As of lately, we have done a whole lot of interviews that cover lewd games, censorship and creative freedom for game developers (we covered those subjects and a whole lot more in our interview with Studio FOW, Mark Kern, Eroges, Nutaku and Frostworks).
Well, today we’re going to continue on the same path. You see, I got a chance to do an interview with the owner of Top Hat Studios (Mr. Joseph Brown).
So we ended up talking about everything from lewd games, game development, game publishing, censorship to Top Hat Studios thoughts on their Hat Rack storefront.
And with that said, please enjoy our interview with Top Hat Studios!
I’m going to kick-off this interview by having you introduce yourself to our readers. So please go ahead and do so.
My name’s Joe, or “Bonesy” as I’m more commonly known online. I own Top Hat Studios, we’re a publishing and development studio mainly interested in niche titles.
We’re probably the most well-known for publishing anime visual novels and RPGs, as well as lewd games, which we’re currently most well-known for but are rapidly expanding; we’re also launching a resilient storefront to fight industry censorship – among other – issues later in the year we’re calling Hat Rack.
How exactly did everything start with Top Hat Studios? (how, when, where and why) And how did you even come up with the name for the studio? (is there any special meaning behind the name?).
Top Hat Studios was a kind of pet project when I was really young, like around early high school. It was kind of an unofficial thing I used to label stuff I used to work on, such as RPGMaker games and other things.
I learned to program in middle school, and used to work on pet projects all the time. Over time, in middle school, I started taking up contract programming work, and as it became more of a job for me, Top Hat Studios shifted from an unofficial thing to an actual company.
I did professional freelance programming for quite a while, and over time learned about the industry, business, and stuff like that. I had a lot of bad experiences with publishers myself during that time, so knowing how things work, I decided to upstart a publishing house myself, alongside the in-house game development we do.
I got involved with visual novels and R18 titles out of personal interest basically, and then I just stayed in the niche from there; to me, the scene seemed like it really needed the most help growing, and there were a lot of underrepresented developers in it.
I wouldn’t really say there’s any special meaning to the name to be honest. When I was a kid I was a big fan of magicians and such, and the name was kind of derived from how cool I thought their uniforms looked.
Since I started the studio unofficially when I so young, I’ve kind of kept it that way for nostalgia reasons, haha.
Top Hat Studios has published quite a few games over the years. So with that fresh in mind, which games are you the proudest of?
And which games have been the most successful ones in terms of sales and good review grades?
I’d probably say we’re the most proud of Karmasutra, just because of the scale of the game. It’s almost like 300k words, and the actual story has received a lot of praise because of its unique setting and subject matter, no less for a game which also has a lot of lewd stuff in it.
There’s a lot to digest in the game if people dig enough, and I’m definitely happy with how everything came out.
Also, although it’s not fully released yet (it’s getting there), I’m also incredibly thrilled with everything about Project Sense; the development team there has been doing an amazing job with the art, the music, and the story, and I think people are going to be blown away by it as we get closer to release.
Not so long ago it became publicly known that Top Hat Studios had announced their very own digital storefront for uncensored games (it’s called “Hat Rack”). So what could you tell us about the Hat Rack store?
And how did it even came to be?
We’re planning on launching our storefront, Hat Rack, during late Q2 or Q3 of this year. When it comes to this storefront, we’re pretty excited about it. It’s been a pretty large undertaking, but it’s definitely something we’re incredibly excited to share with everyone.
We think – hopefully – it’ll be a large moment for both ourselves as well as the rest of the industry, at least for those who are involved in the type of content we’ll be carrying on the store.
We’re working hard to make sure we can pack in as many features as we can; things like gifting, regional pricing, Android support, etc. that a lot of people have been asking for.
The story of how it came to be is a bit complicated. I wouldn’t say that Steam is solely responsible for the decision by any means, but the recent string of banning of certain games did certainly push us past our motivation threshold.
We’re disappointed with the decision on Steam’s part, but at the end of the day, it’s their platform – so if they aren’t interested in carrying certain games, someone has to step up to the plate there.
Lots of developers and publishers are getting hurt significantly by how poor (and unpredictable) some of the industry can be to visual novels and lewd games.
We know there are a few other platforms selling stuff like this – for example, IndieGala now allows lewd stuff which is a cool move – and there’s always places like Nutaku and such.
They certainly have their place in the industry, and are a great help to developers and publishers alike, myself included.
However, there are certain things we just want to be able to do or certain problems in the industry we’ve identified and want to do something about, and we can’t always wait on someone else to solve those problems.
We’re not really here to fight other platforms, we’re here to carve a niche and give developers and publishers – and of course, namely consumers (who really get screwed more than anyone by all this industry stuff) – the love they deserve.
Here’s a follow-up question on the same subject. How has the response and feedback been from game developers, gamers and the gaming news media in the wake of the Hat Rack store announcement?
The response since our announcement has been pretty positive for the most part, with most of the comments we’ve seen lauding an alternative to current platforms (especially in wake of what’s going on with Steam), which personally I think shows just how disaffected most people are by the current norms in the industry.
We’ve seen a lot of people be a bit skeptical however, which we completely understand, and we’ve received a lot of questions about censorship, “taste-policing”, or worries about deplatforming (whether us enacting it, or us being deplatformed by payment processors).
We understand a lot of these worries for sure, so not only have we been building the store with resilient technologies and processors, but we’ve also been preparing transparency reports on all the questions we’ve been getting and FAQs so people know what to expect; we don’t have an ulterior agenda.
Lack of transparency hurts everyone involved and causes confusion (which is directly related to issues people have had with already existing storefronts), so we hope these transparency reports will mitigate the concerns some people have had.
Larger news media sites have been predictably silent on our storefront so far, which has been predictable. We’ll see what happens there I guess, haha.
What’s your thoughts on censorship in games in general? And do you think that forced censorship has now become a thing in the West? (on a personal level, I see this as a threat to creative freedom and freedom of speech).
I mean, big game companies like Valve (Steam), Sony (all their platforms) and the Epic Games Store are very anti-lewd and politically incorrect content…
One Angry Gamer
Censorship is a pretty hard and long-winded issue. I’m obviously (personally) vehemently against anything which restricts freedom of creativity and freedom of speech, and our storefront will reflect that.
That said, censorship is something which means different things to different people, which is where I think there’s a lot of the confusion and anger can stem from.
In the case of someone like Valve, I genuinely am not sure if there’s any ulterior motive here or what; I think to a degree they just want to sell what they see as “legal”, and in doing so have opened a can of worms.
They’re active in so many countries, and legality means insanely different things in different countries. They’re not just registered in the US either, so they’re trying to comply with laws from every country they’re registered in, which sometimes contradict each other.
I mean, companies like Valve (and Epic Games) aren’t associated with the anime industry, no less the extended industry we’re talking about here, so they’re coming from a completely clueless stance there.
They don’t know about the subculture, and from what I understand, most people working there are like mid to late 40s or older basically.
So I’m not shocked there; a lot of traits of this medium go against a lot of preconceived western notions here and a lot of people still associate certain things with illegality or bordering on it because of media hype for example especially older generations.
I give Valve slight credit for even deciding to go with this decision in the first place, at least, but I understand it’s complicated. These are staffers who’s idea of video games and media probably likely doesn’t extend too far outside of like whatever the mainstream promotes or makes.
Do I think it’s ridiculous that these people are running almost monopolistic platforms though? Of course, but I guess it would be like showing punk music to early 1900s musicians and such; they just wouldn’t know what to do, and probably assume it was illegal for how crass it was, haha.
It’s not perfect by any means – there’s some more nuance to it – but I think that’s a decent comparison for what’s going on here.
We had to overcome hurdles for people when it came to “violent” video games at one point too, so I think this “sexuality” censorship thing is the next hurdle, it’s just come in a very unfortunate climate.
When it comes to other types of censorship though – say what’s happening on social media – that’s a whole different can of worms.
That’s far more driven by, you know, more malicious things. It’s a cultural phenomenon we haven’t learned to deal with as a whole yet.
Basically, though, censorship is something that I feel I could probably write forever on. I’m against it personally, and we’re against it as a company. Creativity shouldn’t be stifled and creator speech shouldn’t be restricted.
And on the same subject, more and more games are now being censored in the West. So much so that some games are already censored BEFORE they even come to the West.
Why do you think this is? And what can gamers, publishers and game developers do to avoid this nonsense behavior?
Besides part of what I said above applying here; we’re just at this kind of intersection we haven’t fully seen before.
Industries that shouldn’t have much to do with each other are intersecting because of how much-consolidated power many monopolies have.
Entertainment is crossing boundaries and audiences of mediums are being shared with, again, other audiences that otherwise have nothing to do with each other.
The same thing is happening in parallel to publishers and developers. There are some decent things happening as a result of this, just publishers/developers from Japan having an outlet to sell to foreigners for example, but a lot of bad has come out of this too, because of (to put it bluntly), vastly different norms in the types of media and entertainment here.
Bureaucracy plays a part here too, especially in bigger corporations. Some companies have hundreds – if not thousands – of employees. The vision and beliefs of the companies get highly diluted at one point.
Let’s say you hire one person who hires another person, who then hires another person in a managerial position who believes games should function a certain way – now you might end up with an entire sector of people who believe that, or function in that way.
It’s like a game of telephone; one the message gets diluted at one point, each point down the supply chain gets more and more diluted from there.
Especially when you’re reliant on public trading or investors – like all the big guys like Sony are for example – it’s easy to see how this stuff happens. These massive corporations sometimes don’t know what to do; they get caught in these massive paradoxes of constantly wanting to upscale themselves and get bigger.
However, the bigger they get, the more people they have, and the more they have to deal with decisions getting more and more complicated and varied.
They end up alienating their core audiences to try and bring in new ones at the behest of bureaucracy or investors. It’s a balance that basically all major companies lack.
That’s why working with smaller, focused teams like the Project Sense developers (Suzaku) or Radi Art is so appealing.
Without the massive overburdened bureaucracy or dilution of standards that come with having overgrown sized companies, you end up with visions that are exceptionally fine, detailed and articulate.
Another issue I think is relevant would be that as companies get bigger – especially international conglomerates – the way they process news is different.
A lot of company tend to have archaic business structures, and thus tend to misunderstand or misinterpret foreign media and audiences. This, of course, ties in with what I said above.
Big corporations are hard beasts to wrestle with, and the more they try to expand and please general audiences, the more this results in inherent biases and misconceptions forming – not to mention, again, that this is further diluted through a massive bureaucracy.
I think that’s why, to me, “grassroots” and independent companies are so important; it helps connect audiences and developers from different regions in a more direct form.
At the end of the day, individual developers don’t mean a ton to big guys like Sony – we’re just cogs in a machine. This is what I want to correct with Hat Rack, for example.
I want to create a place which really cares about both developers and consumers, and isn’t tied up in this wider machine.
As far as the second question, that’s genuinely a hard one. If you take a company like Sony, and you want to publish on Playstation, there’s genuinely nothing you can do. You have to go with their regulations to be on their platform.
At least when it comes to PC gaming you have alternatives, but from a developer/publisher standpoint, the issue comes from income. You can go on Steam censored and make more money, or release elsewhere and make money, but not as much.
And when I not as much, the amount different can be staggering – like, insane. So what’s the solution here?
To me, we’re at a hard intersection. So censoring games isn’t the developer/publisher’s choice the majority of the time – if you’re angry about it, that anger should really be directed at the platform if anything.
Buy products directly from developers/publishers, and support storefronts/platforms which support these anti-censorship stances.
In other words, it’s not a hopeless battle or anything, just one that people need to be patient about for now. It’s like I said about Hat Rack; People are working on solutions, and these solutions need your support.
I can’t be the only one that’s wondering this, but why do you think that lewd content and nudity is such a big deal in the West nowadays?
I mean, to my knowledge, most erotic games are aimed towards adults. So what’s the big deal? (make love, not war!)
I think I kind of answered this in your original question about censorship, as that stuff certainly applies here.
It’s a cultural hurdle we haven’t really fully accepted yet first off, and second off, because of large markets colliding, we’re seeing cultures and niche groups which should otherwise have no business with each other intersecting, and it’s causing quite a bit of chaos.
Especially as things continue to be more interconnected and information travels faster, over-representation of outrage and instant discourse is becoming more of an issue.
People are more willing to push boundaries than ever, but at the same time, when they say something, it travels across the internet and reaches the complete opposite end of the world instantly.
So there’s a mix of voices in response to that, and especially on a higher level, it’s harder to distinguish between your actual audience and people showing up just to complain – especially when the two just start fighting each other, haha.
What could you tell us about your and Radi Art’s upcoming yuri thriller visual novel game “Synergia”?
Synergia is a product we’re incredibly excited about; even on just a visual level, the game absolutely oozes aesthetics.
The art style is incredibly unique, and there’s so much visually to be absorbed – and that’s not even mentioning the soundtrack, which really works to bring the game to life.
There’s so much passion being put into it by the developer, that we’re incredibly excited to see what people think of the project.
Story-wise, there’s really a lot on the table for people to absorb. It’s a yuri thriller of course, but there’s a lot of elements of the story which I think people will find interesting; echoes back to things like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner.
There’s a lot about human nature, sexuality (from the love standpoint really), and societal discussion without being preachy or pretentious but also avoiding being cryptic or anything like that.
We’re aiming to have the game out this summer – until then people can find the game’s Steam page and wishlist/follow the game here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1047010/Synergia/
What thoughts went through your mind when it became clear that your and Epic Works action/romance visual novel “Rainbow Dreams” had succeeded) on Kickstarter?
And what does the game plan look like for “Rainbow Dreams” at this time? (release date, pre-order bonuses, collector’s items and so on).
We’ve ran a few kickstarters for a few different games now, and seeing the community’s response to the games each time is always the best, and most helpful, part.
Beyond the monetary or promotional aspects, we think kickstarter is a great way to get feedback from the community – a way to make sure we’re on the right track, and that our followers are genuinely interested in our projects.
Epic Works makes games out of passion for the genres they work in, and it’s really great to know that a community exists which can propel niches they work in forward.
It’s important for us to be able to connect with the community, and we’re happy people enjoyed Rainbow Dreams and were able to support it.
Right now we’re looking at a release date probably in late May or so. We’re not sure if we’ll bring back collector’s items in the future beyond having offered them in the kickstarter.
Maybe we’ll do a giveaway if we have extras after printing the rewards?
I could be wrong now, but from what I understand it. Top Hat Studios is going to handle the following upcoming games:
“The 7 Wonders of St. Clementine”
“Cultivating Immortality: A Tale of Monster Girls”
If I got all that right, then what could you tell us about those titles?
We have quite a bit of upcoming games, but these are indeed some of them. Each of these games are pretty different, and we speak to the genre diversity we’re trying to cultivate in our catalog; we don’t want to be pigeonholed to only ever publishing one thing. We’ll say a bit about
St. Clementine is a horror game which puts a lot of interesting twists on the typical horror formula. The developers themselves are from Indonesia, and the game draws a lot from the formulas of Japanese horror – think Ju-On for example.
It’s packaged in a sort of anime-like package, but it’s definitely more horror than anything else. Horror is an interesting genre when used right in visual novels – we think the folks who made The Letter did an interesting job for example – and along with the team behind St Clementine, Imagine Fantasia, we’re hoping to put out a game which really plays with what can be achieved with the visual novel format for horror games.
Cultivating Immortality is a fun game we’re working on alongside a newly formed team called Dream Spiral. It’s just a kind of short, fun and lewd game about Monster Girls, which was inspired a lot from the Chinese-fantasy genre of Wuxia.
We’re playing around with a different type of development formula for this one; the game will be released for free (100% free), and from there we’re planning to roadmap where to take the game’s world and characters based on reception.
The Sanctum is in kind of early development at the moment, but those who are familiar with the “trainer” genre of adult games will be right at home.
The setting is a kind of urban fantasy basically – people familiar with the developer’s, La Cucaracha Studios, last game (Make Love Not Waagh!!) will probably be familiar with what to expect in that regard.
It’s a pretty expansive game overall, and has a nice mix of trainer-like and management gameplay alongside more typical visual novel aspects. We’ll have a lot more information on the game soon!
Does Top Hat Studios have any plans on releasing their games on other platforms than just PC in the future? (mobile, PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and so on).
That’s a good question, we definitely do. Sense will be coming to a lot of these platforms for example – we’re the most excited about bringing some VNs to Switch in the future as well.
While we’ll be bringing some games, notably Sense, to Sony Consoles in the near future, we have to admit we’re becoming a bit more disillusioned with Sony’s recent choices and statements lately – especially the one on “sexual” content.
Still though, we have a partnership with them for publishing, and as long as they don’t especially try and strong-arm us, we’ll continue to work with them.
As far as mobile, yes! One of the titles we’re looking at to bring over to mobile platforms as an example, is our upcoming VN-RPG adventure game, An Adventurer’s Tale.
We have lots of games we’re working on bringing to Android soon – and our upcoming storefront will have Android support as well.
iOS is a bit tougher due to Apple’s pretty harshly enforced guidelines though, and as a much more controlled ecosystem, things like sideloading are quite complicated.
What makes a great lewd game great in your opinion? Or just any game in general for that matter?
Good question. I think games are great if they do too things: A) accomplish what they set out to do and B) connect with the audience. They should, of course, also actually be fun, or make a memorable impression on the player and audience.
Not every game needs to tell a bombastic story for example, but I think games should inherently connect on some level with the audience – even if it’s just by being incredibly fun.
I don’t think lewd games are different; I mean, sure, they contain some adult content, but they’re still games. They still should be fun and still should be good experiences for the audience in the same way.
Different games have different goals – some want to be fast paced, some want to tell a story, etc. – I don’t think there’s anyone singular formula, but I do think that a game is only really “great” if it successfully does what it set out to do, and if its audience agrees, at least to a degree.
Is it really correct that your and Suzaku’s 2.5D cyberpunk game “Project Sense – A Cyberpunk Ghost Story” is coming to PC this fall/winter?
And is there anything else that you could tell us about the game and its upcoming release? (will there be some nice launch surprises? For example)
We’re planning on bringing Sense – to PC/Mac/Linux at first – around this upcoming late Q4 more than likely. It’s an exciting experience for us; even just play-testing the game behind the scenes or seeing artwork and music come in is always a ton of fun.
We think Sense is really going to be one of the best examples of what true indies can accomplish when they stick to their own principles and direction, especially with the support of the community.
Sense is a game which we’re excited about not just because it’s an amazing product, but because it’s an amazing product that didn’t have any intervention from the higher-ups. No secret investors, no behind the scenes conspiracies, no AAA or major money.
It’s a testament not just to what indies can accomplish, but also a step forward for both Suzaku and us in carving out our own niche in the industry, and proof that the community enjoys and supports games like this.
Every little detail of Sense really oozes quality – from the music to the art, to the little details and story spread out in the narrative and environment.
We think there’s something for everyone; people who love survival horror will feel right at home, people who love cyberpunk and heavy lore will have something, and even people just there for the sexy characters, haha. There’s an incredibly talented team working on it, and it definitely reflects in the product.
As far as launch surprises go, we have some things planned – just keep your eyes open for the time being.
As for my very last question, what’s your plans, expectations, hopes and goals for the rest of the year?
And is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?
Well, we have a whole lot scheduled for this year. Lots of games – like lots of games – and of course our upcoming storefront. We have a lot of surprises for our fans too, and things we want to expand into.
We think this will be an incredibly strong year, and there’s a ton we’re excited about. Basically, we’d wrap this up by saying to keep tabs on our social media; we have a ton of stuff upcoming that we can’t wait to share with our community.
Beyond that, just wanted to say thanks for interviewing us, and thank you to the community, and our fans, for supporting us. We’re determined to carve out a definitive slice of the industry, and we’re going to keep striving for our goal.
Robin “V-Act” Ek
Editor in chief
The Gaming Ground
More by Robin Ek:
Save 3$ with our Play-Asia coupon code "thegg"