow of money for any reason. So we have to wait and try in a few years or move on the other titles. Also sometimes other licensing issues complicate things.
When a mainstream game or anime is made based on an 18+ title, the new company has some rights over that title, making it hard for us to get it. The only thing harder than getting one Japanese company to agree to a proposal is getting two of them to do it.
Can you give us a few examples of which ones have turned you down outright when you approached them with the prospect of bringing their games overseas?
Each company is different, and has different goals. As fans know, some companies are terrified of their own shadows, and block foreign IP addresses from viewing their websites (*cough* AliceSoft *cough*). When we encounter a company like this, all we can do is move on.
Doujin publishers have been receiving more exposure in recent years. Is bringing doujin games from Japan over part of the plan at any point?
We’re definitely open to it. A lot of interesting games are being made in the doujin space.
PC is your primary publishing platform at the moment, but the iOS market is generating buzz and that’s another way to make these games more conveniently available. Are you looking into publishing on phones?
Yes, although there are no concrete plans in the immediate future.
The difficulty of publishing adult titles on restricted platforms like that is frustrating, and the “make the game, then we’ll tell you whether or not you can sell it in our app store” model is also one that gives me pause. I wonder if HTML 5 will ever offer a way around this.
A lot of visual novels in Japan these days tend to have a very cute or “moe” sort of look to them, which could potentially turn people off them. Do you ever see this as a challenge and think about chasing games with a more “grown up” art style?
The visual novel space is quite well developed, and there are character styles and designs and stories for every taste. We’ll always try to offer a range of products and will continue in the future. Perception is an odd thing though — honestly, chainmail bikini-clad sword-bearing heroines found in Western games are just a removed from reality as a 1000+ year old girl who happens to be the embodiment of the Necronomicon from the Cthulhu universe, as Al from Demonbane is.
We want to move forward in new and interesting directions so we’ll keep your comment in mind, though some Westerners will always look at anime-style characters in a strange way. I’ve seen fans describe K-On! characters as “loli,” which doesn’t seem quite accurate to me, but that’s how they viewed things.
What’s a typical day at the JAST USA office like?
Some of your readers are likely familiar with J-List (https://www.jlist.com for all products including NSFW ones, or https://www.jbox.com for PG-oly products), our online shop that just celebrated its 15th anniversary.
We post a lot of items to the site, from bento boxes and figures to Japanese imported eroge titles and anime art books, and the JAST USA side helps us get each update out, providing recommendations about what “moe” products to carry and so on. We’re getting busy these days. To paraphrase the Starks of Winterfell, Christmas is coming.
Note: This interview was conducted in November. Thanks to Siliconera reader, MiauMiaut, for contributing to this feature.