Monday, March 10, 2014

Bandai Namco's ShiftyLook to Close its Doors

Alphaman and Bravoman from Bravoman, ShiftyLook's signature comic strip and cartoon. ©2014 NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.
I’ve wanted to write about ShiftyLook, the comic and cartoon initiative from Bandai Namco Games* and UDON Entertainment, for a while now. Unfortunately, it seems that if I cover it, it will have to be a postmortem: it was officially announced today that the site will cease producing original content as of March 20, with the website closing for good in September.

Founded in 2011, ShiftyLook was a website which featured original content based on some of the lesser-known characters from Namco’s vast library of quirky video games. I hope to showcase some of these before they’re gone for good, but some of the highlights which I recommend you check out are Galaga: The Movie: The Comic, a goofy take on the space shooter featuring two girls and the awesomest jingo-bombastic United States President in fictional history written by Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics, Adventure Time) which was named one of the best comics in any medium of 2013 by website Comics Alliance; Wonder Momo, a fun take on magical girl/sentai tropes which is far more entertaining than the recent run-of-the-mill anime adaptation ShiftyLook launched; Mappy, a very funny and surreal animated series which seems to take the best quirks and dry wit of an Adult Swim series and Homestar Runner and blends them into the workaday saga of a disgraced policeman in an office and his questionable boss; and Bravoman, arguably the site’s signature attraction and both a fantastic webcomic and cartoon with lots of fourth-wall humor and Warner Bros.-esque insanity (and whose animated incarnation features such veteran voice actors as Rob Paulsen and Dee Bradley Baker).

UDON’s official statement as to ShiftyLook’s closure is (perhaps intentionally) vague, but Matt Moylan, who wrote both the Bravoman comic strip and animated series, gave a very critical analysis of why he think the project failed to British comics fansite Bleeding Cool:

Looking at why Shiftylook failed though, there are a lot of reasons. In my opinion they spent far too much money and effort trying to SEEM successful rather than working to actually BE successful. Even though they were just starting out, they set up enormous booths at conventions with live music, arcade machines, free t-shirts etc. None of which seemed to promote what the company actually did – make webcomics. It also always felt like they were following some pre-made guide to how a company grows, constantly moving on to bigger things despite not yet really succeeding at the smaller things. I guess that is the danger of being the subsidiary of a large company like Bandai with near unlimited resources.

Besides that they didn’t seemed to have a monetization plan until very recently. They did finally come out with some minor games near the end of 2013, but I felt neither of them was very well thought out. The Bravoman mobile app to put it lightly was not very good, and add to that a freemium “pay to play” model which is never a fan-pleaser even for a good game. Their second game, Namco High, was a Japanese-style visual novel. It’s a game genre that is barely known in the west. Plus it seemed to be banking largely on Andrew Hussie’s mega-popular Homestuck characters as guest stars to bring in an audience, which kind of begs the question of why does it feature the Shiftylook characters at all? There is still the upcoming Wonder Momo game from WayForward, which actually seems like a perfect match, but too late to save the comics.

In the end, I feel the current webcomics like Bravoman, Wonder Momo, Katamari, and Klonoa are actually at the popularity levels that a decent webcomic SHOULD be at after only 1 or 2 years. If properly monetized, they would probably be able to modestly support their creators, but that’s not near enough to support a company with big expenses like Shiftylook.

UDON will be releasing the ShiftyLook comics in book form, and Moylan is both proud of the work he did and optimistic that perhaps the books will sell well enough to allow him to work with Bravoman again some day in the future. I certainly hope that happens, but even if it doesn’t, I’m glad he and all the folks involved got to have fun with these unusual characters. ShiftyLook introduced me to both some entertaining Namco properties and some entertaining comic creators, and hopefully you out there will get the chance to meet them before the end of the year. I’ll be introducing some of them to you in the weeks to come, but why not meet them for yourselves? I think you’ll be as entertained - and as sad to see them go - as I am.

*As of April 2014, Namco Bandai Games will be officially known as Bandai Namco Games, its Japanese name, worldwide. I’ve jumped the gun when it comes to which name comes first and will refer to the company as Bandai Namco.

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