Sekai Project Interview—On the Dawn of the VN in the West, Localization, and More

sekai project interview 2015-02-17

With Sekai Project continually landing exciting new licensing projects and successfully crowdfunding campaigns, we absolutely had to bug them about the industry, their inner workings, current projects, and—of course—what games they’ll be bringing us in the future.

Despite the amount of work he is currently handling, we managed to get some time with the CEO and co-founder of Sekai Project, Raymond Qian. You can read our interview below.


Niche Gamer: Let’s assume all kinds of readers are going to stumble across this interview. What is Sekai Project and what does it do?

Raymond Qian: Sekai Project is an up-and-coming game company that specializes in translating and localizing Japanese games for a Western audience. We mainly license visual novels, however, we’re looking into games from other genres to bring over as well.

NG: What does your position at Sekai Project entail?

RQ: I do various tasks since we still don’t have many core staff members right now. I maintain some of our social media pages, websites, tech support, e-mails, direct license acquisition in both Japan and overseas, quality assurance, legal research, working the booth at various conventions, and many other things as they present themselves.

NG: How did the company start and how did you manage to nab your first localization project?

RQ: As a company, Sekai Project started operations in July, 2013. However, many of the core staff have been involved with visual novels for years. Our first license as a company was Narcissu 1st & 2nd for a re-release on Steam, but it could also be considered that our first localization project was actually back when we worked with JAST USA to officially license the visual novel, School Days.

NG: Would you be able to explain to us what goes into a localization agreement? What’s discussed, what do you have to keep in mind, what are the other party’s requirements or priorities, etc.? We’d like a better understanding of the discussions that happen prior to a localization actually being agreed upon and released.

RQ: Getting your foot in the door is the hardest part when trying to get a localization license in the visual novel industry in Japan. Having connections and knowing the right people gives you a huge boost in trying to find someone to listen to your marketing pitch about why they should consider selling their game overseas. Each company we deal with has their own unique requirements and priorities. However, the majority of the discussion can be boiled down to four things: how much it will cost to license the voices, what the cost will be to the Japanese company, how many written Japanese characters are in the game, and—if we’re planning to crowdfund it—what happens if funding it fails.

NG: What goes into localizing a visual novel? Take us through the typical process.

RQ: The process really depends on each individual game. Often it can also be quite different depending on whether the game already has an existing translation or not. Let’s use Planetarian as an example. The original translator of Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet is a good friend of ours, and when he heard that VisualArt’s/Key was interested in letting us publish the visual novel on Steam, he allowed us to reuse his translation as the base of the Steam release. Once we ported his translation to the newer engine that Planetarian was using, we sent the scripts over to VisualArt’s/Key to review. During their review process, we were asked to adjust parts of the translations and to make some stylistic changes. Once that was done and it had completed a quick round of testing, we released the game onto Steam.

NG: You’ve managed to land some really big titles recently. You started crowdfunding visual novels last year, with World End Economica, but your last two, Clannad and the Grisaia trilogy, were something else altogether, raising over $1 million combined. How did those two projects come to be?

RQ: Unfortunately, I can’t really go into details for that. However, I can say that we were able to acquire Clannad thanks to all the fans around the world that made Planetarian such a success.

NG: You must be planning to bring more visual novels to Kickstarter. Around when can we expect the next one? I’m already pushing my luck, so I won’t ask which title it’ll be—but if you wanted to tell us …

RQ: Well … Since you asked, we are looking at crowdfunding an otome or BL-themed visual novel next. Expect some news about it this April at the upcoming Sakura Con or sooner!

NG: Some of our fans will be really happy to read that. Your latest announcement, the localization of Ame no Marginal, happened really soon after its Japanese release. Were you in talks with Tomo Kataoka ahead of the VN’s launch in Japan, or did you somehow hash out the localization agreement within the two months of its release there?

RQ: Our original plan was to quietly release the game on Steam once the localization was done. Due to some unforeseen circumstances in Japan we decided to launch the preorder page sooner rather than sitting on the license.

Planetarian The Reverie of a Little Planet 2015-02-17

NG: The English visual novel market seems to be experiencing explosive growth as of late. On your website, you state that “recent developments in the market have allowed smaller groups like us to efficiently assist creators to promote and sell their products.” What influences do you think are responsible for this growth?

RQ: That statement on our webpage was actually written in 2013. Back then, Kickstarter and crowdfunding had just started to become noticed in Japan and Steam had recently started their Greenlight program. Because Steam now allows small companies like us to fund games and then put them on their platform, we have access to a much wider market than just direct sales off webpages or on location at conventions.

NG: You mentioned you’re bringing over a boys’ love or otome-themed visual novel. Do you think Tumblr has had an influence on the Western market for visual novels and these kinds of games in particular? Tumblr fandoms are certainly enthusiastic for such material.

RQ: Just from casual experience and talking to others in the industry, there seems to be a big fan base for those types of visual novels on Tumblr. However, we’re not sure of their marketability or if they’re interested in buying such games, so we’re going to try to license a BL or otome game to see what happens.

NG: Apart from Kickstarter, Steam, and maybe Tumblr, are there any other reasons you think visual novels are taking off in the West, or are the aforementioned influences it?

RQ: Many anime are based on visual novels, and having the source material available in English allows fans to experience the full story that may not be covered in the anime. Having these games for sale on a popular platform like Steam greatly improves the visibility of the visual novel genre and of such games.

NG: From your experience, what type of visual novel seems to do the best? Harem, slice of life, fantasy…?

RQ: Current market trends are mostly towards moege type visual novels, which are generally light-hearted story games with loveable, cute characters and brightly colored illustrations.

NG: When we wrote about Ame no Marginal’s localization, people wondered whether you are taking on too many projects. Sekai Project’s workload must have increased exponentially recently. How are you meeting the resultant challenges? For that matter, what are the challenges that you’ve encountered with this boom?

RQ: We’re always getting resumes from different translators asking for us to consider them for localization work on upcoming or in-progress titles. At this point, we feel that we have a great team of qualified translators, but we’re always bulking up our list of future candidates so we can reach out to them when we have a new project ready for localization.

NG: Stephen King had an anecdote in one of his non-fiction books, that he misspelled “pheasants” in one of his stories, and the sentence ended up reading: “the locals are shooting as many peasants as they think their families will eat.” Have you had any funny scares like this?

RQ: In Fault Milestone One, we misspelled “quality assurance” in the end credits. We had quite a few people poke fun at us for that. The credits were added into the game after testing had been completed. It’s a mistake we’ve learned from for our future releases.

NG: Which of your projects so far has been the most difficult? Is there a project that just fell apart and couldn’t be salvaged?

RQ: While we haven’t had anything as awful as that so far, knock on wood, Clannad is probably the hardest project we’ve dealt with yet. Currently, we have a team of close to fifteen people working on the game, and having everyone try to meet deadlines while still finding the perfect time for meetings when everyone is available is proving to be quite the challenge.

NG: How many projects is the company currently working on in total and how many people do you have working on them?

RQ: As of right now we have about fifteen titles in various levels of production. On some of them we share resources, so we have around ten translators, four programmers, and four editors working on various different titles at one time.

world end economica episode one ep 1 2015-02-17

NG: What do you have to say to fans who are upset that some visual novels with adult content have said content removed during localization and/or for a particular distributor?

RQ: While we can understand their sentiments, we would like to reach the largest market possible, and that requires following the rules provided by various distribution providers. Since they don’t allow adult content, we can’t focus on it but there are other companies who can handle adult content without any issues.

NG: More recently, visual novels have been seen on consoles and portables, but only in Japan. You’ve already begun working on Vita ports for some of your games. Will there be others?

RQ: Currently, we have six titles planned for release on Vita: the Grisaia trilogy and its spin-off game, Idol Magical Girl Chiruchiru ☆ Michiru, Fault Milestone One, and World End Economica: Complete. If these games are successful on Vita, we’ll definitely consider continuing to release more of our future titles for it as well.

NG: Are you looking to branch out into other types of games? If so, what would Sekai Project’s first non-visual novel be? A JRPG?

RQ: Actually, we already have started to branch into different genres of video games beyond visual novels. We licensed RaidersSphere4th half a year ago, which is an Ace Combat-like flight simulation doujin game with some visual novel elements. We’re looking at a few other JRPGs currently, and maybe we’ll have an announcement regarding them in the future.

NG: You describe yourselves as a “multinational group”. Does it affect the way you work or communicate at all? How does a multinational company differ from a local company?

RQ: One of the biggest issues for us is time zones. We have staff all over the world, mainly in Europe, Asia, and North America, so finding the right time to hold a meeting with everyone is quite a challenge.

NG: This brings to mind another question some have. Are you considering translating these games to languages other than English?

RQ: We are considering it, but it’s a bit too early to tell if we’ll actually do so just yet.

NG: It seems that a lot of gaming companies have opened their own stores. When is your own store going to be open for business?

RQ: Once we have a proper fulfillment set-up, I suppose. I think it’s something we have to put more thought into before we start making any plans, so it might still be a while still. We also want to try to offer unique products that are not just physical copies of our games.

NG: What can you tell us about the company that we can’t find out elsewhere?

RQ: Around Anime Expo 2014, we had a rough patch where we were facing some dire straits as a company. I’m pretty sure no one knew that. [Laughs] I also left a senior position in IT to make this company because I’d like to see creators be rewarded for their great works. I want to see more appreciation for visual novels as an entertainment medium overseas and in the West, and it’s been very rewarding to see that slowly happening, partly as a result of what we have been doing here at Sekai Project.

NG: To cap this interview, is there anything else you want to share? Something you want to tell those who read this article and/or your fans?

RQ: Thank you so much to everyone for supporting us this far. We’re ironing out various bumps we’ve come across, and we’re learning from our mistakes, and without you, our company simply wouldn’t exist.

NG: Thanks for your time. You’ve made this a pleasure. Good luck with your current projects.


Related reading: too much to list. How about you look through our tag for Sekai Project?

Dimi Gronnings

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With over ten years' experience as an editor, Dimi is Niche Gamer's Managing Editor. He has indefinitely put a legal career on hold in favor of a life of video games: priorities.