Illustration: Angelica Alzona

Every month, millions of people play free sex games on Nutaku, a platform that distributes some of the biggest uncensored erotic games available in English. While some of these risque games are developed in the US, many are brought over from Japan, meaning that someone has to make sure all the raunchiness gets translated properly. (NSFW warning.)

That process is handled by SuperHippo, a team of about 50 people who work closely with Nutaku to localize Japanese sex games for western markets. While the genres can vary from anything from role-playing to dating sims and strategy, many share a signature wide-eyed style commonly found in hentai and manga. Nutaku’s front page, which acts as a game portal, is an overwhelming wall of neon-haired girls with their tits out, all representing games with titles like “Harem Heroes.”

Many games offer fantasies of young-looking girls who have sex with guys. These brazen erotic games may sound niche, but there’s definitely an audience for them: Kamihime PROJECT R, a game where you can screw anime girls with god-like powers, is currently celebrating reaching half a million players. If you visit its game page, Kamihime is not coy about its “fully animated hentai scenes,” and in one of its promotional images, it challenges fans to “Fill her up!” Pussy Saga, the second-highest rated game on the site, tries to woo players with a premise that reads “Meet bitches, take them on dates, and bring their holes to ecstasy.” The games are not always subtle or sensitive, but there’s still a demand for them that is not being met by mainstream video games. In an effort to satisfy that growing appetite, Nutaku says they are spending millions of dollars to fund and localize more NSFW games.

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According to SuperHippo developer Alex Green, Nutaku consults fans online in the early stages of deciding what Japanese sex games to bring over. These wishlists are weighed against, well, reality. How big would the project actually be, and does SuperHippo actually have the resources to bring it over? Is the game in question something an average player might care about, even? Something might sound good on paper, but the numbers wouldn’t add up for it, theoretically speaking.

“We know there are particular genres which there are in high demand in the west – RPGS, roguelikes, dating sims—so we are more inclined to look favorably on those,” Green said.

Even if requested by popular demand, not all games make the cut.

“There was a significant amount of fan enthusiasm expressed regarding a certain Japanese monster girl game, which was an adaptation of a very popular manga series,” Green recalled. “After the first wave of excitement subsided we took a hard look at the game’s performance and decided that the numbers couldn’t justify the cost, so we passed on it.”

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Once SuperHippo zeroes in on a promising game, they reach out to the original developers in Japan and hash out terms for the localization, or in other words, they come to an agreement regarding money. According to SuperHippo, localization efforts can sometimes cost over 100k euro, and so far, they’ve brought ten titles overseas.

After an agreement is reached, the developers then hand off the code to SuperHippo, which has to reverse engineer it so that they can implement future updates as needed—many games operate under the ‘games as service’ model, with events happening after release. For the next six hours, for example, chibi-hunting game Ultra Adventure! Go Go - Osawari Island is holding a “touchy-feely” festival where the game gives players extra rewards for defeating enemies, which also happen to be anime girls that you can capture and sleep with. It is one of a handful of events that are currently live on Nutaku.

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Parallel to the reverse engineering of code, the translation team works on localizing all in-game dialogue, menus, UI, and more, with some projects reaching over a million words in raw text. As with any localization effort, the intricacies of capturing the original spirit of a work that originally existed in a different language becomes a central concern. The difference, in this case, is that SuperHippo has to make sure it preserves the intended level of horniness, too.

“Our most recent localization project, Sengoku Providence, was particularly challenging due to the fact that the Japanese language uses particular forms of address when dealing with senior male figures,” Green said. Sengoku Providence is a game that puts the player in the shoes of historical Japanese warlords, but the twist is that the roles have been gender-swapped.

“This can lead to some very peculiar sounding dialogue…[we had to] convey the respectful forms of address used for senior Japanese samurai while avoiding oddities such as referring to female NPCs as ‘big brother’ during erotic scenes, which is an example of literal translation that’s quite far from the intended meaning,” Green said.

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“In Japanese, terms like ‘big brother’ (oni-san) or ‘uncle’ (oji-san) can be used to refer to any senior male figure,” Green continued. “Using those terms, particularly ‘family’ expressions, to refer to characters during sex scenes in English gives people a very inaccurate perception of the dialogue – the character isn’t really calling someone their uncle, it’s more like they’re saying ‘Sir’...[but the problem is] less about using ‘male’ terms of respect than casually throwing out family terminology during sex.”

Other times, the conundrum lies in capturing the subtleties of sex. Playfulness and desire can be hard to relay period, even when no translation is involved, so depicting character arcs revolving around sex can be a knotted affair. In one example Green mentioned to me from Sengoku Providence, SuperHippo knew that they had a samurai that regarded sex as a power play, but they had to develop her into a character that would slowly reveal her lust.

“There was a great deal of discussion on how to portray that brusqueness accurately,” Green said. “The first draft made her sound too robotic, the second ended up with the character coming off as… well, ‘mercenary’ might be a charitable way to put it.”

In deciding the approach, the overarching philosophy is faithfulness, even the result doesn’t wholly cater to western audiences. Bending the translation too much, SuperHippo believes, is typically not well-received by fans. In effect, all sorts of extraordinary scenarios get translated, no matter how weird they might seem to a general audience.

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“Sex with elves, goblins, werewolves, demons, etc., are pretty par for the course for us by now, though the inventiveness of the scenes would still raise eyebrows,” Green said. That’s the benefit of erotic video games, according to Nutaku: they can go where pornography can’t, while giving the player control over how the action unfolds.

“Beyond the artwork, subtle cues in the Japanese dialogue can suggest whether the player’s partner is dominant or submissive, demure or aggressive, kinky or vanilla… and it’s important that those hints and innuendo are delivered in a way that’s comprehensible to the audience,” Green said. “Much of the enjoyment in achieving an erotic scene with a character is having the background, build-up, and culmination of sleeping with someone you feel like you ‘know.’”

Once localization is finished, the game is handed off to the SuperHippo quality assurance team, which explores every line of dialogue, tests out every item, rolls every ‘gacha’ drop, and aligns the text and UI as needed. The procedure sounds pretty standard for QA, in that they want to make sure a game runs smoothly, but it does mean they have to test out the sexual content as well.

“It can be a little awkward at first and then like anything else, you get used to it and it becomes a fun part of the job,” Green said.

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From there, the finished sex games are integrated into Nutaku, and eventually launched for the general public. The localization process can take anywhere from months to a year, depending on the project.

To date, SuperHippo has localized over 10 games for Nutaku, with more yet to come from Japan. While the localization team claims that the erotic games scene is more developed in Japan than they are in the West, they have noticed some differences in terms of taste across markets.

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Players in Japan, they said, are more open to games with “hands-off” gameplay: for instance, a game where you might send a team of heroes to pursue automated missions. Another trend they’ve noticed are casino games that award erotic prizes, as well as slots and bingo-style games that have sex scenes. In the west, there is certainly an appetite for sex games, but much of it has blossomed around RPGs, or dating sims. There is a reason why Skyrim is synonymous with nudity, why The Witcher 3 allows the player to pursue romance, or why Mass Effect: Andromeda features softcore sex.

“The RPG genre is well-suited to erotic content due to its emphasis on story and character development, which encourages players to become attached to characters in their parties,” said Robert Mann, communications manager at Nutaku.

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“We’re in the business of proving that gaming and erotic content go hand in hand...you can see that demonstrated easily enough by looking at the most popular mods for best-selling titles, which almost invariably introduce nudity, ‘romance’ plotlines, or other mature content,” Green said.

In the last few years, it’s become a running joke that Steam’s latest releases are inexplicably plastered with suggestive new anime games. Meanwhile, sex games make a killing every month on crowdfunded websites like Patreon, and services like Nutaku continue to operate under the radar, despite immense popularity.

“When we started 2 years ago, there were hardly any developers making adult games,” Green said. “Since then the quality and quantity of developers making games in this space has dramatically increased in a very short period...we are working very hard to shed that ‘joke’ image that plagues this industry when people think of adult and sex games. We think it’s only a matter of time before we see some really AAA quality games coming our way.”