The History of Fan-Made Ren'ai GamingBy mikey
Saturday, June 4, 2005
The fan-made English ren'ai gaming community is a very young one. Hardly ten years of age. So it may not be as rich in historical data as for instance the PC Platformers gaming fandom. Still, you are welcome to take a look at how this community began to form itself and the troubles and success it has experienced. This article only deals with completed games with a certain minimum in terms of game length and interactivity, but also influential unfinished projects are mentioned.
Muto Anime was a company built around making and selling anime-related programs, including games. Their marketing strategy was to build a beta version and sell that to another company for a low price. That buying company however would have to deal with the relatively buggy engine programmed in Visual Basic and make corrections to the sometimes bad English language. Muto Anime started in 1994 and until around 2000 it was basically the only source of free English bishoujo games. For some time many of the projects were available for download, but since movies took up a substantial amount of the games' sizes (the games were 400 MB and upwards), it was hard to download them, because of bandwidth issues and, the 56k modems (in 1996/97 that was the hi-end) and pricy connection fees were also a factor.
From the games Muto Anime has produced, Muto Memories, Muto Memories 2, Together (Together Forever) were the ones that people got to play the most. As for the titles Muto The Dragon Slayer, Remember Me Forever and Inn With Passion, their status is unclear, but chances are Asian players had more options of getting their hands on them. The immense bandwidth troubles prevented Muto Anime from offering the games for free for a longer period of time. The ones that were sold were also not available from that time. Currently, only the non-ren'ai card game Anime Casino is available.
Muto Anime was a creative factory, with many projects that jumpstarted other people to make their own games or tools. The character creating tool was to allow players to build their own characters, there are drawing tutorials and plans were made for an easy-to-use open game engine. Muto Anime has reigned for five years and its importance can't really be measured. Everyone knew the Asian community was miles ahead and had its tools and doujin producers. But Muto Anime is where it all started for the English, or international ren'ai community.
The rise of the Megatokyo webcomic in 2001, that revolved around bishoujo games gave way to a new wave of creative undertakings gathering around the Megatokyo Dating Sim forum. The logical consequence was a project that would make the adventures of the Megatokyo cast into a game. While these ambitions remained largely unfruitful, there was a group of people that started on a project of an open-source dating sim engine which could be used for either the Megatokyo project, or any other game. Home at the Sourceforge web, the project saw many ups and downs. After the initial phase around 2001, the project stagnated, only to be revived around 2003. Still, the advent of the 2004 script-based Ren'Py engine seems to have been the final step in shelving the Sourceforge Engine.
The year 2001 also brought a project, very ambitious in size and presentation, called LadyStar. Over the following years the story underwent many presentation changes, the latest being a 2004 Flash version. It is non-interactive, but nicely combines original 3D graphics with prefessional style characters. LadyStar has the fate of many projects, it is largely unfinished. Another project, Hearts On Paper had a promising start, with even the artistic help of Muto Anime, but it didn't survive, although officially it is still not cancelled. Several other projects were announced at this time, some nameless, some ambitious, like The Sonata Of Maetoki, which remained largely a concept.
A parallel world to the ren'ai engine and game development was the rise of the Flash community. Simple Flash games allowed for fast and effective minigame creation. Crisp vector graphics were easy to make and the Flash phenomenon also hit the anime gaming community. However it seems that the simplicity was attracting largely hentai-oriented creators. In addition to that, there basically were no Flash-making teams who drew their own art and so the games either used copyrighted material, or simply fan-reproductions of it.
The most notable project of this time was SimGirls, in its many versions a DNA2-based non-story sim with statistics-based gameplay. It had great success and is still perhaps the most legendary of the Flash projects, even though it was never really finished completely. But as they say, the older they are, the better they were. Arguably of course, there are more elaborate Flash-games from this time, such as Ganguro Girl, which, inspired by the unfinished SimGirls project was possibly the first completed Flash bishoujo game. The team, Shiaomedia also started an online realtime Flash game called Hentai Social Club. Also, the team that was to become Mausland created many fun Flash gamelets, from StarDust to the popular series of Frank's Adventures 1-3. Regrettably for ren'ai fans, these were still just hentai collecting.
A third area of development were the commercial fan-made projects, at this time it was Project Journeys, officially called The Snowing Clear Skies On April 29th, by ClearWind Design Studios. Using an own engine, named Paths later on, the aim was to create a game that was both intellectually demanding, professionally executed and commercially viable. The project set new ambitions for a game script. Based on a full-scale novel, which had to be re-written and rebuilt to make for a multipath game script, the sheer size of the text, comparable to Japanese text-intensive titles puts much importance on the gameplay design.
Sometimes ren'ai games develop from simple text games. One of the examples is The PK Girl, a very long text game with anime graphics. While not really in the standard ren'ai format and layout and in need of the external runner Adrift, the game is appreciated for the various endings and a contest-winning story. Also, the game-making program RPG Maker led to successful program-dependent game creations, such as three minigames inspired by the Yami No Matsuei series. The team succeeded in making Wanko, Love Impact and Yami No Romance well worth the invested while. More projects were games seen at the Club H page, most notably the unconfirmed Princess Maker 2/3 or the Sailormoon Dating Game which is very hard to get any info about, and there wera also rumors of an unconfirmed Evangelion DS.
The year 2003 was a breakthrough year for the English ren'ai community. Seeing failed projects many people were disappointed and a change of thinking started to form. Most notably Lemma Soft was to bring the influential game Tales Of Lemma. The author intended the game to be a simple 'small start', but it turned out to be a defining game for a whole new breed of projects, that were small, but complete. Although Lemma Soft changed directions in the future, concentrating more on anime-style games which brought it even more acclaim, ToL remains the prototype of a simple game, using one or two characters and photographic backgrounds (previously looked down upon), in 20 minutes of play.
Two more projects received publicity in 2003. One of them was the ambitious Town Heat. A full-scale ren'ai game using its own engine and many novelties of presentation, it would clearly be the next-generation of games. Featuring many characters, not only female, but also male, animations and statistics were all a part of it. Eventually, there was a demo released in 2004, but the completion probablity may not be too high. Similar problems are plaguing the team around the perhaps most ambitious all-round dating sim/ren'ai game, Love Revolution. Possibly a project with the most changes in design, the frequent manipulations and relatively inconsistent organization saw the project fail many deadlines. There was however much promotion for the game-to-be and many hopes were put into it. Some hopes were also put into the project of a Windows-based WYSIWYG game engine, Project H, which regrettably suffered from many setbacks and was abandoned after a year of work.
Back to Tales Of Lemma, the game that took almost a year from idea to final build, saw the rise of Lemma Soft, which promised a larger-scale sequel, Tales Of Lemma 2. The success of Tales Of Lemma inspired its creator to make a simple document with easy-to-understand game-making rules for everyone. The #1 rule that said to start small and build on the success, was the motto behind the ToL concept. However as future will show, it doesn't mean that there are no limits as to what a single person can do. Tales of Lemma 2 was too big a step ahead for Lemma Soft, which was proven by the delays and the final icing of the project in early 2005.
In 2004, a new team ATP Projects (ATPP) released Black Pencil as its first game. The game, known for its mood, breaks the schoolgirl stereotype and introduces a different line of games. This is also confirmed with the following project River Trap, which became an influential English ren'ai game, with many features and special director's effects. After the 6-month effort of River Trap however comes ATP Projects' simple games streak, with the three-weeks 2.4 MB game Kaori as the prototype of a simple game, that brought a new design philosophy into ATP Projects.
The two ATPP games which were released in the first half of the year, together with another completed game, Kasuka were also responsible for a growth in the Lemma Soft forum community. Kasuka, as many feel used the power of Flash for the good and the game, despite the criticised plain backgrounds is a merit in terms of gameplay and replayability. The year saw an improved version of the game come out, with an additional character to play for.
Looking at the demo scene, the webcomic-based Untouched demo was released, and it showed lots of potential. The Town Heat demo was also completed. A third demo was released by the Projects Journeys team, but it had little meaning for the PJ team, as it was more a demonstration than a fragment of the full build. A long time after the project started, the demo showed how far away from the game the team, troubled by lack of artists is. Early 2005's acclaim for the PJ business concept is an achievement, but one that is on paper only. A project, although not commercial, but equally grand in size was Xenallure, an RPG-ren'ai hybrid of mammoth size. The freely available elaborate design document is however only a design document.
The small-scale game-maker known for its anime games Hanako Games, introduced its Summer Schoolgirls demo with variable gameplay and a promising cast of female characters. The game, when finished, was to be available for a low introductory price as shareware. The Love Revolution's created sub-team fully devoted themselves to the first original bishounen English project, Fragile Hearts. Using the Love Revolution engine, the project was quite troubled and in the future Fragile Hearts switched engines, in favor of a project that was still in its beginnings in 2004, the Ren'Py engine. The new engine was simple to use and quickly showed its true potential. Still, it would be almost half a year until the first Ren'Py game would be released, from its creator American Bishoujo.
Not to forget is the mentioned community growth. As the Megatokyo forum became more and more oriented on Japanese ren'ai/bishoujo gaming, creators of new English ren'ai projects gathered around the Lemma Soft forum. Staff migrations resulted in many new projects or at least cooperative efforts, none of which were released in the same year though. Late 2004, the first site dedicated to completed and free English ren'ai games was created, the Ren'Ai Archives. Much of the importance of this site which simply hosts the games so that they don't disappear like some earlier efforts comes from the fact that RAA only accepts completed and original games. The completed game, no matter how small, is valued more than a project or a demo.
The Flash community continued to gather around the Newgrounds website and was led by team Forkheads and their Flash creations. In addition to non-games like the quiz/gathering Sex Kitten series which vary from very good to very limited, the team managed to put together quite playable, if intelectually less demandingly scripted games such as EVA4, Love Hina SD, Galaxy Angel SD or Azumanga Daioh SD, which, as names indicate were using established anime titles as their design base, gathering praise from fans who liked this type of fan service. Also mentionable, the alternative to the Forkhead dominance, Final Fantasy Sim Date or the first original Flash game since Ganguro Girl, Trystell.
The beginning of 2005 was marked by several early releases, such as ATP Project's school-troubled Milk Swim and one day later the first Ren'Py game, American Bishoujo's Moonlight Walks, a sweet past-present mystery. After this, Ren'Py became a true factor in the increase of fan-made games. There was one more Ren'Py Project, before the freshly-founded Ren'Ai Games released its first game, and the first completed bishounen game project, the well written hand-drawn romance Amgine Park, also running on the Ren'Py engine. Many new developers saw the potential of Ren'Py and several projects were announced for the upcoming game-making event NaNoRenO, organized by Ren'Ai Games.
March 2005 was the climax of an effort to mimic events like NaNoMangO or NaNoWriMo, where candidates have a month to complete given tasks. About five months before, the idea of NaNoRenO, make a game in one month started to take its form. The concept was proven by Kaori and Moonlight Walks, both of which were made in under one month. The time was right and not surprisingly all but one project that met the NaNoRenO 2005 deadline were Ren'Py-based. NaNoRenO was very important in many aspects. One of them was the amount of new potential game-makers the event inspired and jumpstarted. And although not all of them finished their projects on time, NaNoRenO can be called a success.
The games of NaNoRenO were the overly complicated school story for grown-ups Transfer Teacher by ATPP, the sci-fi story with a lot of potential for the future Reconstruction 01 by Allugic which introduced action elements into the gameplay. Then, the instant success of the idealistic story-based When I Rule The World proved that the community is open to unconventional storylines. Also making the deadline was the microgame Amatire. The most successful game of NaNoRenO 2005 was to become Ren'Ai Games' The Garden Society: Kykuit with a unique romantic atmosphere all in black and white. One month past the deadline, the inventive RPG-style Flash-based game Heikou introduced solid gameplay in a fantasy world, a compact package much in the tradition of the preceding title Kasuka, although very different in terms of story.
The new philosophy of 'finishing is everything' and other factors however gave way to some projects that were too small in size or had other deficits. Good examples are Marry Me Misato!, Sango!, Amatire or Reconstruction 01. Still, when NaNoRenO ended, it was substantially harder for beginning teams to bring up the motivation and enthusiasm needed to complete that first work. After NaNoRenO many teams announced a more relaxed pace for a more quality product in the end. The harsh rules of NaNoRenO were criticised in this aspect, as teams had to make trade-offs in story, graphics or music. The future proved however, that it was these rules that were the key factor in finishing the projects.
For every finished project, even a demo, there will be a whole lot of unfinished projects, planned games and never-materialized designs. It's not really possible to mention them all, because almost every bishoujo/ren'ai gaming fan has thought about making an original game. Some of these teams even had their websites and introduced their visions. Also not fully mentioned are some bishoujo (non-ren'ai) games made by doujin/semi-pro authors and distributed commercially. The most prominent examples are Light Up! or FashionTown.
So, what will the future bring? In Spring 2005, Hyperbunny was called into existence, an ambitious company striving to make truly professional games, with the first one being free. Ren'Py has been also used for foreign-language projects, but the notepad-easy editing (and translating) gives hope for even more English releases. And so, how will smaller teams respond? Will we finally see long-in-dev projects be playable? And what about all the surprise releases that can appear out of nowhere? There's much to look forward to.
The author wishes to thank all those who provided him with additional materials as well as his friends at the LemmSoft forums for their comments and suggestions.
mikey runs ATP Projects, has released several English bishoujo games and maintains the
English Bishoujo Games Encyclopedia.
"The History of English Fan-Made Ren'ai Games" © 2005 mikey. All rights reserved.
Contents of this article are purely the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect those of Ren'ai Games.net/Ren'Ai Games.com.