Grin & Bare It: An Akiba’s Trip Post-Mortem With XSEED Games’ Tom Lipschultz and Ken Berry

It’s fitting that a brawler like Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed has to fight for your attention. Unfortunately, the concept of stripping vampires naked can give off the wrong impression, which means the folks at XSEED Games have their work cut out for them. While reviews like my own tell of  game that’s far more than its window dressing, the fact is those hurdles remain. I spoke with XSEED Games’ Tom Lipschultz (Localization Specialist) and Ken Berry (Executive VP) about the process of bringing Akiba’s Trip to North America, the difficulties in breaking through perceptions, and what the future holds for the series. Enjoy!

What makes Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed a perfect fit for XSEED Games?

Tom Lipschultz (TL): Well, we pride ourselves on having carved a distinct niche for ourselves over the years, and Akiba’s Trip is a game that seems custom-tailored to that niche. It’s a game for those who are deeply entrenched in Japanese design tropes — for people who know JRPGs and anime like the backs of their hands, and love them dearly, but are fully aware that like everything else in the world, the thing they love is not without its unique faults and its disturbing underbelly. And yet, even that disturbing underbelly has a certain charm all its own.

With a game like Akiba’s Trip, the people localizing it need to be just as much “in on the joke” as the people playing it. And fortunately for players, we’re pretty hardcore nerds here, so we know a thing or two about otaku culture, and we’re not afraid to “let our freak flags fly,” so to speak.

So in a way, I guess you could say Akiba’s Trip is a game about otaku, for otaku, developed by otaku and — ultimately — published by otaku. It’s the perfect storm of nerdery!

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The game’s premise deals with otaku culture and its eccentricities. For those less familiar, is the idea of an “otaku” easily comparable to that of a nerd (a term I use without negativity)? Are there aspects of otaku culture you feel a player should know before starting the game to experience Akiba’s Trip in the way it was envisioned?

TL: An otaku is indeed a nerd (no negativity implied in the term on this end either!), more or less, though otaku are generally thought of as being either more devoted or more obsessed with their chosen fandoms than traditional nerds (depending on your point of view). Stereotypical Otaku are the types of nerds who claim they prefer 2D people to 3D people, or declare their favorite anime character to be their “waifu” (wife), etc. You may recall a news story from a few years back about a man in Japan who legally married his virtual girlfriend, for example — and that’s
pretty much the height of otakudom, right there. Some might call him the ultimate otaku… the “perfect ideal,” of sorts.

We’d like to think most people can pick up and play the game without knowing any of this, though, as Akiba’s Trip does a really good job of explaining what it means to be an otaku and providing countless examples within its diverse cast of characters. All you need to do is go into it with an open mind and an appreciation for the quirky, and you’ll likely find the game’s mixture of satire and reverence (or irreverence) to be both amusing and engaging.

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You were a strong voice in one of the game’s NeoGAF threads, detailing some of the decisions behind the game’s localization. At one point you promised an evaluation of a term the team had come up with (“brotag”) after some criticism from the community. At times like that, how do you decide between a vocal minority and what’s best for the game?

TL: That’s a really good question. No matter what decisions you make during any localization, there will always be those who strongly disagree with them. So if you make your approach known in advance and people start crying foul, it is sometimes tough to decide whether or not to take their opinions to heart or stick to your guns.

In those situations, the best thing to do is to look at the specific reasoning behind those fan objections, and see if they make a good case. And that’s exactly what we did here.

For those unfamiliar with what the question is referring to, the little sister character in Akiba’s Trip regularly calls your main character “Niinii” in the Japanese, which is a variant on the word for “big brother” that directly translates as something like “Brobro.” We decided early on during localization that going with “Brobro” or any other variation on that wouldn’t quite have the same tone in English as it does in Japanese — it would sound a little too saccharine for the character, who’s far more of a “weird/awkward” character than she is “cutesy.”

Our original solution was to use something that, while still cute, was also a little tongue-in-cheek and indicative of her unique brand of strangeness, so we settled on having her call you “Brotag”– short for “brotagonist.”

When I mentioned this on NeoGAF, however, a lot of people were really unhappy with the idea, bringing up that “Brotag” is a nickname often used for the Persona 4 protagonist, or that it calls to mind images of a “bro” character — as in, a frat boy-style heavy-drinking sports nut or something, which is pretty much the polar opposite of what was intended.

And when we discussed this internally, we all pretty much agreed that… yeah, the NeoGAF fans made some very, very good points.

So after discussing the matter further, both on the forums and internally, we settled on the (fan-suggested) “rotating bros” solution — the little sister would use a different “bro” nickname every time “Niinii” came up in the script, ranging from “Brotato” to “Brosen One” to “Brokedown” to — of course — “Brotagonist.” Not only would this fit her quirky personality, but it would also allow for context-appropriate nicknaming, which adds an extra level of quirk to an already quirky character.

So, that’s what we did, and I think the end result pretty much speaks for itself. It really worked well in-game, and gave a lot of extra flavor to the character of Nana, bringing her ever closer to the goofy weirdness conveyed by the original Japanese. Much love to the fans for helping to bring about this change!

You noted that ACQUIRE did the heavy lifting when it comes to Akiba’s Trip’s real life advertisers and businesses appearing in the English version. Did ACQUIRE sign these partnerships with a localized version in mind, or was it a process that started when XSEED came on board?

TL: Honestly, I’m not sure. I just know that when we first agreed to work on this game, we told ACQUIRE that one of its big selling points for the Western fanbase would be the authenticity of its environment, and that we’d really like to keep as much of that intact as humanly possible. I have no idea what sorcery they used to make it happen, but they made it happen, and we’re super grateful for that.

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As per XSEED’s Games efforts, ACQUIRE has drawn up male portraits of the game’s boss characters, a feature that was previously exclusive to the females. How was ACQUIRE approached with this request? Do you believe it will have an impact of future ACQUIRE releases?

TL: When we first played the game to evaluate it, we were all pretty surprised – as a lot of fans are –that there seemed to be equally as much male fan service present in it as there is female fanservice. Its premise really makes you think that you’re about to play a game where you’ll beseeing nothing but half-naked women the whole way through (supported in no small part by the glut of games that feature exactly that), and yet Akiba’s Trip is a title that gives you half-naked men in a largely equal proportion.

But as we played further, we found that what we initially thought to be a 50/50 balance was still skewed a bit in favor of female fan service, as players were given pinup-style “strip portrait” images as rewards for defeating female boss enemies, yet were not given equivalent strip portrait images for defeating male boss enemies. And we felt this was kind of a shame, since the rest of the game was so even-handed.

So we started batting around the idea of asking ACQUIRE to draw male strip portraits and add them to the game to help restore its gender balance. At first, this was kind of just a pipe dream, as we weren’t even sure how to broach the subject of drawing half-naked male pinups with a Japanese game developer. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that it was really a good idea, especially since we could then offer this treat for players regardless of their sexual preference.

Ultimately, we did ask ACQUIRE, since we could justify the request not just from a social and artistic point of view, but from a business point of view as well. And to our surprise, ACQUIRE on board right away, and set to work on creating the new strip portraits immediately — which they then added at the last minute to the Japanese PS4 release of the game as well, and even advertised in trailers for it.

Which sort of answers the second part of your question, too: I definitely think this will have an impact on future ACQUIRE releases, since they took to this idea so readily and ran with it so completely. It was probably just not something they’d ever considered before, but now that the idea has been planted, I’d be really shocked if we didn’t see it again in some of their future titles.

For all its humour, Akiba’s Trip remains a faithful recreation of the Akihabara district. How difficult is it to discuss this point, and really any aspect of the gameplay, when so many wish to focus on the sexual aspects of the game?

TL: It definitely hasn’t been easy, but what I’ve learned from my many online discussions about this is that those who can’t see past the sexual aspects of the game aren’t really going to change their minds about it, no matter what you say… whereas those who are willing to go into this title with an open mind have been pretty receptive to the overall gameplay information from the very start.

In other words, as the old internet adage goes, “haters gonna hate.” We can usually tell pretty quickly when we’re dealing with someone who’s already made up his/her mind about the game and is unwilling to accept any reality in which Akiba’s Trip isn’t a sign of humanity’s steady decline – and when we’re not dealing with such people, we don’t really have to do a lot of “convincing.” We just explain the premise and let the game speak for itself.

Because honestly, all you have to do is play this game for a half-hour to realize it’s not any sort of “sexual deviance simulator” at all. It’s tongue-in-cheek satire that features a bit of off-color humor.

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Ken Berry, XSEED Games’ Executive Vice President, has stated that the company believes Akiba’s Trip can earn a wider audience. How will the company continue to promote the game now that it has launched to reach this goal?

Ken Berry (KB): I believe my earlier comment was a response about why we decided to spend so much extra time and money to add English voice-overs to a “niche” game that seemed perfectly acceptable with only having English subtitles to the original Japanese voices. Most of that decision had to do with how much faith we had in the title, and how any preconceived notions based on the premise
of the game would quickly make way for just how much silly fun playing it is, if only people got their hands on it to see for themselves. ​

We wanted to give this title every chance to succeed, and if adding English voice-overs helps convince people on the fence to try it, we consider it money well spent. We weren’t thinking that it would have mass appeal where it could be sold at Wal-Mart, but even within our targeted group of people that enjoy games, anime, and Japanese culture in general, there’s a sub-group that prefers a new English dub rather than reading subtitles. This is where we were trying to broaden the appeal, and in addition to great online user feedback helping to spread the word post-launch,
we have a very targeted marketing campaign on Crunchyroll to reach their millions of anime fans. ​

On that topic, does XSEED Games see the game as having franchise appeal? Does the game’s potential success in the West have any bearing on how ACQUIRE proceeds with the series?

KB: We do see Akiba’s Trip as having franchise appeal, and pretty sure ACQUIRE does as well. This is already the second title in the series (the first iteration on PSP was never localized), and it’s obviously something that the development team is passionate about considering that their office is actually based in Akihabara. We don’t want to speak on their behalf, but I have to believe that if the game is a success in the West, it can only help ensure that the series will continue.

I’d like to extend my thanks to XSEED Games’ Tom Lipschultz and Ken Berry for taking the time to speak with me, and One PR Studio’s Sonia Im for making the interview a reality!

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