Only on special occasions I write up post-mortem posts, but this one is pretty special as I watched most of it go down with my own eyes. Oh the humanity.
It’s been a good 7 months since it’s happened so hopefully the heat is gone (and ex-devs prolly ain’t searching their name religiously). It was only a small controversy in the niche market known as the otoge community but still a curious tale.
If the heading and featured image isn’t bringing back memories, this post-mortem is here to help many remember the strange occurrence in March 2019 in the small part of Twitter that lead indie otome game developer Studio OwO to shut up shop forever (assuming its forever).
I will try my best to try to be unbiased or objective but I can’t completely promise that.
Most of the original pictures from the team were scrubbed off the internet but that’s what the screenshot function is for babbeyyy.
—Background on Studio OwO
With my research, it’s not quite concrete when the game dev group Studio OwO established itself or if they had previous history under a different name, but their first forum post dates back to June 2018, with now defunct Twitter Account being established in the same month.
The Lemma Soft Forum post which is the only shred of proof that Studio OwO existed, calls for assistant writer/proofreader to join their team on a new otome game project called “Welcome to the Clearing“, which we will get into much later.
According to the post (and other information laying about from a perfectly intact casting call post that I guess they forgot to delete), the studio was made by a Japanese concept artist working in the AAA game industry that wanted to make visual novels to pay back the voice acting community she met and became friends with during her one year trip/work place in California, America, who helped her become more fluent with the English language. This individual stated they would like to remain anonymous, with a quote from the casting call post of her saying “[because of] incidents during my time developing” as her reason to stay invisible, whatever that may mean. However they would like to go by the name of Goat, so we’ll stick to that when referring to her. Goat would be spearheading the project as both director, writer and programmer, though admitted she didn’t have much experience in programming and writing.
Goat also hired close friend and art student as the lead artist. The lead artist is also Japanese but cannot communicate in English but can read English somewhat, they would also like to remain anonymous. According to the unnamed (or at least I won’t name them because they have their full names out there in posts) PR/individuals behind the official twitter and forum posts, the lead artist is being mentored by Goat in terms of growing as an artist and is only a beginner, drawing for about 1.5 years (this exact number is said in both the 2018 forum introduction of the game and the 2019 forum introduction, so I guess the lead artist didn’t get that extra .5 year experience in drawing between the two posts). Though both Goat and said lead artist are big otoge fans.
There are also two named (or at least I’ll leave them unnamed) PR/individuals part of the group that kind of act as correspondents and in charge of writing posts to promote the game. I’m guessing they were also active in the discord server they created for the game too but only those who have an invite will know what roles they took part. I am mostly assuming one or both of these individuals were also in charge of the Twitter account for the game as Goat wanted to be as “invisible” as possible, with those behind PR advising that contacting Goat on discord directly would be the last option.
In January 2019, the studio made their second post on Lemma Soft Forums (information now deleted and replaced with “bye”) with a new account, new art style but same introduction as the first post. I’m unsure why they chose to re-debut their game, like the first debut post in June 2018 meant nothing and unsure why they changed the art style. Based on pure speculation maybe they didn’t get the attention they were looking for with the original debut and decided to start fresh with an eyecatching art style, but for sure they got many supportive replies with this second post.
—So, What is “Welcome to the Clearing”?
Studio OwO’s first and possibly last otome game under their name. It never got to see a demo of the game released before it was cancelled. It was going to be a free otome game for PC with voiced lines and a mystery, drama.
The aim of the game’s theme was to break the stigma on mental illness and to explore it with respect. Which is noble of them to tackle that theme, if done with poise. So what we get?
Though, to be honest, the dev team’s policy as a team is to have fun and to make memes. Also the above image is the only one I could find on the internet of the second art-style version of Welcome to the Clearing before it was cancelled. Everything else has been scrubbed from the internet.
Anyway, the synopsis for the story (at least the synopsis I’m taking from the first forum post, just replace Lily with the new name of the protagonist “Ellie Park”) went something like this:
Lily, an unruly teen with a neglected ADHD diagnosis thinks she’s being forced to go on a “road trip” vacation with her parents, when she is dropped off at a cult-like mental asylum disguised as a correctional boarding school for “out of control” children with “bad behavior.” Her parents do this as they believe this will fix Lily’s rebellious streak. However, the moment her parents leave, things go awry. The school quickly reveals its true colors, as Lily learns its twisted, violent, and cruel practices in order to “save” the children and “change” them for the better. Lily quickly realizes she needs to escape this seemingly inescapable facility before it breaks her down, or worse.-Studio OwO, “Welcome to the Clearing”
Supposedly according to the creators the story is based off from a survivor of Élan School, a notorious school in Poland supposedly specialising in treating teens with behavioural problems with controversial methods to the point of abuse. Goat also said on the casting call post that this is also based off their friend’s experience which if you presumably try to connect the dots that may infer that Goat’s friend may (may) be a survivor of Elan School. Or at least that’s what it alludes to.
In the now baleeted introduction post with the new art style each character was given a name, personality and reason for enrolment as well as some form of mental illness or behavioural problem as their theme. With writing like this I feel like we can beat the stigmatisation of mental illness.
No, really the writing is good guys, just look at these test lines for the casting call.
Also surprisingly there is a character that is in direct reference to a real life human bean and a niche internet cultural icon from 10+ years back… Chris-chan (Link goes to 20-something minute long documentary of him so watch it maybe now or after the review). I’m not making this shit up, they really had this guy as a side character, and I’m presuming they added him to probably poke fun at and have him as a punching bag.
I’m also curious if Goat knows about Chris-chan, not quite sure if he was big in Japan as he was in the West, or if this was something one of the American friends/team members told her to put in 🤔
But enough getting side tracked with biased opinions and jokes…
The game was well received by forum users, praising the art style as well as the themes the game was going to explore. There had been people following the development on all forms of social media as well as a community made in a discord server dedicated to it. For the casting call to get test lines to use in-game while programming a lot of people auditioned and it seemed to be positively received. Even if all Studio OwO’s tweets were deleted, the replies to the twitter account are still here and most of them were pretty hyped about the development of the game.
There were even talks from the creators that they would start a kickstarter (they said this in both posts, the original and new art style post) to fund the salaries for the lead artist, voice actors as well as other team members, except the director, Goat, who didn’t want money as she had a full time job.
So what went wrong?
2-3 months after their second post of their game showing off the new art style, someone (again not naming who) privately DM’d the creators on Twitter to discuss a glaring issue with the art style.
It looked heavily referenced to the point it felt traced and plagiarising, in fact to a good amount of people it looked like the art style was plagiarising off CollarxMalice, a commercial release otome game that was well received in both Japan and in the West with a localised version released in 2017.
—The referencing and copying of color palettes in question
The individual who showed this to the creators didn’t want to put this out in public so in order to save the creators’ face they wanted to have things resolved with the art style in private but instead the creators decided to post the picture on twitter and saying they were shutting the game down.
—“…we couldn’t stop her from emulating that style so she could nut all over them.” Who… Who speaks like that while running a semi-professional account?
A good amount of dedicated fans replied to the tweet saying that they don’t see how it’s plagiarising or can’t see any similarities and advised them to keep making the game, some even advised to maybe change the style. Though at that point the style was locked in as they had already started making CGs for the game (again, no evidence of it now as they baleeted everything).
I’m guessing this wasn’t the first time they were approached by people with mentions on how the art style looked similar to CollarxMalice as this was on their FAQ portion of the now deleted Lemma Soft Forum post, which predates the reference sheet that points out the similarities and stolen colour palettes.
A few days after announcing they were cancelling their game, which presumably took many months of work and just putting it through the shredder, they announced they were working on a new game. With their announcement they showed off the first character design:
—The new character design is on the left, on the right is a character from Otomate’s Bad Apple Wars
People were quick to point out the similarities between the new character and Suou’s art style and character design in Bad Apple Wars. This only aggravated them further.
They also turned on their fans who were giving them advise to become a better dev team…
And just straight up deleted the twitter account…. But not without saying that the Japanese creator has expressed their lack of interest in continuing to work with foreigners and westerners. So basically “And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling westerners”.
Only for it to resurface again, with no tweets, the same amount of followers who probably have no idea they’re still following the account.
It’s just there. Existing. Probably so the username doesn’t get vandalised and hijacked.
And that’s the end of Studio OwO’s story…. or is it? Who knows, people can still rebrand themselves while staying under the radar of others. Though maybe this otome curiosity is better left in the past…
Totally Biased Final Thoughts
Okay, enough being objective, here’s my thoughts on it all. You can close the tab if you want to not hear my thoughts on this all.
When I first saw it, I dunno how I found it, but I saw it on twitter and saw the character designs I was like, huh… this art style is riffing off CollarxMalice. Especially with the dude that has Takeru’s colour palette. Then I closed the tab and forgot about it until March 2019 when someone mentioned it and I decided to take a good look at it.
Another noticeable thing for any eagle eye’d viewers at home is that the poses for the characters seem…. quite mannequin-like. Mostly it looks like they heavily used 3D models as bases, probably tracing over them which gives that uncanny look to them. Look, there’s nothing wrong with tracing over reference 3D models but at least make sure they don’t look so…. mannequin-y. It’s quite noticeable with the arms and hands being out of proportion compared to the rest of their body.
On the subject of the art style, it’s probably not the best idea to riff off someone else’s art style. The point of art styles is that each one is unique to an artist, it helps them stand out and give personality to their art. It’s letting yourself down as an artist to not figure out your unique style and just copy off another’s style, ya ain’t letting yourself grow.
Now for my thoughts on the whole thing? It was pretty much bizarre just watching this whole thing go down. I even took screenshots to share and document before something blows up. It’s very strange to keep yourself anonymous as the creator of a game and state so very publicly while letting other individuals take care of PR and twitter… which lead to the big explosion with the person behind the twitter account, whoever it was.
Honestly having a team based in anonymity isn’t quite the best when you want to be close to the community at the same time. Like even now I wonder who really was the dev team made up of…
GAME THEORY TIME.
I know this might be a crack and wacky game theory but what if the lead director and lead artist were lying about their identity. I mean this is the internet.
The amount of anonymity that comes with being on the internet means you can be anyone and anything without repercussions to your self in the real world. I ain’t pointing fingers but whomst knowst maybe these two Japanese devs were just Westerners all along. The very few lines of writing of this game that exists on the internet is pretty telling, for example the lines for character auditions having some heavy Westernised slang and pop culture references–E.g. Use of word “schlong“- a Yiddish slang for dick/penis, mention of Mortal Kombat when the video game series is supposedly banned in Japan and the word “Kumbaya” referencing to a spiritual song originating from African Americans though the word is sometimes used in a connotation of sarcasm such as the example sentence used by the team. Though I guess a foreigner whose 3rd language is English can learn a lot in 1 year of staying in California. The same goes for that Chris-chan reference character that only those who stuck around the deep web of the internet in the early 2000’s would know who he is. Hell I know a couple of internet friends who never knew about him and yet for some random reason there’s a reference character for him in an otome game of all things, a very strange pairing.
Also the writing was pretty edgy, ngl. Like, very try hard to be edgy and offensive and kinda mean-spirited? Like this is the game you supposedly want to help break stigmas? ‘Kay.
The way they were so quick to cancel the game was very bizarre, like y’all are prepared to flush down months of work down the drain? Assuming it’s months of work down the drain. It was also done in the most childish manner too it was just…. baffling really. Really there were people supportive of the game and wanted the team to do good and it just all goes like a puff of smoke.
Another weird choice was the dev team thinking of crowdfunding the game on kickstarter when it’s supposed to be a free game and it’s just to fund people’s wages? Wouldn’t patreon be a better option to fund people’s wages?
That way you can prolong the development to 5 years while milking people’s money and not deliver anything.
Still sucks that the information and pictures have been expunged from the internet. Maybe in another reality the game released and I’m reviewing it and having so much fun reading the edgy writing.
Usually post-mortems are to find out what caused the death of something but maybe in this case the cause of death was just the dev’s doing? They didn’t take advise or listened to concerns to help better themselves and instead backed themselves into a corner and just cancelled everything.
Really makes you wonder what was the dev team’s true aim then? What was their motive to do all that just to quit? Very curious indeed.
Thanks for reading!
Further reading on Studio OwO and Welcome to the Clearing: