Welcome to Britsoft Focus. This is a weekly series from Kotaku UK that focuses on the British development scene, from single-person projects to world-straddling studio blockbusters. You can find previous entries here.
Recently we told the sad tale of Poncho, an indie game that didn’t do so well – which the developer very publicly blamed on his publisher. All of the gory details are in Julian’s report but what struck me, watching the conversations that followed, was the mis-perception of the publisher involved, Rising Star Games. It seemed like, to some people, ‘publisher’ simply meant ‘company with a lot of money.’ The developer himself said surely RSG could afford to front him a few grand, the unspoken assumption being that they’re rolling in it.
It made me realise that, while we happily draw distinctions between huge development studios and solo coders, there’s little of that subtlety with publishers – we’re not really aware of the smaller ones, the boutique outfits like RSG that specialise in a particular kind of game. I’ve dealt with RSG in the past and, while they're very nice people, they don’t swan about in fur coats and Ferraris.
One small publisher that especially interests me is the Bristol-based PQube, simply because it operates in a marketplace that bears little relation to the mainstream industry. Specifically, PQube specialises in importing niche Japanese titles to the UK - in all sorts of genres, including unfairly-derided but popular ones like visual novels. Not just this but, in recent years, the publisher has found great success on a platform that’s considered ‘dead’ - the Playstation Vita. Their games don’t tend to get much press attention, or even necessarily reviewed, but there’s an audience of British gamers out there that are loyal and love what they do.
PQube has grown from publishing three or four games a year to, in 2016, 27 titles. It’s not all Japanese content – they distributed a recent Sherlock Holmes game, and have other interests like racers and the upcoming Syberia 3. But it definitely focuses on niche Japanese titles.
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“We’re a relatively small publisher, been going since about 2009,” says Geraint Evans. “We started off as a distribution company, effectively, before we bought the remnants of Zen United, who were a small Japanese publisher. I guess you could say the staff who were massively into Japanese content.”
“From that point on we kind of pushed in a certain direction as we were light on content but, as a collection of nerds, we had expertise. We built up a pretty good business of looking at all of the kind of super-niche Japanese games that people ordinarily wouldn’t think the audience is interested in, but actually there’s a massive community that do have an interest in it and have a massive passion about it that we love. Mainstream games journalism, I guess, doesn’t really have that appetite for it.”
But PQube is a vital route into an important marketplace for many smaller Japanese developers, and it sources games the old-fashioned way. Evans's official title is head of marketing, but it's not the kind of company with such neat roles, and he's also the founder of Rice Digital - which covers and sells Japanese games. The man has a passion.
“I travel over there three or four times a year, and we go and see Japanese companies,” says Evans. “So not necessarily your Capcoms or your Platinum Games or whatever, but companies like MAGES for example who are visual novel specialists, companies like Acquire who are famous for stuff like Akiba’s Beat and that kind of thing. So mid-tier, I’d kind of say?”
“The interesting thing about Japan and the way that the industry has gone is when you look at the really super-budget games, you’ve got maybe three or four really good games coming over – Persona 5, Final Fantasy XV, the last Metal Gear Solid... obviously Platinum Games get big contracts for specific projects and, you know, as a developer they’re exceptional – but in terms of the quantity of Japanese games that we had in the PS2 era, and certainly in the early HD 360/PS3 era… it almost feels like none of the niche titles find their way over.”
“But I think the appetite for finding these niche games is still there. So part of what we’re doing is trying to redress that balance, I guess, and try and actively seek out stuff that would be otherwise overlooked and try and get it out there.”
We’ll get to some specifics of the games, but that appetite is what interests me - because it seems largely divorced from current trends in the sense that, for PQube, older platforms are often the target. In most cases, of course, tens of millions of people own these machines and don’t want to stop playing. But at the bigger end of the industry, as soon as the ‘next generation’ starts, we quickly leave the old one behind. Not this audience.
“For us, Vita is still a vibrant market,” says Evans. “Obviously physical sales has gotten increasingly hard. I always want to make it, because our fans just love a physical disk and a special edition – we try really hard to make sure we do that specifically to cater for that audience – but basically in terms of digital sales, that’s probably where the vast majority of money is.”
“So is the Vita dead? Not for us, not now – I’d say it’s on the decline, but we still have Vita titles through the next year. Valkyrie Drive was our last Vita-only title, so you could only play that on Vita and that’s done extremely well for us. Visual novel content has done well – Root Letter and the original Steins;Gate has done phenomenally well. The sales on Vita have vastly outstripped the sales on PS4 with something like Root Letter. Steins;Gate was pretty much all on Vita too, then a small amount on PS3.”
Is this something to do with format, perhaps? We don’t tend to talk of genres in terms of platforms specifically, but maybe with something like a visual novel we should. It seems immediately a good fit of software and hardware. Evans calls Vita “by far my most played console, hands down. I play more on Vita than anything else.”
But quality matters too. I know that many dismiss visuals novels out-of-hand but, if you’re into them or willing to give them a chance, Steins;Gate is one of the shining examples of the form. And it was the breakthrough title for PQube as a publisher, too, raising their profile and proving that the British market still wanted such titles.
“I think it’s the one that’s made more people kind of wake up and take notice of us as a company,” says Evans. “We’ve also kind of consolidated that with with stuff like Gal*Gun which has done amazingly well, first week sales far exceeded our expectations for that title. But Steins;Gate is quite interesting for us, because it got turned down by loads of different people. When we originally asked to do it, the developer was like ‘What? Really?’ because so many people had just basically said no to it, and it was a title that I did kind of have to badger our overlords to release.”
“That’s a bit weird because I’m saying we have to do this game, we have to do this game and, even internally, you’re trying to sell people on a ‘press x to scroll some text’ game. Thing is, it’s the most amazing ‘press x to scroll some text’ game you can possibly find – as something in its own right, it’s just an incredible piece of work.”
As Evans hints at, part of the problem is that Steins;Gate is not an easy or an obvious sell. Before joining the company in 2009, Evans had been a games journalist for a decade - our paths briefly crossed when I worked on Edge magazine, and he was on GamesMaster. I wonder whether, having been on both sides of the aisle as journalist and publisher, Evans appreciates how the media side works and why PQube’s games don’t get much attention - or whether it’s just a source of endless frustration.
“I do get frustrated I guess because it becomes so prevalent. So you have your IGNs and your GameSpots, and part of me is like ‘I would be so hyped if you guys would take this on.’ But actually in the case of Steins;Gate, it can kind of backfire because the journalists aren’t necessarily plugged into what the thing is. A big site gave Steins;Gate a 6 which is a bit of a hard pill to swallow, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion of course, I know why that happens but it’s hard not to take it personally. I mean, Steins;Gate 0 has been getting 9s and 8s across the board, and then one website’s given it a 5 and within that review says ‘You only press X to scroll through text – I want a little more interactivity from my visual novel.’ And it’s like, but that’s what the form is.”
Steins;Gate’s success nevertheless suggests there’s a whole other marketplace of players that, currently, just aren’t served by the meat-and-potatoes of the AAA industry - the shoot the man, drive the car, kick the ball end of things. It always strikes me, for example, that the Dead or Alive series is generally disapproved-of and mocked, but clearly sells well enough for new ones to be made.
“Yeah I remember speaking to Keith Stuart of the Guardian about Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 which was like all about sexy girls at a time when it was kind of generally frowned upon to have that kind of content, and it still is to a certain extent. But it is that idea that the kind of ‘manly-gun shooter style’ of games can become increasingly tiresome, and I don’t really play them. They’re just not colourful enough for me now, and they’re not whimsical enough for me.”
“I like that gentler, throwaway Sunday evening gaming rather than the ‘OK, I’m going to lock myself in and kill a load of shit.’ I find it a little breezier in outlook, I think, and regardless of what people think about the content of Dead or Alive, it is a very different proposition. You might think it’s shallow and boring if you want to look at it critically, and it kind of is, but it’s also nice and relaxing to just do nothing with some girls on a beach. I think that’s why people are so drawn to it, more than the sexy angle, it’s a really important aspect of it.”
PQube publishes a wide variety of games and it’s certainly not all anime waifus and bouncy drawings. Nevertheless that side of the Japanese industry is perhaps why there remains, in the west, a kind of stigma around certain kinds of games - that they’re not ‘real’ games, because they don’t fit our categories, or maybe there's an element of culture clash.
“Yeah, I think there is a, like you say, a stigma. So if PlayStation take one of our trailers, for example, and they post it on PlayStation’s own YouTube channel, which gives us fantastic visibility - it’s a good ecosystem to see what the world at large thinks of your product. Some people will go ‘Oh I’ve waited for this for so long…’ but they’re in the minority. Most of the comments are like ‘What is this weeaboo shit?’ The fans really love our content and it gives you unrealistic expectations – when you’re reading tweets from people saying how great you are all the time, you forget actually lots in the wider world just don’t understand it.”
To look at the future, where are PQube’s games going in terms of genre and platform - and what trends does Evans see at that medium scale in the Japanese industry? How long a life can something like the Vita have for even a specialist publisher?
“Steam’s playing a big part, in the last year or so I think Steam’s really upped its game in terms of… variety? Basically gamers have been starved of a certain style of games, it’s something that many gamers apparently have no interest in then all of a sudden – everyone pretty much has a PC now and things like visual novels just get more popular. Things like otome games for example, which are visual novels for girls, and the artwork in those games is amazing – so there’s a growing community for that there as well.”
“The other part of Steam is that it’s cheaper and easier to bring content over, and you kind of know that almost everybody is going to have a PC. So if it’s relatively light in terms of required power, like a visual novel or a very simple platformer or whatever, you know that the audience for that will be much better. However, for me at this point, if you look at the Vita as a platform, anybody who’s still playing Vita right now is definitely going to be a big fan of Japanese games.”
Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator
Seeing as PQube’s games are clearly chosen with some care, I finish off by asking Evans what titles he’s most proud of bringing to new audiences. “If I had to go for top-tier stuff that we’ve done, then I would say Guilty Gear Revelator is just, hands down, the best fighting game ever made without question. Artwork wise it’s amazing, just absolutely phenomenal. No disrespect to Street Fighter, I love fighting games, but part of the reason I’m doing the job I’m doing now is that Guilty Gear is just a step up in terms of visuals. The art direction is unbelievable.”
“Steins;Gate – the story alone, I’m a huge science fiction fan, I always have been, and it’s just a brilliant brilliant science fiction story. And Gal*Gun, for me, which is something that I imported and basically I bought an import 360 just so that I could play Gal*Gun, and knew it was the most amazing thing ever, and ever since that point I... all I wanted to do was publish that game. I feel vindicated because it performed amazingly well and people really enjoy it and the developer appreciates the fact that it made it out.”
PQube's games aren't for everyone. But they might just be for you, and that's why they're such a valuable part of the industry. PQube's stuff rarely gets the coverage it might deserve, and it operates outside of the big publisher bubble that tends to attract most focus. It and other small publishers, like Rising Star, keep a certain lineage of Japanese software alive and vital for British gamers. It might take a few years to make it over: it might be on an old platform by the time it does. But speak to anyone who's been enraptured by Steins;Gate and, as they'll tell you, that's a small price to pay for a taste of another world.