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Mania Interview with Carpe Fulgur's Andrew Dice
By Thomas Zoth
August 05, 2010
© Carpe Fulgur
Last week, a new localization group named Carpe Fulgur made a splash with the release of a demo for Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale. Recettear is a Japanese doujin game starting a petite bourgeoisie named Recette, a young girl who converts her house into an item store in an effort to pay back debts her father incurred. The game combines item shop management and dungeon crawling in a way similar to Rune Factory or the Atelier series, but with its own style and unique mechanics. Impressed by the clever and promising demo, I contacted Carpe Fulgur Project Director Andrew Dice to find out more about Recettear and Carpe Fulgur itself.
1. It's very interesting to see so many new entrants in the English market for these Japanese doujin games. What attracted you to this kind of project? What interested your group in interactive entertainment, versus translating doujinshi or printed material? Did you, or do you, expect it to take off as a new trend?
Well, pretty much every one of us (myself, Robin Light-Williams and Nicholas Carson) have been interested in interactive entertainment since we were wee lads. Recettear caught our eye because it was a unique project that nobody else seemed to be making a move on; even the fan-translation scene didn't seem to want to try tackling it. It was far too good a title to simply let lie fallow, however, and we knew we had to at least try to bring it to the West.
It was never really a matter of "indie games vs. indie something else" for us. It was about finding a piece of interactive entertainment that deserved to be experienced outside of Japan, and doing our best to provide others with a superlative experience with it.
As far as being a new "trend", that's hard to say. Sturgeon's Law applies to the Japanese indie scene as much as any other medium, I'm afraid, and there's plenty of truly awful and/or creepy stuff out there. The Japanese indie scene has a further complication in that many Japanese indie groups take a somewhat... "looser" view of copyright law than the West does, and in Japan this is tolerated since it's rarely worth the effort to actually go after such groups and games. Of course, this means that those works become licensing nightmares overseas. This makes it pretty hard to export those titles, to say the least.
That said, there's definitely interest in Japan about the possibilities, and Carpe Fulgur isn't the only group bringing over Japanese indie works - Rockin' Android's been at it for a while now. I'm not really sure how much of a "Thing" it could all become, but there's definitely interest in getting more titles out than have crossed over in the past, and the technology is there now to facilitate it with far greater ease.
2. Why Recettear? What attracted you to this project in general? Did EasyGameStation feel that this was a good title to start with, or are you just fans of the classic, quirky JRPGs put out by companies like Atlus and NIS in the US?
Why Recettear? Because it's pretty unique. There are only a tiny, tiny handful of games I know of that feature "run an item shop" gameplay elements like this, and none of them feature it as the primary gameplay component and in nearly as much depth. There's lots of familiar elements as well - such as the dungeon-crawling - so that the thing doesn't feel completely alien and unapproachable, but it's different enough from the rest of the pack that we felt it could easily stand on its own in any language.
There were really two big options for us when we looked at EGS' lineup - Chantelise, which is perhaps comparable to Zelda 64 in how it plays as a kind of dungeon crawler, and Recettear. Chantelise was the less "esoteric" of the two titles, but it had also been previously released in Europe by DHM Interactive. We wanted a fresh game no-one had worked on before (and Robin was already a fan of the game), and we wanted to provide a unique experience that was, at best, difficult to find elsewhere. Recettear was a perfect project in this regard, so we opted to "begin" with it. For their part, EGS was a little unsure about how well the game would be received outside of Japan, but fully understood and agreed with our reasoning.
All three of us have been fans of Japanese-produced RPGs for a while, but not from any one specific company - none of them "pushed" us toward Recettear more than any other. (Well, the actions of one company in particular proved a catalyst for Carpe Fulgur's creation, but that's a different tale.) We went after Recettear because it was the most unique experience we could find, and one we thought the rest of the world should experience. Speaking for myself, I've been interested in this sort of thing since grade school, when I read about Ted Woolsey and his localizations of various Square works, and I know that Robin had been at least toying with the idea of a project like this for nearly eight years.
3. In recent months, there's been a lot of discussion about the idea that Japan has reached a dead end of innovation, and that new and exciting things are coming out in America and Europe. Yet JRPGs, with their often simple graphics and reliance on older mechanics, still seem to sell respectably enough to keep companies like Atlus, Nippon Ichi, and Aksys in business. New Harvest Moon games come out several times a year. Why do you think these titles still have an audience, and what do they offer us that titles like Madden, or Halo, or Grand Theft Auto don't?
There are several reasons why Japanese-produced RPGs have held on so tenaciously over the years, I think. Firstly is the fact that for a long time, the characterization tended to be a bit stronger. It's a bit of a cliche, the Western RPG having a build-a-hero versus JRPGs having preset heroes who the player doesn't get to define as much, but for a long time it was true and I think a certain kind of audience gravitated toward this. Take, say, the original Fallout - a brilliant game, but there were times when the characterization and narrative cohesion could feel a little weak because so much of the game could be tackled in nearly any order. Other characters couldn't really do much, and while that helped give the game a sense of isolation (important for a game in a post-apocalyptic wasteland), it meant that the narrative was a bit loose and not many of the characters were all that memorable.
Contrast that against, say, most of the Final Fantasy games released in the same "era" as Fallout. You occasionally got a bit of dodgy translation (I'm looking at you, FFVII) but because the characterizations were more set in stone, the developers had more freedom in writing the plots and setting scenes. (I know many would argue that the Final Fantasy series, at least, then squandered this freedom, but that's another topic.) You could have these large narrative set-pieces - and thus, these character-defining moments - that Western RPGs of the era simply lacked. It's only really been relatively recently that Western RPG developers have tried to match or exceed this, and in games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, they do it by having the player define their past to help determine how characters will react to them... which is a half-step removed from what JRPG developers have been doing for decades.
The second reason I think JRPGs have held out so well is, ironically, innovation. You mentioned Halo and GTA, but I think that's kind of an "Apples & Bricks" comparison. They're both objects, sure, but beyond that they don't really do anything in a similar way. A more apt comparison would be with Western RPGs, I think, since they're trying to engage the player on a reasonably similar level in how they tell a narrative. I bring this up because many older JRPG fans cut their teeth in the 90s, and the great irony is that Japan in the 90s was a whirling hub of innovation, when the West pretty much spent that decade trying to clone Ultima in various settings. The 90s resulted in the birth of strategy RPGs of various stripes (from Fire Emblem to FF Tactics to beyond), the aforementioned Harvest Moon, a lot of neat things that never made it out of Japan like Wonder Project J or the early PSX Atelier games, the simple yet wildly successful concept behind Pokemon, and then you had games that took a "traditional" framework and bounced it completely off the wall like Earthbound did... the 90s were a hotbed of RPG innovation in Japan, and there's no question that many of the gamers of that time gravitated toward Japanese products due to this.
The problem is that many Japanese groups and companies tend to pick up on a specific innovation or concept and then flog it absolutely to death. The best example is perhaps Mega Man - a platforming hero with selectable weapons that you obtain from major enemies. Pretty innovative in 1987, and the first sequel was practically an essay in perfect platforming design, right? Capcom has now flogged that concept for thirty-four distinct platforming titles, plus various other-genre spinoffs! Even Capcom has admitted at times that the concept is running ragged. That's what a lot of people mean when they discuss the "decline" of Japanese innovation - many of these concepts are simply being flogged far too hard and too quickly. Like you said, we often see several Harvest Moon titles a year now, and even the Atelier series has put out four titles in two years now. They still have an audience because some people still enjoy the gametypes, but there's no question there's been some drift due to the perception of simply attempting to repackage the exact same game and sell it again.
Meanwhile, the West is generally taking longer to build titles but is mixing them up more - you've got things like the wonderful Trine, the experimenting with backstory in recent Bioware offerings, Fable experimenting with consequences and what they mean for you and the world, even World of Warcraft, EVE Online and other MMOs exploring what's possible in a shared online space. It's a wheel that turns, I think; once the old concepts can't be flogged any harder, we'll see more innovation from Japan again while the West perhaps tries to chase WoW or Mass Effect's success, and around and around we go.
The whole point behind Carpe Fulgur, though, is to keep an eye out for those unique ideas, no matter what time it is. Those little gems that might not cross the ocean otherwise - we'll look for them, and if we like what we find, we'll bring them to as many audiences as we can.
4. On your site, you explain that you aren't going to be using DRM for this release. A lot of fans say this is what they want in their games, but of course, you also clearly explain that you are well aware of the risk for piracy. Do you feel the kind of fan who you're targeting with titles like Recettear is less willing to pirate it, because they're the kind of projects we don't see localized often?
Well, our stance on DRM is simply us being realists. There's no kind of DRM we could put into the game that would stop piracy, in the end; the physics behind binary computing prevent this. Ultimately, the user has the game data, and canny ones can remove any kind of DRM software placed upon a program. It's an exercise in futility. If people really want to pirate a game, they'll pirate it; maybe your DRM will make them wait a week or three, but sooner or later some enterprising young hacker who sees it as a challenge to get past the DRM will defeat it, and you're at square one. It shows far more respect to your customers to simply not burden them with extra software that might adversely impact their machines - never mind that it's also cheaper. Of course, there's also the fact that EGS never went with DRM either, and we'd have to convince them it's a good idea... but in this case, everyone is on the same page.
I do think that a lot of our fans - and we've gained quite a few so far - are the kind of people who'd be willing to pay for a product if they feel it's worth their money. In the end, people enjoy supporting causes they believe in. If they feel they've gotten something worthwhile, there's a certain joy in helping to sustain the thing that provided that product. So I'm not all that worried - Recettear will still get pirated quite a bit by people who pirate everything, but I think that the majority of people who really enjoy the product will pay for it.
This might sound a little like begging, actually, and in a sense that's right. Fundamentally the creators of interactive entertainment are artists, and artists have always been at the mercy of people who may not be willing to pay for the service. Even as far back as Antiquity or the Middle Ages, art was often produced via patronage, and you often ran a risk of irritating your patron or simply encountering a spell where he didn't feel like paying you anymore, and you'd be thrown out into the cold - assuming he didn't just cut your head off on a lark. So it is with digital arts. Even when we try to deny it, fundamentally we're at the mercy of just how badly people actually want to pay us for the work we do, because we really can't stop them from simply experiencing our work and then moving on without compensating us. That's something a lot of developers need to learn, I think: we're at the mercy of the crowds. It would behoove us to treat them with respect and not like a resource to be exploited, or we might end up with our heads cut off.
5. With older import-only games and visual novels from Japan, you'd see text file translations, and then eventually translation patches, but these were usually done without the creators' involvement or, often, permission. What's different about Carpe Fulgur and Recettear? Did you feel you needed to get the Japanese creators involved, or were you maybe more willing to take on the risk of bringing the title to market? Was EasyGameStation especially easy to work with and happy with the idea, as opposed to other groups or circles with similar projects? Or is it really the internet and the increasing ease of communication that's really the major factor in making a project like this possible?
Well, Recettear isn't that old, first of all; it was first released in December of 2007 at the 73rd Comic Market (Japan's biggest indie festival) and then saw a wider (but still limited) retail release at indie-focused shops in March of 2008. So the game's really only about two and a half years old - there have been games with longer turnaround times. Not many, but they're out there.
That said, I do understand what you mean. When Robin and I were first discussing our options in mid-2009 (this was after I was rejected by a certain JRPG importer for an editor's position, and after Robin had no luck finding a translating gig), we toyed with a number of options, including doing a "fan translation", in order to build up our portfolios and prove that we really could do this. Discussing that, however, we realized that it would be rude of us to not at least ask before producing an unsolicited localization of a game (plus it'd be a lot harder, since we'd have no programming support from the original team). Especially in the modern age of the Internet, contacting people on the other side of the world isn't that difficult, so we went ahead and did our best to get in touch with EGS and see if they were interested in some kind of possible official release in the West.
The reader can probably guess the answer.
We did have to work to build EGS' trust at first, since we didn't even have a website back then; at the same time, though, EGS was pretty eager to see an overseas release of what was widely considered to be their best game. Once the ice was broken, though, they did have a fantastic understanding of what we needed to make the game work in English and were supremely helpful in making everything happen. I was particularly afraid that they wouldn't understand our reasons for wanting to go digital-only with Recettear's release (Japan and the Akihabara district in particular are famous for giving indie titles actual shelf-space), but they understood the situation totally - I think it helped that Muracha, EGS' head honcho, is a member of the IGDA's
(International Game Developer's Association -ed) Japan branch and keeps up with certain trends overseas.
I have to say that the Internet, especially the modern Internet, is what made this project even remotely feasible - heck, I'm not sure we could've pulled it off even five years ago, and ten years ago it would've been laughable. But the technology has matured to the point where high-speed data transfer is available even to independent developers like ourselves, and we can keep in touch with EGS pretty much constantly if we have questions or they have concerns or whatever. That's actually part of Carpe Fulgur's localization philosophy - using modern communication technology to make sure we create something that is as close as possible to the original developer's vision and intent by staying in contact with them. I know that many more hardcore fans of Japanese media look down on any kind of alteration to the text at all, but there are times when something just doesn't have the same resonance in another language. That's what we're concerned with - making sure that the script is as enjoyable to read in English as it was in Japanese.
We're hoping Recettear is just the start for us. Indie or not, we love doing this for a living and there are several titles, independently-produced and otherwise, that we have eyes on. And the Internet made it possible.