London-based publisher PQube has expanded considerably over the past few years, starting as a small distributor for the local market, they have gradually expanded into publishing games on the global scene.
Their signature titles are niche Japanese games – especially visual novels – and indie titles, allowing them to carve a clear identity for themselves. Yet, lately, they have further evolved into their first attempt at development. More precisely, they’re co-developing Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa with Japanese studio Art.
This is certainly an interesting operation in a world in which western developers are often trying to imitate Japanese visual novels on their own. To learn more about this, on top of PQube’s roots and future, Twinfinite interviewed Marketing Manager Geraint Evans in a cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo.
I have known Geraint for a long time, and when PQube first announced Kotodama, I immediately knew his hand was behind the initiative. I don’t know many in the gaming industry who are as passionate as him about bringing niche Japanese games who many of you (and I as well) won’t even know about to the western shelves.
Giuseppe: First of all, how did Kotodama happen. How did you come up with the idea of creating your own visual novel and to work with a Japanese developer on it?
Geraint Evans: We spent so much time here [in Japan] and we came to know Art, who we are working with, really well and personally. We have discussed for a long time about doing something together.
They had some ideas. We had some ideas, and then over dinner and over so much time, we gradually realized that coming together and doing something made sense for us.
In terms of making our own game, it’s something we’ve always wanted to do. We started as a distributor, moving other people’s physical product around.
Then, when we started to work on BlazBlue — that is the first Japanese product that we’re known for — and on Persona 4 Arena and so forth… Slowly but surely the Japanese part of our business grew, and the publishing part of our business kind of outstripped the distribution side.
The fact that we were originally a distribution company meant that when we started to publish and to work on physical product, that kind of infrastructure was already there to do everything that we needed to do as a publisher.
After that, we became 90% a publisher and the next step was to look at the development side. It was time to think about the future of PQube, and what we want to do. We’ve always been publishing other people’s product, and it became nice to have something that was truly ours.
All of these things came together to this point that we’re at now.
G: Why a visual novel?
GE: It came down to what the team personally likes as individuals. I love visual novels. I think that’s clear by now (Laughs).
The other thing, truthfully, is that PQube is not a huge company, as you know, even if we’ve grown over time. We thought about what we had the passion for and what we had the capability to do.
For our first development project, we had to think about what was the best thing that we could make. Of course, it would have been really cool to do something like a 3D action game like Senran Kagura, but for us to start off at that level would have been kind of crazy.
Ultimately, this is something we’re capable to do very well in terms of the genres we know. We’re also working with a Japanese developer and consulting with them in terms of what we want to make. Due to our culture of generally liking visual novels, it made sense to start there.
G: How does development work? Who does what?
GE: Our office predominantly works on things like the concept and producing. I come to Japan about five to six times a year and we very closely collaborate with them physically in the same place.
We go through design documents, making decisions about characters and scenarios, going through the concept artwork, revising it, agreeing on the stylistic direction for things, how systems and mechanics should work. It’s a pretty tightly-knit collaboration.
It has been an ongoing collaboration for longer than eighteen months. We’ve also been talking about what we wanted to do for a good amount of time before that.
We wanted to start small and do what we could do. We didn’t want to do anything bad, and from our side, it’s a case of experimenting with the development process and hope that our community and our closest fans like and understand what we’re doing, and get behind us.
The goal ultimately is to make this a small success. We have a realistic vision of where it’s going to go, but if we get enough support from the community at large we can develop this IP and maybe start looking into more new IP, different kind of games…
This is hopefully the very beginning of something bigger.
G: Is this a Japanese game or a western game? There is a whole lot of western visual novels nowadays…
GE: Yes there is. First and foremost, it has to be a Japanese game. We have been very careful not to impose too much of any kind of western influences onto it.
It’s more about shaping things through things that we like, but we don’t want it to be sort of culturally ambiguous. We want it to be very much product of Japanese culture rather than being a weird hybrid.
G: So it’s a bit of a weeb game.
GE: It is. When you’ll first play it, you’ll notice that it’s born out of things that we like. It’s a little bit unusual, and we’re known for picking games that are a bit odd in a lot of different ways. That’s what we like and I guess it’s our signature.
We want to have something that when you look at the key art and the box, you’ll have a preconception of what this game is, and we hope to be able to kind of subvert that a little bit and surprise you. We’d like you to say “this is totally not what I was expecting it to be.”
G: Often western visual novels employ western artists who draw in a Japanese style. Did you ever consider just going that route?
GE: No, never really. You have to be true to your origins whenever you can. In the same way that we don’t want to censor things, we don’t want to homogenize things between western developers and Japanese ones.
As a good example, if you look at Arcade Spirits that we released recently, it’s a western visual novel that is super-true to its origins.
G: Yes, it’s totally western in its looks and feel and doesn’t try to imitate Japanese games at all.
GE: That’s always my preference. Developers have a creative vision and you don’t want to compromise the way they see and design things. Arcade Spirits is a very good example of something that is wholly comfortable in what it’s trying to do.
I think the danger is that when you have a western visual novel that tries to look Japanese, it may not be really comfortable in its own skin and not really sure of what it wants to be.
G: How is the market for visual novels nowadays seen from inside?
GE: From our side, we have to be very careful about what we sign. From a business perspective, it’s been doing well, and you’ll see a lot of visual novels coming from us over the next twelve to eighteen months for sure.
It’s a genre we really like and we’re really passionate about. We’re confident that they can do well. We haven’t done a visual novel which has performed badly. In this sense, we’re very pleased with the genre and its growth.
I think there is a lot of content out there at the moment if you look on Steam and even increasingly on Switch that kind of activity is growing.
It’s difficult for me to speak for other companies, but from our side, visual novels are doing really well for us as a business.
When I look at other visual novels being released, which I think is fantastic if you’re a fan of the genre, since so many are coming out, that suggests that they must be doing really well.
If we were in a situation in which visual novels were underperforming, we wouldn’t be in a position in which we’re actually looking to do more of them.
I hope it’s the same for everybody else, because as a fan, as I became more of a weeb and an otaku and I looked at all of the content that was available in Japan, I would say “we’re not getting all of this stuff.” Then slowly but surely, we started to see more visual novels come west.
G: We’re getting more and more lately, aren’t we? Many Japanese developers are even starting to release in English on their own.
GE: Indeed! We’re super-selective about what we pick up. As I said, we’re not a huge company, so we always have to be careful about what we choose to do and why we’re choosing to do it.
I think it’s great, and from the outside looking in, I think they do well for other publishers as well, and certainly, from our side, they are performing well.
G: Visual novels have started pretty much exclusively on PC, and now they have expanded on consoles. How are things going on consoles?
GE: I think the Vita was a really important part of that process. Initially, visual novels were mostly on PC because they were originally made in that format, and PC is a very flexible system.
In the beginning, Phoenix Wright on DS was a good example of how the wave towards visual novel appreciation happened. Then it really consolidated on Vita. You had a platform that Sony was kind of less keen on from a first-party perspective, but for third-party publishers who had a real interest in niche Japanese products, all of a sudden they had a system where if you were a Japanese game enthusiast, you had a Vita.
It was really nice to see that platform take on its own life and have its own community and a strong community.
As a result of that, you had a platform that was specific to Japanese games, or at least it felt specific to Japanese games. Again, if you were a Japanese game fan, you knew you had to have a Vita right? It just kind of made sense then as a western publisher to really go all-in on that platform.
Sure, you had situations in which people would say “PlayStation Vita is dead” but if you look at situations like Steins;Gate, it sold amazingly well on PS Vita. It did really well on PS3 as well, but so much higher on Vita.
The hope for me is that that audience is going to shift over to the switch, and that’s what we’re seeing across the board. As much as it’s painful to say, this is the first time I came to Japan and I haven’t brought my PlayStation Vita with me.
G: That’s kind of sad, but do you have your Switch with you?
GE: Of course! (Laughs) There was a moment packing my suitcase and my Vita was on the bedside table and I’m like… it’s tough…
G: I guess Muv-Luv and Muv-Luv Alternative have been pretty much the swan song for the Vita.
GE: Yes. I’m really glad that we were able to be involved with that. It’s one of those that we’re super proud of having been able to do, like Steins;Gate.
G: And it’s really perfect for a portable unless it makes you cry in public (laughs).
GE: It is! I’m really confident that that audience is going to move to Switch. I think the PC market is starting to become more challenging. It’s not necessarily a Japanese game issue, but more of an issue about the volume of content. There’s just so much stuff on there, and I’m kind of concerned that lots of people won’t be able to weather that storm… And then, of course, there are other platforms like the Epic Store…
G: What’s your outlook on the Epic Store?
GE: We currently don’t have any plans. We’re speaking to them, of course, but we don’t have anything specific planned on that platform, because I think right now, and rightly so, it’s gonna be super-curated.
Of course, we’d like to publish things on the platform going forward, but we’re not at the stage where we can go “hey, we’ve got this thing and it’s gonna be on the Epic Store.”
G: So you think that the Switch has the potential to replace the Vita for niche Japanese games?
GE: I think it’s already on its way to do that for sure. The hardware itself is fantastic and sales on the platform are really good.
As a publisher that’s kind of a relief, because we were seeing Vita going down and we were wondering what would things be like in the future.
When we first saw the Switch we were like “okay, the hardware is really cool, but we don’t really know how the ecosystem is going to work,” and then we realized “wow, it is selling well!” The first things that we published on the Switch did really great.
G: It seems that games sell a lot more on Switch that they do on other platforms in proportion to the installed base, and that’s true especially for small games. Why do you think that is?
GE: That’s a hard one to comment on. As a completely personal anecdote, when I first got a Switch and bought Breath of the Wild and played that kind of first-party content, the feeling I had was “what else can I have on this system?”
It was simply nice and super-convenient to play on the Switch. All of a sudden I found myself going “I want this game, but it doesn’t have a Switch port.” I felt a bit bummed out…
G: “No Switch no buy,” right?
GE: Yes, it’s that kind of mentality and I’m guilty of that. All of a sudden I felt “it would be so much better if this was on the Switch” because I could take it to bed, or bring it around with me, while still being able to play on a big screen.
G: What happened with Song of Memories, which forced you to cancel the Switch version?
GE: I can’t comment hugely on it because it was just an impassable technical issue. It feels crazy because you think “it’s just a visual novel,” right? Yet it just wasn’t working and it got to the stage where so much time was going past, and people were asking when the release was.
We just had to make a decision when we knew we could definitely release on PS4 because it was working, and get that out.
It’s not much of a situation where the Switch [version] will 100% never happen. I really hope that it does. It could hypothetically still happen, but it became a stage where the problem was so difficult and the time that was passing for us to resolve it became unrealistically long.
We had to make a judgment call and go “OK. We have to get the PS4 [version] out because we can’t not release this game on PS4 just because we’re waiting for the Switch to happen.”
I really hope that it can happen.
G: So the developers are still trying?
GE: Yes, but I think for now we had to just release the PS4 version and it’s available on Steam. We’re a small team, and we had to look at the other projects that we’re working on as well.
G: Circling back to Kotodama, is it going to be released in Japan as well?
G: Are you going to publish it in Japan yourself?
GE: We’re speaking to various people at the moment. First and foremost it’s a Japanese game, and even the original scenario is first written in Japanese.
G: So Art is writing the scenario?
GE: Yes. We kind of talked about the direction, the characters, and without going into so much detail, what kind of secrets the characters have within the game since it’s very “secrets-based” in terms of the narrative.
The “scenario maps” which are quite big in terms of design documents, were kind of done together verbally, discussing around a table, while the technical part is fully done in Japan.
G: Over the years there has been a bit of a trend for visual novels that on the surface look simply like romance stories… I’m thinking about Muv-Luv and Song of Memories as well… Then they reveal another face which is much darker and dramatic.
GE: I think it could be seen as similar in that sense. It’s not like Doki Doki Literature Club. It’s not going down that road, and in Song of Memories, you pretty much have an Armageddon happening. It’s not like that.
It’s a bit more light-hearted in terms of its themes. There are dark things in the game, but there is no over-the-top gore. Dark things are treated in a lighter kind of way, and at times funny.
Bad things happen in the game, but we’re not going down into a super-dark hole.
G: I’m guessing everything is being developed for the Switch from the ground up, so there is going to be no problem, right?
GE: Everything is being done for the Switch, PS4, and PC concurrently.
G: Have you ever thought to try the Xbox One as well? Or there just isn’t a market for this kind of game on Microsoft’s console?
GE: I would really love to, but the fact is that working with Japanese developers, it’s being disregarded here excluding the big ones like Bandai Namco or Capcom. There aren’t many developers who are super-familiar with the platform.
Personally, I would love to publish Japanese games on the Xbox. I’m actually a bit of an Xbox fanboy, and people at the office tease me about that all the time.
I’m a really big fan of the platform in terms of what it does for the UI and discoverability. I’m a huge personal fan of Game Pass.
It’s weird to talk about Xbox sitting in a Japanese cafe (laughs) but it does lots of things really, really well.
The discoverability for instance: I play more stuff on Xbox that I would never really consider playing just because the Xbox system is really good at showing me stuff. Their sales rotation is so strong that it’s basically weekly, letting you try stuff out for really good prices.
Steam in particular, but also the PS4 and Switch would be wise to look at what Microsoft is doing on this topic and learn lessons from it. For discovering games, which is a big problem industry-wide, encouraging gamers to be brave and try things they’d not normally even think about… the Xbox is really good at breaking that barrier down.
Unfortunately, Kotodama is not gonna be on Xbox One. I would love to, and I would love to see more people publishing on Xbox.
G: It’s funny because the Xbox 360 was kind of a go-to system for visual novel developers in Japan.
GE: Genuinely speaking, the system was really good. You had Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon… Some of my favorite RPGs. It was a really good platform for Japanese content.
Then you had the legacy stuff like Ikaruga that came to the 360. It was great.
G: And then the Xbox One kind of crashed and burned here.
GE: I think it’s always going to be an uphill struggle, unfortunately. Even the Xbox 360 had really good content and it still struggled.
G: I actually wonder what they’re going to do here in Japan with their next platform and whether they’re going to try again.
GE: I think they’re going to try again. I think Game Pass is doing well for Microsoft. It’s the best service of its kind. I think it’s better than PlayStation Now.
The amount of monthly content going on… I find myself logging in frequently to see what’s on there. Is that the future? Much further down the line, I can see it working in that way.
G: Is PQube going to put any titles on Game Pass in the future?
GE: Actually while I’m here, my team is in Sweden to speak with Microsoft. I don’t know what that conversation will be, but we’re really keen to get more involved with Microsoft.
It’s just that we’re so involved with Japanese content that we simply have naturally not done it, but the indie side of PQube is starting to grow quickly as well.
G: What would you say to people who love Japanese visual novels but may be a bit hesitant at the thought that Kotodama is co-developed by a western publisher?
GE: It’s definitely a Japanese product, without a doubt. The entire core development team is Japanese, including the artists.
There isn’t anything westernized about it, really. It’s more of a case that we talk about the Japanese video games that we love, and about how we’d like certain things to be, but we can subvert expectations a bit, taking what people may think things are going to be like, and cheekily twist them a little bit.
It’s not a western game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a Japanese-developed game kind of informed by Japanese video game fans who just happen to be western.
At PQube we know what we like and I think it’s fair to say that we’re all weebs. I think people have an understanding of who we are, what we like, why we like it, and why we want to publish it. It’s very much Japanese content.
G: What’s your personal ambition with it?
GE: I would like to make Kotodama 2.
G: So you’d like to turn it into a franchise.
GE: I would like to build it up. Ultimately our goal is to start looking at what other genres we can make and what other studios in Japan we want to work with. This is the seed. We’re planting it in the soil and we hope that the fans will help us water it and give it some sunshine.
If it flourishes, we’re going to be able to make something different as well, speak to different studios or maybe keep the creative team that we have now, which is great, and think what else we can do and surprise people with.
Long-term we’d really like to continue developing games and improve our experience as a developer, growing new IP.
We want to make new things and new experiences. We want to surprise people in different ways, and we want to make the things that we like ourselves as fans of Japanese games.
At the same time, we hope that people in Japan will love the content as well.
G: Why Art by the way? I will admit that I struggled to find out who they are when I first saw the announcement for Kotodama. They haven’t made many visual novels, have they?
GE: No, but they’re actually super-experienced. They have worked on a lot of games that you may have played but you wouldn’t have known they were involved with.
They were the right fit in terms of culture and experience. We know them really well because we hang out, we go out for beers and talk about video games.
We just had a really good feeling about who they are, how much experience they have in terms of the games that they worked on, and also how much they can help us, because we started from scratch and when you make your first game you’re not really sure of what the pitfalls are.
It’s been very useful to have their expertise. It’s a combination of those things.
Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of the Fujisawa will launch on May 31 in Europe and on June 4 in North America for PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.