How Steam Turned Japanese Doujin Games From Elusive Treasures To International Hits
It’s August 16, 2008. The 11th Touhou game, Subterranean Animism, is out today from Comiket, trying to buy a copy is intense. People line up in the scorching sun for hours before being crammed into the cacophony of stalls in Tokyo’s exhibition hall. Hundreds of thousands of people will be flocking here over the next few days, each of them feeling hot, disturbed and completely dehydrated. Finding Touhou creator ZUN’s table among that deluge before his supply ran out is a feat in itself, but it’s worth the sweat and exhaustion for the reward: a freshly pressed CD containing a great shmup that. Braving the crowds and the heat in person is the only sure way to get one.
It’s now 2022. Today, you, sitting in your comfy office chair – or perhaps curled up on the couch with your Steam Deck – have purchased and downloaded Subterranean Animism in less than a minute after casually browsing through the hundreds of other doujin games available on Valve’s store and then get on with your day. For anyone who followed the doujin gaming scene in Japan in the early 2000s, it’s still surreal to see some of the most underground games made for tiny island communities now just a click away on Steam.
Long before the indie gaming boom of the last decade, Japanese doujin games were their own kind of indie scene. “There are many opinions on the definition of doujin, but I believe that…同人(doujin) means individuals or groups who share the same interests and preferences,” says Piro, representative director of small Japanese publisher Henteko Doujin. “While ‘indie games’ are categorized by scale of production as works not owned by a major label, ‘doujin games’ are categorized by production purpose as works intended for people with similar tastes.
Or to put it another way: Doujin games are not a genre, they are a attitude.
But has that attitude changed now that doujin games have gone from home media physically handed out to other fans to something available worldwide to virtually anyone at the click of a mouse?
By the fans, for the fans
Sometimes manually burned at home onto unbranded CD-Rs, sometimes professionally pressed onto DVDs with slick colored labels, doujin games have always been charming and unpredictable. These can be entirely original works – ZUN’s ever-growing series of Touhou shmups and Water Warfare from Have seafood– or it can be fan games that, uh, “borrow” existing IP. A perfect example is Densha de D, which combines Taito’s train simulator Densha de Go! featuring the famous Initial D manga, letting you drift race trains through Tokyo at 160 km/h.
XSEED Games Executive Vice President Kenji Hosoi describes doujin games as the “Why not?” answer to “Why? from the wider gaming industry, explaining that for these maverick developers, the usual rules shouldn’t apply. “The reason may be ‘just because,’ which I think drives some of these developers to come up with some fascinating ideas,” Hosoi says. “When you don’t think about developing games around specific audience segments and user trends, the whole world becomes your potential audience.”
Doujin’s positive approach has led to games like Fight Crab, an arena fighter where crustaceans with swords and guns fight to the death, and the playable nightmare that is Corpse Party and its oddly attractive combination of rooms. blood soaked and cute pixel school kids. The one constant in doujin play is lack of consistency.
For a long time, this all-you-can-eat creativity buffet was nearly impossible to play outside of Japan without:
- Paying inflated sums to retailers so small their websites were just text descriptions and an email address
- Follow links of dubious legality on a specialized forum and pray that the end result is not riddled with malware
That all changed in 2010, when Recipear: An Item Shop’s Tale debuted on Steam.
Carpe Fulgur’s pioneering localization of the store management game couldn’t have been a more perfect introduction to doujin games. Recipear was unlike anything else at the time with a bit of action, lots of heart and localization concerned with sounding warm and natural to English-speaking gamers – a world away from the ferocious and often untranslated shmups that were traditionally the doujin the kind of player choice.
But as vital as all of that was, it was the delivery method that made doujin play explode.
Japanese PC games of all genres and sizes had already been released in English: even the developer of Recettear had released one of its first games on disc in no less than five languages. The only problem was that these launches were so small that it often took blind luck just to learn they existed, and buy them, especially in the small window of New which helped publishers fund other bold releases, was next to impossible.
Not only has Steam removed the need to scour eBay and obscure forums for doujin games, but the uniform look and feel of its store pages has also made Recipear – and by extension the doujin game as a whole – the best kind of ordinary. For the first time, this import-only niche was affordable and accessible to a wide audience, requiring no second-hand Comikets extravaganza doujin reports and no greater shopping effort than the click of a mouse. And the store was infinitely more secure than emailing credit card details to an unknown person and hoping for the best.
Carpe Fulgur’s pioneering effort had a snowball effect on the entire industry, and today Steam offers hundreds of doujin games, encompassing everything from the dense series of “sound novels” Higurashi When They Cry has the uninterrupted action of dodging Crimzon Clover’s bullets. , to Touhou Genso Wanderer’s colorful take on dungeon crawling. It’s a happy situation that has only made the process of getting doujin games on Steam easier for everyone involved.
“Having released titles like Sakuna and Corpse Party helps when talking to doujin/indie developers,” says XSEED’s Kenji Hosoi. “With the high quality of these titles, it reflects a certain confidence in our pedigree as a publisher.”
There’s no indication the doujin scene will do anything other than continue to thrive in Valve’s store. The recently released Gradius-like shmup Drainus currently has a “very positive” rating after receiving hundreds of user recommendations, Koumajou Remilia, similar to Touhou-themed Castlevania: Scarlet Symphony is receiving a cross-platform multilingual release after appearing to be lost in the doujin cracks forever, and every doujin-friendly publisher’s “Coming Soon” page has several games just waiting to be added to the wishlist.
These games have gone from rare new releases to fully integrated into the Steam ecosystem in the span of a decade, to the point that XSEED no longer distinguishes doujin when releasing new games. Why wouldn’t a doujin game work well on Steam? Why couldn’t something as unusual as Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin sell out among the steady stream of big-name hits from infinitely bigger studios?
“At the end of the day, the most important thing is the quality of the game and how the game is accepted by the fans,” says Hosoi. “Sakuna was one of those rare titles that everyone on our team loved playing. if ‘making rice’ was a niche concept in the market.”
Commercial and critical success is found across all genres and at all price points for doujin games, as Piro points out. “In most cases, doujin game developers are very pleased with the response from new markets and enthusiastic audiences.” Newfound international acceptance has only bolstered the creative side of the scene, with the sheer size of Steam’s user base giving doujin publishers with a doujin mindset the space to thrive.
Comiket, the event you had to attend to find rare doujin games, circa 2008
“Our policy is to work in the spirit of the doujin, even as a publisher. I don’t think too much about sales, but rather favor releasing games that are new to the world and that even a small number of people enjoy enthusiastically. Even so we also achieved good results in terms of sales,” says Piro.
It’s a system that seems to be working for everyone involved, so far. Is there a danger that this wider audience will change the spirit of the doujin, that the desire for international acceptance will see the emergence of safer games with a less distinctive personality for the sake of sales? Hosoi doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think the core concept has changed because it’s still about doing things you love,” he says. “There may be new ideas coming out of the culture, but it’s also always been part of what defines it…I think it’s going to be stronger than ever, with more possibilities and an ever-growing audience.”