On December 15, 2013, Sekai Project launched their first Kickstarter ever – 2013 Moe Headphones Design Doujin by Lunatic Joker. Despite the fairly niche product, a little over 500 people backed the campaign and made it a success. After that, Sekai Project turned to visual novel Kickstarters and have been doing so ever since. After seven projects that ranged from pretty successful to downright massively overfunded, it honestly seemed as though they could never fail. This company had gained the attention of English visual novel fans and it seemed they were willing to support all types of games, from romance to fantasy to sci-fi.
Then Witch Boy Magical Piece happened. At Otakon 2015, Sekai Project announced this game alongside other visual novel acquisitions. Unlike the rest, it shared that the title in particular would be coming to Kickstarter in the near future. And so it did, and as we’ve since seen, it has become Sekai Project’s first unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign. With a goal of $57,000, it managed to attain $25,189 before concluding. $25,000 is no small sum of money and many visual novel Kickstarters would go bananas in order to achieve such support. Of course, now none of that money will be filtering into Sekai Project and developer Rosemary House.
Why did Witch Boy Magical Piece fail despite its connection to Sekai Project? After all, for better or for worse, this is the company which has become the go-to name in the Western visual novel scene. There are a variety of potential reasons why this Kickstarter didn’t make it, some of which likely have a stronger bearing than others. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the biggest reasons one by one to discern exactly how this happened.
First, there’s the matter of the content of Witch Boy Magical Piece. Visual novels are a niche in and of themselves, but one that is definitely growing. It’s when you start narrowing in on niches within the genre that you really have the potential to lose large portions of the audience. I am not suggesting that a boy’s love (BL) or yaoi game cannot gain a large audience in the west. That is not only a hilariously wrong statement, but one which has been proven wrong by successful BL visual novel Kickstarters such as Coming Out On Top and Starfighter: Eclipse. Yaoi fandom in the anime and manga scene is pretty huge, which also leads to some crossover fans. The same is true of “gender bender” titles, with ones such as Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme and Max’s Big Bust seeing themselves funded easily.
Where things get messy is the combination of both these niches. First, you take the visual novel community and weed out those not interested in (or at the very least open to) a BL game. Then, you siphon out the people within that smaller group who are actually interested in or okay with “gender swap” themes as well. Yes, there is most certainly a community of folks out there who dig both these themes and love seeing them in Witch Boy Magical Piece. I am not questioning that, especially when one of our own staff members counts herself in that group! What I am suggesting, though, is that this community is not as massive as the visual novel, or even BL-general scene, leading to a smaller pool to draw backers from.
Because of this smaller potential audience of backers, it would have made sense for Sekai Project to price the campaign close to other niche visual novels with at all similar themes. Many of the games I mentioned earlier are likely comparison points. For as much love as Coming Out On Top has received over the years, it didn’t even manage to crack $40,000 in funding in 2012. Much more recently, Max’s Big Bust achieved a little under $20,000 (converted from AUD) by the end. For most visual novels which strike out beyond the heteronormative realm on crowdfunding sites, it seems rare to set expectations over $30,000. It’s worth noting that Starfighter: Eclipse raised over $100,000 primarily because of the longstanding fan community it had built around its webcomic series. It did not just receive tons of money out of the blue — it had an audience to begin with.
That’s another issue with the Witch Boy Magical Piece campaign. Sure, Sekai Project got the word out fairly early for the campaign but prior to that it was not a particularly well known game. Despite my intense interest in the visual novel community (and lurking of various fan communities) I had totally never heard of it before. A fandom is not required to succeed on Kickstarter, but there’s no doubt that it helps. Just look at the outrageous success of the Muv-Luv Kickstarter. There’s no doubt in my mind that tons of anime fans who have never played a visual novel before backed this alongside visual novel diehards. When you don’t have a large group you “know” will back, then it’s important to price a campaign accordingly.
Despite Sekai Project’s increasingly vast knowledgebase of Kickstarter, translating, and publishing games, I feel they severely overpriced it. Again, just look at what similar campaigns managed to raise. Outside of extenuating circumstances, niche visual novels aren’t expected to raise $50,000. My belief is that Sekai Project was very aware of what it would cost to do everything they needed to prepare Witch Boy Magical Piece for Steam, and the cost of translation, porting, and all that did amount to $50,000 or more. However, the reality of Kickstarter is that people rarely arrive with accurate price points in mind. They do a very simple guestimate, end up needing more money, and then cross their fingers that it all works out.
I don’t believe that Sekai Project should view Kickstarter in such a lackadaisical way, as with dozens upon dozens of projects, they simply cannot sustain funding mismanagement in the long term. As such, I applaud them for placing the campaign at a price where they would feel comfortable putting all the work into making Witch Boy Magical Piece a reality for us. This just happens to be the point at which “smart business” does not mesh with “smart Kickstarting.” Instead of just throwing the campaign out there and ending up with a mark of failure on their record, it would have been worth second-guessing and realizing that it was incredibly unlikely this project would ever succeed at the required amount of funding.
If Sekai Project had faith in Witch Boy Magical Piece enough to bring it to Kickstarter, then they honestly should have acted like it. This was their ninth Kickstarter campaign and eighth visual novel one. With tons of skill in how to promote these types of games, the page for Witch Boy Magical Piece honestly looked like something that a first-time Kickstarter creator put together. It wasn’t a “low information” campaign by any stretch, but the information provided on the page was lacking the degree of polish that Sekai Project has showcased with other recent campaigns such as Memory’s Dogma and The Human Reignition Project.
Seriously, just take a look at those and their lovingly produced images overlaid with carefully chosen fonts, clearly displayed reward tier graphic, and 14+ updates each. Heck, even though the Witch Boy Magical Piece is bursting with images, it looks as if something I would have put together. Images shown come in all resolutions, making the page visually sloppy. This is opposed to the other recent projects which did their best to ensure almost every picture was at least the same size.
I recognize that the mobile phone origins of this game mean it probably doesn’t have super large source images, but there still should have been away around this sloppy presentation. It only got worse as Sekai Project finally updated the page with new tiers and embedded Vine videos. New reward images were simply thrown together at the bottom of the page with no real apparent care. Also, why in the heck didn’t this one get a reward tier graphic like the others? Updates also never really reached critical mass, as by the end, it had only received seven updates.
Sekai Project has the skills to make a gorgeous Kickstarter page and for whatever reason they chose not to. Or, they may just not have had the time. If you follow their Twitter then you will see that they were still deep into convention-going season at this point, with staff all over the place. In that case, why was it so imperative to launch this project right now? Presumably, there was some business contract with Rosemary House already in place stipulating it would occur mid-September. I still find that an unfair excuse, though, as smart business planning involves preparing well in advance for known busy periods.
Preparing the page could have been done mostly in advance (since Kickstarter allows for “draft” projects), leaving room to pretty up newly-received assets closer to the launch date. Well, who knows what really went on behind the scenes, but being busy in and of itself does not feel like a fair excuse to Rosemary House who put their trust in this western visual novel publisher to promote their work well. Once the Kickstarter did launch, things were disturbingly quiet on the Sekai Project press front.
Sure, they sent out an email to all those on the Sekai Project mailing list at the launch, but did not talk about the project nearly as much as it felt they have with others in the past. The news just sort of drizzled out as if they expected folks who write about video games to all simply advertise for them. To be sure, many websites did cover the Kickstarter, but that didn’t really do much to expand the niche audience. It seems that those excited for the project knew of its launch early on, backed, and then that was about it — articles did little to reach the non-interested majority. Even so, I do not feel this excuses how Sekai Project published an obviously unfinished Kickstarter and did little to self promote.
At least, this was the case when the Kickstarter needed the biggest push at the very start. Sometimes, projects with really blow their launch window can still pick up steam and succeed by the end — but it’s pretty uncommon. Strong starts facilitate eventually successful finishes, even if they’re by an incredibly small margin. It’s possible that this company felt the strength of their brand in their visual novel community alone would have been enough to sustain the campaign. After all, the Sekai Project name (as well as the high-profile projects it attracts) routinely make it so they barely have to send out one Tweet to find everything easily funded.
That was unfortunately never going to be the case with Witch Boy Magical Piece (given everything standing in the way), so more needed to be done. Sekai Project did eventually start hyping up their game, but only after weeks had already passed with the funding number increasing at a snail’s pace. The late-game changes to the Kickstarter page content and reward tiers just proves that it was launched too soon. If run again with its goal halved, it would probably succeed. The question is whether or not they are willing to approach this possibility, fund the work on their own, or simply leave the project behind. We don’t know just yet. Although Sekai Project have recently gone on a backer update spree on their various Kickstarter projects, Witch Boy Magical Piece has yet to receive an update since October 10 (but one is probably coming very shortly now that it has officially failed).
My hope is that Sekai Project does not chalk up this failure to mean that there is not an audience for BL or even gender-bending visual novels. That is absolutely not true. Both on and off Kickstarter, these genre draw a ton of attention. For example, MangaGamer’s release of No, Thank You!!! did quite well sales-wise in part because very few yaoi titles have ever been officially released for the English visual novel community. Witch Boy Magical Piece’s niche within a niche status proved the bigger issue, alongside with the campaign’s weirdly rushed nature which led to a lack of polish, press, and severely limited initial reward tiers.
Given Sekai Project’s immense knowledge of Kickstarter, I am shocked. Not shocked that they had a failed campaign, but by the fact they allowed an unprepared project to go live and somehow still expect everything to work out fine. I expect that this event proves Sekai Project’s moment of realization that they are not infallible and will henceforth put a fair level of effort into all projects, Kickstarter or otherwise.