Otome has always been a niche of a niche but keeping track of its evolution has been an eye-opener in recent years. From unexpected localisations and the increasing presence of OELVN (Original English Language Visual Novels) and PC otome, it truly feels like the otome market has changed significantly from when I got into it around ten years ago. It made me wonder about the state of the otome market. How has it changed? Why? And where will otome go next?
I’ve always wanted to write a comprehensive deep dive into this genre so I’ve come up with a multi-part series of posts to celebrate everything otome! I hope you find them interesting to read – it’s ended up being a much bigger project than expected!
In this post, I’ll be tracing otome’s thirty-odd year journey from Japan to now but expect another article about the key players within the localised market very soon. Besides that, I’ll be exploring the OELVN space, deep diving into some trends across all otome and poking the kettle of fish that is mobage as well – so look forward to those posts in the nearish future!
While I’ve tried to present a somewhat objective overview, these posts are based on my own observations and biases rather than hard statistics. I wasn’t able to obtain exact sales data, so it’s premature to judge how ‘healthy’ the market is but I believe that there’s a lot of soft information that can illuminate the state of otome commercially and culturally in the West. Basically, this is a fan’s very Western perspective, but if you are interested in non-localised Japanese otome, have a look at Yankee Banchou’s yearly/monthly overviews. The Uguu Cage of Love blog also has a very detailed analysis on the Japanese otome market here (Part 1:1997-2017; Part 2: 2017-2021), which is well worth the read!
What is Otome?
First up, let’s define what otome games are. 乙女ゲーム, otome gēmu (also shortened to otoge) literally means “maiden game”, as in a game primarily targeted towards women. The genre originated from Japan and was initially influenced by shoujo manga conventions. However, there are now many popular otome created in Korean, Chinese or English, although Japan arguably remains the ‘face’ of mainstream otome. An otome game is traditionally a visual novel or simulation game focused on romance from the perspective of a female main character (MC) pursuing various male love interests (LI). In terms of structure, they are usually choice-based and begin with a common route before diverging into a unique character route with multiple possible endings. As visual novels they are heavily text-based, although some have minor gameplay elements like mini-games, puzzles or stat-raising. In terms of content, Japanese otome are renowned for having archetypal characters (i.e. all those ~dere types), artistic visuals with expressive sprite work and CGs, and professional voice-acting.
As the market has grown, the boundaries of what counts as ‘otome’ has expanded. Free-to-play ‘mobage’ (mobile) otome with gacha and dress-up mechanics has created a sub-genre of its own. In addition, it isn’t unusual to see technically non-otome games with dating elements, such as Farming Sims, Idol Sims or RPGs, featuring prominently within otome communities as adjacent interests or a gateway into otome itself. I think this diversity is partly due to how the genre is frequently defined not only by the composition of its games but also by their target audience, as suggested by their name as games for women. Another term is relevant here: Joseimuke, which literally means “targeted towards women,” acts as an umbrella term for all female-orientated games, including boys love (BL) games and non-romantic media. ‘Otome’ is sometimes used in place of ‘joseimuke’ but more precisely it is a sub-genre within joseimuke media. Joseimuke seems less widely used than otome overall, so I sometimes tend to use these terms interchangeably but I‘ve narrowed my range to fit the more traditional definition for localised otome here.
Alright, so that was a very short brief on Japanese otome – let’s move onto OELVNs. Alongside differences regarding visual/narrative styles and production values, OELVN otome are notably more diverse than Japanese otome in their content. Examples include LGBTQ+ options, customisable female/male/non-binary MC, and racial diversity. Recently, there has been friction within the otome community about the categorisation of games that don’t follow traditional otome conventions, such as those with optional male/non-binary protagonists or GxG love interests. From this, some indie EVN developers adopted the term ‘amare’ (meaning ‘to love’) to distinguish their games from more traditional otome whilst acknowledging significant similarities. Definitions of course change over time – ‘otome’ may become more inclusive; ‘amare’ may not catch on, but for the meantime it’s a useful label for creators to self-identify their work. If you are interested in amare’s development, have a look here.
Besides mainstream localised otome, OELVN otome/amare feature in this project since it’s an area that has particularly expanded in recent years and it’s one I’m personally interested in (and evidently many others are too!) A 2020 survey (1411 respondents) from the Otome Games Reddit suggests a high percentage of players have tried an OELVN (~75%) and are open to playing them (~89%), even if they don’t actively search for them.
History of Otome: Defining Moments
1994: The Birth of Otome
Angelique, the pioneering otome game developed by an all-female team called Ruby Party, was released by Koei for the Super Famicom in Japan.
2006: The First English Localisation
Yo-jin-Bo became the first localised otome and was released onto PC by now defunct Hirameki International.
Around this time, games with otome dating elements arrived on various consoles, such as Harvest Moon for Girls (2000); Inuyasha: The Secret of the Cursed Mask (2004); and Mana Khemia 2: The Fall of Alchemy (2009).
2006: Aksys Games
Aksys Games, a publisher specialising in localising Japanese video games, was founded. Six years later, they localised their first otome game: the classic Shinsengumi romance, Hakuouki.
Otomate, the otome branch of Idea Factory (1994), was founded.
2000s: The Pioneers of OELVN
2004: Ren’py, a free software engine for creating visual novels, was created byTom “PyTom” Rothamel. Ren’py, a portmanteau of renai (meaning ‘romantic love’) and Python (the programming language), became the preferred engine for indie visual novels.
Several major indie OELVN companies were established around this time, although most of their otome titles were created from early 2010s onward. Some released their early games on Deviant Art or their own sites, before transitioning to Steam (from late 2000s) and/or Itchio (established in 2013). The majority of these studios remain active but release sporadically.
2001: Zeiva Inc
2003: Hanako Games
2003: Winter Wolves
2008: Pacthesis Games [officially dissolved as of August 2021 when Pacthesis decided to shut down their website. Some of their browser-based games have been archived on BlueMaxima’s FlashPoint preservation project].
2010s: Mobile Otome Fever
The boom of mobile otome applications on iOS and Android (a more detailed breakdown is coming!)
2012: Heartbreaker Hakuouki
Aksys localised Hakuouki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossoms on PSP. Hakuouki swiftly became a fan favourite and was ported to several other consoles (3DS/PS3/mobile/PSVita/PC) between 2013-2018. An expanded version (Kyoto Winds and Edo Blossoms) was localised in 2017/2018, this time by Idea Factory International.
2013: Idea Factory International
Idea Factory established their International branch, Idea Factory International. IFI’s first localised otome is Amnesia: Memories (2015).
2010s: Fans Step Up to Patch
Fan translation groups produce unofficial English patches for popular unlocalised otome. Early projects include Starry☆Sky ~in Spring~ (2010) and Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side 1st Love Plus (2010). Obviously a legally grey area, some projects received cease and desist notices. Fan translation continues to date but the overall number of completed projects remains low, which is unsurprising considering the various obstructions and amount of work it involves for enthusiasts.
While coordinated fan translation groups appear to have declined, a new community for fan translation was established in 2019 under the name, Otogelib. Compared to traditional translation groups, Otogelib operates on a voluntary basis. Volunteers freely contribute in translating/processing a library of game scripts in the short or long term. As a more fluid endeavour, projects are not guaranteed completion. Otogelib seems to have roughly seven active projects ongoing in 2021.
2010s: Bloggers Unite
From the early 2010s, we see the creation of various blogs devoted to otome content. Many focus on localised Japanese games, OELVN, or mobile games (or a combination of these). A few specialise in unlocalised Japanese titles. Two of the most popular and prolific sites for otome news and developer updates were established in this early period:
English Otome Games was set up in 1998 but regularly posted about otome from 2011. The blog initially covered Japanese official and unofficial localisations and early OELVN pioneers.
OtomeSweetheart began in 2012, focusing on OELVN releases and mobile otome.
Tumblr was popular for these early blogs, although the platform has fallen out of fashion since its user base rapidly decreased in the late 2010s. To my knowledge, the majority of currently active blogs tend to be self-hosted or wordpress-hosted sites.
2010s: Trending Otome
2011: A fan community for otome games was created on Reddit. r/otomegames currently has over 54k members. Subscriber counts have grown rapidly since 2019:
r/RainbowOtome, a community focusing on LGBTQ+ romance visual novels was created in December 2020 and has ~400 members.
The Otome Amino community has 30,000+ members. Compared to r/otomegames, the Amino community is more informal with less discussion and moderation. Short-form text and image posts, quizzes/polls, and challenges are encouraged.
2016: #OtomeArmada is used for the first time on Twitter by Aksys Games, who uses it to engage with and poll otome fans. This lines up with when they started to release more otome games yearly. The hashtag was quickly adopted by the community and is widely used to date. Twitter, in particular, remains the ideal platform for localisers, developers, and community voices to advertise products and drive engagement.
Unsurprisingly, otome has a relatively short history within gaming, reaching the grand age of nearly thirty years in Japan and only fifteen overseas. Otome’s conception lines up closely with bishoujo (‘pretty girl’) or galge (‘gal game’) dating sims catering to heterosexual men. According to Wikipedia, bishoujo games first appeared in the 1980s but their watershed moment came in the 1990s when Dōkyūsei (1992) standardised gameplay conventions and Tokimeki Memorial (1994) popularised the genre by shortly selling over a million copies. While less popular, female orientated games surprisingly did not lag far behind considering Angelique’s release in 1994. Likewise, a few series provided female protagonists quickly. The first female Harvest Moon protagonist (Harvest Moon GB) arrived one year after the first Harvest Moon (1997) and the first Harvest Moon with a sole female perspective and romanceable bachelors was Harvest Moon for Girls (2000). Other companies took longer. The first Rune Factory with the choice of a female MC with equal options as the male MC was Rune Factory 4 (2012) – five entries and six years following the first game. In terms of representation, set female protagonists aren’t uncommon now and there usually is an option for a female protagonist in games with customisable MCs. How often custom female protagonists are more than a palette swap is another matter however.
When examining games with more specialised target audiences, male-orientated romance (both BxG and GxG) continues to vastly outnumber female-orientated games. In the 1990s, only a handful of Japanese otome games were released yearly according to vndb and while this number picked up from the 2000s, in total there are less than two thousand Japanese otome in the vndb database and just over 2800+ when including non-Japanese otome. In comparison, vndb lists 10,000+ Japanese games with male protagonists with GxB romance (BxB/non-romance excluded). In fact, it is so prevalent that vndb doesn’t have a bishojo/galge tag.
Perhaps because women are traditionally less catered to in gaming, the international community appears particularly willing to support releases that come our way to encourage more companies to risk localisation. It’s common to see organised efforts on social media encouraging otome fans to take part in licensing surveys and preorder games since initial sales are so important in proving interest. There have also been fairly large, in-depth surveys conducted within the community to illuminate audience’s tastes, such as those on r/otomegames or by otome developers, such as Celianna of Tailor Tales. Most signs indicate that the community has rapidly grown or at least become more organised in past years. However, it’s clear that there has always been an appetite for the genre overseas, even in its infancy, as shown by early blogs and creative endeavors in the fan-translation and OELVN spaces.
If you’ve read this far – thank you! There are a bunch of things to be excited about as an otome fan in 2021 and I’ll be going into more detail about them in my upcoming posts, so please look forward to that! And, if you’re a new otome fan around here… Welcome and look out for my monthly Good Goings posts where I usually start with news about upcoming otome games!