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Talking Shop: Carpe Fulgur On Recettear

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The demo of Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is one of the best things I’ve played in a while. A Japanese indie game pitching an RPG shopkeeper as the star… well, you can read all that in the last post. Given the slightly unusual nature of the project – it’s only available here thanks to a third-party translation company- I thought I’d chat to said translators about the why, how, who and what next. Interesting stuff – there’s this whole vein of (slick) indie gaming that we otherwise hear nothing about. Take it away, Carpe Fulgur’s Andrew Dice.

Why set up a business translating Japanese indie games? Love, profit, bit of both?

A bit of both, really. Should Carpe Fulgur prove very successful we do hope to take it beyond “just” indie stuff, although the Japanese indie scene is mournfully overlooked. There is a lot of what might be termed “naughty” content being produced by the Japanese indie scene, but it’s also where some of Japan’s future best and brightest are starting to make their mark and it’s almost criminal that localizers on this side of the pond won’t even give them a first look.

As far as “why set up a translation/localization business”… well, I’ve wanted to do this ever since I was in grade school. It was the old Square RPGs on the SNES – Final Fantasy “II”, “III”, Secret of Mana and the like – that really convinced me that a “video game” could involve so much more than just jumping on an enemy’s head, and that this medium could have actual narrative depth and engage the user. And once I heard of Ted Woolsey, the man who was in charge of making those games sound as good as they could in English (well, as good as he could given the hardware of the day)? My destiny was pretty much set. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. If I could be a part of helping deserving games reach Western shores with the best scripts possible, that’d be a wonderful way to earn my living.

Are there tons of interesting games like Recettear that we’ve just not heard of in the west? I.e. is it a long-term business model for you guys?

Well, just like any medium, Sturgeon’s Law applies to the Japanese indie scene in part at least – there are a lot of bad and/or creepy games out there. There’s also a lot of untapped or under-appreciated talent out there, though, and it seems like every year someone new shows up at Comiket (Tokyo’s massive indie-focused convention) with an awesome project to show off.

There are other problems with some indie games in Japan, though – it’s a bit of an informal “rule” that large companies don’t go after fan works that use established IP characters (often because the games make so little money there’s no point to it). Obviously, we can’t use anything with existing IP in it, since Western companies tend to be just a liiiiittle more serious about that sort of thing. That’s one of the reasons EasyGameStation was such an excellent group to partner with – they moved away from IP-based stuff and began developing their own concepts several years ago. While there are still… references and a bit of parody in their games, there’s nothing that’d be illegal inside. A lot of otherwise awesome titles, though, are licensing nightmares here in the States – Battle Moon Wars is fairly spiffy for example, but it features multiple IPs from one company on top of Werk’s own, well, work, so it’s not really something we can consider.

Assuming Recettear does at least okay, there are two more projects from EGS that we’d like to pursue. After that, we’ll keep our ear to the ground for any more particularly excellent indie projects that don’t have any red strings of copyright death attached to them, and get in touch with their developers. If we manage to make a bit of a name for ourselves, though, we’re giving thought to trying to get some “big name” work as well – several publishers sometimes rely on third-party localization houses to handle certain titles, and we wouldn’t mind doing that kind of work at all, especially if the title’s worth our time.

What are those other projects you’re hoping to work on?

Well, it’s still a little early to think about that – we need to get Recettear out the door after all – but if we let our heads drift into the clouds, we’d like to do EGS’ upcoming project Territoire. It’s really interesting and is rather like the illicit lovechild of Civilization and Final Fantasy Tactics. We’d also like to work on our own release of Chantelise, the game EGS made prior to Recettear. It’s a bit more of a traditional, Zelda-64-esque dungeon experience, but it’s still very well made and the music is incredible. DHM Interactive did their own version for Europe, but we’d like to take a stab at a dedicated English version.

Now, if we let our heads drift above the clouds and toward the Moon… there’s a title coming out this week in Japan called Fate/Extra. Fate is a long-running franchise begun by the gents at Type-Moon, who started out indie themselves and built a company and financial empire, brick by brick, on the back of the relentless quality of their visual novel releases. Fate’s never really been able to find a market in the States or Europe due to, well, the games being visual novels and not something you can “play”. (And yes, I know VN fans would take me to task for saying that, but I’m talking wider perceptions here, guys.) Fate/Extra, which seems styled a little bit after the newest Persona games, but features this nifty simultaneous-initiative combat system, and is a fully playable RPG for the PSP, seems like pretty much precisely what the doctor ordered in this regard and looks fabulous. Marvelous, the publisher in Japan, is supposedly shopping the game around, and while we obviously can’t afford to license the game directly, working with a larger, more established publisher on the title might be an option, especially a publisher that finds itself in need of new, more skillful localization partners…

Of course, given that Carpe Fulgur has yet to actually release a retail product (nor do we even have an actual, physical office yet) it’s probably just a hair presumptuous for us to talk about getting deals with large publishing houses. CF wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t capable of thinking anything is possible, though.

What are the differences between the Japanese and US/European indie design styles of philosophies, as you see them?

Surprisingly little, all told. I already mentioned the Japanese scene’s problematic predilection for taking copyright as more of a “suggestion” than an ironclad rule, and the Japanese scene is famous for taking a bent toward rail-shooters and 2D fighting games (while the West tends a bit toward platformers and puzzle games, perhaps) but beyond that there isn’t that much of a difference. It’s all about taking an idea you have and turning it into something people would enjoy, no matter what country you live in. The approach is fundamentally the same.

With EGS, for example: once we broke the initial ice with them, it was really, really obvious that we were all fundamentally on the same page about how the game worked, what its purpose was, and what kind of feel and message it should have for the player. There was surprisingly little “culture barrier” in development – it’s all about giving the player the best experience you can, regardless of where you are.

What’s translating Recettear involved – how many of you, how much time, native Japanese speakers, working with the original devs, what?

Carpe Fulgur consists of three individuals: myself as project director American-side and lead script editor, Robin Light-Williams as our lead translator (who also handles communication with Japan), and Nicholas Carson, who handled all the art assets in the game that needed to be translated or tweaked for readability. As I said, we don’t even have an office, currently – Robin and I live across the country from each other, in fact, which has made keeping in touch a bit of an adventure on occasion! The editing work for the game was mostly done in free tools, like GIMP and Notepad of all things. (Ironically, Notepad ended up being the best tool for the job when it came to editing the raw script files for re-insertion into the game!) We’re about as “guerrilla-indie” as you can get, without tying a headband around your forehead and hiding in the trees with your laptop.

Recettear has taken about seven months from start to demo release, and we anticipate another month or so of work for the full version (since most of the non-script work for the game had to be finished for the demo to work properly). Truth be told, part of this comes from our non-centralized setup at the moment – Mr. Carson’s had to juggle CF and school, weather has been a factor, various other real-life intrusions have gotten in the way. If or when we can consolidate the group into one location, I anticipate being able to work quite a bit faster than we have.

We don’t have any native Japanese speakers on staff currently… although, watching Robin work you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. He’s handled practically everything with alacrity and speed, and I couldn’t ask for a better translator. We’ve also worked very closely with the guys in Japan through the miracle of this thing called “e-mail”, asking them about certain aspects of the gameworld, making sure we get names and details and whatnot just right so that the English version is faithful to the original.

Was this a crazy-huge project or relatively straightforward?

Well, most people would say so, I think, given that we had a five-hundred-plus item list and an 800-KB script plus graphic and interface elements to wrestle with! It never felt “huge” to us, though, I think. Perhaps once or twice when self-imposed milestone deadlines loomed large, but we really just took it one step at a time and before we knew it, we had a demo ready to go.

Do you get to tweak anything beyond translation?

A little; the title theme to the game, for example, is different in the English version at our request. Team m_box, the guys in charge of the music for many of EGS’ projects, were cool enough to provide us with an excellent new mix of the game’s main theme to serve as the title music, where there had previously been a frankly rather weak nondescript single-instrument theme trying to fulfill that role. We also made sure that hat switch support was added into the game client; most American-built PC-compatible gamepads treat the D-pad as a hat switch, and at first those didn’t work with the game at all. We made double-sure to have support for them put into the game.

EGS didn’t have time for a lot, and sweeping changes to the game are a bit beyond the scope of a localization, but if there are little improvements we can make to a game, we like to get those in if we can.

How much is lost in translation? Is the dialogue and particularly the humour we see in the English version pretty much the same as in the original, or do you have to do really significant rewrites?

As editor, I did add in some humour (a very small number of lines were my doing specifically) but by and large, yes, the game was quite goofy in the original script and the interplay between Recette and Tear, for example, worked just as it does in English. The semi-infamous “can I sell my organs” speech by Recette, for example? The only thing I did there was to tweak the end of it to work in the sailor reference (since it felt like it left the obvious pun awkwardly hanging otherwise), but everything else is verbatim from the Japanese. Completely and totally straight.

We did have to update some cultural references, naturally – the door in the original was originally a joke from Doraemon, which is a cultural staple in Japan but is pretty much an impenetrable mystery to everyone outside of Grand Glorious Nippon, for example, so I had to make a reference to something similar that I think many RPG fans should be at least passingly familiar with. There was a fair amount of that, references to explicitly Japanese things (which was a little weird in context, since the city and kingdom Recette lives in is supposed to be this kind of Fantasy Not-France according to EGS) that we had to make work in English. I think we managed to make it all work out in the end.

One of Carpe Fulgur’s ironclad rules is that we don’t cut content unless it’d get the game banned in America – so no explicit sexual acts or anything (which Recettear never featured to start with), but otherwise we leave things alone. So despite the changed cultural references, I can guarantee you that the plot you’re reading is just as it was in the Japanese version. We haven’t messed with what made the game great – that’s why we liked it to begin with, after all!

Let’s do the stats: how much will it cost, when will it be out, will you be on Steam, Impulse, etc?

We’re currently targeting a price of about US$20 for the game. As for a release date… I can’t give a specific one yet, since a lot of it hinges on when (or if) we find a distributor (or several). We’re currently aiming to have the full game completely ready to ship by mid to late August, but beyond that I can’t guarantee any dates currently.

Can you talk about how you share income with the original devs? I’m not looking for super-secret private financial details, just a good sense of how the partnership works.

As for our deal with EGS… well, as you said, I can’t give any details. EGS will be getting a lion’s share of the profits, however, which we feel is perfectly fair (it’s their game after all!) We’re not in this business to make bales of money – we’re in it to do something we love (and hopefully end up with enough change to buy some bread afterward).

Thanks for your time.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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