Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Too Much Faith in the Virtual YouTuber

NOTE: This post does not reflect the views of any of my employers.

It's a dang cute idea, and one that just about anyone with a decent setup and a little cash to spare can take part in. But cute ideas don't always necessarily make for good bets.

VTubers are a new hotness largely out of Japan, though Western countries are picking up on the trend. Short for "virtual YouTubers," the concept entails dropping a small investment on some simple motion-capture software, getting a 3D avatar created, and hosting videos as said avatar. The resulting characters are usually cute anime girls, though you'll find a fair mix of everything else in there, too.

If the idea sounds familiar, it's likely because you've seen or heard of Kizuna AI, a VTuber so popular she made Newsweek Japan's listing of Japan's Top 100 Globally Influential People.

For what it's worth, AI is pretty solid. Her actress, who remains anonymous (though there are strong guesses online that are easy to Google), is an entertaining presenter who's very good off-the-cuff. She sings, does a good Let's Play, and has an unexpectedly tweaky sense of humor. She's clearly the result of more than one person—her actress, sure, but also comprehensive design work, stable motion capture, and good business representation. 

Meanwhile, individuals and companies have been entering the field along with her. There are a few stand-outs, like Tokino Sora and Mirai Akari, but suffice to say there's more and more competition by the second.

Which is not to say it's a bad idea. It's a great innovation for camera-shy people, or those who just want to try something new, or for companies looking for a mascot to be their online face. Too, these are all personas—allowing for a fictional aspect to your YouTube content, which is always fun. As with any new technology, though, the novelty alone won't remain a selling point: there has to be substance.

Someone didn't tell Dwango that.

Image result for virtual san looking

Dwango is a fairly large company that happens to own niconico, Japan's answer to YouTube (albeit with different functionality and a community with a very different vibe). They've also been all about this VTuber thing... so much so that they created two companies, a streaming platform, and a TV series around them.

Such egg. Such basket.

To be fair, they're not alone. The VTuber craze has bitten just about every company with any sort of ties to the geek community. Anime series old and new are starting channels with mo-cap "virtual" hosts, and companies like Compile Heart have created and cast actresses for channel hosts using the technology. Japan's Weather News service even has their own—Weatheroid Type-A Airi—who's handled by an actress for special videos and an automated voice for regular weather reports.

That said, the VTuber portion of any company's business plan seems to be a single aspect, just as with any other social media plan. It's yet another platform for conveying information, which the company still has to produce, and it just so happens to be engaging and eye-catching. For individuals like AI, Sora, Akari, and so on, it's the personalities that make them shine, not the fact that they happen to be on-the-fly motion capture. And despite the sheer number of popular VTubers, you're unlikely to see a single company sinking all their efforts into more than two or three personalities.

Well, 'cept for Dwango. Let's talk about what they've done.

1. Created Lide, Inc. Lide was going to be such a thing. The whole point of it was to create new content based on the entire VTuber scene. Some major names like anime studio Kadokawa and Evangelion's new home Studio Khara were involved, too. To handle Lide's output, Dwango then...

2. Built a great big studio. The photo you see above is from Lide's mo-cap studio in Tokyo, the largest of its kind in town. Its 54 cameras can capture footage of a dozen and more live performers, for use either in animation or as live VTuber-style footage. Regardless of the solidity of their business decisions, that is pretty cool.

3. Started a company for YouTubers. Then there was Watanabe Amaduction (short for "amateur production"), which existed with the goal of landing YouTube personalities gigs on TV, radio, and other more traditional platforms to increase their reach. This included VTubers, of course; and the company even owned their own, named Yuu-ham.

4. Made VIRTUALSAN - LOOKING. Remember how I said there was a TV show? There was a TV show. It ran last season, and was basically like SNL for VTubers. I think. I watched some. Kizuna AI performed a theme for it, which recently garnered attention as its own banger music video. Incidentally, the show was shot in Lide's massive studio in Tokyo.

5. Started VirtualCast. Well, that's fine, right? It just sounds like something for VR, and that's hot. No. It was a streaming platform centered around distributing VTuber-centric content. And, as far as I can find, not a lot else.

I'm not kidding about "Such eggs, such basket." Dwango had all five fingers of one hand in the VTuber pie, which is a terrible sentence I'd like to take back.

All this happens over the course of 2017 and 2018. Cut to last month. Kizuna AI is flying high, doing commercials for ramen and appearing as a special character in the second of two popular "what if warships were cute girls" mobile games, Azur Lane. She's got action figures, live shows, her first album, you name it. Other VTubers are doing respectably well for themselves, too.

Meanwhile, Dwango announces the launch of TUNEDiD, a company offering its massive Tokyo mo-cap studio to corporations looking to do VTuber and mascot work. So... okay... but wait. How are they going to balance that with Lide?

They're not. Because, as we found out in the last few days, both Lide, Inc. and Watanabe Amaduction have been dissolved. Oh, and funnily enough, that dissolution actually took place late last month, contemporary with the formation of TUNEDiD.

As someone who used to work for a person who did some ballsy spin whenever met with business issues... that's some ballsy spin.

Image result for virtual san looking

We aren't done, by the way. There's more. Remember VirtualCast? Apparently it's upwards of 155 million yen in debt. That's about $1.5 million USD on a good day.

"Seriously, company that sees more money in a day than I will ever see in my entire lifetime," says the freelancer, eating a discount TV dinner, "what were you thinking?" And yeah, true. I'm sitting here in my garage-office yelling "Y U NO DIVERSIFY" at a company that has already done better than me at life. Granted. But there is a lesson here, and the lesson is personality and content over gimmick.

It's a lesson no one's ever gonna listen to, but whatever, stick with me.

Kizuna AI isn't popular because someone figured out how to do on-the-fly motion capture. She's popular because she has a weird sense of humor, because Resident Evil 7 taught her to cuss, because she's an entertaining and engaging personality. Same for every other successful VTuber out there. The gimmick got them seen in an environment where they might have otherwise been passed over for being Yet Another Cover Artist, Yet Another Let's Player, Yet Another Whatever. The gimmick isn't their appeal; the gimmick amplified their appeal.

If we're not to a point where the VTuber bubble bursts, we'll be there soon... which likely means that going that route to be seen will become equally difficult, and talented people who can't get a leg up will have to find the next big thing to propel them. And while I'm sure there are fans out there who like VTubers by virtue of what they are, without much care for what they're like, it was never going to be enough to establish three businesses on.

Image result for tokino sora

The goal behind Watanabe Amaduction actually seemed the most grounded out of anything, and a focus on that—pushing the personalities rather than the medium—could have been promising. It's sad to see that go in the wake of Lide and everything else.

The sad thing is that Dwango and other companies will likely take this as a sign that VTubers aren't as popular as they thought, rather than homing in on the creators. The creators are not the medium, and throwing everything you've got into a digital medium in 2019 is kind of dangerous. We don't even know what's here to stay yet, and with tech evolving exponentially, we can't know without sitting back and waiting a minute. Better to miss being bleeding-edge than to just end up bleeding money.

Maybe Dwango can recover some of their investment by handling the heavy lifting for other companies. Or maybe all they can do is chalk this up as a lesson learned. Either way, content remains when trends fall away, and that's something all of us operating on fewer dollars can take away from all this.

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