Doujinshi Jank

There is an interesting thing with Japanese homebrew, indie or doujinshi games that I’ve slowly realised throughout these years; they tend to be weird, lacking in polish in areas where they matter the most but at the same time numerous titles overshadow big company games like no other to the point of becoming hallmark games. Cave Story and La-Mulana both are massively popular examples of successful Japanese indie games, yet they’re largely an exception to the rule of Jank. Jank in context of doujinshi games doesn’t signify bad coding or controls, but a certain kind of lack of logical polish. For example, you’d expect for a shooting game that uses WASD movement and mouse aiming to include changing weapons with the scroll wheel, but instead, it must be done with the numbers. It’s logical and completely functional, but really throws you off and takes off some of the smoothness of the action in controls. This isn’t a quality of life issue, as scroll wheel weapon changing has been a thing even in Japanese games for almost two decades now. For whatever design decision, the controls’ jank was implemented. When a game is supposed to be fast-paced shooting action, you sort of end up prioritising one weapon in a situation over all others when quick-changing isn’t an option. Or aiming while running, for the matter. Or smooth transition between movement options, creating jank movement options from otherwise smoothly animated action.

La-Mulana is one of those games that many considered impossible to beat without a guide, but all the clues and hints spread around do make sense if you put your mind to it

The Japanese jank could be described as the opposite of polish. It’s not erroneous design per se, as most of the jank is fully intended. Consider how in 2D Castlevania the Belmont’s jump arc is completely set in stone and you are unable to change it after you’ve jumped. Similarly, in Ghost ‘n Goblins you are dedicated to that jump and its arc after you’ve initiated it, though you can control it with the second jump later games added for that specific purpose. These would be jank in any other kind of game, but the whole play world and the system has been designed to follow this same approach. All enemies in the games have purposeful, straight attacks and moves, and the stages provide challenges appropriate to the available movement options. It makes both games stupidly difficult at times, but the game is fair as no enemy or projectile breaks the same jank. The fact that everything is extremely limited yet finely tuned to a sharp point turns these controls, that would in other games be considered outright shit, into a challenge unto themselves. The doujinshi jank is as if everything had this lack of polish. Character movement might be slow and camera wonks off into position unfavourable to the player, but at the same time enemy movement is just as unrefined and how their act with the camera on screen often ends up being just as unfavourable to them. It’s a weird kind of jank you don’t see in western indie games, probably because of the style of approach and gaming culture overall.

Monster Surprised You-ki chan! is in many ways trying to play itself like a version of Ghost ‘n Goblins in its controls. In practice, the game plays nothing like Capcom’s original. You-ki’s controls might be decent, but everything from the graphic style to sprite resolution and enemy behaviour and weapons makes this game jank as hell to play. The stage designs do mix things up quite a lot from a usual GnG-inspired title, yet all the decisions carry so much jank in the design that the game feels underwhelming to play. Even the sounds are off, as numerous special effects are as if they were at a wrong volume or simply don’t work in the intended context. Special effects, like the lens flare in the second stage or the sparklers You-ki jumping leaves is all part of the jank as their framerate and smoothness is very different from the rest of the spritework and animation in the game. Hell, the explosions and blood effects look like they belong to a different game altogether because how they’re designed and animated from there rest of the game’s visuals. Even the way You-ki takes damage is weird and outright frustrating to witness. It’s a mish-mash of everything that should’ve been straightened up and unified in design and polished even further, yet the game deserves some respect. The stages are rather large and there are exploratory elements, the characters have some charm and the game isn’t exactly unfair. Just jank as hell in a similar manner so many other doujinshi games are.

The jank doesn’t make these games unplayable. They’re not broken products in any manner, and often doesn’t even necessarily detract from the fun-factor of the game. The jank is probably the opposite of being immersed, where you are well aware that you are playing a video game and you damn well play according to the game’s rules. The jank of doujinshi games often walls you to a different extend before you manage to overcome it. Sometimes the jank is minimal and doesn’t really affect much, sometimes you might spend few evening with a bottle of beer thinking what the fuck you’re playing and why, but at some point, both will end up you enjoying the game. Sometimes to the degree of witnessing something batshit insane that can only be done in a completely rules-free environment where nothing is held back, sometimes ending you finding a new bottom of underwhelming. Despite me running You-ki Chan! down the mud there above, but sticking with the game netted one of the more exciting final stages in some time. It takes a while to get used to how the game’s play goes, to get around the sheer jank of it all, and the game itself is rather lengthy, but I guess I would have it no other way.

Unlike the vast majority of Western homebrew and indie games that aren’t high-mark high visibility games, loads of doujinshi games of varying quality get released during Comic Market, a decades-old event where people gather to sell and buy their own comics and other goodies. The event is a massive sub- and pop-culture event, which also sees massive amounts of people donating blood. Nowadays, you see a lot of these games released on digital storefronts like DLSite, while some titles will fall between the cracks and into obscurity. Sometimes, they sell only few stages of a game as a demo as they’re intending to do a full release later on, but sometimes these games just end up vanishing. Such was the fate of Es, one of the best fastest pace action-shooter that was in development but never finished.

Developed originally in 2007 by circle 9th Night, Es is a prime example of a doujinshi game that doesn’t have much jank, and whatever jank it had worked for its benefits because everything had been already been sanded down to a nice matte finish. All it needed was more content and stages with some polish, and we could’ve had one of the best games of the later tens, developed by only a handful of people. If you liked anything about Zone of the Enders, this game would’ve been right in your ballpark.

The whole Japanese doujinshi scene is full of titles most people in the West are going to miss, be it either because of the language barrier or simply because their circle of fellow weebs just never notice them. Maybe it’s the jank most of these titles present themselves with. The jank is part of the scene in a weird way, but even then in that mass of jank you’ll find things to love and enjoy, and maybe even a game or two that doesn’t have any jank.

Devaluation of a product

Lately I’ve been checking the PC game section on my local stores. It is hard to find any good physical releases of games nowadays as bulk of them require Steam linking, but here and there I might find a game that doesn’t require the digital console. If this is the case, then the game wants me to use Origin or uPlay, which are essentially the exact same thing from another company.

The main reason, outside it being a digital video game console on a PC, is that it devaluates the products, i.e. games. I was linked to Puppygames’ developer blog that outlines one developer’s struggles to make money with his products. It would appear, at least according to this developer, is that the games they develop and get publish on Steam do not make money, that a game that should go for $20 fetches only $1. This is problematic albeit understandable. Steam is an environment where there is no trouble of finding games. There are people who sit on hundreds, perhaps even on thousands, of games and never really play them. They hoard them simply because they are cheap and come in bundles. Putting $5 into five games doesn’t seem to be so bad, but the reality is that those games most likely should fetch more.

The situation is further stricken down by the Humble Bundles or whatever they are called nowadays. The model they have drop the value of the products further as the customer can freely decide the price he pays. Naturally, the more you pay the more games you get.

This is disastrous for the industry. The value of the product plummeting means that the developer gains less from their work, which then is reflected on the further quality of the products. The dynamics of electronic game industry, both on PC and on consoles, has changed so that it is not enough to sell high number of units of software or hardware; it is the profit that is gained. SONY announced that ten million units of PS4’s have been sold thus far, but in modern dynamics that means nothing if we aren’t told how much profit these consoles have brought in. In console market the consoles have never been the thing to bring in profits anyway, that has been the job for the software. In SONY’s case it’s apparent their wholesome profit is less than the numbers would suggest, as PSN+ seems to give games away free all the time as well as drop prices even further than what they normally drop.

The industry has become an insane economy, where we’re offered high amount of products for basically nothing. The market is being oversaturated by titles that can’t sell alone.

Then again, the quality of these titles is highly questionable as it is.

If you check the devblog, you notice that their attitude towards the customer is as follows; we’re worth $1 for them in current market. That is, to put it simply, the wrong way to see things. The customer has no value limit. We are the lifeline of those who serve us. It is their products that have no value, and this is something many developers have a hard time to accept; the job you have done is worthless. In this developer’s case, Puppygames, we see that they are basically a dime in the dozen developer. Every game they have put out fall into the gray mass of faux-pixel graphics and mediocre gameplay. It’s actually hard to distinguish the illustrations from their games from each other as they look the same. Their games look like something I would try out in an arcade for 20 cents, and then move onto the game next to it because it has done the same thing but better. It’s absurd to think that a product should fetch certain price despite its quality, and I can clearly see why these games need to be put together in order to actually sell.

That leads us to another question; Why are they putting their games on sale in a place that they know will only drop the value of their games? If they truly are an indie developer, then they should also have an indie release. Independent, as the word is. As they now are, Puppygames is very dependent on Steam and whatever bundle they sell their games in. There are other outlets for these games, like GOG or even selling them via their own system. Hell, offer to sell your game on a disc for people who wish to have a physical copy.

This developer’s attitude is not a healthy one. It is an understandable backslash from the frustrating market they are in. However, the customer can’t be faulted for using the market to its fullest extent for his own benefit. This regulated devaluation of products is done by the industry itself and developers should realize how twisted it has become. Giving their games practically free is not good business. Making your games worth one dollar willingly is nobody else’s but the industry’s fault. It has been a conscious decision to not make profit.

Then again, much like during the Second Video Game Crash of the 80’s, there are so many games out there that people don’t even want to buy for a dollar. The same applied to the First Crash at the end of the 1970’s, which only Atari managed to survive.

The indie developer fallacy has gone too far nowadays anyway, where most developers don’t even code their engines anymore. For example, more than 50% of Spelunky’s code has been written by somebody else than the developer himself. This is far from being independent. Much like from developers that are not ‘indie,’ I would expect them to code their own games from bottom up. It is very disheartening to see the same engines used over and over in modern games. Often there are points that you could even see how the games act similarly because of the engine. Indie developer automatically create a power structure with anyone they associate with in developing and releasing their games. Valve Corporation seems to dictate prices and some releases, and thus has a large control over the indie developers they work with. They both influence and control the developer to some extent, which in turn causes the developer to do compromises. Insomnia has few good points on the indie fallacy, and rather than referring their contents while juxtaposing with mine, I’d recommend reading them afterwards.

I would also address another point in Puppygames’ blog. Phil Fish is used as an example of a developer who made his mind clear on the customers and the industry. I think he made a game that sold reasonably well for a time, but that’s beside the point. The point is that he put himself into a position of a rock star where there was no such position. Even if you’re one person in a company, that company needs to be your face. The customer, especially in the internet era, doesn’t need to see your face or hear you. If you position yourself in a place where you are easy to be shot down, and give valid reasons to be shot, don’t be surprised when you find yourself riddled with bullet holes.

The comparison between Fish having large amounts of money and the customer cleaning floors is also a good example how delusional worldview these people have. If I would working a restaurant and cleaning the floors when Fish steps in, of course I would call him sir. That is the proper etiquette. However, when I am purchasing his product he would be obligated to follow the exact same line of customer service as I would. It is often a two way street, and one person you service can often be a person who will be serving you somewhere else. Pissing off possible customer anywhere is far from a good idea.

Then again, cleaning restaurant floors is far more valuable work than developing a video game in the grand scheme of things. It’s sad to see this frustration and anger being directed in wrong way.

Puppygames also have forgotten the Rules 1 and 2.