How anime porn is giving some games a second shot at success

Armor Blitz is one of Nutaku's more popular free-to-play browser games.

Hentai has become a bit more blasé since the early days of dial-up. If you have a fetish, there's a manga with a lesson about tentacles waiting for you. Or maybe a low-budget homespun anime where the Jetsons really meet the Flintstones somewhere in the damp halls of Pornhub. If you prefer something a bit more interactive, erotic visual novels are sprouting up on Steam every week, though maybe you'd prefer to keep that particular part of your play history to yourself. That's where Nutaku, an online portal built for hentai games, comes in. 

URL Confusion

It's important to note that Nutaku.com and Nutaku.net are two very different websites from the same company. The former is an all-ages portal while the latter is for ages 18 and up. This weak distinction between them is troubling, giving the impression that an underage audience is being groomed with sexual imagery only just in accordance with the law. It doesn't sit well with me. 

Nutaku is home to a library of dozens of hentai and erotica games, with a userbase that outgrew Kongregate's audience of 12 years in a quarter of the time. It's no surprise that the internet is horny, but how does widespread groin heat account for 50 million users a month when porn is already free and limitless elsewhere? Playing a clicker or match-three puzzler with the occasional splash of fairy genitals is a hard sell against free porn streaming sites with near limitless libraries.

According to Nutaku President Mark Antoon, their success isn't solely riding on the potency of said fairy genitals. Their success rides on reaching out to struggling game studios and investing in them under the condition that they add erotic elements to their games and sell them on Nutaku. Sex is selling, the sky is blue, and anime boobs are keeping some small studios afloat in a highly competitive videogame market.  

Foreplay 

It's difficult to imagine that the people behind something as cute and accessible as Pirate Legends would soon be selling the likes of Pussy Saga and Bitch Hunter.

Nutaku was started in January 2016, and is now the largest 18-and-up free-to-play browser and downloadable game platform on the web, Antoon tells me. To be fair, I can't think of any other adult-oriented free-to-play browser and downloadable game platforms off the top of my head, but boasting more users than Kongregate is still a decent deal. 

And while the majority of Nutaku's games follow the tired industry tradition of serving heterosexual men, things are slowly changing. According to the company, the number of women on the site has grown from 8 to 16 percent of the userbase over the last year, a change partially owed to a growing library of games made for multiple sexual orientations. 

But before Antoon and company were building a platform for rude and nude cartoons, they were making games—and failing miserably. 

"We actually started off as game developers ourselves in 2012. At the time we had hired a big group of very expensive developers, artists, game designers, producers, and we launched our first game Pirate Legends, a tower defense game, in 2013," he says.

It's difficult to imagine that the people behind something as cute and accessible as Pirate Legends would soon be selling the likes of Pussy Saga and Bitch Hunter, but the realities of modern digital storefronts tell the story.

Even a front page feature on the Apple App Store couldn't get enough eyes on Pirate Legends in 2012, which had to compete with EA's tower defense monolith Plants vs. Zombies 2, which launched the very same week. After spending around one million dollars in 11 months, Pirate Legends only made $500,000 back. Their studio Super Hippo Games took the hit on the chin and tried again with Don't Be Squared, a runner meant to be a lesser risk that proved an even bigger loss. With a budget of around $200,000 and eight months in development, it only made $15,000 back on the App Store and Google Play combined.

Curation is a problem facing all of the biggest storefronts in gaming. The growing volume of daily releases means Steam, the App Store, and Google Play are burying great games by the minute. Standing out takes one hell of a marketing budget, strong relationships with the companies at the helm, or dumb luck. So rather than try to find an audience in a hurricane, Nutaku was created to develop a smaller audience away from the noise.

Valuable assets

Originally founded as a platform for translating and distributing lesser known Japanese games, Nutaku began working with its former development studio turned publishing partner Super Hippo to invest specifically in the translation of Japanese hentai games, and cemented an identity. Now, they've found enough success to reach out to troubled studios that are in the position they were in during their Pirate Legends days, and invest in them to "adultify" their games. 

"We actually just started a 10 million dollar investment fund, where if you're a studio and you have a game that didn't get the exposure on the stores, and you're pretty much about to close, we go to you and we say, look, we will give you money to adultify it," Antoon tells me. "Say they want $50,000 for five months of development—we'll give them that money over five months. 10K a month, they adultify it, they distribute on Nutaku, and typically they succeed."

War has definitely changed. 

Antoon highlights dating clicker Crush Crush as a notable marker of success, both for Nutaku and developer Sad Panda. As a game that originally launched on Steam without much fanfare, Nutaku gave Sad Panda money and time to add short sex scenes. It has since done extremely well on Nutaku. Specific figures weren't disclosed, but Antoon says that some developers are making 10 times as much as they did on other platforms. 

Armor Blitz, light hero-based tactics game, is another that made a sharp turn from the family friendly App Store and onto Nutaku with new erotic art in tow. "We initially contacted the developers and they were about to launch it in the app store, and we said 'Guys, you want some funding to turn it adult and put it up on Nutaku?'" Antoon continues, "And they said, no, we don't really need that, we're going to make millions in the App Store. They were so confident that they would be successful." Antoon says it only took the devs a week on the App Store to call them back. 

The game making the most surprising leap into Nutaku's damp arms is motorcycle brawler Road Redemption, a project that has been in the works for nearly a year, according to Antoon. 

"We approached them, we funded them to create an adult version of it," he says.

Where does the nudity go?

The new version, due out in early 2018, will feature a new story mode with animated cutscenes that play out between missions, full of sexual content. Because they're a simple reward that don't get in the way of bashing other cyclists with metal pipes, Road Redemption-plus-sex could be one of the horniest motorcycle brawlers ever made and still be as fun to play as before—a game where the rubber truly meets the road. 

It's unlikely that Nutaku will provide the same reach Steam is capable of for something as mainstream as arcade racing, but the adult version will at least stand out on a smaller service built for a more targeted audience.

We approached them, we funded them to create an adult version of it.

Mark Antoon, Nutaku President

The success of an unexpected conversion like Road Redemption's has the potential to encourage other small studios to give their games X-rated makeovers as well. If a motorcycle brawler can inject sex, and do it tastefully without compromising how it feels to play, then what other genres might we see on Nutaku in the years to come? Personally, I have nice dreams about sex-positive 4X games, though I've also ventured a bit too far into Hollow Knight tumblr where the work is already done 100 times over. I'm into bug stuff now. 

Nutaku has proven there's fervent demand for curated sex games, but the company's guerilla approach to recruiting developers has made for some strange products, their original versions still visible beneath a thin layer of cartoon sex, the paint still wet.

Steamy, not quite dreamy

And that's OK according to Antoon. "They're not there to watch porn," he says. "If they want to do that, they can go on Pornhub and and they have almost unlimited content that they can watch completely for free. They come to play our games because they're fun, mostly."

I find it hard to believe that 50 million people are visiting Nutaku just to play Bejeweled clones, but the reason they're visiting isn't the point. There are enough players to warrant bigger games now, such as Shards of Eradine, which is a fully-fledged JRPG with the added incentive of "collecting," and presumably having sex with, a cast of 44 nymphs. Despite its scope, Eradine still depicts women as prizes to be collected for sex, a common thread in Nutaku's library, which heavily features young-looking, submissive characters for the player to court, or collect like toys. The service can and should grow to support games that explore and engage with sexual subject matter in more thoughtful, diverse ways. And that can happen, but only if that's where the money goes.

"At the end of the day, we're a platform, so we distribute wherever the market has to offer," says Antoon, "but we do invest heavily in studios around the world."

Hopefully those investments lead to some change. It's desperately needed. Exploring the library, I found it impossible to ignore how skewed and troubling the framework for the majority of its erotica is. In Crush Crush, you click on women, and automate work and self-improvement tasks in order to inevitably, undoubtedly have sex with the characters. It distills the anxiety of performative masculinity in men, while reducing women to objects, attainable through rote attrition. Harem Heroes treats women like Pokémon, invoking "Gotta catch 'em all!" verbatim. 

Sex-positive games need better representation in the industry, there are plenty of existing games that aren't one-dimensional, like Ladykiller in a Bind's honest approach to consensual BDSM or Coming Out on Top's steamy gay dating fantasy. They're just not on Nutaku, leaving clumsy free-to-play flagbearers like Girls on Tanks at the fore.

Every game that makes it onto the platform is reviewed by compliance team, which is a point in Nutaku's favor compared to Steam's oversightless publishing.

Worse, most of these games are arranged around a loop that quickly points you to a microtransaction store where you can purchase boosters that reduce the time required to click their clothes off. Monetization is necessary for free-to-play games, but many on Nutaku feel especially predatory, using the allure of water balloon breasts to get players to engage with shallow games and egregious monetization systems. In Crush Crush your clicks stop meaning much after 10 minutes or so, at which point you can 'prestige' the game and start over with a slightly juiced clicks, or you can head to the gem store and purchase time slots to boost your progress. You're not meant to get to know these women, you're meant to optimize a coin- or rusty crank-operated machine that removes their clothes. 

To Antoon's credit, some games that make it onto Steam don't even make the cut for Nutaku. Even though the characters are fictional, they must be and look 18 or older, though I think the majority of games on the service sit right on the edge of that line. No depiction of incest is allowed, no animals can be present, even incidentally, in a sex scene. And no sexual violence, blood, or death is allowed. Most importantly, every game that makes it onto the platform is reviewed by compliance team, which is a point in Nutaku's favor compared to Steam's oversightless publishing, which allowed games like House Party.

"[House Party] was given to us by the developer, we looked it over, and our compliance department failed that game," Antoon tells me. "We told them we could not put it up. There was blackmail in it, and we simply said you can't have that. And so we said we couldn't accept it, and guess what, that game is up on Steam today. So a game that we don't accept is acceptable by Steam."

Comedy isn't an excuse for some of the sexual scenarios in House Party. 

House Party released on Steam into Early Access with fully simulated sex scenes, including a scenario that involves stealing provocative photos from a character's phone as leverage in order to blackmail them into having sex. It's a truly gross act played off as frat house comedy. It was available for a month before Steam removed it from their service under the conditions that the developer censor the sexual content, but the blackmailing scene still remains. Nutaku should be commended in this case, despite its uninspiring library.

Antoon is hopeful the diversity of their library can grow, pointing to sister-site Kimochi: Red Light as evidence, touted as Nutaku's own 'Kickstarter for adult games'. A slow, but steady stream of pitches have appeared on the service, many of which received full-funding, though it's unclear how the projects themselves have fared so far. In time, Kimochi could prove to be a reliable way of sourcing money for small developers, as well as a testing ground for riskier, more progressive sex game pitches. So far, there's nothing too surprising up for funding. 

If Nutaku stays principled and capable of reviewing every game coming its way, and takes risks with weird projects like Road Redemption's sexy conversion, I hold out hope that it becomes a distribution platform that finds its feet and doesn't follow the money at the expense of values. With the right leadership, Nutaku could end up being the destination for deep (stop it) sex positive games that explore more than surface level titillation—and cartoon breasts that could smother a gorilla.