When you think Japanese idols, you probably think of something like Love Live or The [email protected], a shiny world of fun, fame, and adoring fans. But that's just one side of the coin. Idol Manager is a simulation game about taking the helm of your own talent agency and building up an empire from the ground up—and as they say, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. I was able to get in contact with the designer and programmer Max Rogozin, and Justin Kuiper, the writer and co-designer, to talk about Idol Manager's creation, mechanics, and future.
TechRaptor: What other media inspired Idol Manager?
Max: The game actually started as a super hardcore sim like Football Manager, but I quickly realized that there’s much more to this idea, so after months of iterative development it turned into this dark comedy / management sim hybrid. I like to call the style of our game “grimbright” - basically, disturbing themes and events presented in a funny lighthearted manner. The most obvious example of a game that does something similar is Long Live The Queen, though I think Idol Manager is quite a bit darker.
Justin: There are a lot of genres that are built on the willing suspension of disbelief, and sometimes you see a piece of media that shows how a more “realistic” execution of these fantasies would be less rosy than it is in fiction. You see it in anime like Madoka Magica (which deconstructs the magical girl genre) and games like Devil Survivor (which deconstructs the monster-taming concept behind games like Pokemon). I’ve always been a big fan of works like that.
That being said, Long Live The Queen has been my biggest personal influence for this project, because it lets you play as Elodie, the teenage princess, and it also lets you play as Elodie, the ruthless military leader, and those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. And we very much want to have our cake and eat it, too: we want to indulge in the fun, cheery side of idol life while also dealing with some of the darker and weightier topics that are tied to the industry.
TechRaptor: A lot of idol games are focused on the more positive side of the industry, but Idol Manager seems decidedly darker. Why did you decide to go this route?
Max: First of all, to me it seems like such an obvious and appealing idea that I don’t understand why it’s not exploited by the media more. Sure, it’s nice to watch cute girls singing cute songs and solving their cute problems through the power of friendship, but it’s also predictable, and I like being surprised.
I’m a fan of real life idols myself and I always wanted to play a somewhat realistic management game that deals with all the surrounding drama, scandals and speculations that I find so interesting about them, which is why I started developing Idol Manager in the first place.
There’s a lot of things you may mess up, but with all the lows caused by your bad decisions, the highs will hopefully feel much sweeter.
Justin: Japan’s idol industry is such an interesting social phenomenon. Several years ago, there was this incident where one idol shaved her head and issued a public apology because she broke the “no dating” clause of her contract, and I saw a lot of comments on English-speaking message boards about how weird and problematic this was. This kind of stuff is very much a part of the industry’s culture and yet it often seems to go overlooked, especially among outsiders who might find things to object to if they followed it more closely.
There’s something in that dissonance between the fun, cheery veneer that idol groups present, and the somewhat less cheery aspects of the industry that support these groups, that is just really fascinating to me, and I don’t think it gets nearly enough attention. One way to put it is that we’re presenting a “darker” take on the industry, but in a lot of ways I think that we’re just being a little bit more realistic than the games and anime that only present the cutesy idealized version of idol life.
TechRaptor: Will the game be confined to the menu shown off in the screenshots, or are there other methods of interaction planned?
Max: One thing that we didn’t show yet is special events. There will be at least 6 of these, including a big concert, a tour and a popularity contest. You can only hold each event once per year, and they will be an important part of the game, with their own unique gameplay mechanics. Can’t talk details yet though. There are also small sections of the game that look like a traditional visual novel, with background art and everything.
Justin: Screenshots are sort of a way of promising that a given feature will appear in the finished game. If there's a feature that appears in screenshots of early pre-release builds, and then we decide to scrap that feature because it's just not fun or doesn't balance well with the other things we want to put into the game, people are going to notice its absence. So what you see in screenshots are things that we are confident are going to make it into the finished game, but it's by no means a "complete" view of everything that we're working on. We're wary of "over-promising," because we don't want to run into this situation where at release, people say, "Hey, you teased twenty features, but only fifteen of these made it into the final build." Our response to that would be that more is not always better, and in that situation we'd probably release the game in that state because it's a better game with fifteen features than twenty, but at the same time it can be really disappointing for fans to see something teased, only for it to get cut from the final build. That's something that we're very aware of, so we're doing our best to avoid it.
TechRaptor: Is there any way to actually "win" Idol Manager? If so, what's the win state?
Max: The main goal is to make your group the most popular idol group in Japan, but you can continue playing after that if you want. There are also some secret ‘win’ and ‘lose’ states that we’ll let players discover for themselves.
Justin: In addition to the things that Max mentioned, there are some players who want a variety of specific concrete goals, and there will be an achievement system that gives those players goals to strive for. So for example, if the achievement is "grow your group to 100 members," or “have a cash balance of more than a billion yen,” or "maintain 100% media buzz for 30 consecutive days," or something like that, that gives those players something to strive toward, and once they see the achievement notification pop up, that will basically be their "win" screen, even if the game doesn't end.
TechRaptor: Screenshots show off character sheets with many different aspects of an idol's personality along with a score attached. How do these scores impact the gameplay?
Max: Everything that you do in the game ultimately boils down to raising two parameters: fan’s opinion about your group and “buzz”. Fan’s opinion is not just one number - there are multiple demographic groups that you can appeal to (male / female, teenagers / young adults / adults, casual / hardcore). You don’t need everyone to like your group - just enough to keep growing and being profitable.
“Buzz” is a parameter that determines how quickly you gain or lose fans based on their opinions. Everything that makes people talk about your group raises buzz - like single releases, tv shows, but also scandals - which is why they can be good for you.
Justin: Individual idols are going to have stats that make them more suitable for different types of events. The obvious example would be that someone who has better vocals will do better when it comes to singing events, but personality is also a factor as well: someone who has a more extroverted personality is going to have a better time at a public handshake event, for example.
Some idols are also going to be more ambitious than others, which will indicate how well they respond to events that give them a lot of attention, like being placed at center stage for a big concert, and depending on the idols’ ambition and who is getting the most attention, you may see rivalries emerge within your group. The game has a “relationship” system, and this exists not only between the player and the idols based on how well you treat them, but also amongst the idols themselves.
TechRaptor: Would you say Idol Manager is more focused on the broader business management or the individual idol management?
Max: Your idols might have personalities, but they are still ultimately an expendable resource that you use to get money and fame. You can always try to be nice and fair to them, but you don’t have to - we don’t treat player’s decisions as good or evil.
Justin: It’s left up to the player to decide what the game’s scope is going to be. If you decide, “I want to grow this thing as big as possible” and create a group with a hundred idols, then it’s just not realistic to give each of them individual attention, and you have to treat it more like a broader business management game. Or you can take the opposite approach, and say “I’m going to have a small group and work on elevating each of these individual idols to be the very best that they can be,” and in that case the status of each individual idol is going to matter a lot more. Of course, you can also have a hybrid approach, where you have a large group, but also give a lot of dedicated attention to a few specific members.
TechRaptor: Currently, the website lists the release date as "2017." When exactly in 2017 do you hope to have Idol Manager available?
Max: We all work on the game in our spare time so it’s hard to commit to a hard deadline. We’ll hold a small kickstarter campaign later this year to fund more art and features (including 18+ content), and if it’s successful, I’ll be able to work on the game full time for a few months, which will significantly speed things up.
Justin: If the Kickstarter campaign ends up being really successful, that will definitely accelerate the pace of development. That being said, we’re already on pace to release the game sometime next year.
TechRaptor: Thank you for your time.