As the name suggests, Idol Manager is a business management simulation game about running an idol talent agency. With a small capital investment from a strange benefactor, you can start to train your idols’ performance skills, mold their public image, attract loyal fans, and maybe one day even represent Japan on a world stage.
The management gameplay of Idol Manager consists of hiring idols — which have randomly generated appearances, names, and stats — and putting them to work on shows, singles, concerts, ad campaigns, and other business contracts. Each of those nets you money, which you’ll need to pay your rent and employees, and fans, to gain more eyes on your next project.
You’ll also need to manage your idols’ stamina — too much work can lead to injuries, which require several months of recovery time — hire coaches to train their singing and dancing skills, and keep an eye on the relationships between the girls, as interpersonal conflict can lead to a poor group performance.
Money management can be callous early on. It takes a while to build a reliable, steady income, and if you borrow money to cover upfront costs for, say, a concert that bombs, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of debt.
But here’s where I discovered a major balance issue: budgeting becomes a lot easier when you just don’t pay your idols. Setting everyone’s salary to ¥1 will make them periodically complain, but as far as I can tell, they won’t quit, you won’t get bad publicity, and you’ll still get the best employer award every year. (Is this a programming oversight or social commentary?)
Mental stamina is another case where the description of the mechanic doesn’t seem to match how it actually works. I had a challenging time keeping physical stamina up, as your recovery options are limited and, for the most part, can’t be targeted at specific idols, just whoever’s stamina happens to be lowest. But no matter how big of a workload they were under, mental stamina rarely dropped below 100, and only then because of breakups. So splitting stamina into two separate stats seems like a pointless overcomplication.
I also encountered several small, frustrating issues where I wasn’t sure if there was a problem with the interface or with the actual numbers being calculated. For example, idols hosting shows will be automatically replaced when they get injured or are otherwise unavailable. On some occasions, when A and B were hosting a show together, B would be replaced by another copy of A.
Saving a game and then loading will clear your promoted idol selections and the income history of your theater. And when I spent some research points to raise a stat, then changed my mind and reloaded a recent save, the stat increase was still there.
The little things probably wouldn’t have stuck out as much to me if the story segments had been better paced. The story was surprisingly engaging and actually branches into multiple endings as you form closer bonds with other characters, including your mentor and your mysterious rival. However, instead of being spread out over the course of the game and giving you intermediate goals to work on, several story segments might pop up at once and then leave you alone for several in-game years of mostly self-directed gameplay.
Of course, you still have random events, such as potential scandals to address or short conversations between the idols. You can form friendships and even flirt with and date your idols, and while they don’t have a fully fleshed out personality, it can be fun to build your own narrative. Still, when characters are randomly generated and assigned random parts to play, it’s harder to get invested in them than the unique developed characters in the story.
Idol Manager had a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018, raising over 10 times the initial goal of $5,000. By the time of this public release, backers have been playing alpha and beta builds of the game for just over three years.
There’s an analogy to be drawn here from comments made by the in-game characters about the appeal of idols. It’s not just about becoming a fan of someone who’s already talented and successful; it’s about following an idol as she develops her career. As someone who first played Idol Manager as a finished product, I don’t have that kind of emotional investment in the development process. But as in the game, hardcore and casual fans are attracted by different things, and that’s okay.
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