Game Changing

pacmanMere hours before April Fools’ Day, and hence confusing a bunch of foreign pundits, the Japanese contents conglomerate Bandai-Namco announced that it was “opening up” the rights to a number of its classic games titles. From here on, anyone wanting to make a cellphone variant of Pacman, or a sequel to Dig Dug, is welcome to get stuck in, without any of the miseries of, you know, paying for a licence, or dealing with licensors.

Although Bandai-Namco is promising not to subject anyone to the extensive colonic investigation that is “licensing”, it still expects everyone to register for a perfunctory rubber stamp of approval. It promises to wave everything through unless it’s dodgy, so no chance of Pacman Porno. It also expects a rake-off of a few percent from any revenue generated, and a percentage of any ad-buys. This offer currently only applies to creators in Japan – foreigners can’t be trusted yet. What on Earth is Bandai-Namco playing at?

This new announcement is an intriguing, and seemingly rather business-savvy extension of the pre-existing rights market, where intellectual property owners expect to cream off around 5% from any licensed merchandise. That Nigerian Astro Boy remake? 5% to Tezuka Pro. That Indian version of Star of the Giants? 5% to TMS. That Overfiend plushie? Go away, that’s my idea.

With a bunch of forgotten titles, like Tower of Druaga and Sky Kid, Bandai-Namco is opening the have-a-go floodgates. Let a hundred flowers bloom! Want to make an animated series based on Galaxian? Be their guest! A Battle City-inspired line of clothing? Go right ahead. After all, what’s the risk? These are corporate-owned titles that the company plainly couldn’t give away for the last 20 years… so now they are literally giving them away. As long as you fill in the correct paperwork and give them their cut, they won’t sue you.

And if a project fails, Bandai-Namco has lost nothing. Just as Amazon will carry almost any self-published Kindle book, on the understanding that even if it only sells 100 copies (which is, believe it or not, the average), the company hasn’t had to work for that money and still gets a cut. Or look at another way. Bandai-Namco has just solicited every company in the creative sector to work for it, for free, while it creams off a stipend. Everybody else will be watching this one very closely. The moment there’s a success story, expect to be pig-piled by imitators.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, and the co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia: A Century of Japanese Animation.

Things to Come

Tenamonya Voyagers was pretty awful. It was a cynical, half-hearted space opera that nobody found particularly amusing, and which plainly bored its own animators so much that they simply ended it in the middle. However, it remains a landmark in anime history because when Bandai decided to release this obscure 1999 title in America, they did so solely on the new-fangled DVD format.

The US release of Tenamonya Voyagers was the first real sign that VHS was dead. It was a message to those people who hadn’t yet bought a DVD player that someday soon, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, they would need one if they wanted to see all the new anime, because their VHS was going out of date, and would no longer be supported by new ‘software’.

I mention this in order to point out that Bandai is a company that often thinks way ahead of the curve. And in case you haven’t already heard, Bandai is a company that will now be dropping DVD from its activities in America.

Old orders will be met. In the event that a million people suddenly want a copy of The Girl Who Leapt Through Space, they’ll run off some more. But Bandai America is giving up on DVD and leaving it to others to take the risk on licences, spend the money and get pirated.

You can forget Blu-ray, too. Bandai can’t be bothered with that either. Why should they, when a bright digital future awaits of direct downloads and streaming, hopefully legal?

If you were wondering what this means for you… right now, not a lot. You’ll still see Bandai shows released on DVD by other companies, like Manga Entertainment’s Ghost in the Shell sublicence. But be aware, Bandai America just essentially announced what many in the anime business have been thinking for five years: that the next format is no format, and the smart money is getting out of what the Japanese call ‘packaged goods’ – which is to say the actual, physical discs that anime currently comes on. Ten years from now, I suspect, there will still be DVDs in existence, but they will be much more bespoke, much rarer, and hence much more collectible.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #95, 2012.