Every conference speaker hopes for the biggest crowd possible. At Devcom last month, Nutaku's Jeff Tremblay got more than he bargained for.
The very biggest crowds at the Gamescom-affiliated developer conference were reserved for speakers in the largest room; most notably God of War director Cory Barlog, who filled every chair in the main auditorium and offered ample reward for those forced to stand at the back.
If Barlog's talk was the busiest in terms of absolute numbers, Tremblay's was probably the most over-subscribed. Nutaku, a name that was likely unfamiliar to many Devcom attendees, was given space for a few dozen chairs. Based on the large crowd that gathered around in advance of the talk, Tremblay, the company's business development manager, could have filled them several times over.
"Don't be surprised, Nutaku has explicit content... But is this a new thing? Absolutely not"
"I'm here to talk about the rise of the adult gaming market - no pun intended," Tremblay said, to a handful of titters from the audience. Then, straight-faced: "It's coming."
The number of people interested in Nutaku relative to the space it was afforded could be down to the simple allure of sex, which is at the very root of what Nutaku offers to those who visit its online portal. It could be down to the promise of a patch of clear, blue ocean for developers to paddle in for a while. It could be the €10 million development fund that was trumpeted on banners around the Devcom show-floor.
However, in addition to those show-floor ads, the company also placed spot ads above the urinals in the male bathrooms. While very much in keeping with what Tremblay described as the "Manga, Hentai" leanings of the adult imagery in Nutaku's games, these ads were also seen as a grubby, winking appeal to a perceived boys-club mentality within Devcom's audience - it should be noted that Devcom subsequently apologised for allowing the ads to be placed.
The carrots that Nutaku was offering developers were obvious, but then again, so was the stick. Even without those problemtaic ads, Tremblay placed the divisive history of adult content in games at the very heart of his talk, opening with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' Hot Coffee mod and Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude as proof (of a kind) that sex in video games is nothing new.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board even had an Adults Only (AO) rating specifically to apply to games with, as Tremblay quoted, "Explicit nudity or sexual content."
"It's as simple as that," he said. "And yes, don't be surprised, Nutaku has explicit content... But is this a new thing? Absolutely not."
Where Nutaku is different, Tremblay offered, is in its approach. "We are not gamifying pornography; we are adultifying great games, first and foremost," he said. "We're not looking to have a game and just plaster nudity or [Hentai] scenes across a game without thinking about its proper integration within the gameplay."
"If you don't have a good game, you can put all the sex you want on top of it and it's just not going to happen"
Tremblay offered an example of Nutaku's "adultification" strategy, with respect to a common trope in game design. When you progress through most games, the way your character looks changes as a signifier of that progress: new and different clothes, new and different armour, generally moving towards a more intricate and detailed character model as a reward for time invested. In a Nutaku game, that tendency is reversed, the armour becoming more sparse, the clothes removed.
"We work with our developers in order to find the right angle, the right amount, the right moment at which to unveil - let's put it that way - your character," Tremblay explained. "There were two slides to illustrate this, but... it's all good."
The two slides Tremblay mentioned were among five that he had to remove "20 minutes" before the presentation started - a likely reason for his late to arrive to the allocated room. "Sensibilities," Tremblay offered at the end of the talk, explaining why the five slides had to be removed. "I'm all for that."
The two slides, in particular, would have illustrated the adultification process Nutaku applies to games on its platform, and Tremblay believed they would reinforce the idea that adultification, "always starts with a good game. It's not about the sex. It's about the game. That's what ensures retention."
He continued: "If you don't have a good game, you can put all the sex you want on top of it and it's just not going to happen. But it is happening for us."
At first, the opposite was true. According to Tremblay, Nutaku was formed as a response to a market in which a vanishingly small percentage of games released even come close to profit, let alone success. Before that, there was Super Hippo Publishing, which "created two games, took two years of our lives, and cost multiple millions of dollars."
"We failed miserably in the regular market," Tremblay said, "and we didn't go back."
Nutaku - which, it should be noted, is owned by MindGeek, the owner of online adult sites such as Pornhub - launched in January 2015 as a portal offering licensedm adult-themed games from Japan, localised for the company's target territories in North America, South America and Europe, and aimed at the most lucrative demographic. "Male, 18 to 35ish," Tremblay explained. "We addressed him."
"We failed miserably in the regular market, and we didn't go back"
A few years later and Nutaku is thriving, with 250 games on the platform, and a further 63 under review. Some of those games are being made internally; developed and localised by a team of 100 people in Bucharest, Romania. In each case, there are two versions of the game available: a NSFW one on Nutaku.net, and a SFW one on Nutaku.com, with progress saved across both versions.
"But honestly, if you're a developer looking for an opportunity to generate revenues, the dot-com is not the way to go," Tremblay said. "Around 98 per cent of our revenues come from the dot-net. It's as simple as that."
The possibility of a relatively open marketplace - and funding with which to create games to serve that marketplace - is surely the biggest factor in the throng of people gathered to hear what Tremblay had to say. In terms of monthly visitors Nutaku is, to use Tremblay's term, "dwarfing" established, non-adult portals.
"Nutaku is like Kongregate," he added. "With sex. And five times the traffic... Without good games, these numbers wouldn't exist. I think that's the best demonstration that the adult gaming market is a thing. It's not a fad. It's here to stay.
"We will be breaking 100 million visits this month. It's crazy... We have worked with developers who are now successful entrepreneurs. Some you might never hear about, because their games are white-labelled, and we don't mind that. We understand there are different sensibilities. We have [studios] with which we work that literally create a subsidiary company hidden three layers down, three arms length, and we're fine with that. It's a sensitive subject. We understand that."
If Nutaku's talk was the most oversubscribed at Devcom, it was also the most confused in its message. For every statement of strategic confidence, for every fortifying data-point or bar chart, there followed an acknowledgement of the dim view many will take of its activities, or a pledge of support for any cartwheels developers might wish to perform (as above) to maintain distance between themselves and the company writing the cheques.
"We don't want to create scandal. We will defend our position, but we don't want to create scandal"
In that respect, Tremblay told the Devcom attendees that Nutaku is conscious of the image its 250-strong catalogue of games, replete as they are with saucer-eyed, heavy-breasted women, presents to an industry actively trying to improve its record on diversity. And having so thoroughly addressed the obvious, heterosexual 18 to 35 year-old male demographic (far from under-served in the first place), the company is preparing four titles for LGBTQ markets - the first of which will launch next month.
"Nutaku has an open mind, and we want to be inclusive," Tremblay said. "That's a testament to how serious we are about the adult space. We understand that there are different orientations out there, and we need to cater to those."
When pressed on these new, LGBTQ titles by GamesIndustry.biz after his talk, Tremblay said he was aware of the reaction that titles like Super Seducer have faced from gaming communities, the games press, and gaming companies. Establishing Nutaku as a destination in its own right - rather than relying on Steam, for example - is an acknowledgement of the divisive nature of the content, he said, but the intention was always to target the biggest market first, and then expand beyond.
"Expanding the portfolio is part of our mitigation strategy," Tremblay said. "We cater to an audience that is looking for this kind of content. And I think the numbers by themselves prove that there is a market for that. There is an appetite for this kind of content.
"Now, are we going to possibly offend some people if we do [that]? I'm truly sorry. But we're working on mitigating that, and we will work on addressing those issues as they come. We don't want to create scandal. We will defend our position, but we don't want to create scandal.
"There will always be backlash. With any adult content website there will always be sensibilities related to that. But what can we do? We're doing the best that we can, and we're putting our money where our mouth is."
GamesIndustry.biz contacted Tremblay for an interview about the Devcom advertising, among other subjects. At the time of writing, we had received no response.