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The JRPG Days are not over yet!
You've been playing Zwei: The Arges Adventure and Legrand Legacy: Tale of the Fatebounds while snagging genre classics on the cheap from our jRPG Days sale. Now it's time to take a look behind the scenes: team leader Ken Berry and localization producer Thomas Lipschultz have taken some time to chat with us about how XSEED handles the release and localization of their beloved JRPG series.
The interview is broken down into two parts, for convenience. Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow, January 30.

So, let's start with a quick year in review – from your professional point of view, has 2017 been good to Japanese games in the West?

Ken: Yes, I would say that 2017 has been a very good year for Japanese games in the West. The obvious big winner is Nintendo with their extremely successful launch of the Switch, as I remember some Japanese executives being concerned whether the idea of one machine being both a home console and a portable machine could succeed in North America where public transportation is not nearly as prevalent as Japan.
The PC platform also continues to get more support from the Japanese gaming industry. Not only are you seeing more instances of simultaneous PC launches with the console release, but they seem to be gradually accepting the idea of DRM-free on PC as well, which had always been a huge challenge in the past because they would often mistakenly equate “DRM-free” to “free.”

A lot can be said about different sensibilities in Japan vs. the West. In the past year, maybe more than ever, sexuality, sexualization, and consent, are talked about in mainstream Western culture – taboos are being broken and lines being drawn. Has this had an impact on your approach and your work?

Tom: As a company, I think it’s definitely made us stop and take stock of a game’s content a lot earlier in the process than ever before, so we know well in advance whether there will be any potentially problematic content, and can prepare ourselves to deal with that content as production ramps up.
For me specifically, it’s been kind of an inner struggle, as I think a lot of people are aware that I have a personal zero-tolerance policy for censorship in video games, along with a fairly broad definition of what constitutes censorship (for me, it consists of any content changes made not out of legal or contractual necessity, but solely in an attempt to avoid offending or upsetting members of the target audience). Despite this, I do fully understand that from a business standpoint – and even from a moral standpoint – it’s always best to avoid upsetting your fans, because obviously, an upset fan is not going to remain a fan for very long, and signing off on upsetting or troublesome language or imagery is never something anyone wants to do!
The problem I have, though, is that I truly do consider video games – ALL video games – to be art, and just as it wouldn’t feel right to me if someone painted over offensive material in a painting, edited out offensive material in a book, or cut offensive material from a film, I don’t want to see anyone (least of all us) editing out offensive material in games. My thought is, if it’s that offensive, then we probably shouldn’t be releasing the game at all – though that’s obviously not always a realistic option.
Recently, however, with all the news that’s come out about systemic sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood and elsewhere, as well as the issues being faced by the LGBTQ community in this modern political climate, it’s become much harder to justify maintaining a zero-tolerance approach – and with a lot of Japanese games starting to really push the boundaries of “good taste” more and more, the looming threat of censorship has become much larger and more imposing than ever, and certainly more of a beast to fight on multiple levels. And it’s really not a battle I WANT to fight – I’d rather just localize games that everybody can enjoy!
I still hold firm in my belief, however, that if we want video games to be classified as an art form on par with books, films, and paintings, we need to maintain zero tolerance for censorship in localization, no matter how offensive the content we’re localizing may be. And if there’s any positive to be gained by doing so, it’s that the presence of offensive content in localized titles will spark much-needed discussion about those topics, and hopefully lead to a dialogue on the state of the industry in Japan, possibly even resulting in creators being a little more cognizant of people outside their tight-knit circle of acquaintances when designing new titles from here on out.
But for the immediate future, I believe content alteration will occur a little more often in the West than it has before (hopefully not by us, but regrettably, that isn’t outside the realm of possibility!), while little else will change for the industry overseas. My solace lies in the thought that we’ll just keep getting more games like the Zwei titles to work on: superb examples of classic action JRPG design with content that’s often snarky and a little mischievous, but never crosses the line into offensive territory, and thus isn’t at any risk of being toned down in localization. Those remain a joy to work on, and the more games of that sort I’m given, the less worried I’ll be about censorship moving forward.

The titles. We need to talk about the game titles...
What is it that makes Japanese naming conventions so different? How do you approach localizing a game's title, and what does it take to make it work in the West?


Tom: I don’t think most Japanese naming conventions are all that different, honestly, save for the fact that they’re usually much longer than the names we tend to see here (with subtitles on top of subtitles, e.g. “Corpse Party: BloodCovered: …Repeated Fear”). Which, I believe, is mostly attributable to some general differences in the way games are advertised in Japan, with more text meaning a bigger poster on the wall and more space allotted to discuss the game in print… not to mention the ability to strike a pose and rattle off a long name, looking and sounding kind of dorkily awesome in the process!
In the Western world, though, we’re definitely all about succinct naming: something short and to the point, that rolls off the tongue, with one or two words being the ideal. Especially if it’s unique enough to be Googlable! We want the name to be easy to remember so that prospective fans can always find information on it at a moment’s notice, even if they haven’t heard anyone talking about the game for quite some time.
I assume you’re speaking more in terms of translations, though (“Sen no Kiseki” → “Trails of Cold Steel”), as well as the rare addition of subtitles (“Zwei!!” → “Zwei: The Arges Adventure”). In the former case, the goal is to come up with something that remains relatively true to the original Japanese but still sounds snappy and natural in English, with bonus points for picking a name that perfectly fits the tone and content of the game (as “Trails of Cold Steel” most definitely does).
And in the latter case, we were really just trying to avoid drawing attention to the fact that we were releasing “Zwei II” before “Zwei” – a luxury afforded us by the fact that the two games tell standalone stories, and necessitated by the fact that Zwei II was finished and ready for release quite a bit sooner. We considered numerous possible subtitles for both games, but ultimately chose “The Ilvard Insurrection” for Zwei II because… well, it preserved the acronym, “Zwei:II”!
We attempted something similar with the first game, but despite our best attempts, we couldn’t come up with any viable names that would form the acronyms ONE, EINS, or even WAN, nor any single-word subtitles beginning with the letter I. We settled on AA to preserve the double lettering of Ilvard Insurrection, and because A is the first letter of the alphabet… and also because the first Zwei is a pretty tough game, so we anticipated a lot of people would be saying “AAAAAA” when playing it!
Post edited January 29, 2018 by maladr0Id
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wyrdwad: No matter how you may feel about controversial content in games, you have to admit that on occasion, content comes up that -- if someone asks, "why is that in there?" -- the only real explanation anyone can come up with is, "for the hell of it."
Tom, that's literally every piece of art or media. Why does any book, movie, song, game, painting, etc get made? Because the creator just felt like it. There's no more justification needed. Don't like it? Don't buy it (I'm referring to everyone, not Tom specifically).

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wyrdwad: And it would also be nice if creators educated themselves a bit more about stuff they don't understand, so they stop throwing in symbology without knowing what it actually represents. That way, if they still choose to include it, they do so with full awareness of its meaning, and can effectively defend it should the decision to include it be challenged.
So you want them to adhere to the "progressive" agenda that everything is offensive and everyone should walk on eggshells because someone who doesn't buy their games might throw a temper tantrum over intentionally misconstruing something? Yikes.
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JackDandy: Aaaghh, I said it would be my last words on the topic, but I have to add something extra, if only to try and make you realize that "having scandalous content just for the sake of having it is bad" is a faulty proposal.

How much would you say that Renne's door in 3rd had to do with the game itself? With the struggles of Kevin, or the mysteries of Phantasma?
I would say, not much, if any.
Would it be better for Falcom to hold back and never include it in the game, for fear of offending someone?
Hell-to-the-F-no!
Trails is a series that's more about its world and lore than anything else, and I feel Renne's door was extremely crucial to the game's central themes, as well as to Renne's development as a character. That was absolutely NOT just included "for the hell of it," by any stretch of the imagination; it had a clear and defined purpose.

-Tom
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Totenglocke: A video game, book, movie, song, etc cannot harm you. If you don't like it, don't buy it. Stop trying to force your views on others by demanding things be censored or banned just because you don't like them.
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paladin181: Nice straw man argument. Can't argue my point, so you'll make your own version that has literally zero to do with what I said and argue against that.
Son, you need to learn what a strawman is. Your own post shows you literally saying that "offensive" (which is purely subjective, and people like you are constantly changing what is and is not offensive just so you have something to complain about) is "harmful". You then said that "offensive" things should be banned so snowflakes like you don't get triggered. Words and pictures are not harmful. If you think they are, then you really need to sue whatever school you went to for providing such an awful education.
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Totenglocke: So you want them to adhere to the "progressive" agenda that everything is offensive and everyone should walk on eggshells because someone who doesn't buy their games might throw a temper tantrum over intentionally misconstruing something? Yikes.
How is knowing what something means "walking on eggshells" and "adhering to a progressive agenda"? Knowledge is never a bad thing.

I just want developers to know what the things they put in their games actually mean! There's no scenario in which that can be a bad thing.

-Tom
I came in here expecting politics. Looks like i found it.
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wyrdwad: I see no issue with that at all, and that is something that's been done by a few publishers here and there (particularly publishers who want to publish adult games on platforms that don't allow for that; they'll often release uncensor patches on their websites, as a way to circumvent the platform-holder's restrictions).

The problem is, a lot of publishers don't want the uncensored material to be associated with them AT ALL because of potential backlash, or even just because of personal religious or moral preferences.

But if that's the case, I have to question why they were comfortable releasing the game in the first place...

-Tom
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Gnostic: I would also question on what ground people have for an outrage.

The "official" game don't have offensive content, what is there to be outrage about?

Offended that some other people have the ability to play offensive content? What gives them right to other people freedom?
You can't apply logic to the perpetually offended. Why? Because they're not ACTUALLY offended. They just like the feeling of power that comes from bullying people and trying to shame them for doing something that they arbitrarily labeled "offensive". That is why nothing is ever good enough for them. It doesn't matter how much "diversity" you include or how much sex / violence you remove, they will still complain. The worst part is that they don't even buy games (as evidenced by games designed to cater specifically to these people flopping - HARD), but they want to bully game developers because of the stereotype of the weak, submissive nerd who always caves to bullies. Stand up to bullies and either ignore the perpetually offended or, better yet, straight up tell them to shut up.

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Totenglocke: So you want them to adhere to the "progressive" agenda that everything is offensive and everyone should walk on eggshells because someone who doesn't buy their games might throw a temper tantrum over intentionally misconstruing something? Yikes.
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wyrdwad: How is knowing what something means "walking on eggshells" and "adhering to a progressive agenda"? Knowledge is never a bad thing.

I just want developers to know what the things they put in their games actually mean! There's no scenario in which that can be a bad thing.

-Tom
I think you're being intentionally obtuse. They know what it means. They just don't cater to the new SJW-redefined "meaning", which is what you're asking them to do. They know what being gay / trans / whatever other "diversity" class means. They just refuse to cater to the demands that "minority" characters cannot have flaws or be involved in jokes. Everyone in the real world has flaws, everyone gets teased, etc. Saying that any subject, person, religion, group, etc is above being treated equally, which includes being mocked equally, is a form of censorship.
Post edited January 30, 2018 by Totenglocke

And if there’s any positive to be gained by doing so, it’s that the presence of offensive content in localized titles will spark much-needed discussion about those topics, and hopefully lead to a dialogue on the state of the industry in Japan, possibly even resulting in creators being a little more cognizant of people outside their tight-knit circle of acquaintances when designing new titles from here on out.
Tom, as much as I like your company for being willing to bring over the Senran Kagura games here, I'm going to need to rip into you: What in the fuck are you saying? This is not the stance you should be taking as a localization company.

With this very statement here, you're chipping away you and your company's credibility as far as censorship is concerned. What you just said can be construed as a need for Japanese companies to "tailor" their games to an overseas audience and subsequently self-censor their games based on overseas sensibilities before it's out anywhere.

You know why I have a problem with this? Instead of being motivated to localize titles that continue to disrupt longstanding notions of what is acceptable for the western market, this means you are trying to justify shifting the potential burden of engaging in content editing from your company to the Japanese companies themselves.

That way, you guys over at Xseed can continue to claim that you don't censor anything, but can rest easy knowing nothing you localize will "offend" anybody in the west.

Regardless of where the self-censorship takes place, be it during development on the Japanese side or during localization on the western side, as long as censorship occurs, we will continue to be deprived of content we enjoy.

If you want to convince us that you actually have the intestinal fortitude to stand for not censoring Japanese games, you need to keep releasing uncut games that other companies might butcher, not just localize the "easy" titles that even the most prudish companies wouldn't bother butchering. It's perfectly obvious what's going on when you look at your company's lineup: Xseed has never bothered to localize other titles that have similar content to Senran Kagura.

You guys were in the best position to localize Marvelous Japan's Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni, but you guys didn't even bother. It's obvious your company has gotten afraid, and this statement of yours reflects its williness to skirt the censorship issue, be it through avoiding licensing "questionable" titles or pressuring the Japanese to censor themselves.

I don't need Japanese devs that aren't willing to put out what they want to release for themselves. What you're promoting means that even Japanese fans shouldn't have fanservice titles because it doesn't appeal to western sensibilities. I buy Japanese games because they don't appeal to western norms and tastes. I think I have anything to gain from allowing this mentality of yours to permeate the industry?

Grab your balls and get your goddamned head out of your ass. I've already had to put up with years of western localization companies self-censoring their games as it is, much less the Japanese doing it to themselves. This is not "zero tolerance" in the slightest.
Post edited January 31, 2018 by grgspunk
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Totenglocke: I think you're being intentionally obtuse. They know what it means. They just don't cater to the new SJW-redefined "meaning", which is what you're asking them to do. They know what being gay / trans / whatever other "diversity" class means. They just refuse to cater to the demands that "minority" characters cannot have flaws or be involved in jokes. Everyone in the real world has flaws, everyone gets teased, etc. Saying that any subject, person, religion, group, etc is above being treated equally, which includes being mocked equally) is a form of censorship.
Ah, I see. I think you're misunderstanding what I'm referring to here. I'm not talking about LGTBQ issues or anything of that sort.

I agree with everything you're saying here, and assure you we're talking about two entirely different things.

-Tom
Will the next set of questions delve more into XSEED's presence on GOG, how the Japanese xRPG player base here has evolved over time (thanks in due part to XSEED releases), and what future plans you guys have in mind for GOG? I get the impression XSEED's games sell a lot here, explaining the impromptu interview for what I'd normally consider a sale/game launch event.

And if there’s any positive to be gained by doing so, it’s that the presence of offensive content in localized titles will spark much-needed discussion about those topics, and hopefully lead to a dialogue on the state of the industry in Japan, possibly even resulting in creators being a little more cognizant of people outside their tight-knit circle of acquaintances when designing new titles from here on out.
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grgspunk: Tom, as much as I like your company for being willing to bring over the Senran Kagura games here, I'm going to need to rip into you: What in the fuck are you saying? This is not the stance you should be taking as a localization company.

With this very statement here, you're chipping away you and your company's credibility as far as censorship is concerned. What you just said be construed as a need for Japanese companies to "tailor" their games to an overseas audience and subsequently self-censor their games based on overseas sensibilities before it's out anywhere.

You know why I have a problem with this? Instead of being motivated to localize titles that continue to disrupt longstanding of what is acceptable for the western market, this means you are trying to justify shifting the potential burden of engaging in content editing from your company to the Japanese companies themselves.

That way, you guys over at Xseed can continue to claim that you don't censor anything, but can rest easy knowing nothing you localize will "offend" anybody in the west.

Regardless of where the self-censorship takes place, be it during development on the Japanese side or during localization on the western side, as long as censorship occurs, we will continue to be deprived of content we enjoy.

If you want to convince us that you actually have the intestinal fortitude to stand for not censoring Japanese games, you need to keep releasing uncut games that other companies might butcher, not just localize the "easy" titles that even the most prudish companies wouldn't bother butchering. It's perfectly obvious what's going on when you look at your company's lineup:Xseed has never bothered to localize other titles that have similar content to Senran Kagura.

You guys were in the best position to localize Marvelous Japan's Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkhuni, but you guys didn't even bother. It's obvious your company has gotten afraid, and this statement of yours reflects its williness to skirt the censorship issue, be it through avoiding licensing "questionable" titles or pressuring the Japanese to censor themselves.

I don't need Japanese devs that aren't willing to put out what they want to release for themselves. What you're promoting means that even Japanese fans shouldn't have fanservice titles because it doesn't appeal to western sensibilities. I buy Japanese games because they don't appeal to western norms and tastes. I think I have anything to gain from allowing this mentality of yours to permeate the industry?

Grab your balls and get your goddamned head out of your ass. I've already had to put up with years of western localization companies self-censoring their games as it is, much less the Japanese doing it to themselves. This is not "zero tolerance" in the slightest.
All I can say is, please see this post, which perfectly sums up what I'm trying to say:

https://www.gog.com/forum/general/interview_xseed_talks_jrpg_localization_and_marketing_part_1_93300/post57

If you don't agree with this, then I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree. But hopefully, this extremely well-put summary of my points here will help put what I'm saying into better perspective for you.

-Tom
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Totenglocke: I think you're being intentionally obtuse. They know what it means. They just don't cater to the new SJW-redefined "meaning", which is what you're asking them to do. They know what being gay / trans / whatever other "diversity" class means. They just refuse to cater to the demands that "minority" characters cannot have flaws or be involved in jokes. Everyone in the real world has flaws, everyone gets teased, etc. Saying that any subject, person, religion, group, etc is above being treated equally, which includes being mocked equally) is a form of censorship.
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wyrdwad: Ah, I see. I think you're misunderstanding what I'm referring to here. I'm not talking about LGTBQ issues or anything of that sort.

I agree with everything you're saying here, and assure you we're talking about two entirely different things.

-Tom
The thing i find ironic about offense and "you should research" arguments is that the average person doesn't understand the topic. For example, when Final Fantasy allowed people to be brought back from the dead in a church, why was that a big deal? If a country full of atheists uses my religion as a prop, i can understand that they don't have a clue. I'm not offended. To some degree I honor the attempt. But, no, no, we must avoid that in the western release and cut it. Maybe if i assumed them to be some sort of left-wing atheists I would take offense to the satire that takes the meaning out of context, but I guess it's up to me to do enough research to realize that it wasn't satire. But, wait, that means the offended person could do research before being offended?
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Totenglocke: Son, you need to learn what a strawman is. Your own post shows you literally saying that "offensive" (which is purely subjective, and people like you are constantly changing what is and is not offensive just so you have something to complain about) is "harmful". You then said that "offensive" things should be banned so snowflakes like you don't get triggered. Words and pictures are not harmful. If you think they are, then you really need to sue whatever school you went to for providing such an awful education.
Son? Funny.

It is a straw man. You claimed I was trying to force my opinion on others and that my opinion was that things must be censored. I said it warrants consideration. I'm far from the snowflake you think I am. Again, you can't argue the points, and have now resorted to ad hominem attacks. Your points are minor. I don't get triggered, honestly and it seems more like you got "triggered, son". But to think words and images can't be harmful to people is a gross fallacy. You can be a keyboard hero and internet tough guy all you want. I'm done responding to you. You need to learn how to form an actual argument for discussion before you try to engage in a discussion.

Reply if you like; you can have the last word.
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wyrdwad: Ah, I see. I think you're misunderstanding what I'm referring to here. I'm not talking about LGTBQ issues or anything of that sort.

I agree with everything you're saying here, and assure you we're talking about two entirely different things.

-Tom
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kohlrak: The thing i find ironic about offense and "you should research" arguments is that the average person doesn't understand the topic. For example, when Final Fantasy allowed people to be brought back from the dead in a church, why was that a big deal? If a country full of atheists uses my religion as a prop, i can understand that they don't have a clue. I'm not offended. To some degree I honor the attempt. But, no, no, we must avoid that in the western release and cut it. Maybe if i assumed them to be some sort of left-wing atheists I would take offense to the satire that takes the meaning out of context, but I guess it's up to me to do enough research to realize that it wasn't satire. But, wait, that means the offended person could do research before being offended?
If you're referring to the NES titles specifically, it's because Nintendo didn't want to risk any possible negative attention, from atheists or Christians, so every game on NES had anything that could be even slightly construed as "religious" removed. They even changed medkits to remove the red cross because they didn't want someone to potentially consider it religious. While I think it's silly, I also understand why they did that, because the '80s were full of fanatical Christians who believed that videos games, RPGs, etc (especially Dungeons and Dragons) were teaching kids to worship the devil. I don't know how old you are, but I remember those absurd times quite well. They actually weren't that different from the present outrage culture, the difference being that back then it came from the right-wing and most people in the media / entertainment industry mocked it, whereas now it's coming from the left-wing and (since most people in the media / entertainment industry identify as left-wing), it's being promoted. Jack Thompson's calls for censorship were no different than the calls we see now, but since Jack's political party wasn't the "correct" one, the gaming industry in the '90s mocked him...whereas now the people calling for censorship get front page promotion on most major gaming sites.
I think the issue people have with your statements, Tom, is that they are misconstrued as you speaking for the company. If you clearly state "I, personally, sometimes really don't want to see certain content, but I will never 'discuss the non-inclusion of such content with creators'." then people should be satisfied.
Because that is how it really comes across most of the time and, knowing XSEED and having enjoyed titles such as Akiba(s)trip, it would be just wrong if all this gives the wrong message to people.
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kohlrak: The thing i find ironic about offense and "you should research" arguments is that the average person doesn't understand the topic. For example, when Final Fantasy allowed people to be brought back from the dead in a church, why was that a big deal? If a country full of atheists uses my religion as a prop, i can understand that they don't have a clue. I'm not offended. To some degree I honor the attempt. But, no, no, we must avoid that in the western release and cut it. Maybe if i assumed them to be some sort of left-wing atheists I would take offense to the satire that takes the meaning out of context, but I guess it's up to me to do enough research to realize that it wasn't satire. But, wait, that means the offended person could do research before being offended?
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Totenglocke: If you're referring to the NES titles specifically, it's because Nintendo didn't want to risk any possible negative attention, from atheists or Christians, so every game on NES had anything that could be even slightly construed as "religious" removed. They even changed medkits to remove the red cross because they didn't want someone to potentially consider it religious. While I think it's silly, I also understand why they did that, because the '80s were full of fanatical Christians who believed that videos games, RPGs, etc (especially Dungeons and Dragons) were teaching kids to worship the devil. I don't know how old you are, but I remember those absurd times quite well. They actually weren't that different from the present outrage culture, the difference being that back then it came from the right-wing and most people in the media / entertainment industry mocked it, whereas now it's coming from the left-wing and (since most people in the media / entertainment industry identify as left-wing), it's being promoted. Jack Thompson's calls for censorship were no different than the calls we see now, but since Jack's political party wasn't the "correct" one, the gaming industry in the '90s mocked him...whereas now the people calling for censorship get front page promotion on most major gaming sites.
Oh, believe me, i'm well aware. I remember when pokemon evolution was considered atheist propaganda (actually ,to this day, i really question why they chose the word "evolve" instead of something a little less sensitive and maybe even more accurate [and it's not like they couldn't make their own word like they already do in japan]).

Honestly, the removal of symbols was not very helpful in the process. This is what we see with censorship: it keeps people ignorant and in the dark. If you straight up expose people to the truth, the ones in the wrong expose themselves. And, yes, being right-wing, i agree whole heartedly.

Don't get me wrong, though, i think enabling and disabling some things in the options menu like jiggle levels, blood levels, etc is still relevant. Let offended people have a choice if you want to try catering to everyone. Which is something else: companies need to see that they aren't going to please everyone. I don't want to sit and play some kid's game all the time. If you want my money, maybe i want to see some lady-bits. Accept that not everything you sell can be accepted by everyone, and that maybe you should focus on your target audience. If you're afraid that parents won't let kids play Dead or Alive for it's sexual content, maybe that's a good thing. Maybe kids shouldn't be playing games about senselessly beating the snot out of someone because it's how some people want to take over the world. Then again, why's there so much boobage in a fighting game?

Either way, devs should be just as conscious of an audience they leave behind when they're trying to target a new audience. It's all too common anymore to rely on a fanbase always being there.