Steam – A Double-Edged Sword for Visual Novels

This picture really represents Steam's visual novels well. Just... read on.

This picture represents Steam’s visual novels well. Just… read on.

I rarely use Steam myself (only ever used it for screenshot), but if there’s one thing I’m appreciative of — Steam has given visual novels a more mainstream attention. This however, comes with a price.

tokyobabel_2016-07-02_14-30-49

Before I go on with the finer details, I want to say this first-visual novels have really gone a long way as far as mainstream focus. As compared to back then when English-translated visual novels could be counted with just your two hands, nowadays a lot of visual novels have gotten widespread attention. And that’s right, we all have Steam to thanks to for giving this medium a platform to release these localized titles. Some visual novels I thought would never see the light of day in the English-visual novel community, are actually translated to my pleasant surprise-the latest example being, Tokyo Babel. In fact, I can only see the situation improving from here.

Releasing visual novels on Steam is a really good idea. I never thought I would see the day where gamers would play famous visual novels like G-Senjou and Clannad. Doing this helps reaching out to more people who perhaps weren’t even familiar with the medium in the first place. Nowadays, more and more gamers are also playing visual novels, something seriously unheard of during the early days of my venture into the medium.

Sakura series -- arguably the most popular OELVN in Steam now despite it's shortcomings. Admittedly, it's visuals are good, perhaps it's only redeeming trait however.

Sakura series — arguably the most popular OELVN series in Steam now despite it’s shortcomings. Admittedly, it’s artwork is good, perhaps the only redeeming trait however.

Steam is indeed a good platform for visual novels, perhaps “too good”. Because it’s an open platform, it’s also easy for just about anyone to create their own content in it too. Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate well-made OELVNs when I see some, but most of the works I have seen do not reflect what’s good about visual novels in the slightest. In fact, sometimes, you quite literally have to dig through the sea of subpar OELVNs just to find the good titles.

I honestly don’t want to shit on them too much if I can, but they just don’t seem particular amazing from the ones that I came across. Even worse, some visual novels like those from the Sakura series is just the epitome of poorly-written stories (if you can even call them that) and fanservices-and this creates a stigma in the visual novel community, as if this is only what the medium has to offer; which is definitely not something you want, considering that visual novels already took a herculean effort to persuade people that sex and fanservices aren’t the only things they have to offer, releasing titles after titles with incredible stories; and this situation with Steam just turned everything back to square one.

sakura_spirit

“First off, let’s be completely honest about this: discussing literary merits of this VN is extremely pointless. The plot is way, way below average, and it’s basically little more than an excuse to string various fanservice CGs together.”
~by Ariurotl on Sakura Spirit, but I’m sure you can apply this to most Sakura titles

I mean, fine, I’m not going to lie — I’m not exactly pure either as I do like my fanservices, especially if they are at the right place and the right time. Most Sakura titles are anything but “right place and right time”, but putting aside that fact for a second, these visual novels aren’t representative of the medium; they have basically created the exact same prejudice that Western consumers from the mainstream side had been clamoring on Japanese media all these years, and overall, this is just bad for the medium. The most hilarious thing about this? Steam censors, sometimes even cut +18 content outright, so even when I said “fanservices”, these never went beyond the blatant teases, and I assume newcomers to visual novels don’t even know nukige exists.

To that end, I think the problem stemmed from Steam being a really capitalistic platform. Veteran visual novel players could only facepalmed at the sight of more Sakura titles, but they just keep coming back. Why? Because there is a market need for them. And as long as the guys at Winged Cloud keep earning some good money from these subpar titles, they would just keep coming back with more subpar titles-and the cycle goes on. As if visual novels only require that level of production to satisfy people, as if visual novels are just fanservice games; something which may appeal to some, but something which mainstream gamers wouldn’t touch like a plague as they desire games with more context rather than just fanservices. Visual novels could do both, visual novels could do so much more, but unfortunately, new visual novel players will never know the capabilities this medium could accomplish.

Yes, a look that isn't so sure if I should be hopeful or despair at the current situation with visual novels.

Yes, a look that isn’t so sure if I should laugh or cry at the current situation of visual novels.

And if you’re new to the whole visual novel phenomenon — and you’re reading this review –, I want you to know there’s much more to this medium. So, so much more. Don’t let something like this make you think this is all there is to VNs.
~by Gare from his review on Sakura Spirit

To that end, Steam as a platform for visual novels is like a double-edged sword. It is an excellent platform for developers and translators to release their works, allowing the medium to spread to a more wider audience. At the same time, because Steam is such an open platform, many subpar titles are produced, some so bad that they just create a stigma for the medium. I guess you just can’t gain anything without sacrificing something in the process. Visual novels in the process of reaching out to more people via Steam, has eventually established a bad image on itself-that “visual novels are just fanservices” even though the medium is just capable of so much more.

When all is said and done though, Steam is still a necessary tool to help expand the medium into the Western fanbase. I can only pray that more people would pick up great titles on Steam like G-Senjou; because the ones they are probably more familiar with, are just not reflective of the medium at all.

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This entry was posted by Kai.

17 thoughts on “Steam – A Double-Edged Sword for Visual Novels

  1. One thing steam HAS done that I appreciate is make it easier for me to recommend vns. For example, I can just tell my friends to check out Grisaia no Kajitsu on Steam and they dont have to do all the japanese localization and such of the old days.

    Also since Steam censors, I can point friends to either Steam or the actual version per my discretion. ;)

    • Well that’s true. Also I forgot to talk about this more in the post. While having an all-ages version on Steam is good and all, Steam’s version of “all-ages” means also outright cutting dirty jokes and lines, nothing even explicit, lol. I seem to recall this happening to some VNs. One thing’s for sure though, it’s hard to get the full experience on Steam, though I know people can install uncensored patch or anything at their own discretion.

      • Indeed, but “not having dirty jokes” can be a good thing for people.

        For example, recommending a usual vn to my high school brother is a little awkward, but when it’s on Steam then I can just tell him to enjoy the story without any reservations. Sure he doesn’t get the “full” experience, but maybe that partial experience is good enough?

  2. I think the same can be said of other types of games as well. Sometimes, you have to wade through the meh and crap that you can access easily, hook in who seems to retain intrigue in the genre, and then as popularity grows the better stuff will be more eased into the mix more frequently and respect for it as a whole will grow. I know that, despite having a pre-existing interest in VNs yet never playing many, Steam has introduced me to a better and easier method of trying some stuff out. As you stated, it’s very much a double edged sword, but it could lead to a lot of great things for VNs.

    • Yeah. But with visual novels and Steam, said “meh and crap” are just so blatant finding the good stuffs is like digging through 10 feet of sand to reach the treasure, lol. Probably kinda over-exaggerated there but still. Steam just makes things a little TOO accessible, though it’s not like I don’t appreciate it either what with the localization of great titles. Does has it’s fair share of problems though.

  3. I actually answered a question about this same topic a while ago on ask.fm and made pretty much all you points you have, which means I agree with this post wholeheartedly =P

    The other thing I noticed recently was in regard to Frontwing’s recent release of Corona Blossom. I don’t know if you saw it but they basically sent out social media posts explaining that sales had been abysmal and asking for feedback as to why this might be. Among some other details, like it being episodic and not being a big name, the overwhelming response was that nobody wanted to give a new company a go in amongst all of the crap money-grabbing visual novels on Steam. Corona Blossom isn’t fan service heavy (I think), so unfortunately it didn’t have that going for it either and will probably end up failing on the market unless its sequels (which are already confirmed for release) are fantastic.

    So the one aspect I didn’t predict regarding the influx of VNs on Steam was the potential stifling of legitimate companies’ efforts. It’s unfortunate…but as I also said in my ask.fm answer, Steam is most likely a necessary evil for pushing Visual Novels in the Western market.

    • Don’t know too much about Corona Blossom so just had a quick look. Amazing art and it looks decent from the little I have seen. If Corona Blossom is even half decent compared to said “crap money-grabbing” titles, than it’s sad to hear how new titles are assumed to be the same with the rest. Though yeah, being episodic probably don’t do them any favors, which imo, is a really money-grabbing system.

  4. I haven’t played visual novels for a long time considering that I play mostly Japanese roleplaying games in Japanese nowadays. While I haven’t played any visual novels outside of Key aside from the Anime licensed video games that take a visual novel format with additional gameplay. While I do think it’s a good thing that visual novels are being on released on Steam, thus increasing the exposure of visual novels just like light novels. The issue with this as you mention is there is that there is a lot of poorly written visual novels with fanservice. While this is somewhat unique and can give someone who haven’t played them before a bad perception, it’s not unusual in the video game industry. The video game industry has a share of bad games, especially licensed video games which are almost going to be bad since they are usually a cash grab.

    At the end of the day, Sturgeon’s Law is going to apply. 90% of the visual novels are going to be mediocre or bad and only 10% of it is going to be good. This is not necessarily a bad thing since there is always mediocre or bad anime, manga and light novels being translated and released. It hasn’t impacted the popularity in the west, so I expect the same will apply to visual novels. Then again, what people perceive a work as being good is going to be subjective at the end of the day, so…

    • Hmm, I guess one positive thing we can take out of this is that not just VNs, but anime, manga, LNs all have their share of bad titles too. VNs are still undergoing through this huge phase of popularizing itself, and it just so happens that it has a platform, Steam, where it’s so accessible that all the bad titles are being put on the forefront, but just like any other medium, it has gems too — you just have to find it.

  5. While I agree, that is true for all genres of games, not just VNs. I think Steam is a double-edged sword not only for that, but from the admission fees + greenlight + DRM of its content. As in, it isn’t very nice for indie devs to even enter the platform, so even if games are good, they still have a tough battle to climb.
    I’ve never played this series, but I do think it has a place in the market too, it just can’t be all that comes out, obviously, and with that I agree with you (・`ω´・ ●)

    • Well yeah, I know it’s not easy, but stepping away from VNs a little bit, it’s hard to respect their efforts when there’s games like “shower with your dad simulation” in Steam.

      • Yeah, and then legitimately good games don’t get in because of their “curating” and trying to “not make the same genre have too many” which just sounds like gatekeeping to me, which is pretty bad sigh

  6. I would consider myself a VN Veteran and I would hope everyone else would agree (unless you think 200 full reviews isn’t enough, then damn… you got high standards)

    It’s almost an objective fact that the Visual Novel medium is EXTREMELY cliche especially with the Western population. When you get down to it, VNs are literally words + pictures + sound, and that’s not much different than other books you can find in the library

    First. I know players who absolutely hate reading and can’t stand to sit on their butts and read text for several hours. Those people are definitely NOT going to purchase these games.

    Second. VNs are expensive. Almost all of the content is created from scratch, and that’s going to cost money. Normal costs for commercial titles range from 5000 en to 8000 en, and more with preorder bonuses. Corona Blossom Volume 1 is apparently 10 USD, and I’m assuming there’s more than one volume

    OF COURSE PEOPLE AREN’T GOING TO BUY IT.
    (Unless they’re loaded with cash, of course)

    Not everyone will spend $10 on a game that’s not even complete, they don’t even know if they’ll like it, and there hasn’t been a similar predecessor of the medium in the past. Reviews will likely say that this is quite a boring “game” if it is one at all, and will criticize the entire title for being more of a book than anything else.

    Third, there’s a super strong stigma on pixelated pornography in general (otherwise commonly known as hentai). A title has an all-ages title, but also an adults-only version? You’re a sick fuck for playing even the all-ages version because logic. It’s stupid, but that’s how Westerners think and act and how the taboo is created. Don’t ask me because I’m Korean and we have our own problems here.

    Do note: None of those reasons are even associated with Steam. Just because a company decides to use Steam as a platform to sell their games, that those reasons above are going to simply disappear.

    Remember that Steam is only a METHOD of obtaining these VNs. In a similar aspect, if you go on places like Getchu, they partner up with worldwide shipping service companies to provide hard copy of VNs to Westerners at a bit more of a price. I don’t see this service being used much, and I’m pretty sure I just explained why. The only difference is that these “services” are lot less well-known than Steam and less effective

    I’m on the side of “Don’t bring VNs to the West” purely for the following reasons.

    1) The players who actually want them for their content are very few in number
    2) The large majority of the players interested are only in it for the sexual content and/or fanservice as pointed out in this post.
    3) I’m pretty sure 99.9% of the Steam community do not even know who “Akino Hana” is

    Having joined VN communities involving Western Populations such as VNDB, Fuwanovel, /r/visualnovels, (and left all of them in less than a month) I can sufficiently and confidently say that there’s a reason why I have my own review site and make all these brazen claims.

    • I get people who hate reading and can’t stand to play visual novels for hours on end. As for the price though, I know that the major ones are expensive but definitely have more than enough content to justify the price. Also, Steam has so many sales that it probaly isn’t too hard to catch these titles on sale? In fact, think there was a VN sale just a few months ago. But like you said, those unfamiliar with the medium would probably don’t even care enough to check them out.

      And yeah, I actually dislike VNs that so blatantly make them a multi-part series just for cash grab. Story-wise, they are some that make sense, but most of the titles that I came across in Steam doesn’t seem be multi-part for story purposes. Stepping a bit away from VN discussions, there’s a few video games I outright chose not to buy just for this reason.

      Not going to reply to the third point other than the fact that I agree with you. But I want to mention this too — I actually support “bring VNs to the West”. I mean, not everyone can learn Japanese so fluently to the point of reading untranslated VNs, I personally tried it myself and it didn’t went so well.

      But while I’m on this side of supporting bringing VNs to the west, I’m also aware of all of it’s problems. You are introducing a medium to a completely different culture, and just like every culture, some of them accept this foreign element, others reject it. You really can’t satisfy everyone here.

      And you know what? With localization like eden, Tokyo Babel, Root Double and the upcoming SubaHibi… I just can’t complain.

      In short, I will just repeat what I said in the post. I support “bringing VNs to the West” and in order to accomplish that, Steam is a necessary tool.

  7. I’m not sure if I can fully stand behind the “bringing VNs to the West” because most of the people reading them aren’t going to be reading them for the same reasons we are (story, characters, depth, etc). I appreciate all the efforts of the translation teams who worked hard in translating visual novels before big names like Sekai Project came around. To be honest, some of the fan translations (any by Amaterasu Translations) are better than what big companies have managed to produce. Plus as a fan translation, there won’t be any censorship.

    Personally I haven’t bothered reading any of the blatant fan service VNs like the Sakura series. I don’t really care that steam is swarmed by VNs like that, but I hate how the more legitimate VNs like the Grisaia series is heavily censored. Is the explicit art or jokes really that bad compared to the fan service CGs? Like @joyjason mentioned, even an “all-ages” version is stigmatized in the westernized world. I mean, we already have really sexualized advertisements all the time and there’s explicit imagery on TV. Is pixelated art really that much worse than what we see all the time? I doubt that steam’s policies on this will ever change, nor the common westerner view on VNs.

    I’ll agree that the price of VNs is a little bit on the high side but steam sales help to alleviate that. You just have to be patient enough for them I guess. I like when translated VNs are actually physically available for purchase at places like Jast or Mangagamer. I would much rather pay a little bit extra just to have something in my hands than a digital copy. For now I won’t be buying VNs from steam but I’ll buy a physical VN from time to time, and I’ll continue to support the Fault patreon.

  8. You bring up good points. Please allow me to share a bit more of my thoughts. It’s quite long so tl;dr at the bottom.

    I’m not sure if I’ve told you already, but I have been a translator (for games) in the past, and if you’re active on /r/visualnovels, you would probably have seen me ranting about how translators are one of the least appreciated things you can do in the VN community.

    Look at the Aokana project that went poof. Thousands of people bashed the group for abandoning the project when it simply returned to status quo; the game having no localized translation. People started to create bad rumors about this accident being intentional instead of feeling sympathy for hundreds of hours of work gone. Man, if I was one of the translators of Aokana, I would be fucking furious.

    Same when I was a part of the groups translating Aiyoku no Eustia or Yosuga no Sora. No one gave a shit about my work and even less people (more specifically, 0) cheered me on or gave me motivation. The team was scattered all over the place, and the only person I ever spoke to was the group leader. I never received any appreciation for the work and became unmotivated REALLY quickly, leaving the group right afterwards.

    My point with the above story is that my stance is the following: “These people do not deserve the Translations”. I know I sound like a dick, but that’s how I really feel after being in the same shoes as you many years back, and seeing how greedy or impatient the population was.

    But that’s aside the point. If the company wishes to create a VN in two different languages and release it on a medium like Steam, fine. That’s their copyright and their title they’re in charge of. However, just as how CB wasn’t successful on Steam, expect all other future games to be the same. I’ll say it again: Steam is only another method of obtaining VNs, and does NOT resolve any of the problems I mentioned in my first reply.

    If the companies really wanted their games to sell and for VNs to become popular, there needs to be more advertisement. More publicity and more genuine efforts to make the game well known. However, if the game is just another “hentai game” with a crappy story and decorated with fancy graphics, the only people interested will be those creepy males who have cash to blow and nothing better to do.

    As far as I’m concerned, CB is just another charage with fantasy settings, and that’s pretty much what the majority of the VNs are in the Western player’s minds.

    A prime example of a game that I would like to mention as being “good” is Eden*. Search it up on Steam and see just the sheer difference in the number of reviews despite Eden* being a more expensive title and even shorter than CB. That’s what I mean by quality; no cheap bullshit and no cheap attempts to make a “hentai game”. We need a serious, dedicated, and meaningful game to change these “stereotypes” engraved in the minds of Westerners, and to be frank, even the Japanese titles aren’t like this (See Senren Banka and Floral Flowlove; those are July Releases), so we can’t really expect much for Western Localizations either.

    tl;dr
    1) My personal experience with the genre for roughly 7 years made me a strong believer that despite how hard Japanese is, if you really wanted to read Visual Novels, you will buckle down and learn it or find other ways. Those who can’t or won’t lack dedication. (Do note; this opinion was heavily downvoted in /r/visualnovels. Go figure)
    2) Steam is only another method of obtaining VNs, and does not solve the various stigmas or barriers to Westerners in trying out this medium
    3) If companies wanted to bring VNs to the west, they need to get serious or get out. Unless they want to attract a group of creepy pedophiles, dedication needs to literally radiate from the project.

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