Where is iM@S Going?

I took the last two days to talk about two series very close to my heart. Today I’m talking about the one that had stayed with me for longest – The iDOLM@STER.

The future of the iM@S franchise is very important to me. At this point, I’ve invested too much into the franchise both emotionally and financially for it to go under. So I’d like to review the year for the franchise while I have the chance.

2017 has been an interesting year for the franchise. We’ve not seen any explosive developments, with the fandom continuing to grow at a steady pace, but several key developments and elements to the series’ current progression could have a large impact on the series’ future – both good and bad. So, I’d like to examine the four currently active series – 765 Production, Million Live, Cinderella Girls and SideM – and see if we can’t figure out where iM@S is going.


765 Production

Being the original and my introduction to the franchise, the developments in the 765 Production series are probably the most important to me. Moreover, the decisions with 765Pro are going to have a large impact on iM@S’ future – perhaps for the worst.

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I’ve been talking about Bandai Namco phasing the original 765Pro out and letting them retire for a while now. From a narrative perspective, it would’ve given the 2014 movie a lot more depth, most likely saving it from the averageness it was. Plus, by phasing them out, the movie could have become the bridge from 765Pro to Million Live. Love Live made a similar move in 2016 when they retired the u’s group in order to pass the baton over to the new Aquors.

More crucial for Bandai Namco however, are probably the long-term financial benefits that retiring 765Pro would have. A final 765Pro concert would sell thousands of tickets and BluRays, and the amount of time-specific merchandising that could be done is unreal. If they had chosen to end the 765Pro story with the movie also, it would’ve boosted ticket and BluRay sales even more, as fans rushed to ensure they were able to experience the original cast’s final hurrah.

Furthermore, with most of the original iM@S cast being around for over 10 years now, ever since the release of the first arcade cabinet, time is now becoming an issue for the seiyuus. Not only are they getting older and therefore less and less able to stick to strict scheduling and perform in gruelling 4 hour lives, the reality is that the seiyuus have many more things to worry about now than just their work for iM@S. Many now have families, and other commitments professionally. Takane Shijou voice actor Yumi Hara’s recent decision to put her singing career on hold to focus on her voice acting career is a decision many of the seiyuus will eventually have to make, in time. Will all of them choose iM@S? Not necessarily.

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In addition, the prolonged existence of 765Pro has meant that the series has continued to cast it’s long shadow on other, emerging series. It must be tough for the other series to compete with 765Pro – after all, they were the innovators, everything else has merely been an imitation, at it’s core. With that in mind, the fact that Bandai Namco chose to release a new standalone 765Pro game in the same year that both Million Live and SideM finally got their own rhythm game mobile games, is a risky move to say the least.

To be honest, I was against the very concept of Stella Stage from the beginning. Only last year did Bandai Namco release Platinum Stars – the first PS4 iM@S game – which disappointed me greatly. Not only were the RPG “idol-raising” mechanics a significant downgrade from The iDOLM@STER 2, relying more on chance than skill, but even the rhythm game portion paled in comparison with the mobile games. Sure, it was by far the best looking iM@S game, but why would I choose to play it over Starlight Stage or Theatre Days when the beatmaps were so uninteresting and disengaging? Compound that with a lacklustre track listing in a clear attempt to sell DLC, and many of those who were excited for the game were left disappointed. To release a new game, and therefore try to brush the shortcomings of Platinum Stars under the carpet, is a bad move on Bandai Namco’s part.

Another bad move was that, by releasing Stella Stage alongside the new mobile games, they are now asking male otaku fans to split their attention three ways – to Starlight Stage, Theatre Days and now Stella Stage. Many fans won’t do that – some of the releases will therefore be looked over, and numbers across the board on Bandai Namco’s side will not look as good as they probably envisioned. This is especially unfair for Theatre Days, who are not only trying to come into the mainstream but also trying to attain the same level of success that the original 765Pro did. With the wind being taken out of their sails by Stella Stage, it’s going to be hard for them to do so – and that’s a real shame.

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But to be fair, Bandai Namco are between a rock and a hard place. If they don’t develop new 765Pro titles, then fans will get angry, and if they don’t develop the other series, those fans will get angry in turn. Ultimately, their mistake was not taking the right decision at the right moment in 2014 to say goodbye to the original 13 idols. This mistake has been further confounded in 2017, and will definitely have a negative effect on the franchise’s future if nothing is done.


Million Live

In taking the decision to retire 765Pro, Million Live should have been the franchise to come and take it’s place. Even though this eventually didn’t happen, it has done it’s best to reach that goal – despite being held back by the previously mentioned events that were out of their control.

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Million Live idols debuting in the 2014 movie (back)
We’ve been waiting since 2014, ever since the Million Live idols were introduced in the iM@S movie, for a proper game to be released. That’s right, not one of these social card games (who even plays those?) but an honest to god, rhythm game gacha hell mobage. And it finally happened in 2017 – Million Live Theatre Days was released – and it’s damn good.

On a technical level, Theatre Days is by far one of the most well-engineered and advanced mobile games out there. It seems to use a form of the Platinum Stars engine, since it uses many of the same assets, but obviously has downscaled many of it’s features in order to run on a mobile phone. Even so, it looks absolutely phenomenal.

Moreover, because of it’s more advanced engine, the mobage has a much more intuitive design than something like Starlight Stage, who’s design is becoming increasingly hard to navigate due to the number of things hidden under menus and increasingly bloated as it continues to add new systems to it’s aging framework. For newcomers, Theatre Days is very easy to pick up and doesn’t rely on experience with the game and its systems to have a good time. In this sense, Theatre Days has the possibility to catapult Million Live further into the mainstream. It’s a mobage built for modern times and modern consumption – but it’s content, sadly, seems not to be.

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The speed of songs being added to the game is… slow. At least, it feels like that. The amount of songs has just about doubled since launch, but there are still barely 30 songs. Whenever I go from playing Starlight Stage, where I can play hundreds of songs, to Theatre Days, I really feel this lack of content. I’m sure many other fans also feel the same – that despite how much they actually like the game, they struggle to play it seriously because of the lack of variety.

That being said, the quality of the songs released has been consistently high. Songs like Blue Symphony, Marionette wa Nemuranai, Fairy Tale ja Irarenai and Shooting Stars are some of the best songs in the entire iM@S catalogue. I only actively dislike one song (Good-Sleep Baby), so that’s a pretty good ratio if you ask me. Bandai Namco seem to be taking their time in ensuring quality over quantity, which is generally a good long-term strategy, but not a good strategy if you want to catapult something into the mainstream.

Moreover, it’s not like Theatre Days is that comparable to Starlight Stage anyway. It’s gameplay mechanics are actually very different, in a good way. The even-numbered beatmaps are much more intuitive as there’s no longer any confusion as to what finger should press the middle note, since there isn’t one. Visual novel elements are also much better integrated into the game. As the Producer, you can navigate the 765 Pro Live Theatre in a 3D space, interact with idols and discover new commus and therefore new songs that way. Unlike Starlight Stage’s method where you have to navigate through menus and into a special commu environment, seemingly detached from the normal gameplay, Theatre Days is a lot more integrated. This is no doubt due to the superior engine of the game, showcasing further the superior build quality of the game.

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Even so, several things are holding the game and therefore the series back from gaining attention and popularity. The perpetuation of 765Pro solo games takes fan attention away from other titles in the franchise, and Theatre Days in particular since a large part of the Million Live fandom also are also involved with the 765Pro fandom. In addition, problems with the game itself such as the slow pace of song addition as well as the lack of songs compared to other mobage, prevent many like myself from fulling engaging with the game. Bandai Namco needs to address these problems in the future in order to allow Million Live the popularity it deserves.


SideM

By far the biggest development in the iM@S franchise this year was the SideM series. Before this year, I was only vaguely aware of it’s existence, and the following it had cultivated seemed to be a select few. But now, it has caught up with Million Live in terms of popularity – and that’s due to three key reasons.

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No, W, I said three reasons…

The first, more simplistic one, is that the amount of content being created for the SideM series has skyrocketed in 2017. It’s social media card game “SideM” has been going since 2014, but we finally got a proper game in the form of “Live on St@ge” in 2017. Furthermore, an anime adaptation of the series began in the autumn of 2017, helping the series reach a new audience on TV and, in the West, through simulcasting. These two new additions run alongside the original social media SideM game, meaning that the breadth and depth of content available to fans is now quite deep – much more than Theatre Days.

Secondly, the SideM series has been cultivating fans from a demographic wholly unexplored by the franchise up until this point – fujoshis or, rather, female otaku. Unlike Theatre Days and Cinderella Girls which both look to the male otaku market for support, thus competing for opportunities between one another; SideM doesn’t have to compete with other series’ in the franchise in it’s quest to take over the fujoshi market. In this sense, it seems obvious that the series has managed to grow at a such a fast rate.

But on a more emotional, less obvious level, there is something special about SideM within the iM@S franchise itself. In many ways, SideM feels like a continuation of the 765Pro story – not only is Jupiter’s story explored from after the developments in the 2011 anime, but Haruka has made an appearance in the show as well as the SideM cast actually going to a 765Pro live in the story. Thematically, the show explores many of the same themes that the 2011 anime did – dreams, reality and what it means to be an idol. The decision to focus the series around an ensemble cast who interact with one another instead of vignettes like the Cinderella Girls anime also harks back to the 2011 series. Furthermore, the mobile game has taken the RPG elements sorely missing since The iDOLM@STER 2 and integrated them into it’s mobile game.

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For those, such as myself, who have been searching for a true successor to the 765Pro legacy, SideM is emerging as a possible contender. Previously I would’ve pinned Million Live as such, but now I’m not so sure. Many problems with Million Live, now that I’ve played Theatre Days, have made me doubt myself. Yet SideM seems to be going from strength to strength. It’s not perfect, no – the game has some elements I don’t like, such as the beatmap and control scheme, and entrusting A-1 Pictures with the anime’s production has made it very average in terms of direction and visuals – but overall, SideM has managed to capture at least some of the spirit of 765Pro. Going forward to 2018, I look forward to how SideM continues to do this, and in turn, continue to capture my heart.


Cinderella Girls

Compared to the other series in the franchise, Cinderella Girls seems, at first, to have had a relatively quiet year. But it has quietly consolidated itself over the past year, therefore ensuring it’s continued success and relevance in the franchise.

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Starlight Stage still remains the best mobage out of all of the iM@S mobages. Even though Theatre Days’ gameplay is arguably better due to it’s more intuitive six-note beatmap, Starlight Stage still has the largest catalogue of songs, which it constantly adds new ones to at a furious pace. Lots of these songs have also been some of my favourite released in the franchise this year, such as∀NSWER in March; Mouretsu★Yonaoshi Guilty! in May; Little Riddle in June; and then Triad Primus’ long-awaited return Trinity Field in November. Despite being at the top of the market, Starlight Stage hasn’t rested for a second and continues to add great songs to the game at a palatable rate.

Beyond songs, Starlight Stage has done some great work in consolidating it’s gameplay to compete with Theatre Day’s superior elements. It has reworked the health mechanic, making healers more viable and useful since now you can “overheal”; Master+ was finally introduced to the game outside of events; and SMART live was added, literally giving players a whole dimension in which to experience songs. Instead of trying to innovate and reinvent to compete with Theatre Days, Starlight Stage has made the smart decision to consolidate and refine its already great gameplay, in order to retain long-standing fans. My only problem is that, with these new gameplay options, the game’s UI is becoming increasingly bloated and hard to navigate; a problem I hope the developers address in 2018.

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In this sense, Cinderella Girls has stayed the number one mobage, but how has it been competing with SideM on the anime front? Last year, we were treated to the surprise OVA series Cinderella Girls Theatre, which adapted some of the comics seen on the loading screens of Starlight Stage. 2017 saw the broadcast of season two, which I’m happy to say is as good as ever. Not only is it helping to keep Cinderella Girls relevant, but also seems to be in a sense trying to make up for the lacklustre Cinderella Girls anime.

Even so, I really do think that the Cinderella Girls series could benefit from a new anime. The last one in 2015 was a trainwreck to say the least, and didn’t do much to show the general public how good the Cinderella Girls series can be. Cinderella Girls Theatre has done some work to offset this mistake, but more could and should be done – Cinderella Girls deserves better. In this sense, I’d like to see a new anime series, but more likely than that would be a movie, as 765Pro did in 2014. Whatever form this project takes, I think it would benefit the series and the franchise as a whole greatly, since we’d be able to just go and forget the 2015 series. Yeah, that sounds good. Beyond this minor problem, the developments in the Cinderella Girls franchise have been largely positive – if a little low-key, which is something 765Pro could learn a lesson or two from.


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Thankfully, the iM@S franchise didn’t destroy itself in 2017 – not that that was a particularly likely event anyway, but I’m relieved all the same.

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SideM has been one of the most positive developments, bringing in a new audience from the fujoshi demographic as well as producing a good amount of content for new fans with it’s mobage, social game and anime. It also has continued to enchant old-school fans like myself, since it has managed to touch upon a little bit of the spirit of the original 765Pro iM@S – something I’m sure it will continue to capitalise upon, much to my wallet’s distain.

I wish I could say the same for Theatre Days. At it’s core, I really enjoy the Million Live franchise – it has great songs, a great mobage and pretty great cast of characters. But it has been held back by 765Pro, who continue to take the wind out of their sails, preventing them from spreading their own wings and becoming the successor it deserves to be. Unfortunately, Bandai Namco’s persistence in perpetuating 765Pro is the cause of this – something it needs to address if it wants the franchise to continue to grow in a positive fashion.

To make way for the new developments in the franchise, Cinderella Girls has had a quieter year – something 765Pro should take the example of – but it has continued to improve and consolidate itself. Because of this, Cinderella Girls will continue to grow and remain as a pillar of the franchise as it introduces new elements and changes in the future.

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So where is iM@S going? It’s going to new places, and not always through the best methods. Over the next few years, we’re going to be seeing big changes in the dynamics of the franchise, both through which series dominate, as well as the makeup of the fanbase. 2018 is shaping up to be an interesting year for iM@S – and a year which I’ll be following attentively with all my heart, as usual.


 

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