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The Japanese idol industry has its distinctive characteristics. The complex combination of various factors, such as Japan’s social climate, the Japanese people’s general character, and Japan’s traditional aesthetics and preferences, has created a Japanese idol industry with a unique style. This essay summarises the characteristics of Japanese idol games by analysing the history of their development, describing the industry’s current state, and analysing the social logic behind the popularity of Japanese idol games in three ways.
I. The History of Japanese Idol Games
The idol, or Japanese industrial idol, is the unique commercial system in the Japanese pop industry and is now 60 years old. It was born in the 1960s when Japan’s post-war economy was prosperous. It embodied the prevailing Japanese values of “upward mobility” and an optimistic attitude towards the golden age. The birth of the word ‘idol’ was also inextricably linked to the social environment of the time. As a result of the war, there was a massive labour shortage in Japan’s cities, so many people from the countryside came to the cities not only to supplement the labour shortage but also to become the masses of consumers. With the scarcity of material life in society, the spiritual life of the masses depends on the opportunity to make a name for themselves. The emergence of idols was like an angel that soothed the fragile post-war psyche of the Japanese people and gave them a chance to “rise the ladder”. In those days, it was common to call such artists “stars”, and the more charismatic the leader, the more popular they became.
Then in the 1970s, when the Japanese economy reached a state of affluence, and the people were under little pressure to live, the importance of social mobility was removed, and the love of “stars” changed from worship to a feeling of closeness and neighbourliness, completing the transition from “stars” to “idols”.
In the 1980s, the idol wave reached its peak with the application of CD technology. The Japanese video game market also began to package and produce games with idols as the theme, but most of the games within this period were crude products. One of the earliest idol games dates back to the 1985 game titled by Pony Canyon Records singer Chiemi Hori, Chiemi Hori Strawberry Puzzle, on MSX. This peripheral puzzle game did not have enough content or quality to support the weight of this titled idol but was more like promotional material in its new form.
Chiemi Hori Strawberry Puzzle Title screen by:Generation-msx
Moreover, in December 1987, Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School, co-developed by Nintendo and Square, was released and sold 500,000 copies, which was no small amount for Square at the time. Yoshio Sakamoto and Hironobu Sakaguchi were responsible for the game’s production. They probably never dreamed that their mindlessly created idol title game would stand out from the pile of idol games and be hailed as a classic by gamers, but also become a pioneer of idol romance games.
Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School Games box by:Amazon.jp
The plot of Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School is very cliched today: the main character (the player) is a big fan of the popular idol Nakayama Miho and is transferred to Heartbeat Academy due to his father’s job transfer, and accidentally meets a female classmate who looks like Nakayama Miho herself, and is involved in a series of events. The game is played with the same command-based options that are common today and is divided into four main categories: “Move”, “Session”, “Investigate”, and “Show. “The game is divided into four main categories.
In advertisement and in game’s Nakayama By:Youtube
However, there is a reason why this game is called a pioneer. First, it brings the idols into the game to interact with the players. Before this game, idol-titled games were just “titles”, where the idols did not appear in the game, but at most sang theme songs or commercials for the game. Furthermore, since the idols did not have to appear in the game, the game genres and storylines were often varied. For example, Sega’s 1985 arcade game Teddy Boy Blues takes its name from the eponymous debut single by idol singer Ishino Yoko. The story of this game, which is said to be the first game ever to be linked to an idol, is set during a concert by Ishino Yoko, while the main character, Teddy Boy, is behind the scenes destroying alien creatures.
Secondly, the new “Expression System” allows players to experience the difficulties of falling in love. Today’s relationship simulation games are stuck in a pattern of figuring out the object of the player’s affection, and just choosing the standard answer will solve the problem. The “Expression System” in Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School gives players a different kind of exciting experience. As the name implies, the “Expression System” is a system where players must combine dialogue options with expressions when talking to characters. This means that players have to choose the correct option and match it with the correct expression, such as a smiley face, a frown, a severe face and other emotions. The expressions are so subtle and difficult to master that sometimes the correct choice seems to be made but is rejected. This demanding difficulty also allows the player to experience a real sense of romance.
Choose the wrong expression and the girl will refuse By:Youtube
Last but essential, the “phone system” allows for virtual and tangible interaction. As the game progresses, the player is given a number to call. When the number is called, the player can hear a pre-recorded message from Nakayama Miho, which completes the game’s plot and, more importantly, contains essential information about how to play the game. As the game progresses into the second half, the player can hear Miho talking about LIVE, her work, and her love for the player over the phone. The moment the call is answered, it does not matter if it is virtual or real.
II. Current Japanese Idol Games
As the century progressed, the quality and quantity of idol games should have increased with the advancement of game consoles. However, the reality is that not only has the quality of live-action idol titles not improved, but their number has even decreased. In its place, there has been a rise in the number of anime virtual idol games. This is partly because with the increasing awareness of copyright in Japan, game companies are afraid to make unauthorised titles, and partly since after the golden age of idols in the 1980s and the Heisei era (technically after the demise of the Onyanko Club), the traditional idols seemed to have gone out of fashion overnight. The idol economy entered a glacial period. The publicity for idols was not what it used to be, and with idol-titled games already branded as inferior products, the games were even harder to sell. The game makers naturally avoided spending much money on licensing fees, only to end up in a situation where they could not recover their costs.
In 2001, Namco planned to create a new game using a newly developed arcade frame called “Rewritable Stage”. This was a novelty at the time as it could record progress on a read/write magnetic card, be operated by a touch screen, and be linked to portable phones and played online. It could be linked to the portable phones that were becoming popular then and could also be played online. THE IDOLM@STER was planned to use these features, and the initial reference was too popular girls’ games such as Tokimeki Memorial and Sakura Wars. Girls’ volleyball and girls’ wrestling were considered, but Namco finally adopted the theme of “girls’ idols” because the popularity of Morning Musume was at its peak.
THE IDOLM@STER arcade game cabinet By: Wikipedia
It took almost four years of pre-production work for the Idolmaster, and Namco’s aim this time was clearly to make this a benchmark title like Tokimeki Memorial and Sakura Wars. On 26 July 2005, the arcade version of Idolmaster, which carried Namco’s ambitions and aspirations, began operations. The game tells the story of the player, as a rookie producer of the 765 Agency, choosing a group of one to three idol prospects from the Agency and leading them to become top idols in a limited time (maximum 62 weeks). The game system is divided into three main sections. One is the business and daily part of the ADV, the text adventure part standard in Bishojo games. The second is the parenting section, or lessons, which uses the touchscreen nature of the frame to design several mini-games. The last and most important is the audition, in which Namco has designed a new and highly strategic system. These three sections of the game interact and are interdependent, blending very well as players need to schedule their classes and business. The auditions are the essence of the entire game of the Idolmaster.
The auditions section in the game By: Wikipedia
In this audition session, players have to compete against five other combinations (which could be other players or the CPU) to decide who will pass the audition for a TV performance. The audition system is highly strategic, and players can use a variety of playstyles to achieve lower-level challenges and even reverse the situation. Because of the ability to play against other players, the battle of wits in a limited 2 minutes takes the Idolmaster well beyond the usual meaning of a Bishojo game. In addition to the highly hardcore audition matchmaking system, the rest of the game is also filled with a lot of highly frustrating designs that players have to be careful with and carefully schedule each week. Such a hardcore style and ultra-high difficulty have led to a high user viscosity among the core players and the formation of a uniquely temperamental communication community. Unlike today’s enthusiasts who shout “my wife” at the mention of a virtual idol, in the arcade era, these producers (an alias for the Idolmaster players) would even call the idols they nurtured “comrades”.
Latest in the Idolmaster series – Starlit Season By: Wikipedia
Moreover, with the ever-expanding scale of the project, the number of characters debuting in the Idolmaster series now exceeds 300, and the overly high threshold is revealed to be unfriendly to new fans. Which series should start with, Million Live, Cinderella, SideM or Starlit season? Should watch the anime or play the game first to get started? Should play the console version or the handheld version of the game first? What is the difference between games and anime? Why is there a Mini Idol in an anime series? Questions like these are often on the minds of new fans who want to get into the game but find it hard to find out. “What is an idol ?” The Idolmaster series has also given birth to a classic meme due to the various hardcore elements and the extreme creative freedom in the official storyline and musical score.
The Idolmaster is not the first idol game. However, it is the most successful example of multimedia development in the “idol genre”, judging by the fact that it has been running for more than ten years and has several very successful offshoots. It has also been an active player in introducing new technologies (the use of VR, MR, AR) and a leader in crossing the river by feeling the stones. LOVE LIVE! is one of the beneficiaries of the many valuable lessons it has taught those who came after it.
In 2010, LoveLive! School Idol Project, an idol voice-acting project similar to the Idolmaster series, was launched. At first, it was just a “user participation” project found in magazines, launched by animation company SUNRISE, music publisher Lantis and monthly magazine Dengeki G’s Magazine. Nevertheless, now, with over 17 million subscribers to the Lovelive mobile game alone, its reach has far exceeded the industry’s imagination. LoveLive opted for the traditional simultaneous promotion model and launched the mobile game during the anime run. The difference, however, is that this mobile game uses the idol plus sound game model, combining the characteristics of idol raising and music rhythm games. The game opened up a large market thanks to fan fervour and marketing. Most of the sound games that have emerged since then have followed this model. Some have even tried to take shortcuts, using the influence of famous voice actors and music to reach LoveLive‘s market heights. A Japanese statistical agency has analysed the market value of the series and concluded that “the market value is 42.3 billion yen”. Of these, 30.2% were women aged 15 to 19, and 25.5% were men of the same age, meaning that young people under 20 alone account for half of the market. Considering that the per capita spending figure was 109,677 yen, this gives a good indication of Lovelive’s impressive revenue.
With the rapid growth of the mobile gaming industry after 2014, more and more idol games are choosing to release their products on mobile platforms. For example, Love Live! School Idol Festival is a music rhythm game that has caused a social craze. IDOLiSH7 is a male idol group game created specifically for female players. BanG Dream! Girls Band Party, which emphasises playing together like a real band. Uma Musume: Pretty Derby, where characters are closely linked to reality.
It is easy to see that the Japanese secondary idol game market is also very close to saturation in terms of supply and has even fallen into a situation where the title, art, plot and music are fiercely competitive on all fronts. Except for the first idol companies that got a share of the limited primary idol game market years ago, there is room for niche users and loyal fans to promote technological innovation and to keep up with the upgrading of the consumer structure. However, for new idol companies to go further, the remaining scraps of the original user plate are no longer sufficient. The slow development of the idol culture itself and the difficulty of expanding the user base have forced new idol mobile games to try to convert more IP audiences into idol mobile game users or reach more pan-secondary users with differentiated themes and gameplay to expand the user base. Outside of Japan, there seems to be much more enormous market potential for idol games to be explored as the secondary culture moves out of Asia and gradually radiates globally.
III. The social logic behind the Japanese idol game
According to a survey by the Japanese Cabinet Office, there are about 541,000 people (ひきこもり, Hikikomori) aged 15-39 who do not work or go to school for more than six months and who stay at home every day without communicating with anyone other than their families. These people have often suffered psychological shock, are resistant to the outside world and are not good at socialising, so they choose to keep to themselves. If this appalling figure may be a phenomenon unique to Japanese society, the pressure of the workplace, the financial burden and the sense of urban isolation prevalent among young people have all contributed to the upsurge in demand for idols. Idols have become an outlet for them to vent their emotions outwardly, providing fans with psychological and emotional solace through companionship and the vicariousness of participation.
Traditionally stars usually keep their distance from their fans. In spatial terms, fans of actors enjoy their work through the screen, while fans of singers enjoy their work through concerts and music shows. On the other hand, Idols stand out for their novel concept of “face-to-face conversations”, which has captured the hearts and minds of fans. The core of Japanese idols is “selling dreams”; as a “dream selling profession”, idols serve the fans. In this fast-paced era of information explosion, the “bond” between idols and fans to support each other’s growth is very precious to players. Players accompany and see their idols grow from nothing to the top. This “nurturing personality building” defines the player base of idol games – a large number of loyal fans with strong purchasing power. For idol games, players are personally involved in building the personality of the IP. While the idol is gradually moulded to their liking into what they want most, and this powerful sense of involvement gives them the emotional satisfaction to spend a fortune. After a successful personality-building process, combined with accurate market positioning and subsequent packaging and planning by the planning company, it is easy to find the answer to why idol games have become such a hit in Japan. This is the soul of the Japanese idol industry – “nurturing”.
In the early days of the development of idol games in Japan, most of the products were crude games, some of which were not interesting or had nothing to do with idols. With the advancement of digital image technology, increasingly vivid images of idols appeared on video games, satisfying the need for players to experience deeper interaction with their idols. Entering the 21st century, the idol genre has become a large cross-media category common in the Japanese ACG world, involving arguably the widest and most comprehensive industry chain. However, its business logic is often simple: rely on content to create emotional resonance with users, which translates into belief in the idol concept and makes players pay for their faith. Paying for faith has a somewhat higher emotional intensity than paying for love, so often these types of game brands can do this for a decade or more and be profitable in the long term. Moreover, music games are an optimal solution that has been gradually worked out in this large category’s gamification process. On the one hand, music games are not a niche category in Japan, with a wide audience and many high-level players, and their user circle is very well developed due to the influence of offline entertainment. On the other hand, music is one of the content carriers that most easily touches deep emotions and is a critical path for idol IPs in shaping their beliefs. To play music well, to a large extent, cannot be bypassed by audio games. However, in the past eight years, the Japanese market’s seven head products by raising the technical bar, improving the art performance, do play differences, establish a more profound emotional link, and even a highly scenario-based subdivision of the performance approach has been studied thoroughly, with as to say that now the Japanese idol game category, may have really reached the upper limit of the market can carry.
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