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The strange retro world of Vocaloid fan games

When communities control characters

Imagine if Square Enix decided to release Lara Croft under a public license, allowing anyone to legally produce not-for-profit games, comics, films - really anything - starring the adventurer. Of course, that's not what big companies do with their intellectual property.

Except, that's what Japanese manufacturing behemoth Yamaha did. For over a decade, Yamaha, in concert with developer and import/export concern Crypton Future Media, has been licensing the images of the mascots of its Vocaloid voice-synthesiser software under a Creative Commons licence. As a result, at the peak of its popularity, a whole ecosystem of fan-made images, videos, and freeware games grew up around it. I got in touch with them – and fished around on some decade-old forums – to find out more.

Vocaloid is software in which users can type lyrics, create a melody via a piano roll-style interface, and press a button to hear their creation be sung by a synthesized voice. Those voices are simultaneously impressively human and distinctly robotic, and most often sound a little like GladOS had a teenaged pop career.

That impression is cemented further by Vocaloid's various voices being given name, visual design and backstory, most famously in the form of Hatsune Miku. A 16-year-old described by Crypton as "an android diva in the near-future world where songs are lost," Miku was included in a version of Vocaloid 2 released in 2007. Now, stay with me here. Later that same year, a user named Otomania on Japanese video sharing site Nico Nico Douga made a video of a chibi version of Hatsune Miku swinging a spring onion and singing a Finnish polka song called Ievan Polkka. The video was - of course - extremely popular, and soon more and more fanworks started to be created featuring Hatsune Miku and the fan-created vegetable-waving derivative from this video, who became known as Hachune Miku. The works included more songs and videos, but also everything from simple fanart to, yes, games.

The proliferation of fan-created work initially took Crypton Future Media by surprise. “Hatsune Miku was not initially developed as a licensed character, but shortly after her initial software release, thousands of songs, videos and illustrations featuring her started popping up on the Internet,” their press office told me. “We needed to clarify the legal status of those artworks, but at the same time we didn't want to stop the creative movement that had started. We developed an original licensing scheme for Japan that allowed using the character's name and appearance freely for non-commercial purposes. Outside of Japan, the Creative Commons license was a very good fit so we decided to adopt it.”

The move was unorthodox, to say the least. “As far as we know, having a company’s IP licensed under Creative Commons is very unusual, especially in the character licensing industry,” they said. “On the upside, because Hatsune Miku is licensed under CC, anybody is free to create and distribute Miku-related content for non-commercial purposes which enables her to have an immense repertoire of songs, and to become the subject and inspiration for countless creative works. The downside, if any, that it’s much more difficult for us to monetize than other IPs… Miku works well under CC because the music software came first, and not the ‘animated character’ - because Miku has no ‘official canon’ established (other than a few characteristic features), any fan creation is essentially equal to official.”

Jukka, a.k.a. riipah, is a veteran Vocaloid fan and creator of the online music database VocaDB. “I initially heard about Vocaloid through some friends who are anime fans. I discovered some Vocaloid music videos that I thought were impressive, then got interested in the whole community-oriented virtual vocalist thing,” he told me. The ‘virtual vocalists’ are the Vocaloid mascots, also themselves called Vocaloids.

The community itself is large but fragmented, with all the problems attendant on online communities. Jukka’s involvement with it has fallen since he first caught wind of the franchise. “I used to browse [Western Vocaloid forum] VocaloidOtaku, but I thought they had too many people who are much younger than I am. Also I felt that people here were mostly talking about themselves instead of listening to others… I was also involved with an image board called mikuchan, which was a very tight community at the time, but that site died years ago because the management couldn't keep it running.” The motivating force of his involvement is, instead, the creative aspect. “The fact that fans are willing to make such professional quality music and videos as a hobby was impressive. Back in 2010-2012 I was searching for all things related to Vocaloid, including the fan games, and tried almost everything I could find.”

‘Everything’, as it turns out, means quite a lot. There are dozens of games, most featuring Hatsune Miku. They tend to the old-school – shmups, Mega Man clones, and platformers – along with some visual novels. There are one or two gems – Miku’s Multiply Spiral, a vertical-scrolling shooter in which you block bullets with Miku’s physics-enabled ponytails, is worth a look – as well as some stinkers. Most are passable. Jukka’s favourites include Mirai no Kimi to, Subete no Uta ni – “It's a must have if you're a fan of both visual novels and Vocaloid,” – and Mikuman X – “I liked the gameplay and graphics. Overall well done, although the difficulty was a bit uneven, and it was short.”

Some are aggressively retro. Yoshiba Works’ Miku Rasher harks back to the earliest arcade machines. The player’s tiny sprite floats around a black screen in an agonisingly floaty way, firing leeks at birds and beetles in order to encase them in bubbles, which they can then run into for points. It’s simple to the point of being primitive, and absolutely bastard hard.

Most of the games are produced by amateurs – part of Japan’s ‘doujin culture’ of self-publishing which exists across many different mediums. Tokutaro is one half of doujin duo 15citron, creators of Miku-themed vertical shooter Hector ’39, in which the character fires streams of leeks at descending lightbulbs and TVs. It’s a little barebones, but competently put together, although it is a little unfortunate that the player’s hitbox is mapped perfectly onto Miku’s rear. “Our games are not commercial,” Tokutaro told me. “We have no jobs. We are,” he added, “looking for good jobs.”

The Vocaloid doujin games often offered creators the opportunity to develop their skills and confidence – although the pair have been making games since the late 90s, Tokutaro only learned to program in the making of Hector ’39. Camille Mai, a professional artist and musician from San Francisco, built a selection of Vocaloid-based Flash toys in her teens. The experience was formative: “The fan games were the first time something I made had relative success online, and I ended up getting commissioned by [dress-up game venue] DressUpWho.com a few times,” she said. “At 16 those gigs helped me realize I could actually make a living through art.”

Today, there are also mainstream games created which star Vocaloid characters, with the most recent being Sega's Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA X for the PlayStation 4. Although developed by a major company in cooperation with character originators Crypton, these games benefit from and often directly feature the traits, backstories and objects created by the fan community.

Vocaloid and Hatsune Miku is public copyright working at its very best, from popularising a creative work to fostering a community and inspiring future creators in the process. Now just imagine if others followed suit.

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Oliver Milne