For the longest time, fans of niche gaming genres were unable to get their fix. Many genres, such as visual novels, were considered unpalatable for the North American audience. It’s really only in the past decade that we’ve seen an increasing representation of such games finally making their debut in other regions. Companies like Culture Select are a part of that trend. Recently I was given the opportunity to speak with Culture Select founder John Baumlin about his company and learn more about their origins, interests and much more. You may have heard of them thanks to their recent Kickstarter campaign for Moekuri or new Western-themed visual novel Dead End Junction. Although the company had been around since November 2014, their 2015 crowdfunding campaign for Wish -tale of the sixteenth night of lunar month- was effectively the public debut of an intriguing new localization/digital publishing company.
With a goal of just $4,800 on the campaign, it was hardly an expensive visual novel project. The concept of the game, itself inspired by Type-Moon’s incredible work, drew attention to and forged Culture Select as a name in the industry both publicly and privately. As Baumlin recounted, “I always identify the Wish campaign as what ‘made’ our company. The staff and their diverse backgrounds really came together for that project.” Throughout the campaign period, each member of the campaign did their absolute best by spreading word of the project and responding to the development team and backers quickly. With that said, there was one massive challenge permeating all Kickstarter campaigns in 2015 – the fear of crowdfunding projects turning out to be scams. After a few high profile failures, many backers were all the more reticent of what they chose to give funds to.
“Wish was a lot more difficult than Moekuri is now. That’s because no one knew who we were or what we were doing. They couldn’t trust the quality of our work, which is big on Kickstarter. At the time, there had just recently been a few fraudulent Kickstarters – including a few visual novel Kickstarters – from people who had never been heard of before. There was a lot of skepticism for our company and the kind of work we were involved in.”
Although backers took notice, they arrived at a limited pace. Just days before the Kickstarter concluded, a chunk of funds finally pushed the project over its goal amount. In August 2016, just as promised, Wish -tale of the sixteenth night of lunar month- arrived on Steam. Culture Select even went so far as to release a Spanish localization last month despite not reaching that stretch goal during the Wish campaign. It’s actions like this which help showcase the commitment Culture Select has toward their goal of sharing great games with a wider audience. This, despite the fact that the company has not as of yet taken funds of other sorts such as business loans and don’t have some unnamed rich investor backing them.
Much more recently, they launched a second Kickstarter – this time for a SRPG by the name of Moekuri. Thanks to their handling of the Wish campaign, people were not afraid of backing it. Funding was secured at about halfway through the Kickstarter and, by the end, it raised nearly 200% of its $6,500 goal. Although Moekuri might not have the best UI, its character artwork is absolutely on point. Not only that, but it appears the core SRPG gameplay will help players to look past the less professional elements of the game. Although the campaign is now over, there is still a chance for interested parties to snag some of the reward tiers. A PayPal donation option even opened up for a while post-campaign. This allowed folks who for whatever reason couldn’t back the Kickstarter campaign to get a last chance at snagging unclaimed rewards. Moves like this further cement the company as customer-focused.
Moekuri also helps to prove Culture Select isn’t exclusively focused on visual novels. Although it likely would have been safe to stick to one genre, the company is more than willing to look at all manner of doujin games. It’s a key component of their culture. As Baumlin stated, the team is always asking “What is Culture Select? What do we want to accomplish differently from the goals of others?” This style of running a business is necessary when dealing with the realm of digital publishing on PC. While Baumlin does not feel there that the localization market is crowded, he does believe that the Steam Store is. Given that there are now over 10,000 games on Steam, this absolutely rings true.
But what exactly are these “doujin” games which Culture Select seeks to localize? In the West, many consider indie and doujin to be analogous terms. Baumlin has a more nuanced perspective which considers cultural and legal differences:
“Doujin games and indie games are different. Doujin games mean fanworks. They’re things fan communities and non-major companies get together to create on a very small scale. In a sense, that smaller scale protects them from significant legal threat in Japan because you can create a fanwork using intellectual property that is not yours and sell it. While it’s not necessarily legal, Japanese businesses have a much better attitude towards fans making and selling their works commercially – much more so than the United States.”
There’s no doubt that some indie games could also be considered doujin games, and vice versa, but there are also fundamentally distinct cultural aspects that play into it as well. In many ways, this ensures that doujin games have a really distinct “feel” about them. By simply visiting a convention such as Comiket or online artist community Pixiv you’ll start to grasp the fervor and passion of these creators. Unfortunately, unlike the United States, there are not huge blogs covering every aspect of doujin releases in Japan. For example, Baumlin referenced IndieDB and VNDB. While these sites exist for English-speaking fans, there is absolutely no equivalent being maintained in Japan for their immense, ever-expanding doujin scene.
Culture Select may only have a few titles at the moment, but each is filled with a distinct doujin spirit. The latest of these games is Dead End Junction, a visual novel set in the Wild West. In an interesting twist, despite being a total doujin release, some gamers assumed quite the opposite. The “Western” terminology had some expecting an OELVN (Original English language visual novel). In actuality, the author, 773, “is a big fan of The Magnificent Seven” who had been craving creating his own western game. The end result of his obsession is a well-researched game with heaps of charm. With the resurgence of interest in westerns as of late, this release couldn’t come at a better time. Baumlin couldn’t rave enough about Dead End Junction:
“It’s a fantastic game that’s really special to us. The characterization is distinct, the comic book style really gives this old western feel. The in-universe system has some really strong symbols built off of the Civil War, Native Americans, and all the good and bad of that era which is great to look at at this time.”
Although Culture Select have two visual novels in their catalog at this time, they don’t want to necessarily sequester themselves in this genre. This is readily apparent from how they seek out and approach doujin developers. According to Baumlin, they’re “always looking for something genuine; something different. Something that could work well with a specific niche, or just tries something that hasn’t been done before.” It’s safe to say that Culture Select has its heart in the right place. Anyone looking for something unique to play this weekend may want to investigate Wish – tale of the sixteenth night of lunar month – or Dead End Junction. Both provide entirely different styles – Eastern versus Western focus – and offer compelling stories for their audience. Other upcoming titles, such as card game Heart of Crown reaffirm Culture Select as a company interested in publishing without focusing on just one or two genres. Anyone with a taste for doujin titles needs to keep an eye on them. This is one company who we expect to see a lot of output from in the coming years.