In Japan, there is a genre of games specifically targeted at women. Called “neo-romance games” or “otome games” (maiden games), most are essentially harem romance stories with the genders reversed. But it wasn’t always this way.
Tecmo Koei was a pioneer in the field creating the first neo-romance game for the Super Famicom (The Japanese version of the SNES), Angelique in 1994. Since then, the area of games focused on a female audience has steadily grown into its own market force.
Tecmo Koei exec, Keiko Erikawa, was the brains behind Angelieque series and the neo-romance genre. In an interview with Weekly Famitsu she talked of the hardships and hurdles she faced in founding the genre.
“Over thirty years ago, I was developing investment simulation games and combat games together with Yoichi Erikawa (Tecmo Koei Games CEO), but back then our customers were all male.” Erikawa explained. “The games were all from the male perspective. So I came up with the idea of making games for women for a female audience.”
Erikawa’s first hurdle was the fact that she was the only woman working in development at the time. So they began hiring women interested in working on and developing games. This was in 1983—ten years before they would release their first female-targeted game. “At the time, there were very few women in sciences studying programming, so we hired women with art and literature backgrounds.” Erikawa recalled. “It took a while before the female staff got the hang of making games. It was to be expected at the time, but none of the people we hired had ever worked on games.”
The next hurdle the newly assembled Ruby Party team faced was making their game an actual game. They pooled their ideas together to make a game that would hit all the right buttons, but the game itself lacked any real game elements. “Looking at it as a game, it wasn’t any fun at all.” Erikawa said of the initial models. “Just because you have a scenario, it doesn’t make it a romance game. The systems for achieving goals and competing were too weak.”
After the game portions of Angelique were ironed out and the game was released, Erikawa focused on cultivating the game’s target base with other tie-in media to expand the game’s universe. The Angelique event held the next year brought in voice actors to perform on stage in what was one of the first events of its kind of what has become almost an expected norm for most games that use voice actors.
Twenty years after the release of Angelique, the genre has changed the face of gaming in Japan and is still going strong, and the genre is so prevalent that if you go to many game retailers in Japan you will find a shelf specifically dedicated to “Josei Muke Gemu” (女性向けゲーム), or literally, “games targeted at women.”
“Women in game development has really changed.” Erikawa remarked. “I often run into women who got into science and technology because of the neo-romance genre, or women who entered the field [of game development] because of their love for Angelique at our recruitment exams. It’s very humbling.”
Tecmo Koei is not necessarily the most prolific neo-romance game developer, nor does it have the most neo-romance IPs under its belt. Still, its contribution to that part of Japan’s gaming world is unmistakable. The female-targeted gaming field continues to grow spawning new memes and fads. And while a single-gender-targeted genre could be argued as problematic, the fact there are women out there who now know far more than I ever will about Japanese swords all because of a game is kind of awesome.