Well, that is presuming your town is a city called Tokyo, or at least in Japan. And that you have an account with the mobile gaming service Gree. Should you pass these hurdles, however, you can now enjoy the recently released social game iDOLMAKER (which I shall affectionately shorten to iMac). You can tell that this game means business as well, as it’s lower-case “i” has a lightening bolt coming from it, almost as if it’s some kind of taser-esque wand or microphone.
I’m not really about to call iMac a blatant clone of iM@S Cinderella Girls, and not just because eg-Gree-gious would be more painful of a pun to inflict you with – but some of the press material does make rather familiar reading. The part where it promises over 100 girls to produce in particular invokes a certain sense of deja-vu, though that they would have needed someone to devise and draw so many different character designs alone makes it somewhat less creatively bankrupt than certain games recently published by large, US iOS developers.
To treat it fairly, though, there’s just so little information about the Japanese mobile space written in English (or even in Japanese, to be quite honest) that it’s kind of hard to justifiably criticize it, because I frankly have absolutely no idea what the game entails in comparison to Cinderella Girls. Despite the obvious, presumably intentional, invocations the title makes, for all I know it could play completely differently.
To be doubly fair, it’s not as if Cinderella Girls is the only, or even the first, game to enter this space in the Japanese mobile market – I’m pretty sure that the Gree-powered Taito game i-Log (アイログ) pipped the release of the iM@S mobile game by a month or two when it comes to idol-based social gaming (and, on the basis of character designs alone, looks to be rather more interesting an endeavour than iMac). Again, though, it’s annoyingly difficult to find good sources of information on Japanese mobile games.
The more interesting, larger question is probably exactly why it’s taken so long for other developers to start infringing into iDOLM@STERs bailiwick – Namco has pretty much had the space to themselves for the last six years. Dream Club borrowed at least the games business model (and some would argue more than a few of the character designs and presentation elements, though the games themselves are pretty different), but there hasn’t really been a direct competitor in the idol game space. I can imagine there’s probably a few good reasons for this. It’s likely a very difficult business model to pitch at this point – iM@S, as a game at least, makes an awful lot of it’s money selling horse armour. That is, the business model for the game is that it revolves around selling near 100% of it’s DLC content to perhaps 1% of the overall market (then smaller amounts of content to increasing percentages of it’s fanbase) – the die-hards into the games PV culture very much subsidise the rest of the franchises audience. Of course, it’s not always been that way – the game started as a coin-op, after all, and where DLC wasn’t so much of a thing at the time (although there’s plenty of trading-card-fuelled coin-ops these days, and Love and Berry was a thing around about the same time), and built it’s popularity from there. In a lot of senses, it was simply very lucky in terms of it’s timing.
I mean, it wouldn’t be that difficult to design an iM@S-beating idol game that played on the same compulsions (both gameplay and content-wise) as iM@S, but it’d likely be, if not incredibly difficult, certainly extraordinarily expensive to line up all the necessary non-gameplay elements. Beyond accusations of mimicry, the biggest one is the voice-talent, which is where iM@S really struck it lucky. Most of the voice actresses for the games main characters – even the ones brought on recently – were hardly prolific at the time they signed onto the series, and many of them continue to be otherwise relatively small names. In the case of Rie Kugimiya, they were clearly extremely fortunate to sign her just before her popularity absolutely exploded. Yet they all worked out. To try and take mindshare from iM@S at this point, you’d probably have to build yourself a pretty stellar voice-cast to build your marketing around, and, frankly, I bet those iM@S contracts have all sorts of interesting restrictions and stipulations that’d be very difficult or expensive to get passed with the kind of people you’d be looking to get (or even Kugimiya at this point), but are likely very necessary to ensure profitability.
Which is why we’re seeing the competition in the mobile space rather than the console one – those games are lower risk, cheaper and easier to develop and, most importantly, much lighter on the assets than console games. Assets like voice-work, which for a gaming environment where people are often off listening to their own music media simultaneously, is rarely that significant a requirement (or at least less of an expectation).
Honestly, it’ll be kind of interesting to see if any of these games pick up any real kind of audience – whilst I gather there’s been events for it, it’s not like there’s a vast amount of i-log artwork clogging up Pixiv, which suggests even beyond it’s anonymity in the western world it doesn’t have any kind of massive secret popularity, and based on the artwork, I’m not counting on iMac fairing any better. The thing is, though, having five top-ten singles simultaneously (as Cinderella Girls managed last week, and I really must get around to writing about) sends out a very loud message, and one which suggests we’ve yet to see the last of the imitators.
Surely one of them has to stick eventually, right?