“Love Plus” The Most Popular Dating Sim Ever

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There has been a lot of talk lately about Japan’s radically changing society.  It started with an article in the Guardian with the viral headline “Why have young people in Japan stop having sex?”  The headline was terribly misleading, young people in Japan are having sex.  They are just getting married a lot less and having fewer babies.  The notion that lower marriage rates and lower birth rates equals less sex is a terribly old fashioned notion.  The truth is, it is all economic, and it is not just in Japan.

But that is not what I want to talk about, feel free to follow the links if your interested in learning more.  The funny side topic that kept popping up was this notion that virtual girlfriends were partly to blame.  Specifically, virtual dating sims, and more specifically Love Plus for Nintendo DS and its sequel Love Plus + for 3DS.  These two are far and away the best selling virtual dating sims ever, and I wanted to find out why.

A little searching led me to this article, which makes me want to play the game more.  Good plan, but to quote Doctor Who, “there are only three flaws with this plan as far as I can see”: 1. I don’t own a Nintendo DS, 2. the game is not available in this country, and 3. I don’t speak or read Japanese.  Luckily as Doctor Who is a master of time and space, I am a master of the Internets.  I won’t go into boring detail except to say problem #3 was solved by going here.

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Having played Japanese Date Simulators before, the first part of Love Plus looked very familiar.  I start as a junior in prep school, I have 100 days to improve my characters stats and meet / become friends with girls at the same school. My stats are built by doing 4 different activities each day.  I mention all this because this is pretty much the exact scenario for every Japanese Date Simulator I have ever played (granted I have only played two others, but what are the odds?).  I don’t see the attraction at all in this scenario, which is why Something’s In The Air involves a more American friendly scenario of meeting 20-something aged girls in bars.  Japan apparently enjoys fantasizing about young love in grade school, and so Love Plus continues the proven trend.

Some immediate differences become apparent.  First, there are only three girls to meet, and the game code guarantees you meet all three by the end of the second week.  Second, the three girls are not still drawings most of the time, but animated 3D renders. Third, the girls are completely voice acted in Japanese, but even if you are like me and Japanese sounds like “Simlish“, I still like hearing it as it helps bring out the personality and tone of the text.  It’s like a Japanese film with subtitles.

Most importantly, the three girls are not just stereotypes, but well written characters with back stories to explain their demeanor.  Even with the literal and unnatural English translation the personalities of the three girls  comes through to the player.  The characters are written well enough to seem like real girls.  This is a standard I am going to have to push on myself in my future games.

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It didn’t take me long to figure out that Rinko Kobayakawa is the girl for me.  Early on she comes off as sort of a bitch (point = 1), but she is more of an emo/loner/geek (point = 2).  First thing I learn is she likes to read (we meet her in a library — point = 3).  Next I learn is she likes to hang out at an arcade well past curfew playing Street Fighter (point = 4).  But the thing that really won me over was her love of second British Invasion music, and a distaste for J-POP, and Visual Kei, which I totally agree with (point = BINGO!).  Bonus: she likes cats. Once I realized that, I focused on my Intelligence and Sense skills (my typical day was science, social studies, library, hobbies) until she fell for me.

Now with every other J-Date Sim, getting the girl would be followed by an eroge hentai scene and the game would be over, but Nintendo will not license games containing sex or nudity on their DS platform.  Instead the game completely changes into something very different.  Welcome to the virtual girlfriend tamagotchi game. For those not familiar, a Love Plus virtual girlfriend is like a Sim from The Sims, but instead of worrying about trivial things like eating and bladder, your worries are of a more romantic nature.  Getting too low, results in an unhappy girlfriend.

To keep your girlfriend happy you got to take her on dates, study with her, call her, email her, and touch her.  It is all more complicated than it sounds.  Lets start with the touching part: It is like a mini arcade game. You must touch her in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, and there is a high failure rate. The opportunities are kind of rare and last only a few seconds.  Email is random thoughts, riddles, questions, comments, and it is best to answer right away with the exact best response.  Calling is how you get dates and study dates.

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Lets talk about dates.  Before you can even set up a date, you have to master a skill which is done by doing four daily tasks each day just like the first part of the game. Once you got a skill maxed out, date venues and events open up depending on the skill.  To go to an event you have to plan to attend when the event happens, then call your girlfriend to set up the date and time to meet, then when the date arrives, you play out the date, taking advantage of the rare touching sequences, and then when the date is over, your skills drop and it is time to start building skills again.

Here is the kicker: Dating is best done in REAL TIME!!  It uses the built in DS clock and calendar functions to advance the game in real time.  Set up a date for Sunday at noon?  Better have your Nintendo DS ready to turn on wherever you happen to be at Sunday at noon, because if you miss the date, your virtual girlfriend gets upset.  Need to skill up to be able to go on a date?  You will need to play the game every day to get the skill points, and check the game emails and phone messages, then find something else to do for the next 23 and a half hours.

These Love Plus girls are high maintenance.  Luckily there is a “skip mode” which lets you play a few days at a time, but mixing modes is not allowed, and skip mode skips birthday and holiday content.  That is why REAL virtual boyfriends play in REAL TIME.

There are many reports about players neglecting real life to satisfy their virtual Love Plus girlfriends.  There are also weird stories like the one about the guy who married his virtual girlfriend.  I’m sure crazy stuff and life neglecting stuff happens because I know gamers, but I am also sure most of those reports were probably written by the marketing department of Konami Games.

Could Love Plus work outside of Japan?

Short answer, no.  If they released the game as is, with the English translation as is, it would sell a few copies to the curious, and that might be enough.  If they took the literal translation and further made it into conversational English, and then hired English speaking voice actors, the game could sell better, but it would still feel a bit too Japanese with the whole Manga looking characters in a Japanese prep school.

If they just took the gaming engine, and wrote a whole new game for Western audiences, featuring a trio of cute teen boys, and marketed the game to teen girls, it would probably end up a fairly big hit.  That would require a huge investment in a game formula that has never proven to work with western audiences.  Probably not worth it.

There was an attempt by Konami to make a similar game in English called Brooktown High, but it never really sold well.  I think they have stayed away from the market ever since.

In conclusion, this has been a fun little research activity, It brings me some new insights to my future game projects, especially insights into building a more realistic dating companion.  Could I implement some of these concepts in my Date Ariane update?  I am still in the design phase of the project.  My projects tend to get really huge before I chop them down to a reasonable level.  Something to think about anyways.

Other Virtual Women

More random notes from around the metaverse…

The Vanity  Google

Ever heard the term “vanity google”?  It’s basically where you google your own name and any online monikers you may use, and it is actually a good idea to do every now and then, especially if you are being cyber bullied.  I tried googling myself (arianeb) and of course I get a lot of links to my website, as well as blogs dedicated to my dating game, and a growing number of walkthroughs.

It is not surprising to find out that I am not the only Ariane B on the planet.  I already knew about Ariane Blanc, a German Ariane B who owns the “Ariane” sim in Second Life. (If you are in the market for virtual furniture, check out her store), but there is also a French Canadian Ariane B.  I run arianeb.com, and I am arianeb on tumblr and wordpress (which you knew from reading this blog), but arianeb on twitter is a Montreal based singer/songwriter.   I’ve listened to some of the stuff she posted online and its pretty good.  I also found out there is a Facebook ArianeB page, which is about me, but I am not the one who created it. Whoever did, needs to update it, and as for the rest of you, I could always use a few more “likes”. 🙂

Other Dating Sims

But the really cool thing I found while googling myself is that there are a growing number of dating sims similar to my own.  Ugo.com recently did a list of Virtual Girlfriends You Can Date of which I am number 5.  Its an entertaining list covering many kinds of virtual dating with virtual girls. Stay away from #4 (3D Girlz) I got a malware warning when I went there.   Another list that had me as an entry is a list of dating sims at playforceone.com (link NSFW due to ads), a list of 36 other dating sim games available online.  A couple I have tried before were not that good, but that still leaves 34 I have not tried.

One other dating sim appeared on both sites called Keely, a dating sim very similar to mine, in that it is written in HTML with a branching storyline, and uses a lot of Poser graphics based on Victoria 3.  I assume that the character is based on British model Keely Hazell.  I have not played too much with Keely, but it has a much more involved storyline, taking place over many days, like the Japanese dating sims do.  Also, you don’t have to arrow around the picture to find the choices, they are usually at the bottom of the page to choose from.  The thing I’m most jealous of is that Keely already has a sequel, and I still have a lot of work to go on my sequel.

The Virtual Popstar

And since we are on the topic of virtual women online, a recent story from Japan gave me a good chuckle.  Virtual pop stars are hot right now in Japan, the most famous one is Hatsune Miku, a manga styled character who’s singing voice is created artificially using a vocalizer, and does concerts using rear projection technology.

But there is a pop band in Japan called AKB48, and they are very popular (the top 10 chart for 2010 in Japan consisted of songs from only two bands AKB48 and Arashi).  It is a band consisting of a choir of cute young teenage Japanese girls, with new young girls being added as older ones leave.

One of the new girls this year was Aimi Eguchi, a 16 year old according to her bio.  She appeared on magazine covers and videos before it was revealed, she does not exist.  Aimi Eguchi was a composite of 6 other members of AKB48, to the shock of many. It was a silly publicity stunt, and the fun only lasted a few days before the secret was revealed, but the idea that fake can pass as real has generated a bit of buzz.

Reminds me of that under appreciated film S1m0ne from 2002.

Is The Sims Online returning too?

I have mentioned a few times that I got my start on the metaverse via The Sims Online, a 2.5 dimension virtual world first released in 2003.  I only lasted 6 months before moving on to There.  Well it looks like a new incarnation of TSO will soon be returning, this time called The Sims Social, and it will be a Facebook App.

All attempts to attach a 3D Virtual World to Facebook have resulted in failure due to incompatibility of purposes.  If any can succeed it would be The Sims, so it will be interesting to see how this goes.

Visual Novels

In my last post I discussed Japanese Dating Sims and that they are a subset of a general category called Visual Novels.  The Visual Novel is a hybrid media form that has never caught on yet, but thanks to devices like the iPad, they could in theory become very popular. We just need a breakaway hit to finally emerge and then all the copycats will follow.

So what is a Visual Novel?  Well that depends on what direction you come from.  From a static media perspective, the visual novel is a comic book with choices.  From a video game perspective, its a graphic adventure game without an inventory to keep track of.   They all have text and pictures. Most have choices to make, some tell a linear story (aka Kinetic Visual Novels) without choices. Most are hand drawn graphics.  Some have voice over, music, sound effects, some pictures are animated.

Just as comic books have a reputation of being about superheroes (since the majority of them are), Visual Novels have a reputation of being about romance and sex because the majority of them are.  But just like Comic Books do not need superheroes, VNs do not have to be about romance or sex. Some of the new independent producers are doing adventure, horror, sci-fi, etc. Most of the new ones stay in the “rated T for Teen level”

The best way to learn about visual novels is to just download a few and try playing them.  A couple of good sources, many of which are free:

http://www.renai.us/ – A collection of mostly free independently produced Visual Novels. Windows, Mac, and Linux links available for most VNs.
http://vndb.org/ – A database of Visual Novels from around the world, and thus mostly from Japan in Japanese.

If you are interested in creating your own:

http://www.renpy.org/ – Ren’Py is an open source freeware Visual Novel development and publication suite used by many independent VN creators.
Lemma Soft Forums – A forum dedicated to making of Visual Novels. A lot of creators meet here to post their work, get feedback, help each other out, etc.

I have been trying out a few:

Ripples – A kinetic short romance available as an iphone app. Also downloadable. Rated PG.

Fantasia, Realm of Thanos – A Fantasy Adventure. Rated PG. There is also a sequel I have not tried yet.

Daemonphilia – Romantic Comedy. Not Graphic. PG-13

Each Uisage – A mystery story set on a remote island in 1985. I love the original watercolor painted graphics. Rated R.

Digital: A Love Story – A story told over BBS messages on 1988 computers, some of which you have to “hack”. Fun concept PG.


Is There a Future Here?

As a commenter in the last post pointed out.  Visual Novels today come from two different sources.  Japanese games translated into English, and independent authors/artists mostly doing it for fun in their free time.  Neither source is likely to bring about any breakaway hits anytime soon.

The Japanese games tend to be very Japanese, and tend to cater to the shy teen males in Japanese prep schools.  They are very dialogue heavy, so you can spend time and get to know the characters.  As one commenter puts it:

This is the secret of the visual novel. They are socialization simulcra. I don’t mean a simulcra in the sense of a simulation, an accurate model which can duplicate responses. I mean it in the sense of a substitute that elicits and provides many of the same responses. Visual novels are not dating simulations, they are dating substitutes. Virtual dolls. Little computer friends.

Consider their first person presentation, their stylized graphics that focus on expressive faces and communicating emotion, the hours of voice acting directed at the player/protagonist who never breaks the illusion by speaking with a voice. All highly effective and relatively cheap ways to simulate social interaction.

Consider also the mundane hours of banter in place of traditional narrative. I found it boring while playing Yume Miru Kusuri but if I consider what was said, how long it took to say it and what meaningful new information was exchanged, then I compare that to a typical session of socialization in Second Life I’m stunned by how similar they are. I don’t mind that when talking to my “real” friends, because a lot of social is not story telling, it’s simply connecting and expressing support and interest in each other. I was bored by a simulcra of it, but even for me it quickly began to be captivating. I can only imagine how strong the impact must be for an anxious awkward high school kid in a society like Japan’s.

The problem with these dialogue heavy cultural specific visual novels is that they tend to be weak on plot.  These games cater to a specific demographic that does not exist much outside of Japan.

The other source are the independent sources. Ordinary people with some talent for writing and/or drawing and/or programing who are looking to express themselves in a medium they find suited to their talents. This is what attracted me to the medium myself.

Generally speaking there are usually only a small number of people working on these VNs, often just one person.  Its a rare individual that is good in writing, drawing and programming, which is one of the reasons that VN development is uncommon.  Quality varies extensively, unfortunately sometimes it varies within the VNs themselves.  Then there is also the imitation problem.  Many indie VN developers are heavily influenced by Japanese VNs, pushing the bloated dialogue, weak plot, and Hentai content too far.

On the other hand, the visual novel is a media format that anyone can break into, is not dominated by anyone outside of Japan yet.  Even better, I mentioned above that the iPad is quite possibly the greatest visual novel distribution device ever made, and yet there are practically no visual novel apps available yet.  Comic book publishers are already creating comic book apps for the iPad, and a visual novel is essentially a “choose your own adventure” comic book.

The market isn’t there yet, but it has potential.

Japanese Dating Sims

When I originally created my Dating Sim, I thought I was being original.  I knew about games like The Sims that had dating scenarios in them, and I knew about interactive stories, adventure games, and the “choose your own adventure” books, but I figured that my combining all these elements together was an original concept.

It wasn’t too long after releasing the first version that I discovered I was wrong.  A whole genre of “Dating Sims” had risen and declined in the decade before my game.  My ignorance can be forgiven since all of this happened in Japan, and nowhere else.

Before I go on about the Japanese Dating Sims, I should point out that the Japanese never called them “Dating Sims”.  They have Bishoujo games (beautiful girls),  and Ren’ai (romance) games,  both categories do not necessarily mean “dating” as literally as I took it.

The term caught on, because the Ren’ai games released in the early 90’s like Tokimeki Memorial, True Love 95, and a bunch more relationship games seems to have “getting a date” as a major objective. These are just some of the ones known here in the US.  In Japan there have been hundreds of these titles.

A well known sub genre of the Dating Sim is “Eroge” (Erotic game, aka hentai game , or H-game), and Dating Sims themselves are part of a broader genre known as Visual Novels, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

I do not know what is considered to be the first “dating sim”, the early H-game  Dokyusei (1992) seems as good a candidate as any.  Games with sex and nudity existed before, but it was just straight porn or “strip poker” type games.  Dokyusei actually had plot and a gaming objective before the sex and nudity came into play. Like many early titles, eventually non-H versions would appear on consoles, and even Anime based on the game would be made.

I do know that Tokimeki Memorial is the first real breakout title, released in 1994.  It was an all ages program from the beginning, and its gaming style influence many titles to come. It and numerous sequels, have been released onto many consoles and even on cell phones.  Another breakout was True Love (1995) another “eroge” title.  An MS-DOS version in English was released in the US with nudity intact in 1999.

Before you go track these down,  most all the characters in these games are “manga” style drawn characters.  This convention has largely remained throughout the visual novel genre, which is probably why the genre has never caught on outside Japan.

The general settings of these games are also very Japanese.  The most common setting is Japanese prep school, and all the girls are in school uniforms.  The games start out letting you pick what kind of character you are RPG style where you distribute points between, looks, charm and intelligence.  As you move through the school, you meet many girls, and the object is to find girls that your style allows you to “score” with which you must do by the end of a set time period, usually a semester or school year.

It is not always a school setting, but there is always some arbitrary time limit involved.  The games usually also involve many different possible endings making the games re-playable.  Even though the settings often differed, the formula did not.

After about a decade, the formula got tired, and the popularity declined except for small cult followings.  Recently a resurgence has been happening as video game makers have been interested in games for pre-teen and teen girls they have dusted off the old formula, removed the eroge stuff, and reversed the genders making games where girls have to get boys.  These are called “Otome” or GxB Dating Sims.  Gay themed dating games exist as well, but only from indie sources.

Links:
College Romance – A simple flash romance virtual novel, PG-13 contains adult situations but not nudity.
Sim Girl – A flash game that pretty much includes all the stereotypical Japanese dating scenarios, including the H ending.
True Love 95 – The ms-dos game in english, in all of its 256 color glory, downloadable for free. Contains a reg file to allow it to run in windows. In vista or 7 see this note.
Dating Sims at NewGrounds – A big collection of flash H-dating sims, most are probably crap.
Wonderland Days – A PG rated Otome dating sim for girls.

Similarities and Differences with Ariane’s Dating Simulator

While mine is made up of rendered 3D while most of these are hand/computer drawn, the idea that live photos would be way too creepy is a shared idea.  Like mine, most all of these Date Sims adhere to the first person perspective (I thought I was being very original here, but I was just like everybody else).  All dating sims, including mine, occasionally pause the plot for some mini game or puzzle you have to solve to go on.  Mostly still images mixed with occasional animation, is also a shared trait.  The biggest alike quality is of course the multiple possible ending scenarios.

The key differences: Most dating sims allow you to pursue multiple girls, while mine is limited to one.  The advantages of the first is you can construct multiple personality types, mine is stuck with one type.  Other dating sims go on for pages before you have to make a branching decision, while mine has multiple branching decisions every other page.  The advantage of the first method is that you can actually tell a story, mine has to be designed with small story elements that can be told out of order thus sacrificing any semblance of plot.  Another key difference, all other dating sims are made up of “sprite” images overlapped on still backgrounds, while mine are all fully rendered stills.  Their method is a lot less work, believe me.

The biggest original concept on my part (and I wouldn’t recommend it to others) is to code the whole thing in html/javascript.  There are free programs out there that automate the whole process for people  interested in making your own.

The Dating Sim Formula in Other Game Genres

As games have gotten more complex over the years, the Dating Sim seems to have gotten demoted from genre to story element.  One cannot play these Japanese Dating Sims without being reminded of Leisure Suit Larry games for example, though that series was more arcade skill oriented and linear stories.  While The Sims added Hot Date in 2001, it was The Sims 2 expansion pack Night Life that included simulated dates where you had a certain amount of time to impress your date or lose a bunch of friendship points.

But the most complete inclusion of the Dating Sim element into a larger game I have seen is Dragon Age: Origins, where an optional sub plot of the game involves getting friendly, or better yet romantically involved, with your party NPCs. Like the above Dating Sims, this usually involves chatting them up, and responding in ways that gets them to approve, as well as buying them gifts and doing special personal favors for them.  No doubt these formulas show up in other RPG games, but DA:O is the most obvious example.