The Japanese site AnimeAnime is reporting that Square Enix will shut down its U.S. and French digital manga websites; although this news has yet to appear on the U.S. site, the news sites Crunchyroll and Anime News Network have picked up on it and there is a notice on the French site. The news comes as no surprise, as Square Enix has been having a bad year. They were projecting a net loss at the end of last fiscal year, their president is stepping down, and they laid off a large portion of their staff earlier this month.
Square Enix is the Japanese publisher for a number of popular properties, but they don’t publish them in the U.S. under their own name; their line includes Fullmetal Alchemist (published by Viz) and Black Butler (Yen Press’s top-selling Japanese manga).
Yen Press publishing director Kurt Hassler announced at New York Comic Con that Yen would be partnering with Square Enix to release their manga digitally on a variety of platforms worldwide.
Unlike JManga, which despite its myriad faults was user-friendly and relatively easy to use, the Square Enix North American digital manga store was poorly designed and embodied many of the worst aspects of digital comics distribution.
It was a streaming website, so you couldn’t download the comics, but it also required the reader to download a special manga reader, so that the comics were locked to a single computer, taking away the portability that is the saving grace of streaming manga. The special software was buggy and, to put it bluntly, just didn’t work. Tech assistance was nonexistent. But not too many people even got that far, because the site required users to go through five separate registrations—not steps, registrations—in order to sign up. And the DRM on the site was the worst, most obnoxious DRM ever. You can read all about it in my review at MTV Geek and Melinda Beasi’s review at Manga Bookshelf. How bad was the web store? So bad that when Square Enix did a free manga promotion at San Diego a few years ago, it backfired when people couldn’t claim their manga—just read the comments to Melinda’s post. So while the JManga announcement caused a lot of angst among readers who will lose access to manga they had “bought” from the streaming service, the Square Enix shutdown doesn’t seem to be causing widespread panic, perhaps because so few people have used the site.
It’s worth spending a few minutes discussing why the site was so bad. A fundamental problem was that Square Enix seemed to think of it as a site to be used chiefly by people who were already engaged with the company as gamers, assuming that people who were already members of the site would welcome the opportunity to have manga added to its other offerings. They don’t seem to have realized that manga readers are a separate group, and that having to become a site member before signing up for the manga service is an unnecessary (and annoying) step.
The site could have been streamlined quite a bit by either eliminating the membership requirement or combining it with the registration for the manga site. Furthermore, they used a fairly obscure payment service, so everyone had to sign up with that separately; if they had gone with a universally used service such as PayPal they could have saved their customers a lot of aggravation.
Finally, the DRM was ridiculous. Requiring readers to download a separate reader that only ties in to one device is already a failing strategy; nobody has just one device any more. The fact that the damn thing didn’t work is a separate issue. Not only was it buggy, it was only designed to work with the Explorer browser, effectively cutting out all Mac users and everybody else who doesn’t use Explorer. But that’s not the worst of it. As Melinda Beasi explains in her review of the site, it actually was quite easy to defeat the DRM and download the manga directly to the user’s computer as a PDF. On the other hand, Viz and eManga, which don’t have burdensome DRM, do a much better job of protecting their files. So the DRM is not only annoying, it’s ineffective. And finally, when the competition is a free, easy-to-use pirate site, requiring your readers to jump through hoops to read an overpriced comic is a losing strategy.
Yen Press has a nice iPad app, and their deal with Square Enix means the comics will be available digitally worldwide, not region-locked. The Square Enix site was old technology, poorly done, and it’s doubtful anyone will miss it.