In June of 2014, the former fan translation group launched a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to translate the rest of Hasekura Isuna’s visual novel series World End Economica. Its first episode, which was originally published on DLSite, made a fan out of me instantly, but for this Kickstarter I wasn’t completely sure whether I wanted to part with the money. What made me change my mind though was seeing the company’s CEO go out of his way to arrange a DRM-free tier. A company that actually listens to its customers and gets shit done? I was on board.
World End Economica was Sekai Project’s first Kickstarter project aimed at localizing a Japanese game. Since then they have launched several other Kickstarters and released an unprecedented amount of other games on Steam. By the end of 2014 they managed to release 8 titles. In 2015, however, they released 27 games, not all of them visual novels, but an impressive amount nonetheless. One could argue that without the company’s early Kickstarter successes they wouldn’t be anywhere near as successful as they are now. But one inescapable issue remains: for almost all of their Kickstarters they have yet to fully produce localizations and issue backer rewards, as is also the case with World End Economica. The company is still struggling to release episode 03, while the project’s end is nowhere in sight.
World End Economica was originally projected to ship in May 2015. The whole project that is, including various mobile and video game console ports. The only tangible part of the project that was released was episode 02 for PC in late July 2015. Since then, there’s been almost no progress made. Sekai Project went silent after the release, probably thinking they deserve a break. On October 6 they finally made contact with their backers. The third episode was supposedly 7.39% complete and they were in the process of on-boarding a new translator. Okay, small progress, but progress nonetheless. Or was there any progress at all?
Word had got out that the former translator had taken time off to deal with personal issues as early as last New Years, which was the main cause of the delay. As a backer, I would have felt more at ease had the company outlined their production difficulties in reasonable time. Still, the reality was that the project was heavily behind schedule. The expectation was that the project gets back on track and starts reporting some good news soon. Instead, in a production update made on November 7 the company wrote the following statement:
Our new translator has finished reading episode.01 and episode.02 and will start working on episode.03 full time next week. At this rate we’re looking at an estimated 6 month turn around for getting the game out to backers.
So it took the new translator a full month to read two short visual novel episodes, something which should have taken less than a week. Notice also how the verb work is used in a future tense. Backers, including myself, had enough and shot back. One backer raised questions over the promised Vita/iOS tiers, to which the project creator responded with a passively aggressive dismissal. It sounded almost resentful, in a “just take your money and go” kind of way, as if us backers didn’t want the project to succeed.
Sekai Project issued a quick response two days later. Even though backers had to pressure them to get as much, they did respond. To alleviate our concerns, they supposedly put a backup translator in place just to hit a self-instated four-month deadline. Our questions in the comments were answered. The plan sounded good, the company was communicating with us again. The clock started ticking.
December’s production update wasn’t verbose. The company’s translation progress page – which doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence in its current iteration – supposedly listed episode 03 at 8.26%. Then 2016 came around. Even though Sekai Project stated backers would be updated monthly, they didn’t follow through their own update schedule and backers haven’t been briefed since December. Just yesterday though, the company posted on Reddit that translation for episode 03 is roughly 10% done. It’s been two and a half months since plans to translate the episode were laid out. The four-month window is rapidly closing and I honestly can’t see how the project team will be able to hit their goals in the time they have left.
Delays in visual novel productions happen all the time (just ask Japan), but what makes World End Economica’s case particularly tragic is that Sekai Project built their entire future off the shoulders of its Kickstarter campaign. They got good press for it and they roped in the novel’s backers to their other Kickstarters, yet this particular Kickstarter that started it all is being neglected month after month.
I think Sekai Project has several structural problems that only became apparent as delays increased. Many of us have expressed concerns that perhaps bootstrapping as many localizations as they did in such a short amount of time wasn’t good for the projects they already had on their way, but as Sekai Project commented that has nothing to do with production due to the parallelized way their projects are set up. Even though having teams that don’t interfere with each other sounds ideal and all, it took the new translator one whole month to read through both episodes because apparently he or she was finishing up previous commitments to other projects. This is clearly a human resources problem. When a company is offering near-minimum wage to its potential employees, it’s harder to find somebody competent to fill a spot on the fly.
The other problem is cash flow related. Sekai Project’s recently launched Kickstarters have featured expensive, arguably overpriced pledge tiers compared to tiers of their past projects. Root Double is the perfect example. Even though the game is already being translated and doesn’t really need Kickstarter money, tiers still have ridiculous prices attached to them. While rumors circulate that this is because of high licensing fees, I have a hard time believing that to be the biggest reason. I think the more likely answer is that Sekai Project doesn’t want to lose money on every Kickstarter, as that has admittedly been the case. One of their staffers said they want to make sure to cover all their bases, thus avoid as much risk as possible. I can understand that. I mean, World End Economica was initially set at only $22,000, which is ridiculously low compared to Root Double’s $135,000. A crazy price hike, but in all honesty completely warranted for a game that doesn’t look like it would hit it off well with the Sakura Spirit crowd.
In turn, a business model that relies on post-Kickstarter sales will inherently cause cash flow problems, meaning the company will rather spend their time and resources on new inventory which is more likely to increase cash flow than old inventory. While Sekai Project says every one of their game projects has its own production team, I have my doubts they are keeping funding separate to each of them. In other words, if Sekai Project were to close their doors tomorrow, I doubt the translator would still be working on episode 03 to hit that four-month deadline.
While I appreciate the efforts made by Sekai Project so far – in fact I’ve been hanging out with some of their staffers online for almost ten years now and I hate it has come to this – this project and its backers have to be treated with respect. A translation progress of one percent per month is not good enough, and some of their projects, as bold as they were, were walking a very fine line between success and bankruptcy. I’d like them to avoid the latter because they have been a net positive on the industry, it’s just frustrating to see them peddling new games every month. Meanwhile, the title that put them on the map gets neglected at the expense of backers who initially believed in them.