|Webmaster||Dov Sherman, Jennifer Diane Reitz, and Stephen P. Lepisto|
|Still Up?||It sure is! Almost the entire site is up and working perfectly.|
|Other Notes||Hilariously, this site does not play nice with SSL, and a bunch of the images and CSS break if you try to use an https link to the site. Less hilariously, although the site itself isn't NSFW, some of the downloads are, and none of them are tagged as such. Interestingly, when finalizing this article I actually found a page from the webmasters saying they originally tried to identify which downloads were safe for all ages, but messed up a few times and got enough angry emails that they dropped the idea and just told people to assume the worst. Nothing I saw was especially gratuitous, but please download your anime dress-up dolls responsibly.|
The era between the dot-com burst and the rise of Web 2.0 was a hard time for a lot of webmasters trying to make money off of their websites. When the venture capitalist well (temporarily) dried up, a large number of websites closed their doors, while a smaller number of websites closed their doors in a slightly different way; locking the site behind a subscription. No longer just for MMORPGs or websites of low moral fiber, the subscription model kept these sites afloat while the Internet began its slow but inevitable transformation from a novelty to a necessity. As time went on and the number of people using the internet increased, other support options became financially viable, and some websites slackened or removed their subscription models. Others kept theirs, for whatever reason, throughout the rest of their site's lifespan. In this particular website's case, once the site fell into two full years of inactivity the webmasters were generous enough to open up all previously member-exclusive parts of the site to the public. Dust off your Suncoast VHS tapes, because it's time to head to Otaku World!
As the front page of the site explains the site began, as most non-personal sites from the late 90s did, when a webmaster wanted to create some sort of central repository for something they collected or were a fan of. In this particular case, the items of interest were virtual paper dolls called Kisekae Set System Dolls, also known as KiSS Dolls. As time went on, the site had other features added, and their traffic (and hosting costs) increased. Early on, this wasn't that big a deal, since Otaku World was either part of or supported by the revenue of HappyPuppy.com, another site the webmasters owned that was one of the major gaming websites of the mid to late 90s.
When they sold HappyPuppy.com, however, Otaku World was on its own. They were able to tread water with advertising, but in 2001 they made the decision to put most of the downloads on the site behind a paywall, and that paywall stayed up for over a decade. Behind that paywall, a community was born, thrived, and eventually moved on. Finally, in 2014 the webmasters decided that the site was essentially dead, but instead of taking it down, they instead opened up all downloads and content of the site to the public. It makes sense; if the main reason you were charging for access was for bandwidth, and the bandwidth cost goes down significantly, you don't really need the subscriptions anymore. Of course, most websites don't work this way; in fact, I can't think of any other subscription based websites that have done this after their content flow has dried up, even sites that have been inactive longer than Otaku World.
This site was founded on it's massive KiSS repository, so that seems like a good place to start. I assume this section of the site is still pretty popular in the right circles; as of the posting of this article, searching 'kisekae set system' on Google returns this section of the site as the second result, right behind the Wikipedia article about the dolls. For what it's worth, when you search just 'kisekae' it doesn't even show up on the top page, but I assume that's because the term Kisekae has come to refer to a slightly more modern flash program that also makes character 'dolls'.
Besides having an exhaustive supply of KiSS Dolls, the site also has an exhaustive supply of KiSS Doll Viewers. If you are somehow viewing this website on an Amiga you will be happy to know that Otaku World will be able to accommodate you for all your anime paper doll needs. The same goes for Windows 3.1, Mobile Devices, and even the Acorn. What is most noteworthy to me is that the webmasters actually created their own doll viewer, which is what I used to sample their selection of dolls.
If you've ever used a paper doll program or flash game before, you'll be right at home with KiSS Dolls. Each doll comes with one or more 'sheets' of clothes and backgrounds, and you click and drag the clothes to dress up the character. Some of the dolls have elaborate menus that let you change the character's hair or skin, some of the dolls get creative and hide the clothing behind the background layer so you have to hunt around to reveal alternate clothing, but otherwise they all function very similarly. Although the earliest of these dolls were gathered up by the webmasters, I imagine the majority of them were submitted by other users. To accommodate this, the site has pages for tutorials, tools, and guidelines. Between these pages and the curating the webmasters did, this site was probably considered a high quality repository for these dolls back in the day, which probably helped with subscriptions, which then generated more content. It's a good system as long as people stay interested, and since the site was updated for over a decade it looks like the system worked for a good long while.
While the KiSS section of Otaku World built up a creatively-inclined community around an existing art form, the Kamishibai section of the site built up a community around something more homegrown. Technically speaking, Kamishibai is an old artform dating back to 1930s Japan involving a performer narrating a story accompanied by illustrations on a large scroll of paper; however, this digital version is very much its own thing, with a program made by the webmasters just for the site. Utilizing a very simple scripting language, aspiring storytellers can chain together images accompanied by text and music to create their modern Kamishibai stories.
Kamishibai stories run the gamut of both fan and original fiction; most of the fiction is anime inspired, fitting into the various popular genres like magical girls, fantasy, or science fiction. Beyond that, there are a few that take advantage of the program's more esoteric features; for example, the Kamishibai program has the functionality for branching paths, so there are some choose-your-own adventure stories, or stories that have footnotes every now and again to explain certain terms. There are also some stories that aren't stories at all, like a reference document about mythology or a jukebox of midi files. On top of all of that, there are stories about making stories.
Just like any collection of amateur writing, the stories hosted on the site are of varying quality. The novelty of the medium adds pictures and music, but ultimately Kamishibai stories aren't much different from Visual Novels. Similar to Lemmy Land's fun fiction, it's relatively easy to get a feel for the age of a story based on its complexity; as the site and its users grew up and got more familiar with the medium, stories improved, both narratively and visually. Stories also improved visually as free or cheap image editing software became more readily available to the average person; most of the early stories were very clearly using MS Paint. One thing that didn't change much was the music; if you are as familiar with VGMusic.com as I am, viewing the Kamishibai stories sometimes becomes a game of 'name that midi file'.
Comparing the volume of Kamishibai stories to KiSS dolls, it appears to me that the doll program was a bit more popular with users. This isn't surprising for a few reasons; first, a KiSS doll, even a very good one, is probably less time consuming to make than a Kamishibai story. One is just art, while the other is a combination of art and writing. The main reason is probably that KiSS dolls had a much larger appeal than Kamishibai stories did; looking outside of Otaku World, I can find a few artists of DeviantArt that shared stories up until 2011, but not much else. Meanwhile, I can still find some interest in 2018 for creating modern KiSS doll viewers, if not creating KiSS dolls themselves. I am sure the paywall that Otaku World kept most of the Kamishibia community contained within its walls, which was good for retaining anyone that was inspired by the few stories in the free section (or maybe curious about other sections of the site after wandering over from the KiSS section), but probably kept growth relatively low. Finally, a problem both of these programs had, but especially the Kamishibai viewer, was that they were downloadable applications, which probably limited interest in the final years of the site. The KiSS section at least did its best to have a viewer for any and every system under the sun, but Kamishibai was Windows only. Maybe someday a nostalgic programmer will made a modern Kamishibai viewer like someone is doing with KiSS, but until then the stories are only going to be viewable on machines that support 32-bit Windows applications.
Besides those two large chunks of the site, the rest of the content on Otaku World is a bit less substantial, and a lot more outdated. The next most populated section of the site is the Toy Chest, containing a variety of games, screensavers, and multimedia for your computer, as long as your computer runs Windows 95 or 98. There is a section for walkthroughs and reviews for 'Import Games', and while I have to question the definition of an import game when this section includes cheats and walkthroughs for games that definitely had worldwide releases, there are some exclusive guides made by the webmasters of this site that are their own fun sections that remind me of the shrines made to games on RPG Classics. Amazingly, I even found another section of the site in a search engine that isn't linked to on the main site anymore full of user-created desktop mascots; I assume this part of the site was shelved when these things kept getting flagged as viruses. Beyond that, however, everything else a bit barren; there is a review section with less than twenty reviews, an Anime Add-On section with a handful of updates for three games, and a Links section that links to mostly other dead or outdated sites.
Curiously absent from the main page of a site that is ostensibly about anime is any real listing or information about anime, beyond the scant reviews. Interestingly enough, if you search the website's directory using a search engine you can find a very outdated and half-broken page listing various titles; the listing itself works, but none of the clickable titles actually work. If I had to guess, this site suffered the same fate as other websites did with the rise of the wikis; people could get their information elsewhere, so why bother maintaining something superfluous? I imagine everyone was there for the KiSS dolls anyway, or at least the people with paid subscriptions.
I don't have any hard numbers for user count for Otaku World, but judging by the uploads for KiSS dolls sorted by year, the site went pretty strong up until 2008, before submissions finally dwindled down, with the final submissions being in 2012. Eight strong years is great for a subscription site; I don't know if the site ever turned a profit, or if the subscriptions were only meant to keep the site above water, but I am very grateful that the site opened its archives up once the activity dried up. It would have been a shame if all of these creations faded away behind closed doors, even if it is difficult to view some of them on a modern computer. I suggest viewing it while it's still there, but again, download responsibly.