The exponential ascension of Blue Archive to Mount Everfame
A retrospective to dissect Blue Archive's history and factors that propelled it to stardom. And no, the bevy of biblical references that underscore it has nothing to do.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I've always emphasised the grueling process of game development is an all-or-nothing roller coaster ride that either makes or breaks. This de facto remark extends to the computer gaming scene, celebrated titles on the front page of Steam or Epic Games that conjure a grandiloquent apparition as a bed of roses, prodding further beneath that rosy picture underlies bloody thorns and sacrifices. On that end of the spectrum, we have also witnessed the dramatic collapse of once stellar and popular games due to numerous bad actors.
Throughout my tenure, many titles have come and gone whose existence either faded into a meagre speck or amounted to a valiant one. However, one can not possibly resist the allure of a masterfully written redemption arc that's a bread-and-butter trope in media. This notion flashed into my mind during one of my many visits down the bustling, vibrant streets of Akihabara, Tokyo.
Being the metropolitan centre that entailed Japanese pop culture, the avenue is constantly flanked by a kaleidoscope of vivid colours from billboards, anime-related merchandise and even the uniforms of that maid dotting the street trying to woo you into paying a visit at their cafe no exception. The billboard space is a tug of war between games with noble providence such as Genshin, one of those anime-IP games. There exists a prominent player that made a foray into the mobile gaming scene. No, we are not taking into account the recent heroic deed of overturning the Korean rating board, but rather the general success and lively fanfare it secured.
Statistics polled from here.
Proudly on the pedestal we have Blue Archive. Down the winding road of game development history, it will always be regarded as the mobile gacha game that underwent the most successful redemption arc. From the rags of infamy shunned initially to an iconic superstar dominating the anime and gaming culture sphere of the international and Japanese markets. If that's not convincing enough to consolidate my claim, bear witness to the overwhelming number of booths dedicated to Blue Archive-related doujin circles in Comiket 102 that took place just two months ago. The amount surpassed even long-established articles like Touhou and threw a wrench into the status quo.
From an absolute wreck to an award-winnerRewinding to the cumbersome days of 2021, it appeared that mobile gaming had come to a standstill after the tempest spawned by Genshin, while also discounting the troubled development of its supposed rival Tower of Fantasy. This is where Blue Archive was silently dropped by Nexon on February 4, 2021, after a closed beta test in June 2020. On a more intriguing note, Yostar, the polar opposite of Nexon in terms of fame, receives publishing rights to handle the game in Japan and, given Yostar's penchant to flex their dominance, it explains why ads for Blue Archive were dotted around the pavilions in Akihabara.
However, here comes the inexorable problem. The moment word got out that Nexon would be at the helm, brows were furrowed and scepticism took root in players' minds. Enthusiasm rapidly waned and sporadic dissent quickly formed. Coincidentally, Nexon wasn't on graceful terms with players considering how they ran their show, with either a game under the belt getting axed, or stifled with monetisation malpractices aimed to throw players off the hook - Lyn: Lightbringer, Korean SinOAlice and OVERHIT bearing the full brunt.
Timing is also off the mark, while the juggernaut Genshin redefined and set the bar high, the non-existent revolutionary, groundbreaking gameplay or mechanisms make Blue Archive appear to be at the short end of the stick. At first glance, it appears to be the run-of-the-mill gacha pandering to the male demographic - another one of those games featuring an all-out female cast, only this time the girls are equipped with conventional ballistic firearms, sporting the morbid theme of school shootings, topped off with a seemingly vapid, hands-off gameplay, along the numerous biblical references dotted in the storyline.
Besides, the game is heavy to run metaphorically with long loading times and overheating issues even on flagships. However, it did not sink into the depths of Marianna Trench and, instead, made a surprising heel turn that startled even the most deadpanning critic, scoring multiple awards at the Korea Games Awards. That said, we are here with our suite of analytical tools to look at the "anatomy of success" of this blue anomaly.
Slice-of-life saves the world with cute and funny violence
Muddle in the mobile gaming world long enough and when the "Blue Archive" buzzword is thrown around, you'll be immediately bombarded with the "rage" emoji, followed by a palpable shrieking "Uoooh" and the derogatory "Needs correction". Sifting through the coarse grains within the golden hourglass in the timeline, Blue Archive first hit the gold bullion with the release of Bunny Girls Asuna and Karin on the JP servers, faithfully replicating Azur Lane's success of how Atago with her foxy charms revved up the engines, propelling the momentum of the "Big Bang of Bunny Karin/Asuna" on Twitter and black-and-white statistics stand as a resounding proof. In that sense, it is completely logical to say the artist Mx2J resurrected the game.
Symbiosis with artists is a key component that adds to the wide-scale appeal of a franchise. It goes without saying that the most successful mobile games out there possess a deluge of fan art and doujinshi by artists, devoting their undying passion either as a token of appreciation to the game itself, or to tell their spin-off, self-contained saga as headcanon. Of certainty, this relationship is often mutualistic as the game amasses its fame and fortune for artists to reap its spoils in return.
Arguably, the quintessential metric that conferred the "darling child" status among fellow artisans is Blue Archive’s art style. Contrary to the hyper-complex outfits or exaggerated body proportions that other games seem to derive pleasure from. The mention of Raita-level character anatomy, much lesser extent would be Taimamin series anatomy is enough to give me the heebie-jeebies.
The roster is mainly dressed in ordinary outfits like JK school uniforms, maid attire, sportswear and casual tees - gone are those ridiculously, criss-cross flamboyant costumes you will only ever chance upon at high-end fashion conventions. Design-wise, Blue Archive characters are strikingly simple, relying on a cell shading colour tone and its character's line art dressed with a clean finish and their overall design radiates fluffy wholesome vibes.
The otaku marketing extravaganza
Undeniably one fact that folks with the most basic sense of business acumen will come to agree is that marketing is part and parcel of getting your game notice. A simple click on YouTube with the legion of ads from the Horsemen of Apocalypse such as RAID and Hero Wars is a testament and coincidentally, Raid Shadow Legends is a solid performer and despite its jarring flaws, Both Plarium and Nexters Global Ltd incentivised brilliantly with their sponsored ads that locked onto the casual mobile gaming market. Below is an example of Nexters' Hero Wars marketing genius at play, sweeping the YouTube ad scene with their seemingly empirical gameplay.
With that in mind, Blue Archive set its sights on the hardcore otakus that find solace in relaxing entertainment involving light-hearted and hearty slice-of-life elements. Blue Archive fits the bill with its cast of mostly petite girls doing cute high school girl stuff, barring their participation in unholy shootouts and street fights between students hailing from different academy cities, perhaps the most brazen setting with the potential to brew up a storm of controversy.
By the time of its birth, the concept of girls packed with gunpowder and ammunition was not a foreign one, as early as 2016 there were already a handful of games selling that same narrative - Girls Frontline that charades that Darker and Edgier trope, to the much less successful Girls Gun Cafe - combat maidens that run a cafe as a side gig.
In retrospect, one boost that Blue Archive had at its vantage is its cheerful and vibrant tone, reminiscent of those cheesy rom coms - du reste, the world of Blue Archive comprises of the healthy fusion of magic and technology. remarkably in the age where games sporting that demoralising, apocalyptic grey tone were crawling all over the marketplace.
For once the world is not in jeopardy due to some man-made concoction or stifling natural maladies, though that will soon twist starting from Volume Three with political strifes plus rising conflict, culminating to an all-out climax in the much-celebrated Final Chapter with scale so major involving parallel dimensions.
For the most part, Blue Archive does not take itself seriously with the story and character at the start with its lighthearted volumes one and two, replete with hijinks and tropes scrubbed from the list on TVTropes.net. A platform for you, the sensei to gleefully engage in fluffy, cringe, edgy and debauchery, made better with a list of endearing students with diverse flair. My favourite is the Red Winter Academy with its Soviet Union motifs and an adorable goofy head Cherino. Instructing your students to rob a bank? Check. Coaching your students to work on a video game creation project? Also, check. The delivery is also bite-sized in contrast to Arknights with a fetish to shove walls of text and exposition down your throat.
Down-to-earth High school science, not rocket scienceLiving in an age where things get progressively simpler and more user-friendly, fading into antiquity will be the generation who enjoys provoking their cerebral capabilities with in-depth rigmarole such as Baldur's Gate or the Elder Scrolls. Blue Archive, much like its contemporaries, opted for a much more casual, automated and simpler gameplay experience where layers of strategy are not apparent to the naked eye at first glance; tact and strategy are only ever demanded in tough content such as Total Assault and Raids.
Considering the modern East Asian working demographic bedraggled with long office hours and little work-life balance - to such an extreme the Japanese coined the term "karoshi" for this slavish culture. Hence, having a suite of convenient quality of life embedded in your game can make it a warm welcome amid a society deeply engrossed in hustle and bustle.
Let's face it, we are also spoiled by the modern conveniences such as the ability to sit back, relax and let the game play itself for monotonous, repetitive levels manifesting itself either as auto-play or sweep, with some games allowing you to multiply your gains in one go. Blue Archive delivers the full package without sacrificing the player's involvement in major moments and decision-making, significantly reducing any occurrence of burnout - a simplified equipment system, stack sweeping in one go. Going as far as to skip battle scenes whereby the outcome is a foregone conclusion is a no-brainer really merits thunderous applause.
Speed of lighting and shower of goodwillTo sum up the inception of Blue Archive with one term, it would be development hell. Its early years are plagued with bugs and poor optimisation - loading screens that irk mobile users. Its branding as a softcore ecchi game is a double-edged sword, especially when mobile authorities force blanket censorship with an iron fist that led to its staggering drop to a rating below two on Google Play due to broken promises of upholding their stance against censorship.
Though, such seething review bombing is a common sight among many Korean gacha games, some with legitimate reasons such as Counter: Side's flopping Origin update and Epic Seven's balance patches. Others are bogged down by sentiments that tie into real life, like the recent Limbus Company controversy.
Just as every resilient and hardy developer does, a trademark quality that made PC games like No Man Sky bounce back from a series of hiccups, Blue Archive does so with an elegance that demands absolute respect and is a redemption arc for Nexon Korea and another stepping stone for Yostar's ascension. Gone are the ridiculous game mechanics that scream antithesis to consumer-friendliness.
For all the bugs and glitches in the matrix, handsome compensations mostly pyroxenes are doled out to players. Monumental milestones - like their official YouTube channel awarded a glossy silver play button - are commemorated with rewards, promoting a sense of inclusivity. Players are well rewarded for their unwavering support during the game's darkest hours. And, oh, did I mention the constant freebies and mass recruitment campaigns they love to pamper their players with?
Back in full circleWhen you’re down at the pits, coasting through the precipice of relevance and existence is a daunting task, even more so for one in the millions who managed to bounce back to be stronger and better than ever - thanks to progressive game design and Yostar's sugar daddy marketing stash, Blue Archive will remain an influential title and case study for years to come.
Adjourning my wall of text with an uplifting tune.