How the Creators of the Otome Genre Bring Romance to Modern Audiences
We spoke with Ruby Party Director Mei Erikawa about the challenges and exultations of making romance games aimed at women, and the excitement of bringing 'tokimeki' to everyone.
All images courtesy Koei Tecmo
Otome games, or dating simulation games for women, have had a surprisingly large number of English releases in recent years, despite the fact that they are generally considered a niche genre. In 2018 so far, there have already been 5 otome game releases for PlayStation Vita, a system that, as of March next year, will no longer have physical game cartridges produced in North America and Europe. Japanese otome game giant Otomate, developer of popular titles such as Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom and Amnesia: Memories, announced back in May that they will be moving future otome games releases to the Nintendo Switch, opening up the genre to a whole new console audience in Japan.
Despite the increasing international buzz around otome games, there has been no word from Koei Tecmo regarding the localization of their large library of otome games by Ruby Party, the development team that started it all. Back in March, I wrote a piece about the history of this influential team that, with the release of the SNES game Angelique in 1994, created the genre we know today as otome games.
After reading numerous interviews and publications about Ruby Party in Japanese, I still wanted to know more about this ground-breaking team that was formed by Koei co-founder Keiko Erikawa in 1990 with the explicit intent to make games aimed towards women. Thankfully, Koei Tecmo America was able to put Waypoint in touch with Mei Erikawa, director and head of Ruby Party and daughter of Koei and Ruby Party co-founder Keiko Erikawa, via email.
My questions were sent over in English, which were then translated by Koei Tecmo staff into Japanese for Mei, who provided answers in Japanese that were finally translated by their staff into English for publication. I was thrilled to have this opportunity to discuss with Mei how the otome market has changed since Ruby Party was formed in 1990, the choices that go into making their games, and the possibility of seeing Ruby Party games in English in the future.
Waypoint: I understand that Ruby Party was formed as an initiative by Keiko Erikawa to make games for women. Was there any resistance against making games expressly for a female audience in Japan at that time?
Mei Erikawa, Director and Head of Ruby Party: Rather than in Japan as a whole, at that time there was definitely some resistance within our own company—people firmly believing that games made specifically for female audience just would not sell. However, Ms. Erikawa was firm in her beliefs, insisted that "there are just as many women in the world as men, of course there can be a separate market," and eventually the world's first game marketed towards women, Angelique, came to life. As it was the very first one of its kind, we can't say that it sold well right away, but over time, after being picked up and introduced in various media, its popularity grew.
Angelique lets players choose from a number of male characters to form a romantic relationship (or disregard romance altogether and become queen). Was the element of player choice a central aspect of the game from the beginning?
Definitely. That was something we focused on from the development stages—to create a game where players did not have to follow a single story through the game, but could create their own. It was important for us to create a variation of equally entertaining paths for players to freely choose from.
After the release of Angelique , was there a large demand for more romance simulation games for women, or did this kind of game take a while to catch on in Japan?
While Angelique did attract a lot of attention as the very first game created specifically for women, it didn't really become a huge hit. Ms. Erikawa, however, had expected it to be so from the very beginning, and that is why she already had a mixed media development planned. Following which, Angelique was also introduced in various media besides gaming magazines, and that was what led to the overall success of the project. It took some time for the real market to be established, and I would say that until the 00s, when other developers began to actively take part, romance games were a very minor genre.
What is Ruby Party’s creative process for coming up with different series such as Angelique and Kiniro no Corda?
Since, at first, we were the only company that developed romance games, we simply tried to come up with every topic and setting that sounded like it would be popular with the female audience (student life, music, luxury and elegance, heartrending love, and so on) and see what game we could create based on it.
Now that otome games are more widespread, has Ruby Party’s approach to creating games changed?
There are two things that continuously change with the flow of time—the value systems of the women we make our games for, and how games are integrated in our lives. In case of the former, we have to consider the fact that worlds and stories that women would enjoy constantly change, and in case of the latter we must closely follow the changes in how and where, and through what medium, the games are being played. At Ruby Party, we aim to be constantly aware of these changes, incorporate them into our products, and challenge ourselves to try out new things. However, we do believe that no matter how much the world around us changes, people will never stop needing to feel the excitement (the emotion we call 'tokimeki') that comes with good romance and dramas.
NeoRomance titles are aimed at girls and women, but what is the intended age demographic? Does it differ between series such as Angelique and Harukanaru Toki no Naka de, or has it changed over the years?
We do not generally set goals to create products for specific or limited age groups. Although, since Angelique has turned 24 years old, we are aware of the fact that our reboot title was played by many mothers and daughters together, and we aim to create products that are both appropriate for a wider range of audience, and respond to the specific needs of varying groups.
Ruby Party was initially formed to make games for women, but are there also male fans of Ruby Party games in Japan?
Without a doubt! We even see our male fans attend our events.
Viewing the current otome game market, do you feel that much changed from the mid-1990s?
I believe it has changed drastically. I also think that the biggest change would be the fact that now there are two very distinctive types of consumers—those who prefer to enjoy the immersive experience by playing at home, and those who choose to enjoy 'tokimeki' moments wherever they are, by playing on their mobile devices in their spare time.
In interviews, Keiko Erikawa stated that it took many years to establish Ruby Party because there were not many female programmers at Koei at the time. Have you seen an increase in women entering more technical areas of game development over the past 20 years (rather than just as scenario writers, artists, etc.)?
Yes, of course. Not only in the development—there are many women working and playing active roles in all of the areas. Also, since the old idea that once a woman has children her professional career will end is no longer valid in the society, there are many talented and experienced women who have been working in the industry for a very long time. The working environment has definitely changed, bringing more opportunities for women in all fields.
Ruby Party romance games all have multiple male characters for the player to choose from. How do you come up with all of the different male characters? Do you consider how each character fits into common archetypes, such as the “carefree guy,” “funny guy,” “calm and collected guy,” etc.?
First, we come up with the world we want to create. Then we take the elements that the world carries in itself and distribute them equally between the characters. For example, if we are creating a story based in feudal Japan, we know that there will be a lord, his attendants, a traitor... and so on, and their positions will already carry some of the characteristics imbedded in them. After that we come up with the qualities and details that would make the story more dramatic, and make sure every character has enough of a background for the design to be coherent and well-developed through the story.
Currently, the majority of NeoRomance games are released for PlayStation Vita. Why do you think the console is well-suited for otome games?
When PlayStation Portable first appeared, it became immensely popular, overwhelmingly so among female consumers. We have been selecting Vita as our main platform as a natural extension of this trend, but I also believe that the portability, and the high quality of the visual and sound systems are also very popular among our female fans.
In 2015, you produced a remake of the original Angelique , titled Angelique Retour . How did you go about remaking this classic title for a modern audience?
We tried to keep the best parts of the original Angelique, while editing out some of the cumbersome and more... unkind parts that we thought would not really be appreciated by the modern audience. We have received a lot of positive feedback regarding the direction we took with this remake.
There are many English-speaking fans of Ruby Party due to the NeoRomance manga and anime that have been released in English. In addition, there has been an increased interest in Japanese otome games in recent years in the West. Many Western fans would love to play Ruby Party games. Have you considered localizing Angelique Retour , or any other NeoRomance games, into English?
We have considered it, but we were just not sure how much of demand there really is, and had to put it off for a while. With Steam now bringing more opportunities for expansion overseas, I believe there is a chance we will reconsider it once again. We would be very grateful for any information you could share with us regarding the interest towards our titles overseas!
[Note: This interview was conducted before Ruby Party announced the latest title in their music academy otome game series, Kiniro no Corda Octave, will be released for PS Vita, Nintendo Switch, and Steam in February 2019.]
Finally, please give a message to your Western fans.
All women, including myself, have things we have to battle with in our everyday lives, and the things we enjoy, and I think it is something that does not change regardless of where you live in this world. Our goal, and hope, is to bring a little more of excitement and 'tokimeki' to everyone's everyday lives. There are more than 130 male characters that can be found in the games created by Ruby Party, and I am sure everyone will be able to find at least one to your liking. We will continue to work hard to be able to bring them to you, and will be relying on your kind support!
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.