With Monster Hunter Rise getting a demo on the Switch recently, I decided to visit their recent stream about the game. ‘lo and behold, I saw the usual people throwing stuff like As a community we… and Only true fans… among other stuff to counter criticism or whatnot. This kind of fan behaviour has been as old as I can recall. It is effectively a way to push down someone who might voice an opposing opinion that might devalue a product in some manner or raise issues that might impact negatively. For example, people noting that the somewhat recent Capcom leaks showcased how Monster Hunter Rise has already been slated for Steam release a year after the initial Switch version got told down that only true fans would buy it on the release and then purchase the Steam version later to support the game. There are quite many people who purchase games twice just to show their support, which largely screws up the actual user numbers and twists the true popularity of a product.
It’s not a toxic behaviour as much as it is pathetic. This sort of blind consumer behaviour can be seen everywhere, especially on forums and closed circles where new ideas or opposing ideas are actively purged. If there’s a live-action adaptation of a book series or something like that coming up, e.g. The Wheel of Time, I’d almost recommend checking some forums just to see large the difference between proper criticism and fellation. Corporations of course love people who feel deeply connected to their brands and go out to defend whatever decision is made and whatever product is put out. There’s a whole industry behind creating a positive image as forums and other platforms like Youtube are filled with people getting paid to give a positive view. It’s a livelihood for sure, and a way to market directly to the customers without directly associating with the corporation and the brand itself. With electronic gaming, it is very common for streamers to make contracts with companies to play their games for a certain time while giving only borderline criticism as dictated by the company. Once the contract expires, the game changes. NDA, of course, keeps these streamers quiet of their real thoughts and what they think of the games they play. Nothing wrong in this as long as the whole thing is being disclosed, but stealth marketers don’t come at you telling they’re marketing something to you.
A blind consumer doesn’t think about the product’s value or anything else related to it really that doesn’t directly concern his own emotional attachment. There’s a large amount of justifying your own purchases and decisions that comes with the saying A true fan… as they have to make sure their decision to invest into something fully is met not only on a personal level but also on a peer level. Perhaps there is some feeling of superiority in there to boot. Hence, when they’re met with no real peer rewards for them being a fan, their world gets shaken a bit. It’s not too rare to find someone who has invested most of their time and resources on something they think will be met with high praise only to find out that they’re more ridiculed than anything else. Perhaps criticising their loved brand itself is enough to shake their views and make them feel threatened.
Customer blindness is often a composite of choosing to be blind and unable to see through emotional attachment. Because how people think isn’t binary and we can accept contradictory statements as true and valid, we can often find ourselves rallying for the brand we love while ignoring its faults, yet do the exact opposite for another brand that shares the same faults. A true fan disregards all the bad things a product and a brand has. Even the positives sometimes seem to be lacking in a discussion, as everything stems from the emotional attachment. While it’s nice that people have something they truly love and are enthusiastic about, corporations are entities that mostly use this exact thing to make more sales and squeeze out that little bit more money out.
Of course, the whole stealth marketing wants you specifically to think in a certain manner that makes a purchase. Direct marketing does only so much. Corporations have embraced the idea of positive word-of-mouth being the best advertisement anyone could have, and they want to make sure your friend or a person you follow on the Internet gives a good word for them. There’s a kind of state of the cold war between customers and corporations, where the customer doesn’t have any other avenue of influence outside voting by their wallet, as corporations have everything in their hands, including your fellow customers that promote the corporate brand for free.
The idea of community giving voice behind one person is equally laughable. There is no one community for anything, there are multiple ones of different sizes and kinds, with some being as small as two. If someone claims that they are voicing the community, the best thing really is to disregard them and/or ask for reference where the community has voiced their opinion as a whole. Surely nobody would be bold enough to claim that they know what the community, or multiple communities, think without first taking proper steps to have everyone heard. However, if someone analyses a certain community, or follows their actions and thinking from an outside perspective and makes deductions based on collected data would be in a position to say what a community of people think. That’s what marketers do, and that’s why marketing has become rather effective on the Internet. Sneak in some people in these communities to slowly but surely change the opinions and views to cater certain point of view that benefits the corporations, and presto you have another set of people willing to market the brand for free.
The best thing to do would be not to be a true fan then. Each consumer is ultimately an individual despite whether or not they belong to a community. Each of us has to make our own decisions based on our own, whatever we base them on. Ignoring peer pressure or validation for our own opinions is not easy. In these matters, your own opinions trump all, as it only concerns you in the end. I doesn’t matter what a reviewer or a friend says or thinks, because ultimately you’re the one who has to evaluate the product for yourself. In other words, the best way to combat stealth marketing remove yourself from the negative influence that goats you to validate someone else is to take responsibility of your own decisions and actions they lead into.
One of Japan’s most important export product is its culture. For numerous years, their ministry has taken serious notice of their cultural goods making large-scale sales abroad. Cartoons, comics, novels, electronic games and even pornography has seen a constant rise in popularity since the Second World War. Even before that, there were people who were fascinated by this culture that is that much different than the Western hemisphere can offer.
However, this is a rather new event. Japanese culture was not exported by the government itself, but rather by foreigners who entered the country and brought it with them as they returned to their home counties. Whether or not it was because of the infamy of the Japanese actions during the war, or because the culture in itself was not seen as a profitable good to be imported. To this day, import of Japanese culture is seen as a taboo in some parts of the Asian world. For example, South Korea discourages and often outright censors depiction of Japanese culture in their media, which has lead companies to provide modified versions of their games for Korean markets. For example, the samurai Mitsurugi was replaced with Arthur, a European character that just happens to don Japanese armour and sword. Other fields of censorship South Korea frequently employs is regarding Shinto symbols, which get scrubbed from both television programmes and comics. Thailand has a long history with self-censorship, which has extended in policies against media displaying .e.g. Buddhist imagery. Sri Lanka also issues with certain religious concepts being showcased on air.
South Korea nevertheless has imported numerous Japanese products via copyright infringement and piracy among the official releases and has presented numerous Japanese-original products as their own. One of the more famous examples of this might be the design of Robot Taekwon V, which is a modified Mazinger-type design. The later designs in the series incorporate elements from Mobile Suit Gundam and especially from Combat Mecha Xabungle. Numerous bargain bin cartoons, like Space Thunderkids, exhibit numerous types of plagiarism Koreans practised at the time, ranging from music to character designs.
Koreans taking after a Japanese product should not be a surprise though. Japan improved its relation with their fellow Asian countries during the 1970s and 1980s, which in turn allowed their industry to grow even more by exporting their products. It was during this period when Japanese technology gained its fame, with cars making their way across the world and names like Sony were associated with high-quality products par none. A little company called Nintendo also effectively saved the American video game industry while struggling to compete against Sega in European markets.
Even earlier than that, the world had already begun to see the sort of creativity Japanese media was enjoying. It is thanks to Gigantor and Jonny Sokko and His Flying Robot (Tetsujin #28 and Giant Robot, respectively) that America associated Japan with giant robots, which was only enforced by the upcoming slow but sure burn of animation. Speedracer and other Japanimation paved the way of current trends for Western acceptance of anime. While current mainstream might discourage anyone from visiting these localized products, where characters, stories and sometimes even music were replaced via Americanization, they nevertheless helped these shows to gain a larger audience. They may not have been accurate, or even faithful to the original Japanese product, but that was not how you made business at the time. There was no market for original-language products in the same manner, in many ways, there still are not as many countries across the world still heavily localize and dub for the local market’s consumption.
Whether or not something is localized, unless completely redone from the ground up, you cannot divorce localized material from its original counterpart. The language may change, the story might change or maybe even the whole point of the product might change, yet the core idea will still stay and shine through. All the discussed examples, whether localized or plagiarized, are inherently Japanese on idea level and in concept.
All these shows were imported by individual entities and corporations, so they were mostly to make money. Some products, like the original Godzilla, did see a subtitles release before its localized version, which is an example of a foreign product made to fit the home market in a proper way. Without that, we would not have Godzilla in the global pop-culture landscape. It wasn’t until the late 1980s when Japan’s Takeshita government took the first true initiative to market Japanese culture abroad via exporting Japanese television programmes to other Asian countries. The Japan Media Communication Center, JAMCO for short, was established in 1991 by joint efforts of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Post and Telecommunication. This led to the translation of Japanese television programmes into English as well as developing shows specifically for export markets. Most of these shows were aired in other Asian countries, but many of them also found their way into the Western world. It’s easy to see a show like Iron Chef being promoted for foreign markets thanks to its local popularity, and it could be easily trimmed down from its hour-long episodes into shorter episodes.
All these efforts were furthered in 2001, when Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s (METI) Media and Contents Industry Division established a think-tank examine what challenges and prospects there were in promoting Japanese culture, especially its media contents, to overseas market. In fact, even before that METI had recognized the growing trend of Japanese culture-products to have a rising trend in export, and estimated that multimedia industries, that of electronic entertainment, music, films, software, broadcasting and such would generate over 55 trillion yen, a boost that post-Bubblegum Bubble Japan could’ve used. It would be an understatement that the Japanese government was becoming well aware of the potential of their cultural export.
The combination of Japanese products’ quality and the further steps of having Japanese media presented as Japanese has created its own brand image. Made in Japan is still seen as a certain brand of quality, but nowadays just Japan delivers a certain kind of image of the cultural landscape and the type of products it offers. The constant export of Japanese media goods has furthered the expansion of their culture, with electronic entertainment and multimedia products being in the lead. This might be due to Japan having a much longer history in multimedia productions, something that did not hit the Western world until the 1980s.
Outside electronic games, Japanese comics and cartoons have experienced almost a thirty years rise in popularity in the Western markets, with the late 1990s early 2000s experiencing a breakthrough boom when a new generation found anime. The blooming Internet culture at the exchange of the millennium continued the older VHS fan subtitle culture in digital form, and freely shared shows with added subtitles spread Japanese popular culture even wider. In many ways, the current state of affairs, where almost every new animated programme gains official subtitled release of some sort, is a direct result of this fansub culture and the piracy it promoted. It was, in effect, years of the best kind of promotion and advertisement, which lead these people taking steps to be involved in the industry and make sure that the market would get what it yearned.
Without a doubt, METI’s think-tank is partially responsible for the rise of Japanese media in the Western hemisphere during the previous two decades. When you combine both the existing yet largely untapped market’s yearn with government-driven agenda to promote these products, it is easier to understand how Japanese media products became for more common that what they already were. Japanese cartoons and comics went from an underground culture to mainstream, with anime and manga became terms much more recognized. They became a brand of their own, which effectively state A product of Japan.
While this post is focusing on media, it should be noted that Japanese cultural exports also include martial arts. The martial arts and ninja boom of the 1970s and 80s were largely thanks to Japanese influences and Hong Kong cinema. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the properties that is, in effect, a result of Japanese cultural exports and their prevalence in the United States (even though that’s still media). It should be emphasized, that almost every city has at least one form of martial arts school that ties itself to Japan. Be it karate, judo or other forms of budo, the Japanese martial arts have a high status and is one of the more important cultural exports Japan has ever had, but they themselves don’t make much revenue. Nevertheless, Judo was considered significant martial art to the point of being accepted as an Olympic sport at the 1964 games.
Furthermore, Japanese innovation such as Just-in-Time manufacturing Toyota pioneered alongside lean manufacturing have left a worldwide impact. Companies like Motorola and John Deere have employed these in their manufacturing decisions. I would amiss if I would not mention the 5S method, which lays out how to organize workspace for efficiency, which also affects standardization.
If I am to believe the Japanese people that I have conversed with throughout the years, as well as the occasional cultural report I have read, the Japanese enjoy how foreigners take interest in their culture and its products. It is something they take pride in. Works like Super Dimensional Fortress Macross effectively celebrate the culture by weaponising it against the alien species Zentraedi, as they lack their own. To be specific, Macross weaponises the early 1980’s idol culture and makes songs an effective counterattack to disharmonize enemy actions and show that war is not the only option in life. Macross has continued to use songs, idols and robots as a means to celebrate each decade in its own ways, which shows how long-lasting the property is and how much faith Japan has in its culture.
Incidentally, Macross II would aim to undermine the superiority of the idol culture, as its staff considered the idol culture outdated and that it’d become obsolete by the end of the decade. They bet on the wrong racehorse
If you look further into their media products, you will see a pattern forming, where their own country and its people are in focus almost exclusively. Even in works that take place outside Japanese borders (or in fictional worlds) they have heavily implemented their own cultural landscape. Final Fantasy VII may be one of the most globally celebrated roleplaying games, but everything from its design language, storytelling, character designs, music and play is stereotypically Japanese. You have thin heroes with comically large weapons, a mix of science fiction and fantasy in a manner where there is no distinction between the two, cheap drama that is executed in a most exquisite manner and numerous other elements that can be described as Japanisms.
Japanisms are what could be described as storytelling stereotypes or tropes that exist and are specifically used in Japanese media. It also includes cultural concepts and behaviour that is very much their own thing. To use an example from modern stories, in romance stories the childhood friend of the main character often is in a losing position, thus creating a unique character trope. Japanisms can be silly in their own right, and can often detract the story they are in, they are largely embraced as expected, almost essential, parts of certain genres. These Japanisms also constantly evolve when it comes to the media, with the whole other-world genre taking more and more cues after Japanese roleplaying games instead of general fantasy to the point of actual play mechanics and RPG status screens becoming one of the tropes. The whole genre has become so common, that even foreign publishers have adopted the Japanese name for its, isekai, to further illustrate the contents to customers in-the-know.
These Japanisms are one of the reasons why their cultural exports are of interest and make sales. Be it transforming robot toys or whatnot, certain concepts simply take form in a different culture in a completely different manner. Just as you find stereotypically American ideas in their caped hero comics or novels, French stereotypes in their cartoons and British mangy grossness in their media, Japan has the things you can only find in their products and that interests people. The Britons were the only people who could have come up with 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd due to their culture much like how Superman was the ultimate realization of an immigrant to the Americas in the early 20th century.
With the global information exchange constantly growing and ideas exchanging hands, consumers have become more and more aware of exclusive goods. Importing cultural goods, like pots, books and such, has always been a thing, yet towards the new millennium, this has become more and more a mundane thing. While we might have bought a car that was made locally on in the neighbouring country, we have found ourselves in a word where we can get anything from anywhere, if we just want to go through the trouble. Appreciating cultural differences has become more common at the same time, though the United States has stereotypically been the top dog of having others appreciate their cultural differences rather than the other way around. The current global trend of having one, overwhelming global culture to overrun all others is a direct legacy of American export of culture.
As the Japanese government has a history of investing themselves in the exportation of their cultural goods, they have also been concerned about its nature. In June of 2020, Ken Akamatsu of Love Hina fame explained in his Twitter account that he was invited to the House of Councilors questioning sessions, where the government asked What measures are needed for Japanese manga to survive in the world? Akamatsu’s reply was that freedom of expression must come first, as he sees this as Japan’s strength over overseas competition. His fear is to see foreign platforms, which already have larger global influence and market shares, dictating rules and regulations on Japanese originated comics. According to him, the members of the parliament agreed with his sentimentality.
His view is opposed by D.J. Kirkland from Viz Media, who has been vocal for changing and producing manga for Western markets. According to Kirkland, there is going to be a conversation between stakeholders in Japan and Western publishers when it comes to creating content that appeals more to the Western audience. His view that anime is a business is a correct one, yet his intentions largely leave the original creators and their intents out of the equation. Kirkland also ignores that anime and manga have been specifically made for the Japanese market alone and its success as an export product leans heavily on this. Kirkland’s word at its face value, he also considers that US and Western market to be one and the same when this isn’t the case. France, for example, doesn’t exactly rely on English language releases of Japanese works nearly to the same extent as some other countries. English language releases from the US certainly make themselves around the world and do skew the numbers, but the point still stands.
Akamatsu’s worry regarding governmental or industrial over-regulation is relevant. He was the key person in stopping Japanese corporations taking actions against the Japanese homemade comic scene, the doujinshi scene, which sees people making their own created comics they do not own and publishing them at events. This is infringing copyright, something all the companies would have all the power to stop, but due to the nature of doujinshi being a major part of the Japanese popular culture, they are allowed to continue with this half-decade long tradition without much trouble. In fact, majority of the Japanese comic creators have some roots in the doujinshi scene, such as ever-popular CLAMP, and it is not uncommon to find a popular creator having drawn adult material before moving to mainstream comics.
Sony has also showcased how its internal censorship has affected the PlayStation as a platform, as a brand and its library. With numerous games being rejected from the platform, forcing the removal of content and content having to change to meet their Californian HQ’s standards, we have already seen a shift in how Japanese creators’ content has been dictated by an outside force. As Sony has concentrated to cater to Western, or rather, American taste, they’ve lost sales and position in Japan to Nintendo. Furthermore, Switch sales have increased as their more lax policies still allow creators and developers to continue in their usual fashion. This has increased overseas importation of Switch games, as numerous titles get Asian-English releases nowadays. I’ve covered Sony’s censorship before in this blog. You can find the posts on the topic here, here and here. I probably missed one or two.
Some Japanese corporations like Square-Enix have taken precautions to quell possible conflicts by changing pre-existing designs. Final Fantasy VII Remake Tifa’s design got criticized for unnecessary changes, while others still criticized the design for unrealistic body proportions. Character Maam from a 1991 Dragon Quest comic, Dai’s Great Adventure, also saw a redesign from her original Martial Artist class design when revealing mobile iteration of Dai’s Great Adventure.
Censorship on Japanese products isn’t anything new in itself. Ever since Japanese comics and cartoons have arrived to the Western front, be it the US, South America, or parts of Europe, they have seen some degree of censorship. Sometimes its removal of religious imagery as in older Nintendo games, sometimes its removal of blood from comics and cartoons, covering up bare skin or making sure characters say they saw a parachute after blowing up an enemy robot. Viz themselves have a long history in censoring comics they localise, removing whatever they find objectionable at a given time, sometimes making panels look weird even out of their proper context.
The main difference is that all these have been external changes. Whatever Viz Media has done to censor the versions they publish is their and their customers’ business. The original creator was not limited by anything else but what he had discussed with his editor and staff. What Kirkland, and some of the Japanese government may be proposing, is to control the output of the creators at the source, practising self-censorship and limiting what they can and cannot to create. It would be imposing outsiders’ values and views in order to make Japanese cultural products more palatable for them.
What Sony is imposing on their worldwide developers, and what Ken Akamatsu is fearing, is cultural colonialism.
Homogenizing Japanese products according to outside rules would mean losing all the edge they have held over the competition. Cultural colonialism ultimately destroys the uniqueness of culture and replaces it whatever it currently acceptable by the people who enforced it in the first place. The American censorship is flippant at best, and as they show themselves as the face of the Western world, they would be in the lead of spreading their view of correct and proper culture. The US might not act as the world police as much as it used to in terms of military power, but that’s because war has changed. Now, the war is about information, controlling it and impacting how people behave. By trying to make everyone think and act the same, it becomes easier to exert power over people, even if they’re in a whole different country. Controlling what can be produced, or in what tone, is one step in controlling the way the culture begins to think despite what reality is.
The Japanese culture is a result of their long isolation until they were forced to open trade connections. While many Western nations have their identity moulded through constant interaction with neighbouring countries, Japan has always had the luxury in many ways unique from most of the world. This does bring its own baggage, which has resulted in less than favourable view of Japan around Asia. Outside a few tribe cultures that have had no contact with the rest of the world, the Japanese culture is in many ways closest to an alien culture a Westerner can easily access. Throughout the years this has caused certain fetishization of the culture, which has created the occasional Exotic Orient boom, in which various items and people have been exhibited to the public at large like some circus freaks. Racism has played some part in this, as numerous times these booms haven’t really cared whether or not depictions have been correct, and Asians were seen largely interchangeable with each other. This lead to things like kung fu being a Japanese martial art or Korean language cited as Chinese. These have become less common place nowadays, but the idea of Exotic Orient still raises its head sometimes, but in a more positive light nowadays thanks to the efforts of Asian nations themselves making themselves known brands.
The Japanese government’s worry over Japanese comics losing place in the overseas market is baseless. Currently, Shonen Jump comics are outselling Marvel and DC in the US. Various European countries have a steady flow of Japanese titles on their publishing lists. France especially has an impressive library of Japanese comics, perhaps the most in the European sphere that does not speak English as their first language.
The government would have to worry if the industry itself or the government would begin to regulate the creative industries for Western markets. For the last thirty years, the Japanese government has done a lot to promote Japanese culture and its products, thus have seen a steady rise in overseas exports in every media field. While some programming has been specifically made to fit overseas market tastes, only a few individuals have taken straight actions to produce overseas market-specific products, like Mazinger. However, more and more mixed media projects concern themselves with the overseas market, resulting in shows that end up on Netflix and built to fit the global streaming service. In itself, there is nothing negative in trying to make products appeal to more than one market. That is just business. However, that approach does not take anime and manga’s primary target consumers to be the Japanese. The true uniqueness of what manga and anime as brands would offer would be removed, and the brand of Japan would be exchangeable with whatever other countries. In other words, under cultural colonialism, that uniqueness would vanish.
Nevertheless, if the Japanese media would be regulated to suit foreign markets, they would undermine all the efforts the government has seen thus far as it would lead to current market objecting. It would be the opposite what the market has loudly wanted for decades now; uncensored, uninhibited works that are presented in the same forms as they originally were in Japan. Of course, by installing regulations at the source, the customers wants and wishes could be underhandedly circumvented. Outsider regulation at the source could, of course, cut costs when the localizing company publishes it, as there might not find any need to edit the content as it was already made for their liking. While the occasional overseas market-specific piece isn’t all that rare, they are also transparently pandering and lower in quality. Numerous properties have been turned into international brands later in their life, which has given away their visible deterioration of quality and loss of that original spark.
If it was just a few companies pushing for this level of censorship, they could be stepped around by using other companies or forming new ones. However, if these regulations would come from the government, it would damage the Japanese media industries deeply and heavily. A market suicide of this scale would be unpresented. Not only the government think-tanks would have to device new ways to market now-censored products that supposedly should sell better to the Westerners, but the companies that enjoyed large customer bases would have to spend insurmountable amount of money for marketing in order to keep now-damaged market while trying to expand it with these new pieces.
Furthermore, the generation that initiated the new millennium anime boom in the West will be replaced with a new one in the upcoming decade or two, and chances are Japanese media will see less consumption naturally at a global scale. This is due to the new generation always wanting to replace what their parents thing. This is the natural relation between parents and children. The best way Japanese government and the industries can combat this is to have their new generation of creators to take reins after the old masters, something that seems to be natural for the Japanese culture.
The question that lies under all this is What has made Japanese cultural products so appealing? The answer can be shortly be given as They’re Japanese. A product of another culture always offers a whole new alternative that can’t be found anywhere else. Perhaps it is the aesthetics that hit the right spot with some, perhaps it is the story beats. Maybe it’s all those Japanisms that inhabit each and every work to the brim. It still has to be admitted that Japan might need to cater to the overseas market in any case in the future. This is due to their constantly ageing population, which drops the buying power the nation overall has. The inverted age-pyramid keeps growing as the childbirth rates keep falling. This will ultimately require a shift in the Japanese culture when it comes to foreign markets and to foreigners themselves, but what kind of shift it’ll be we’ll have to wait and see. In a connected world as ours, it might be hard to imagine Japan closing itself once again, but that isn’t completely out of the question if physical connections are lost and we become connected only digitally. Nevertheless, at some point, there will be a need for people who would rather make comics and cartoons to work in other fields due to social changes, but that too will result in cultural works that reflect their times.
Japanese media, and their culture, is unique. The Japanese people know this and they celebrate it, more so than some other countries out there. They don’t hate themselves. They’re not afraid of showing it either, and they wish to share it with the world, if possible, with certain limitations. Their nation and the identity it has is strong and cohesive with a large number of regional differences to give vivid accents to any work. To break Japan’s export of culture with cultural colonialism would be heavily damaging, if not outright erasing the identity cultural products voice. Cultural exchange should not be this sort of one-sided corporate exchange, but where both sides agree and celebrate each other’s differences while agreeing to disagree with the incompatible ones. These are individuals and private companies who have a set target audience, and they should not be forced to cater other audiences or their whims if they choose not to.
Back when I was a pupil at a blacksmith’s the one thing I learned the most is that the cheapest thing you produce often makes the best profit. In our case, it was a necklace, a hammered iron cross on a leather strap. In reality, the piece was laser cut from a generic steel sheet that we just heated up and gave some texture. Cost about twenty cents to produce, sold for about twenty to thirty euro. We sold those enough to warrant a new batch on a weekly basis. People might be unwilling to pay fifteen euros for a handmade handle for a door or a forty for a bottle stand you can attach to a wall, but jewelry always sells higher. Jewelry always sells, it’s something people get and understand. Its value is hammered into the people’s minds from a very young age, pun not intended. While this isn’t the razor-razor blade sales model, where you sell something big and expensive at a loss in order to sell something smaller multiple times, like a razor and its edges, selling people stuff they perceive is valuable at a proper price is far more lucrative. Drop that price a little lower, and you can slowly but surely rack that up once you’ve established how the customers see that price and understand the value you intend for it.
Streaming has become largely the new television. While we still talk about “series,” the word has again transformed to mean something else with streaming. It’s barely serialized anymore in its traditional sense, but I guess we can apply it just fine as these twelve-hour long movies are still chopped into twelve episodes. Television might not go anywhere in the foreseeable future, but consumers will find their chosen entertainment from streaming. Perhaps television will be relegated more towards serious matters like news and such, but before I see that happening, I hope I’m buried six feet under. With people being forced to stay inside and their other liberties being culled in order to battle the Shanghai Shivers, all these streaming platforms have been making a bank. They’ve got a whole year under their belt to get new customers in and assure that what they offer is essential and important. In some eyes, theirs is an essential service.
Just like how we could hike up the price of that piece of steel by giving it a perceived value as a piece of jewelry, streaming services want their service to be seen as the most valued. The only true way they can compete is with IPs, with Netflix amassing everything under the sun that Disney hasn’t, turning it into a cartoon and calling it anime. Netflix Originals, which often have nothing original in them, is their best bet alongside numerous other IPs they are able to showcase thanks to overseas licensing deals. Disney+ has that whole Disney library under its belt, and they’re desperately trying to make Star Wars work. Warner-Brothers movies are going to appear on HBO Max, because the theatres are still closed and they have to make money in some way. Amazon is coming out with that The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time series sometime in the future. Apple TV or whatever their own service was called were was to have The Foundation series, but that looked like a trainwreck from the start and anything but The Foundation. It looked like a generic SF war series. With modern television series, and by extension all the streaming series, looking just as good as the movies in the cinemas, something has to buckle. That something of course is the customers’ wallets.
Disney announced recently that Disney+’s subscription will hike up in price next March, as they are restructuring themselves to market their products directly to the customers through their streaming service. They’re not the only ones either. Hulu and Netflix joined the club and most likely everyone else will follow suit, assuming move high-budget movies and shows will be produced to battle for the consumer’s wallet. Weirdly enough, one service finds itself with too many subscribers, that might end up causing further price hikes thanks to needing more hardware infrastructure behind the scenes to make all things work as intended. In any case, it will be easier for these services to raise the price every now and then once the perception and their place in entertainment consumption have found its true footing, which probably means traditional television dies slowly out and movie theatres become something else. Maybe they become places for prestige showings, where you can finally eat a pizza or a burger in, or maybe they’ll manage to eke out a niche to live in.
This is a format war like we never had before. Prior to streaming wars, even if one format won over others, none of these big companies ended up pocketing most of the money from the consumers directly to their pocket. The information age has now allowed for companies finally to sidestep formats and the limitations they pose for them, i.e. they finally have full control of the media the consumer consumes but can not own at any point, and thus maximize the money they pocket. In that, this isn’t a format war but something new. While some moan how there are more than few streaming services out there, they’re ignoring the sheer danger of streaming monopoly would have. Some argue that Disney and Netflix share the media streaming monopoly and should be broken up. General consumers are quick to trade security and variety for comfort and ease of use. If one or just two services survive, all the eggs are in one basket and the consumer rights are very easily trampled on. However, because streaming is direct-to-customers with nothing in between, like it was with previous formats, there’s nothing holding them back from exercising the utmost bullshit corporate tactics they are able to employ.
Perhaps streaming services should get a similar frontend similar to television, where all services are gathered under one streaming device or program through which the customer can decide what to watch. Perhaps some of these streaming services would be free and be run on advertisements, maybe a few of them are government-run for news and other information bites. The consumer might be able to then pay for special services that they specifically want to watch without losing that comfort of having everything under one roof. You could either label these streaming services with a number or a letter for easier access too, though just listing them in alphabetical order probably would do just fine. Now, why does this idea sound familiar? I wonder…
Back in 2016 a Royal College of Art graduate Micaella Pedros showcased a method to use plastic (polyethylene terephthalate or PET) bottles as a joining material to create furniture. This is done by collecting empty bottles and cutting their top and bottom off to create a ring, which then is heat-treated with a heat gun or similar source to make them shrink around the two objects. This method of wrapping two objects together creates sustainable furniture, she claims. This is nothing short of bullshit. The idea of collecting trash and repurposing it for sustainable use is a dream come true to many designers and artists out there, but it’s not this easy. We can clearly see that the furniture Pedros has created look like trash and do not hold up together alone. In numerous examples we see her using screws to keep parts in place, which in itself already is creating a stronger joint than the bottle rings. This design also necessitates using grooves and cut-outs between the two objects to create a proper holding wrap, as there is no adherence between the wrapping agent or between the two objects. It’s just melting plastic over the material, which means the material itself has to have something that keeps itself from moving around. Without the grooves, you could just pop bits off. In actuality, how RCA’s website describes the method is bullshit, as they describe the method as …used a heat-shrinking process to transform the plastic into malleable rings, which could then be placed around pieces of wood. You can’t heat-treat them first and then place them around the piece, you have to do it the other way around; place them around the objects and then heat gun them. There are chances someone will burn their fingers with this.
The material itself is a bad choice as well. PET bottles don’t last long. UV radiation degrades the material and considering Pedros was collecting these from outdoors trash, the material she was using had already started its degradation. When you add the heat-treatment to shrink them, it loses more of its strength and brittler. Might as well mention that every time Pedros heated one of these plastic bottles up she was releasing toxins and carcinogens to the air. Not by much, yet should be noted as all this goes against her theme here about recycling and sustainability, as this has neither. Pedros saying this method satisfying and magical, how anyone can do it, embraces the democratic value of DIY culture, is nothing short of short-sighted bullshit. Anyone can learn how to screw things together, anyone can learn how to use glue. There isn’t anything magical about this in DIY sense, and everything is worse on multiple levels. This isn’t about creating a sustainable piece of product that would last in use, or about even recycling in itself. This is what I’ve called statement design, a form of art that doesn’t try to improve life or otherwise push any envelopes forwards. It’s there for the artist’s self-satisfaction and wankery disguised as high-art and innovate design. It’s faux-activism that is taking time and materials away from actual recycling. You don’t start a sustainable and recyclable design from the back end. It has be to be begun at the drawing board before anything else, where you can choose materials and production methods that don’t promote further creation of unsustainable plastics and such. A designer who wants to create something lasting doesn’t go to the trash pile and see what they can do with the trash itself, that doesn’t stop the creation of more trash. The whole green design movement is misunderstanding the difference between sustainable design and recycling, and while we can use recycled materials in sustainable design, this isn’t it. All this kind of approach is creating statement pieces that don’t last long, are outright dangerous to use and will never see large scale production or adoption as the end-result first showcase look like what they truly are; trash.
While Micaella Pedro’s plastic wrapping method is largely harmless, the same can’t be said about Laila Laurel’s ‘Manspreading’ chair. This chair, designed to stop from spreading their legs apart, was as Reminiscent of medieval torture devices translated through mid-century style and that’s what it is. It’s not every day you hear a torture device winning an award. Disregarding how you feel about manspreading, whether or not it is an issue, this is the exact opposite of what design should be. This is statement art at its finest/worst, where the whole idea is to make a social shout to the creator’s peers, not create a product of worth. In terms of design, there is an incredible lack of anything to grasp on, with the seats being simple slabs of wood and the backrest is effectively unusable. Note that the chair meant for men, the one on the right, doesn’t have the backrests pylons straight, with the third one from the left being visibly grooved. The craftsmanship looks something like an eighth-grader would do during crafts lessons. At least the joints look like something that would last more than a year, meaning this chair already has sustainability and longevity over Pedros’ PET bottle project.
Because these chairs are meant to make a statement, they’re not there be used. They fight against the human physiology itself. The little notch added to the women’s chair makes little sense. It’s there to prevent the sitter from closing her legs, but also to notch into a seater’s balls if it’s a man. The way the men’s chair grooves inwards could cause irritation and damage. The way the pelvis is structured between the sexes is different and how the legs flange out is easily seen what is the more comfortable way to sit. Sure you have the balls between there as well, as you don’t really want to crush them. Surely the 45-degree angles at the sides are meant to direct the man into a proper sitting position for the chair, yet it’d be easy to see people just sitting back property and lifting their legs over the sides, spreading even wider. The sharpness of those edges really doesn’t do anything in a short interval to prevent a more comfortable position.
However, this isn’t about design. This is about art making a statement and that’s why it won the award. This is a non-issue that can be dealt with through good manners. Let’s not forget that manspreading is actually beneficial on the dating market, as it’s part of human body language when it comes to finding a partner. While this might not be beneficial in a cramped subway, telling people to scoot over is a far more sensible option than intentionally discomforting them. Maybe next we need seats that auto-launch handbags that are left on vacant seats.
The whole point of statement design is to create something that wouldn’t be used but is intended to bring a topic to the forefront. The craftsmanship is often lousy and the end-product only there to be exhibited and discarded. In practice, these kinds of works have little to no value in themselves, only in the topics they intended to give a form to. It’s creating trash for the sake of the message. It’s useless waste of time and money for the sake making little noise that goes nowhere often about nonsense topics with little value. These are far from comparable to the classical arts, where events and topics were painstakingly painted on a canvas or chiselled into stone. Compare either of these to any venerated work, like Picasso’s Guernica, and you can see the difference. If a painting is too different a comparison, then use the Wassily Chair as a contrast of design that makes a statement about production and innovation. Marcel Breuer’s chair will stay a forever classic, ignoring pettiness of the world all the while innovating in material use and production. That in itself is a statement to be admired.
As long as I can remember, Domino’s Pizza has been the butt of jokes to the point even my Vietnamese associates know a few. They had a massive problem with PR and their pizza for numerous years and found themselves in a downward spiral in the mid-2000s, striking the all-time low in 2008 when their stock price was just three dollars. Nowadays they go for around 380 bucks. It wasn’t the easiest route.
Despite Domino’s hitting their lowest point, they experienced a massive PR crisis following Michael Setzer’s and Kristy Hammond’s Youtube video showcasing how much they loved to ruin the food they were preparing. They pleaded guilty a year later. This video effectively confirmed how Domino’s food was prepared in the minds of the consumers, further enforcing the jokes that were made and pushed customers away. It didn’t help that the video ended up being one of the top search results if you searched for Domino’s at the time. Even disregarding this incident, Domino’s was seen as some sort of crime against food and ingredients, or as Adweek’s short story put it on their focus testing, it’s startling to hear the degree to which consumers regard Domino’s as the embodiment of culinary evil. During this and numerous other focus tests Domino’s pizzas were called all sorts of names and claims of them using fake cheese and the like in their products were common, hence the jokes of the time. Some of them have survived long enough to be part of pizza-eating culture.
Domino’s decided that they need to turn their ship around and hard. Ever since their record-low stock price and the whole PR disaster with Setzer and Hammond, Domino’s began to comb through their complaints and reviews for the most common negative mentions and comparisons, as mentioned in their four and a half minute documentary what they were doing. This video, while being a corporate produced piece, is one of the things Domino’s did to have that boat turned. They went back to the recipes and worked on them and revised what they were doing wrong. Supposedly more training was given to the workers to prevent the mishaps the aforementioned video caused. Domino’s, in all effect, owned that they were rather shit company with workers who didn’t care if your pizza was terrible or not. The linked video shows how proud Domino’s was after they went and created new pizzas, which were more or less made from scrap. Everything from the dough to toppings was tested multiple times over and changed wherever needed. Whether or not this is all true will probably be always an open question, yet even from this video it is evident how much money Domino’s spent to revise their image by revising their image through their product. They even went as far as providing their focus group members with these new pizzas to test and get their opinions. They made these into ads, no less.
Domino’s Pizza owning up and takings steps to deliver to the customer the kind of pizza they wanted while making a public, transparent stunt out of it all has made them the most valued pizza restaurant chain. While some still retain the image of Domino’s being the worst kind of pizza you can have, that’s rather outdated view by about a decade. That, and they probably never had Greek pizza. Domino’s stocks have been in constant rise, and they’ve been trying to renew customer interest in various manners after their renewal, like collaborating with Hatsune Miku in Japan. part of their whole shtick of being transparent to at least some extent, they’ve allowed Food Insider to make a short video how their pizza is made and delivered, though personally, I have to say I’m not exactly excited by the idea of the dough being made elsewhere from the spot. Delivery food is making some nice bucks at the moment, so Domino’s made some nice bucks earlier this year as people didn’t want to leave their homes.
What’s your point? I hear Wes asking me there. My point is that Domino’s pizza listened to their customers, changed their product and working methods to better fit the demand. Not only they were willing to take in feedback and were honest about it to themselves, but were willing to make rather transparent transition from what they were to what they wanted to be. Customers love that, and that made them a billion-dollar company.
This same set of ideas can be applied to any industry on their basis. While the creative industries want to sell the image of one creator or a team of creative individuals delivering an earth-shattering piece that can only be experienced in so many fashions, the reality is that any product needs to be carefully planned out and balanced between the original intent and the customers’ wants. That is far harder than you would expect, as some corporate cultures do everything by data alone, which can lead to discarding feedback in total and the only thing that says anything is sales data. This can be combined with long-term career businessmen, who are hard stuck on their own methods of working, as it has produced large revenues up to that point already, making the total renewal of their productions hard if not impossible. In the foodstuff world, this is easier to do than e.g. in automobile production or the like, where you can only begin to start this process with the next series of cars rather what you already have in production. With games, music and film this could be implemented in an easier manner, but it requires humility among these egos, and that’s something the self-clashing creative industries do not see too often. Imagine if, for example, EA would make a public announcement that they’ve listened to all the feedback they’ve gotten through the years and have begun to consider how they produce, develop and publish games, as well as how they tackle advertising in their games or in which manners lootbox mechanics function. It’d take years for them to root out these methods and manners they’ve cultivated throughout the years and end up putting efforts into making games that wouldn’t nearly kill their workforce or would contain whatever is currently the most underhanded way of making that extra money. Something like this happening in the creative industries is as likely to happen as a pig flying through your window. It happens on occasions, but extremely rarely.
Few posts ago I wrote how I’m tired of the PR game. Domino’s Pizza turned their PR disaster into a chance of renewing their image through transparency. Because transparency to that effect would necessitate losing face first in order to gain higher PR wins in the long run, you won’t see this happening with franchises like Star Wars or any of the botched film franchises. You will never see one of the head honchos stepping up, admitting the money they spent on a movie bombing like no other was a mistake and that they will look into renewing and satisfying the customer. That would go against how things are presented to the audience, the whole Hollywood/ creative myth, how glamorous it is to be a successful creator. Yet even sure-shot franchises like Star Wars, Alien and The Terminator have slumped, the latter two effectively becoming more or less dead thanks to the latest movies. Hell, even the Predator franchise is back in the casket after The Predator managed to fuck up the series. As much as it often goes against the corporate grain, transparency and honesty are two things the customer values. If a corporation manages to be open about their faults and missteps about themselves and is visibly improving themselves, that creates almost natural emotional connections to both your current customers and your possible customers.
The one place where transparency should be the most important bit is in crowdfunding like Kickstarter. If you’ve run a Kickstarter and have managed to each your funding goal, every single thing you do with the money or with the project should be logged in without censorship shared with the backers. All the good you do is doubly more worthwhile when you admit fucking something up and explaining the methods of either supplementing or fixing what’s gone wrong. With crowdfunded products you have to remember that these aren’t your customers; these are the people who funded your project. Being transparent with them is the least you can do. The PR game wants to mangle and twist every screw-up into something positive in false manners, and more often than not the customer can see through that. It’s up to each individual customer how much leeway they might allow the PR game, and most often you can see it in the form of taking their business elsewhere. Of course, if you proceed to attack the customer when you want them to buy something from you, well, not everyone is masochistic.
Perhaps Marvel and DC should take after Domino’s Pizza. Japanese comics have been outselling American Superhero comics for some time now. In the face of this fiercer competition from beyond the ocean, it would be a good moment for American comic companies and creators to stop for a moment if they’re doing something wrong.
For the last decade or so I have seen a change how some consumers view science fiction and fundamentally misunderstanding it. The core argument is that something isn’t science fiction after all, despite being labelled so for numerous years, if not decades prior, because it’s not realistic, or the science that it supposes simply couldn’t happen. Sidelining Clarke’s law about Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, for now, this is a patently false view on science fiction. It does, however, fit hard science fiction, a sub-genre of science fiction that is all about diamond-hard fiction without breaking the current understanding of science. By their very nature, their view on science will be obsoleted in a few years as science advances, they’ll turn what some people call soft science fiction.
The audience knows that the science presented in a science fiction work is largely fictitious. It’s part of the silent agreement with the author, where the viewer has been presented more or less a world where some elements are more believable than others regarding science. Some stories, like The Andromeda strain, stick extremely close to the guns and doesn’t veer away from possible reality. The suspension of disbelief happens with the whole point about a virus coming from outer space and being able to evolve like it does in the book, the rest what science fiction is at its core; it asks the question What if… SF handles concepts more than straight fantasy does, though SF in itself is a branching genre from fantasy. While fantasy is about grand themes and builds upon those themes, SF explores concepts. For example, in Asimov’s short story Jokester a question was passed to Multivac, a Superintelligent computer, where do jokes come from as they seem to be something that everyone tells, but nobody truly invents. To spoil over this sixty-year-old short story, the end result Multivac ends up coming with is that all jokes humanity tells are by some other extraterrestrial power that is implementing jokes into humanity as a control device. It also came to the conclusion that when the first human figures this out, jokes and humour would cease to be implemented as the testing has now been sullied and a new factor would replace it. Multivac in itself isn’t the science fiction element in this short story, nor are the god-like extraterrestrials, but the concept of humanity being used as lab rats. Asimov took a look at the concept and wrote a small story around it with a humorous, even if dark, angle. Similarly, Haldeman’s sequel novel Forever Free to his masterpiece Forever War was ultimately about the same concept with completely different kind of approach and realisation.
Asimov’s Foundation follows this the same kind of path. To describe the works shortly, it is about how to shorten the Galactic Dark Age that follows after mankind’s Galactic Empire falls. How the Galactic Empire, or how it has formed, how people interact across the planets and so isn’t the science fiction part, neither is the fall itself. The fall, in actuality, is merely background material and is based on the fall of the Roman Empire. That parts historic, not SF. The part that makes the Foundation series pinnacle of science fiction literature, something that makes it practically unadaptable, is psychohistory; a fictional field of science that combines statistics and psychology. Through psychohistory, one can make accurate predictions on how large groups of people will act based on those people and surrounding events, as long as they remain unaware of the analysation. The modern field of Big Data largely follows the same ideas, but in practice, the two are very different entities. Psychohistory is the fictional science element that in itself is a concept worth exploring. It opened more doors for Asimov to explore from how one group of people could control others through representing technology as a kind of religion to how it all can be taken down by one element that isn’t in the calculations. Asimov is famous for setting rules and regulations to his works with Laws of Robotics being his most famous. What most people don’t realise is that Asimov extensively explores these concepts and their failings to the point that his works alone are the best arguments why the Laws of Robotics are flawed. Similarly in the Foundation series, he explored how one inhuman element, a mutant, can throw a monkey wrench to otherwise perfectly working system. He then proceeded to explore how such things could be prevented or perhaps even corrected. Space travel and all that is merely flavour and the background to which the main dish is served.
Similarly, Star Trek is often seen as a science fiction show because there are people in space going swish in a space ship. A hard science fiction writer wouldn’t be placing any space vessels outside our own solar system, as the science we have now doesn’t give any realistic methods to achieve even proper portions of the speed of light. We’d run out of time if we’d begin to travel interstellar space, the distances are just too large to get across. Star Trek could be said to be the archetypical positive work of science fiction, asking what if humanity had socially evolved to be a benevolent entity. Much like Asimov, many episodes question the Federation of Planets’ standards and ways of living to creator Roddenberry’s chagrin. Star Trek as the wagon show set in space itself could be regarded as science fiction, though much like with other popular SF works of the time, it gathers science facts of the time and makes assumptions in order to build that veneer again. The science in itself may be spotty, yet the function of science was aimed to be valid. The writing team employed some NASA members to ask what was possible and what wasn’t, but as with anything, the story comes first. Captain Kirk fighting a giant green lizard may seem hacky and laughable, yet at the core, the episode is about two completely alien cultures being forced to face each other to the end. The episode takes the initial What if… about humanity being able to become a force of good and reach the stars, challenging it in face of death and destruction, then given the possibility to destroy this malevolent force. Little things in Star Trek have become reality in a way or another, like the whole thing about portable phones and communicators. In the same manner, Orwell’s 1984 is effectively the opposite of Star Trek‘s positive view and explores the possibility of the world becoming a totalitarian hellhole akin to the Soviet Union. The telescreen technology is a possibility, but that is simply a tool to be able to tell the story through, much like how thought policing is.
Mecha, giant robots, is often taken as a method to tell an SF story. However, just like Star Trek, mecha is the framing device for the main dish. It’s the flavour something is painted in. One of the best examples can be found in Mobile Suit Gundam, in which most people would coin mechas and space set to be the whole SF thing. However, the main SF element in Gundam is exploring the next step in human evolution; the Newtypes, humans with an extra sense of space and time that they are able to share among each other. The space setting is necessary, as the show asks What if humanity would need to evolve in space, and how it would proceed. Then it explores what political and social implications it would yield to mankind in the guise of a war story. You could change the mechas Gundam to something else, powered armour or space tanks, and it’d work just as well. However, remove Newtypes and the core structure that holds both the setting and show’s concept together falls apart wholesale. Much like how Asimov explored the faults of his concepts, Gundam has seen numerous entries questioning the validity of humanity being able to share their thoughts across space and time. Yes, everybody knows mechas like Mobile Suits are impossible, impractical at best. That doesn’t take away the fun and interest in building on the idea and enjoying the flavour, basking in the intricate designs and history built on the already set up fiction.
As mentioned earlier, science fiction will always grow old. If SF work emphasize is mainly in the science or how it works based on then-current understanding, it’ll always be out of date. Giving a fictitious explanation based on the scientific method will always age better. Simply leaving something important unanswered often leads to weak world-building. Jurassic Park is an example of a work with extremely detailed and well-maintained world-building and explanations for its science. It is also an example of a work that, despite being heavily rooted in science that was possible, it is now an example of a work where we know about dinosaurs and cloning so much that the book is out of date. Nevertheless, this doesn’t take anything away from the story itself, or from the question What if humans were able to bring dinosaurs back. It brings more than just that on the table and explores more than one concept, like certain applications of the Chaos Theory. SF Debris did anexcellentseries on Jurassic Park this summer, which I wholeheartedly recommend watching.
Even older works of science fiction seem rather weird to our modern eyes. For example, the classic Lensman series of books by Doc Smith has no computers in them despite an extremely advanced form of space travel that can cross galaxies and even dimensions. Everything is done by a slide rule, which is an analogue calculator. Or if you want to use the term used for people who used to compute numbers, an analogue computer. Some of Asimov’s earlier works lack computers as we understand them as well. Some of Asimov’s works began to include the aforementioned Multivac supercomputer but described some of them taking the size of whole planets. This was as according to science as understood at a specific time when it was assumed that only a few computers would be built due to their sheer size. Nowadays we have computers in our pockets every day that would have been considered impossible half a century ago. If science doesn’t have answers at the time to a problem a writer has, fiction has to take its place. The writer has to come up with a fictional explanation to the issue that hasn’t been solved or doesn’t have an answer. We can imagine many things based on popular culture and relevant science, but if neither presents any relevant information, we can’t imagine such things existing. There are things we can’t imagine existing because they haven’t been invented yet, nor has the science they’re based on. To use Lensman as an example again, it plays with the concept of negative matter. Not anti-matter, but negative matter, which would react the opposite it as it was interacted with. For example, if you pushed it, it would move back towards you. Anti-matter would be detected only later and its properties were found to be wildly different, but Doc Smith had some foresight into a concept of opposing matter. Lack of any kind of knowledge on the papers, however, forced him to use his artistic license. Even things like warp drive have been suggested to be a possibility, namely with the Alcubierre drive, but even in this, some elements are missing. The drive would necessitate negative energy and anti-gravity, neither of which Einstein’s theory of relativity considers impossible. In practice, it may be, but there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence to either direction.
Science fiction expects the science found in the work to be fictitious. Unless it is hard science fiction, the science itself does not have to be real, merely consistent with itself and the established scientific method. However, it is always taking back seat the moment the story needs it to. Star Trek, despite its science mostly bullshit, is largely consistent with itself. Nevertheless, what the scientific concept ultimately truly is often isn’t all that clear. Spaceships, lasers and all that we consider as old tropes in the genre used to be new and cutting-edge ideas. A raygun was a valid concept in the form fiction often describes it, before further exploration in the technology ultimately deemed it more or less impossible due to materials and physics involved. Material science, science overall, evolves at its own pace, always improved by necessity in burst-like motions. Many times we don’t even consider small things in our lives to be the end result of massive leaps and bounds in technology and science. The fact that we have a small diode, smaller than the size of your fingernail, now being able to be brighter than the sun and lit up a whole room. I’m looking at an old lightbulb on my desk I found today in my mother’s storage and wondering how this more than twenty-year-old bulb can last less time than my LED bulb, how it eats more energy and yet gives less light. The concept of itty bitty lights in a torch from fifty years ago is now a reality. The way science fiction, in general, represents its impossible science doesn’t matter, but what it does with its concepts and how it tells its stories, is.
I fully admit, I have no point with this post. This is more or less thought work for some later post, as the topic really is how both a fandom and the work they are fans of changes with time. This should be evident in itself, clear as a cloudless sky, but what changes this whole thing is how every long-running franchise we have lives in bursts. Bursts seems to be a bit arbitrary term for what is essentially eras, like how we split the history of American comic books into Golden, Silver and Dark Ages and so on. These are, however, too long periods as there were changes during these eras to the comic books, especially to single brand and books that came and went. Take Marvel’s New Universe imprint as an example of a burst. It hit the scene in 1986 and became defunct in 1989. New Universe was about the idea of realistic superheroes, heroes that might be just outside your window. Despite having hard times to properly launch the imprint due to budgets being cut, New Universe sold well and many of the characters have appeared later in the mainline Marvel comics. The reason is was cancelled wasn’t due to lack of sales, but because of internal politics decided to reallocate the workforce for more lucrative and promising titles. A re-imagining of the concept as newuniversal was published in 2007 to celebrate New Universe‘s 20yh anniversary, but from what I gather, the reception was lukewarm. While we can trace New Universe‘s source influences to the usual suspects in the more dark and adult comics of the decade, it is in the end a similar burst in the scene. It didn’t really have much effect on the overall comic scene, as the 1990’s eXtreme comics were anything but realistic. More brutal for sure, lacking some of that down-to-earth material 1980’s brought with it in titles like American Flagg and Watchmen.
New Universe itself may not have been an influence to the larger comic industry, but its initial pitch was. The mastermind behind New Universe, Jim Shooter, had originally proposed to cancel all then-current Marvel books and reboot the whole thing. This was rejected, but would later be put into action in a modified form as the Ultimate imprint. All-new, All Different would later realise Marvel’s first proper reboot, though its end -result setting with modified timeline is open to debate regarding its quality and intentions.
Comics change things all the time and we have these bursts that may change them wholesale. Sometimes it does leave long-standing influence, sometimes it doesn’t. Nevertheless, each time the comics have changed and the fans have to take as it comes.
That is not to say the fans are inanimate objects that buy everything their favourite brand shits out. There are those who fall into the trap of consumerism based on creators or brands, but as we saw with the fall of American comic industry in the 1990’s with the near destruction of the market, consumers don’t exactly go on all fours and beg to be creamed. After all the cover gimmicks, the hikes in prices for no other reason other than they could be upped, destruction of classic characters and them being replaced with carbon copies, rampant and constant crossovers across multiple titles and ultimately the sheer lack of quality content towards the end pushed everyone but the hardest of the core away. It didn’t help that during the first decade of the new millennium, Japanese comics were becoming more and more mainstream entertainment among a generation ready to pick up comics and read.
Entertainment doesn’t need to reflects its time or era. Often a work that is heavy on pop-culture humour gets old within few years, as such referential humour is relevant only for that moment in time. Unsurprisingly, most media is tethered to the era when it was made in. We can’t expect some science fiction movie made in the 1950’s to have the same level of polish and effects as we have now. Yet, outside the mechanical and technical advancements, the writing and acting can be still trump modern works just by sheer quality. Technically speaking, we may have better education and far more information in our hands compared to the works of old, but what’s the point of all that if they aren’t being utilised and used for their full effect? We can do anything with modern technology in entertainment, yet that limitless potential hinders us. With no limitations to break, there is no innovation and creative thinking. Just ideas thrown unto the paper and then realised, little of value created. To use an example, George Lucas’ legacy isn’t Star Wars, it’s the technology to allow film makers to realise their visions with all the technology he and ILM have pioneered during the last forty years. None of the modern blockbusters, or perhaps even CG as we known it nowadays, would be if not for the techniques and mechanism explored and realised in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.
Special effects, however, is not why thing like Star Wars became popular or a phenomena. The Star Wars debuted in the right time at the right place. Movies like it were not made at the time any more. Both adults and children got caught by the relatively simple story and its characters. The movie’s approach with a documentary style filming gave Star Wars the gravitas it needed, intricate model work helping in giving everything that lived in atmosphere. New faces with no attached career defined the characters. Despite all the problems with the production, of which we know so much due to the sheer amount of documentation made of it, Star Wars was a movie that was needed. The only reason why modern some argue that Star Wars movies are influential only when you watch them as a child is because we have so many other works that are made in similar swash-buckling adventure form with high spirit and a positive view on the world. Star Wars isn’t unique in the grand scale of movie history, with it following old movie serials and it being mimicked to hell and back, but it still stands apart from the rest with the sheer quality and agelessness it has.
Even Star Wars changed with time, though. I’d argue the end of Star Wars didn’t start with the Phantom Menace, but with The Shadows of the Empire. Possibly earlier. While some claim to be able to pin point the moment when a franchise or a brand dies, e.g. The Simpson‘s ThePrincipal and the Pauper, this progress takes longer time and can be doomed by a successful piece as well. Shadows of the Empire was a successful non-movie movie event, with the story franchised into toys and other stuff a movie usually has. However, after that there was a significant decline of quality in Star Wars related works, which also arguably applies to the Prequel trilogy as well. Disney’s purchase and subsequent release of their own reboot has shown that you can still make some money on Star Wars, but with modern popular culture being filled to the brim with its spiritual descendants, of which some do Star Wars better than Star Wars itself, the audience will opt for the better piece. The constant falling sales of Disney Star Wars has shown that there is no more demand for that franchise, at least not in its current form, or the form it has been since the late 1990’s. It’s not that the fans of those golden days have gone anywhere, but the franchise has changed. The successful burst Star Wars enjoyed are no longer there, each of them having less and less impact.
Similarly, while there are Star Wars-like works out there, modern Star Trek is suffering from replicating the works that were considered anti-Star Trekin their days, like the newer version of Battle Star Galactica. Television and film was already chock full of darker and grittier science fiction to an unhealthy degree. Even Deep Space Nine could be described as a deconstruction of Star Trek‘s core, but that’s actually intentional. It tested what the Roddenberrian ideals were and if they could survive when they were put under fire, and the end result was that they would. Modern Trek has all but abandoned Roddenberry’s ideal future in exchange of turning it into a platform for the writers and showrunners, as mentioned by Alex Kurtzman in their recent Comic Con recording. This burst in Star Trek means that it has changed its nature and intentions to something that has already saturated the market in this age of science fiction being less popular than in the past. Modern Star Trek is a good example of a product being changing its nature and another product filling its niche. The Orville, in all honesty, is a paler version of Star Trek with lesser writing compared to what it emulates, but if it is the only player on the market and delivering what fans want, it’s burst will be more notable. Fans won’t blindly follow to the swamp. Sometimes a facsimile is more than enough and can then become its own thing. Just look at all the Japanese RPGs that shot out from Ultima and Wizardry.
So time changes both the providers and the fans. Sometimes things change to the degree that future works simply supplant and replace what has come before, like what has happened to Tarzan. A classic franchise and worthy of visiting for sure, but it has no true place in modern culture. It has been revisited by superior works and it has been renewed for new audiences time and time again. Nevertheless, it has become obsolete. Whether or not Tarzan could capture modern audiences is unknown, but perhaps something in its vain will strike true with an audience that hasn’t been exposed to it.
That is also a sort of issue with long-running franchises. We have the works of old still in our hands. Despite us changing and the franchises changing, we can go back and read or watch the original works we fell in love with time and time again to the point of growing bored of them. We can explore a work only so far, until we have to move forwards to other venues. Returning to well explored work sometimes makes us meet with the grim reality of change, as we ultimately weigh media differently. A favourite movie we haven’t seen in a decade might turn out to be a dud on a rewatch, a book that defined your teen years turns out to be full of gringe.
Media industries and their franchises do have to change with time to meet new demands. Nothing can stay the same all the time. It is an impossible balancing act trying to cater to fans that have always been there while trying to expand to the younger audiences. Simply relying on a recognisable name won’t make the market turn to you, not nowadays. The Internet changed the way these brands compete, and the sheer amount of options out there are insane. The amount of bursts in our media landscape have become so many, that we see nothing but bursts.
I guess the point with this stream of mind is that changing a franchise to fit its time is incredibly difficult, but so is creating something new from the scratch. Old story in itself, but whenever we have these new hands on old IPs changing it in a way that pushes fans away that have been there for decades, something else will turn out and nab them. No, maybe it’s the other way around; fans are seeing what’s done within these franchises at the moment, and choose to walk away to spend their time and money on something else. Sometimes its on the old stuff, sometimes its on something else.
Perhaps it’s all service issue, in the end. Creators can do anything they like, but so can customers. There’s no agreement that either one needs to appease another, but generally you’d like make some money with your works. Well, meeting expectations and demands is often a good starting point over abandoning the spirit of the work. Worst of all, sometimes fans find themselves abandoning even the old works, effectively losing their fanaticism towards the overall franchise. That’s a mark of a franchise that’s both dying and becoming irrelevant. Be it comic books, games or movies, when consumers walk away, they will find something else.
You can judge a book by its cover, if you have enough experience with books. A book’s cover says everything about what the book is like, from what kind of person wrote it to the company that has been producing and publishing it. Once you know what elements goes into designing what sort of vistas in what manner, and how certain elements play with each other, you are able to determine large amounts of elements about the overall book that applies only to you yourself.
This can be easily contested, of course, and that’s partially the point. When you consume enough certain kind of media, you slowly accumulate experience on that product or genre to make decisions based on minimal information. Your expertise on the topic comes from personal experience.
Perhaps the most relevant example is with video and computer games. You can see the production values on the box just fine as well as what sort of game it is. Using the traditional movie poster and book cover techniques and ideas, game covers don’t tend to innovate how they depict their games. Nowadays you would never see a game like Ultima VII on the store shelves, that is just a literal black box with the title of the game.
Outside these special cases, you are able to tell loads about the production values just by glancing how the covers are made. Again, it’s all about looking at the chosen elements and what they depict, how certain fonts and typefaces are used and set, how images are laid and how the descriptions are written. All these come together to give a certain view about that game. It’s not just about the cover, but pretty much everything about it. You have that feeling in your stomach, that hunch whispering in the back of your head or that tickle on your bum that tells you how a game is for you.
If you ever happen to watch a stream where a game’s first footage is shown, you will see people lamenting the lack of play footage. FMV and other readily made sequences, as well a planned play footage that doesn’t depict the actual game, is easy PR material for fringes of the general mass who have less experience, and for the hardcore fans who couldn’t care either way. Video sequences are a nice placeholder before any play footage is revealed, and even then its usually during a specific stream from the developers and their PR staff under controlled circumstances rather as a major part of a trailer. The reason of course is the same we don’t really have demos for games any more; they impact sales negatively.
Gaming industry now has consumers who have been playing video and computer games since their childhood to the point of some of them never having lived in a world where electronic home gaming wasn’t a thing. You have generations that first played consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation 3, who are savvy with their games and devices. The generation that is closing to 40 and 50 years in age however have even more experience and far more background on the evolution of the industry and what has been produced. That personal experience gives insights on certain elements how a game plays just from the footage without needing to touch a controller. Everything from the speed of the characters to what sort of animation has been implemented tells how the game plays. It’s a subconscious instinct based on experience that says how a game plays. At some point you make connections between what’s happening with the controller and what’s happening on the screen, and end up lamenting how certain elements just become are. This is very evident with games that are based on animation management, where the core play doesn’t allow the player to cancel from an action that’s already enabled. Be it Monster Hunter or Dark Souls, the base concept of limiting player actions with a gauge and disallowing animation cancelling ultimately yields a very similar style of core play. The rest of the game of course change how the game overall plays, but that doesn’t change how similar games play similarly and share elements across the board.
The game industry is no slouch when it comes to mimicry. Each developer sees another doing something interesting and picks up what looks interesting or profitable and follow suit. Sometimes multiple companies follow one source to be inspired by. Much with movies and music, video and computer games have certain fashion eras, where games are clearly trying to one up each other. On the other hand, you also have loads of games that simply stand apart with no real amount of competition. For every Monster Hunter, you have a God Eater, a game that is on the surface painfully similar but does its hardest to stand apart and be more unique.
All this is personal in the end, serving as for what any individual prefers to a large extent. Professionals of any field develop this internal experience by being able to tell at a glance than most, though at the same time it should be mentioned that overspecialisation also breeds weaknesses in them. If you’re only consuming media or specialising in certain kind of objects and topics, you grow blind to the surroundings and experience will fail you at times, like it would with the box of Ultima VII. By learning bits and bobs around, learning and experiencing events and matters that would support your expertise.
With video and computer games the experience comes almost forced. You are acting, after all. Pressing the buttons, seeing the actions, making decisions. Gaming requires active participation, hence the player has to think each action even if it was to be just a split-second decision. Only when you’ve gained enough experience you can go automated with games and have little to no active thinking, as that experience and muscle memory is taking over. Getting to that level, however, takes time. Passive media doesn’t require participation and you can more often than not hang your brains and just go for the ride. They require the conscious decision to engage with the work and analyse why things are as they are, breaking their elements down to their building blocks. With video and computer games, you naturally have to do that to understand the rules of the play, through which you can begin to tell whether or not the game has built well enough to support those rules. In other words, you may think you didn’t notice it, but your brains sure did.
Retroblasting has been saying this for a while now, and it’s largely true. While that’s all about the toys, the same applies to everything across industries, from music to electronic games to translation and so on. It’s either how fans archive and release printed material in a higher resolution in a more accurate form, or recreate toys that toy manufacturers simply miss or won’t make. Fantranslations are a good example of this whole shebang, with some comics and books getting translations that would never get otherwise. Sometimes with better translation than the official translation. Even in music you have tons and tons of music creators, separate from the industry’s mass releasing their own tapes. When the mainstream industries fail to deliver, it’s the fans who take up the mantle to develop and produce goods that all the other people want, but for whatever reason none of the industry providers are willing. Sometimes small miracles happen, like the Snyder Cut getting a release. For better or worse, the customer is being served based on their want.
Even with games you have the whole indie scene, which is less indie nowadays with all the storefronts’ corporations effectively working as the de-facto publishers. The concept of independent releases has become, effectively speaking, not part of any big-name corporation. Nevertheless, there are niches left and right that are open and people are stepping in an attempt to fill them. The video and computer game market has never been as saturated with games as it is now. The quantity is absolutely insane with quality being worse than E.T. to sometimes striking home runs like no other. Though as it often turns out, even when these original IPs get around may become successes, filling niches left open by the big boys in the industry, often you see and hear fans wanting something from the real IP.
Pokémon might be a good example of fans not exactly taking up the challenge to make a completely new IP that would realise their wants (there has been multiple titles that have attempted this, none have succeeded) but rather heavily modifying the existing games to the extents of making the games almost unrecognisable from their original versions. While Moemon is a representative of just general sprite switching, something like Crystal Clear represents how there’s a want and a niche for fully open, independent adventuring in Pokémon. The game changes Pokémon Crystal in a way that it opens the map as a whole, allows the player to choose his starting position, 24 Starters instead of being limited to the base three, significant character customisation alongside numerous improvements. The way the open world is handled is by scaling the Gym and Trainer battles according to the player’s own stats, e.g. by beating Gym A you increase opponent stats across the game. There are numerous other improvements as well, like each Pokémon having their own unique field sprite.
Of course, when discussing mods, we can’t really forget Bethesda and how fans are actually making their games functional. Bethesda’s games are known to be riddled with bugs. There are people who have never played a vanilla Bethesda game, as the bug fixes the fans make correct and fix sometimes game breaking errors that, for whatever reason, Bethesda has never bothered correcting themselves. A rather famous bug in Skyrim happens to be that the animals are able to make criminal reports of the player, but this has never been officially fixed, despite the bug mentioned in an interview prior to the game’s release. You also have fans increasing Bethesda’s games resolutions and improving models and so on. At some point you can say fans are recreating Bethesda’s games through mods and fixes better than what they originally were.
With scans and translations there are issues with the legality of the thing. Sometimes a fantranslation can impact whether or not something gets an official English release, sometimes scanlation projects get shot down due to releasing scanned materials being spread around. Sidestepping the issue of making money on fan made translations via donations, these fans are effectively hitting the market with products that aren’t otherwise available. That’s the crux of the whole thing, in the end. There is a demand for something, yet they’re not being fulfilled to any extent.
Perhaps the last example of fans making the best returns to Retroblast’s corner with model kits. Fans making recasts of old model kits has been a thing as long as model kits have been around, with various results. Funnily enough, nowadays fans are making recasts of other fans products, as there have been numerous examples of someone making a desirable resin cast kit, but for whatever reason does not want to ship to other regions. Thus, sometimes another fan takes their work, makes recasts of it elsewhere and begins sales in other regions. Recasting has become extremely effective with time, as modern silicone moulds are able to capture every single detail on the original model, even the shape of dust particles. Fans are also making accessories and conversion kits, allowing the customers to have niche or rare kind of piece that isn’t being produced. Easy example for this would be some of the Gundam conversion kits, which allow the builder to buy a modern style model, but change parts to represent an older design of the same robot. Of course, some times these conversion kits cost an arm and a leg due to extremely limited production numbers and high material costs.
The fans aren’t limited by the same end intention of profits, not to the same degree. They should be compensated for the time and work they’ve put into products they’re delivering, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of the property holders. Considering the advancements we’ve made in engineering code and moulds, there should be no real reason why the stores could have high quality products. However, the drive to maximise profits while minimising cost is one of the many reasons why, for example, modern toy aisles are full mediocre products and low-tier retro replicas. Then again, maybe it’s for the best for the fans to keep things going when the big corporations aren’t. It promotes new talent and creates new venues for people to make business and connections. In its own way, it also promotes slight competition and showing that things could be done better; this is what your fans are wanting and expecting.
Imagine if they the Batman was taken out from his comics and replaced with someone who isn’t Batman. Sure, Francis there will say that’s happened multiple times and he’s right. Yet every single time we’ve always returned to read further adventures as Bruce Wayne as Batman. The status quo returns. Same with Peter Parker, who has been replaced by other Spider-Men for some time. Like by Ben Reilly, who happens to have the best iteration of the classical Spider-Man suit. Superman has died and has come back to life. In any given new entry to the Transformers with Optimus Prime, you can expect him to die. Hell, for Transformers to have the same basic cast with some changes to setting and characterisation, yet all the roles and core characters are the same. People make connections with characters and their stories and wish to continue follow their stories. It’s not just something to consume, it’s almost like following how an old friend is doing.
Comics have made introduction of new characters a finely tuned craft. You first have the original comic for character A that’s successful, in which you introduce character B. Character B makes an impact enough and gets spun out to his own comic book, now expanding both the world of the comic and the lineup. Valiant Comics in the 1990’s was well versed in this and managed to build an organic and cohesive world. Malibu Comics’ Ultraforce book, their version of The Avengers or Justice League, was planned year beforehand and every team member’s storyline would meld into the Ultraforce story. Best thing is, it was planned well enough that it’s only apparent in hindsight and the stories themselves weren’t hampered by this plan. To this day I find it sad that Ultraverse comics and characters are dead. Marvel bought Malibu Comics just to get their advanced colouring techniques in 1994, and after the comics were cancelled around a year later, none of the concepts or characters have made appearances, sitting in Marvel’s vault gathering dust. Still, new characters get introduced constantly, but not many stick around enough to get their own books. Some times it is the executive decision to drive in a new book based on a new character with no real connections established previously, though that doesn’t always go as hoped.
The same base concept applies to any entertainment media, be it books, movies or TV-shows. Take the show Cheers as an example. People loved and cared for these characters, and despite Frasier not being a main character initially, he proved popular enough to be spun out to his own namesake series for eleven seasons. James Bond movies have tried to spin some of the characters into their own movies, but there hasn’t been any luck in that for multiple reasons. Budget always being one of them. James Bond has seen more success with James Bond Jr. in book and in animated form, though that’s somewhat arguable as it seems majority of the current mainstream audience only knows Bond from the movies.
Nevertheless, the method of creating supplementary characters and expanding the world has proven to be both lucrative and consumer friendly. You can do whatever you want with a new character and his setting all the while keeping the originator intact. You can even make the same choice as Marvel did with the Ultimate Spider-Man ans introduce a new version of the classic character. What seems to be the opposite action of this is replacing old characters with completely new ones through whatever methods the writers employ. Sometimes its totally replacing these characters, sometimes its rewriting them to the extent that what made these characters themselves in the first place is no longer there.
There are of course examples when a total shift in a series works. Star Trek: The Next Generation is an example of this, despite it not appearing so at first. The discussion which series is better and which had the better cast is as old as the show itself, many considering it a worthwhile addition but never reaching the same cultural status as the original. After all, it’s the original cast people were attached to, not this new cast with a French bald guy as the captain. I would argue that time has proven that the TNG cast and their stories were worthwhile addition to Star Trek, which opened further possibilities to expand the franchise in much larger ways. While Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise are largely debated within their fandoms, the overall consumer doesn’t deem them as worthwhile. Star Trek hasn’t managed to capture the audience in the same manner since TNG went off the air. The rebooted Star Trek universe hasn’t reached the same level despite reusing old characters, but in these movies the characters were largely unrecognisable from their old selves and more like caricatures of themselves. It’s an example of using recognisable names and settings without taking advantage of them or telling further stories about these characters. They might as well be blank slates, something completely new.
Star Wars has of course always struggled with the old and new cast. The Golden Era of Star Wars comics was when Marvel originally licensed the comics, exploring all the adventures Luke, Leia and Han were having. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye largely falls into this category. Dark Horse began to expand the universe with new settings, cast and characters with little to no connection to the original cast, but nevertheless didn’t conflict with those characters. Even further, stories like the Shadows of the Empire were treated as if they were movie events without the movie. Nevertheless, new stories based on the universe were met with as much critical acclaim as stories based on the original cast of character. Whether or not Disney intentionally let down fan expectations is somewhat an open question. While it’s not uncommon to drastically change characters, it can backfire immensely if it’s not organic change and is completely untold. Disney Star Wars has the habbit of not expanding on events or reasons. Instead additional one-liners trying to function as exposition has been put in, which shows more how lacklustre the overall planning process and writing has been. Return of the Jedi left things off in a hopeful, bright manner, which was effectively killed by repeating A New Hope. Luke’s bright future was killed off by him becoming a murderous hermit, Han’s position as the husband of an heir of a dead planet was nulled and all the roles these characters had were removed in order to promote new characters. To lacking success, as Disney Star Wars has taken a profit plummet ever since their released their first entry. Incidentally, Mandalorian has been received in a better manner, mostly because it has expanded already familiar universe without infringing on the established characters, something the movies are at fault to a large degree.
Some writers will laugh at the audience for connecting with fiction. To some it’s a passionless job, something they do for money like any other office worker. Some creators do create a similar connection, while others simply come in to do whatever. Nowadays it’s not exactly a rarity for a recognised and already established brand to have a writer who want to do their own thing without any regards what’s already come. While we can argue over how much a writer needs to be slave to the past writing, what they can’t ignore is the customer expectations and wants. If they end up butchering the characters, the setting and overall overturn what the audience has come to love in a work, well, they can only take the heat. The continuity of these characters stories, even if they’re new stories with little connection, is the living flesh of the audience’s attention and love. Cut that away, and all you have is meat that can be consumed once, and all you’re left is bones and guts.
What are you going to do with a brand that is unrecognisable from what made it popular in the first place? Replace it with something completely new is the answer sometimes. Other times, the best method is just to reverse course and turn back.