Published on May 3rd, 2020
A blog post by Meng Liang
Love and Producer was likely one of the most sensational mobile games in China in 2017. Developed by Suzhou Diezhi Network Technology Co., Ltd (SDNT), this mobile dating simulation game generated roughly 20 million yuan (3.1 million US dollars) in revenues on its peak day within the first month of its release, in addition to attracting 4 million active daily users during the same period. With a total of 7 million downloads by the end of 2017, statistics reveals that 90 per cent of the game’s audience is composed by female players.1 In the last two years, Love and Producer has licensed its IP to many commodities in the women’s market such as chocolate and hair conditioner. And it has been adapted into animation produced by Maruyama Animation Produce Project Association (MAPPA).
From its game narrative to playfulness associated with it, Love and Producer is a typical Otome game. This type of game is a new genre for most Chinese mobile phone game players but one that has been in the game market for nearly 30 years in Japan. Otome means “young maid” in Japanese, which clearly illustrates the audience target of these games. Otome games can be traced back to 1994, when Angelique was released by KOEI, a Japanese video game publisher, developer, and distributor founded in 1978. That game, in particular, featured a female avatar and nine male characters available for romantic relationships.2 After that, a plethora of women’s game titles emerged rapidly: the role-playing game, The Maiden of Albarea, in 1997, and the mystery adventure game, Graduation M, in 1998, which also featured a female avatar and a number of male characters for the gamer to interact with and eventually reach a romantic ending.3 The popularity of Otome games in Japan soon spread to other East Asian countries.
In Love and Producer, the player adopts a role named You Ran, a young pretty woman who graduates from a well-known university in China and inherits a TV production company from her father. When running this company, You Ran also encounters four men and develops romantic relationships with them. Many commentaries and studies have examined the Otome game stories from critical feminist perspectives, but one of the questions that remains is: how this game genre was born and how will it evolve in China and mobile phone era? 4
The experience of playing Love and Producer is more like reading a novel than maneuvering an avatar through 2-D space. While the player can choose what to do in the game, the choices are strictly confined, which makes the decision-making process fairly limited. In other words, the player has little capacity to alter the overall game’s plot. Action revolves around two social decisions the player makes on Ran’s behalf: you can take one of the four male characters either on a “date” or “city walks.” To make this choice the player must unlock the fixed story by randomly drawing on cards—labeled SSR, SR, R, and N—and these allow the player to move to the next chapter and navigate scenarios in the game. Every card contains a certain plot, while the opportunity to draw cards is also payable by lottery. This lottery allows the player to bypass different levels of play, functioning as a cheat mechanism for the impetuous gamer.
This game and its business model are character-driven. Just like other Role Playing Games (RPG) games, Love and Producer’s plot has a mainline that connects to numerous forking branches. The mainline is divided into different chapters following a chronologic linear narrative. However, it is often the case that each chapter is centered on a single male character. As a result, the branch line is mainly constituted by small romantic stories—revolving around dates or city walks—and these are strictly organized around these four male characters. In this way, the player can choose to unlock any branch line story if they wish to follow their virtual relationships one by one.
Due to the lack of broad choices, many Chinese users claim it is not a “game” at all, though it is categorized as “game” in the App store. Here, I will not launch an ontological debate about whether Love and Producer can be characterized as a game but historical origin of Otome game may help explain this phenomenon.
Otome games originated as a transmedia narrative in Japanese media industries. Transmedia is also known as Media Mix in Japan, and is a feature of the media industry that has evolved there since the 1960s.5 According to Henry Jenkins, transmedia storytelling refers to “stories that unfold across multiple media platforms, with each medium making distinctive contributions to our understanding of the world, a more integrated approach to franchise development than models based on texts and ancillary products”.6 In Japan, the convergence in media ownership historically has facilitated the workings of transmedia. In what follows I trace one media type—the light novel as a precursor of Otome games, this media form heavily influences the game design.
The term “light novel” is translated from wasei-eigo in Japanese. The average length of a light novel is about 50,000 words, close to the minimum expected for a western novel, and light novels are usually published in bunkobon size (A6, 10.5 cm × 14.8 cm), and often in dense publishing schedules.
A uniqueness of light novel is, the character setting is highly depended on previous famous media works—the artist usually applies fragmented elements to create new characters and the audience can soon understand the character personality based on these typical features. But to understand this unique phenomenon, perhaps it’s easier to jump out of the light novel itself a little. The most typical example is Rei Ayanami, which is a famous character in Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1995. Rei is emotionless and socially withdrawn, and rarely interacts with anyone, except for the male protagonist, to whom she initially displays loyalty. In fact, Rei is a complex character and she always learns to “acquire human emotion”. Due to the artistic style, her image seems to have very small mouth because she nearly has no facial movement. Soon, Rei starts a new specific character category called “mushin”, which means a girl without heart. “Emotionless, no facial expression and usually, no mouth”, soon became a feature in animation, comic and games because most audience will subconsciously link these features with Rei’s personality.
In the last 20 years, many Japanese animation comic and novel works started to create the character first and then develop the story, such a routine is somehow reverse the storytelling principle. I would quote an excellent observation of Hiroki Azuma in a character called Digi Charat created in 1998. Digi Charat was originally adopted as the mascot of Broccoli’s retail chain store. It was designed with many references to other previous works, and firstly without any own stories. However, the character gradually gained popularity in the second half of 1998, followed by anime and novels in the 2000s and finally established its own animation world. This means the media reference has been strong enough that, audience can understand the design of characters even without any specific stories of its own.7
Hiroki Azuma uses the concept of “database animal” to refer to the “element” consumption of media works, and claim that the media mix production model is a significant point to understand this phenomenon.8 Media mix repeats these features and characters to its audience and reinforces their impressions. His analysis was derived from a philosophical perspective that applies Baudrillard’s theory to excogitate on Japanese popular culture. Azuma’s concept of “database” is that of a continually shifting authorship of content which is distinctive to fan platforms where context is appropriated from “the grand non-narrative” of otaku stories in various media.9
Due to the limitation of words and the intense publishing schedule, light novels, usually as a branch of Media mix soon adapted to this strategy of “streamline creation” of characters—adding up elements and make character’s personality in different “modes” instead of making everyone unique.
In the late 1990s, with the popularization of personal computers in Japan, as a sub-genre of light novels, Shojo light novels, target women by relying on romantic plots often characterized as “girl’s content” soon became digitalized—Otome games. And of course, the streamline character design is also inherited in this new media genre.10
Love and Producer’s male characters are influenced heavily by this designing logic: four of the male characters are typical ideal boyfriend images in China referring to the recent TV serials and online novels, even though the design is way far from the social reality. Li Zeyan, one of the male character in this game, represents the CEO idol/idealized archetype. Xu Mo, conjured in the narrative as a genius scientist and an idol/idealized archetype of the modern intellectual man, evokes a sapiosexual persona and draws an affinity by many gamers to brains over beauty—His demeanor is gentle and Mo is a highly knowledgeable person who helps Ran rectify her mistakes at work. Zhou Qiluo, a C-pop singer, is the youngest and kindest of the four male suitors who keeps up with popular trends such as men’s fashion, the newest manga craze, gaming and the latest bubble tea locations in the city. Baiqi, presumably a S.W.A.T. team member at a local police department, is Ran’s oldest potential suitor—They were high school classmates and share the longest history together before she took over her father’s company. In terms of personality, Baiqi represents the idol/idealized archetype of the alpha male and exudes the most machismo attitude of the four male characters. Despite the fact that these four male Chinese characters have different settings, the commonality among them all is that they are more mature and reliable than Ran, because they are constantly willing to help her out as she faces challenges, vexing situations or even when she acts childishly in social situations.
These four characters are miniatures of the four different type of idealized male images in the current Chinese media. For example, Li Zeyan is typical “bossy CEO” image, who is rich and cold to people, strict about works, but only cherish and even somehow being stubborn on one girl nearly without reason. Correspondingly the female protagonist in this story usually need to be “taken care of” without any expertise. Such a bossy CEO character constantly appears in the online novel and TV shows in China, which sometimes is regarded as a mutated version of Cinderella with modern background, such as office politics.11 Therefore, just like the Digichara story, the audience would understand the tag “bossy CEO” as such a plot routine first, before they understand the whole specific story of this character.
In terms of the media itself, most early Otome games in Japan were played on computers, but in China they have been adapted into mobile phone games, as this is the dominant game genre in the country. Although Love and Producers fails to provide much random choice for its players, it succeeds in constructing an engaging interactive experience. Since the mobile phone is the primary interface for this digital game, there are quite a few conversations and occasions that are designed within short messages, phone calls and even mobile social media platforms that are represented in the game’s visuality. In the Love and Producers case, it happens both inside the game and also in real social media platforms which I will talk about later. Inside the game, there is a virtual message system pretty much like the design of WeChat, the most popular social media platform in China, in which the player can send and receive messages from these four male characters. Meanwhile, it will even push notifications to players about both virtual news and real news.
In this way, the game scenario tries to mimic real-life as it offers users with immersive and playful situations during the daily commute between home and work, often on congested metro systems in China. and moments of escapism during young urban women’s professional workdays where there is little conversation and a lot of time to kill.
Meanwhile, the mobile game also takes advantage of real social network platforms, which facilitates the sharing and spreading of media content. Due to mobile phone leapfrogging in China, mobile Internet became the dominant way of accessing social networks, as it is the case in other countries in the Global South. Leveraging these conditions, the transmedia strategy of Love and Producer encourages players to share unique game content on WeChat and microblogs. The game’s four microblog accounts, devoted to the four male protagonists, are also open on the Sina Weibo platform. The posts by these four protagonists—written by a company ghostwriter—usually follow their distinct personalities while also corresponding with all updates in the main game. Finally, these blogs provide another way for the players to further engage with their virtual characters/love interests.
All in all, otome game is both old and new: it has been developed for decades in Japan and modified by the media mix in Japan with unique design and feature. Meanwhile, this game is mutated in China and started to evolve in a digital era. Meanwhile, the success of Love and producer in recent years made digital game industries in China started to attach importance on female players. More importantly, the game narrative and character design reflect the social preference and need of female audience. But how the media and these streamlined virtual characters will influence the gender issue in the East Asia? Perhaps Otome games and its future studies provides a provoking path to explore the regional culture and the complex in feminism issue and its transformation in different regions.
1 SupChina, “Love And Producer, The Chinese Mobile Game That Has Millions Of Women Hooked”, Jan, 16th, 2018, https://supchina.com/2018/01/16/love-and-producer-the-chinese-mobile-game-that-has-hooked-millions-of-women/; Pocketgame, “China-only dating sim Love and Producer generated $32 million in January 2018”, February 6th, 2018,https://www.pocketgamer.biz/asia/news/67491/love-and-producer-generates-32-million-usd/
2 Hyeshin Kim, “Women’s Games in Japan: Gendered Identity and Narrative Construction”, Theory, Culture and Society, January 27, 2017;
3 Kazumi Hasegawa, Chapter 9 “Falling in Love with History: Japanese Girls’ Otome Sexuality and Queering Historical Imagination”, in Playing with the Past: Digital games and the simulation of history, ed by Matthew Whilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott. Bloomsbury Academic 2013.
4 Hyeshin Kim, “Women’s Games in Japan: Gendered Identity and Narrative Construction”, Theory, Culture and Society, January 27, 2017; Sarah Christina Ganzon, “Investing Time for Your In-Game Boyfriends and BFFs: Time as Commodity and the Simulation of Emotional Labor in Mystic Messenger” Games and Culture, vol. 14, 2: pp. 139-153. First Published September 4, 2018; Tina Richards, “Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side: Enacting femininity to avoid dying alone”, DiGRA Australia conference, Vol 2, No 1, 2015.
5 Marc Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix, University of Minnesota Press; 1 edition, February 23, 2012.
6 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, NYU Press; Revised edition, August 1, 2006, P26.
7 Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, University of Minnesota Press; English ed. Edition, March 25, 2009, P168
8 ibid, P.169-170
9 Hiroki Azuma, The birth of the game realism, (ゲーム的リアリズムの誕生), Kodansha(講談社), March, 16, 2007.
11 Liang Yi, “From literature to TV shows: the Plot of Bossy CEO in My Sunshine”, Donghan Communication, Vol 6, 2015, 梁颐，“论“霸道总裁”情节母题从文学到电视剧领域的流动——由电视剧《何以笙箫默》热播论起”, 东南传播，Vol 6, 2015.
Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, NYU Press; Revised edition, August 1, 2006, P26.
Hiroki Azuma, The birth of the game realism, (ゲーム的リアリズムの誕生), 講談社, March, 16, 2007.
Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, University of Minnesota Press; English ed. Edition, March 25, 2009, P168
Hyeshin Kim, “Women’s Games in Japan: Gendered Identity and Narrative Construction”, Theory, Culture and Society, January 27, 2017
Kazumi Hasegawa, “Falling in Love with History: Japanese Girls’ Otome Sexuality and Queering Historical Imagination”, in Playing with the Past: Digital games and the simulation of history, ed by Matthew Whilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott. Bloomsbury Academic，2013.
Liang Yi, “From literature to TV shows: the Plot of Bossy CEO in My Sunshine”, Donghan Communication, Vol 6, 2015, 梁颐，“论“霸道总裁”情节母题从文学到电视剧领域的流动——由电视剧《何以笙箫默》热播论起”, 东南传播，Vol 6, 2015.
Marc Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix, University of Minnesota Press; 1 edition, February 23, 2012.
Pocketgamer, “China-only dating sim Love and Producer generated $32 million in January 2018”, February 6th, 2018, https://www.pocketgamer.biz/asia/news/67491/love-and-producer-generates-32-million-usd/
Sarah Christina Ganzon, “Investing Time for Your In-Game Boyfriends and BFFs: Time as Commodity and the Simulation of Emotional Labor in Mystic Messenger” Games and Culture, vol. 14, 2: pp. 139-153. First Published September 4, 2018
SupChina, “Love And Producer, The Chinese Mobile Game That Has Millions Of Women Hooked”, Jan, 16th, 2018, https://supchina.com/2018/01/16/love-and-producer-the-chinese-mobile-game-that-has-hooked-millions-of-women/
Tina Richards, “Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side: Enacting femininity to avoid dying alone”, DiGRA Australia conference, Vol 2, No 1, 2015.
Meng Liang is a visiting graduate student in Comparative Media Studies at MIT and a PhD candidate at University College London (UCL). Her research focuses on mobile Internet and telecommunication history in China.