A few years ago, I tried to make articles about how to create visual novel, for those who would need advices. In the meantime, many things changed: not only did I gain experience but the market itself evolved a lot. It became, probably not more difficult, but way more disheartening for newcomers. So, with several releases under my belt, I want to take the pen again to make some kind of guide, one that I hope will be complete and up to date. But before that, let’s start with a preliminary step that tend to be forgotten.
Lately, there’s a talking point that keeps coming back, be it on Twitter or Patreon: background animation. Indeed, that’s something I especially like to do since a few years, as I consider it to be a really interesting tool when it comes to immersing the reader in a particular world. Of course, it’s not adapted to every situation: I think it works pretty well for rich universes (fantasy, for example) but not so much with contemporary settings. But, if well done and accompanied by some music, the result can be quite impressive! (I’m personally very proud of what we managed to do on Chronotopia :3)
Chronotopia Teaser: as you can see, we focus a lot on animations
Happy holidays to all of our readers! To end 2015 on a high note, here’s a review of everything that happened this year, as well as our plans for the upcoming year.
If you remember correctly, 2014 was a crazy year: we released no less than four games, made goodies, including remakes of our oldest games, ran a booth at Japan Expo and completely renewed the devblog (by adding a website). I promised myself to slow down a bit to avoid exploding. Was 2015 calmer?
I’ve been implying all over the place that things were gonna change for a while now. It’s time to explain that publicly: the team as it exists today is going to disappear.
Hobbyists without pretension…
The reasons are as simple as they are numerous but all overlap each other: up until now, the different teammembers were young and very young students that were making visual novel voluntarily in their free time. The goal was to have fun, to experiment, to show that it was possible to do many things with motivation. We did release quite a few visual novel “made in France” and the atmosphere was nice. However, time went by since 2012: some members want to move on and are going their own way whereas others are still motivated but cannot take the time to do visual novel anymore, because of their studies (many are doing an art school for example, which is quite a demanding curriculum). Overall, creating visual novel takes a lot of time and up until now, no one among us ever got any real compensation out of that, except the enjoyment of seeing people read our stories (but you don’t fill the fridge with smiles, even though it’d be great). In short, it’s now impossible to work as we did before. I knew it, I saw it coming.
As for me (at almost 25, I’m now one of the oldest), I had to confront the job market. I got to find a job to survive and pay my rent. In the same time, what was supposed to be a trial run turned into a passion and I want to go further than what hobbyists an do, I want to experiment more. This paradox forces me to take a difficult decision. I won’t make the suspense last any longer because my choice was pretty clear: I don’t want to give up what is making me live (writing, creating). I’m used to handle things by myself, to difficult situations. And, more importantly, I don’t want to have regrets. I’m ready to work like a dog night and day but it’s out of the question that I throw in the sponge without even trying.
So, here I go. It’s with a lot of apprehension and excitement that I announce that Träumendes Mädchen will cease to be a hobbyist team…to become a fully fledged visual novel creating company, the very first in France right now. It’ll be a small structure (managed by one person, namely me) that will hire different artists depending of the projects. Old members won’t necessarily be that far since I’m gonna call them in, simply this time it’s gonna be paid work ;).
All of our short projects will of course stay free, nothing will change in this case, and I’m counting on making an on-line store to offer all of the goodies we printed upon Japan Expo. The website will slowly be revamped to reflect the new situation. Concerning Milk, there will be change, but don’t panic, I will make a specific announcement shortly to explain that in details.
At the time you’ll be reading those lines, the process is well engaged, if not finished. I won’t hide that making a company is a very risky challenge: the competition in the videogame market is very fierce and it’s better to know what you’re doing. But, as I was saying earlier, I’m determined and I shall do my utmost to ensure it’ll succeed. Except that I’m gonna need your help! I need your support, your feedbacks and, of course, I’m inviting you to buy our games when they’re released to allow us to continue the adventure. Your support will make the difference. Whatever may happen, I’m sure my experience can be useful for people who have an interest in the visual novel market. It’s a strange challenge for us and I’m counting on you to follow that closely!
And, if some people think I’m now super rich, let them be reassured: I’m still as poor because the company’s money comes from a credit (I committed on several years to make everything possible). The money will incidentally fund Träumendes Mâdchen very first commercial project: Chronotopia. It involves reincarnation, “dark” fairytale and people dying, suffering and going back in time to suffer some more. More informations to come once production will have started! And those who are impatient can already discover some elements on my Patreon (patrons have exclusivity but they’re worth it~).
In conclusion, the adventure isn’t ending just yet, it just takes another form. We’re grateful for the support you’ve been giving us during all those years, we’re impatient to show you what we’re planning to do and we hope you’ll like the result. Anyway, we will work hard so that you can be proud of us. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to follow us on social networks if it’s not done already; we’re posting more regularly there ;). And if it’s not your thing, you can now subscribe to our monthly newsletter to receive the latest news in your mailbox!
If you’re following us on social networks, you already know that Being Beauteous and Ambre were both released on Google Play a few days ago. At first, I hesitated over giving you the technical details, but since Mystery Corgi dev asked me for precisions on Twitter, here’s my experience with Android ports. Warning: it’s gonna get ugly!
To get started
You finally finished your latest visual novel and you’re thinking that multimedia is the future. So, you want to make your work available on every platform possible in order to be read. The good news is that RenPy provides you with a small guide. So you start to download a succession of softwares that you will never open but that RenPy will use in your place.You’ll need Java Development Kit, Apache Ant and Android SDK. Once you’re done, you will still need to get the Ren’Py Android Packaging Tool, if you haven’t yet. This RAPT consists of a file that you’ll have to place in the Ren’Py directory you’re using. If you open RenPy, you will now be able to configure your project.
Configuration of a Google Play Publisher Account
Here’s where things are going to get complicated. Because you can’t create a build yet, you’ll just make RenPy crash, as I did. Before going to the next step, you’ll need something important: a signing key. And nobody will explain you how to do it. From what I understood (but it’s really not clear), you’ll have to get a Google Play Publisher Account, even if you don’t want to publish your product in their store (?). In order to get that account, you have to sign in with a Google account (I think almost everybody has one) and pay a $25 USD registration fee.
Once you got it, you’ll have a whole lot of options to configure. It seems that you absolutey need a OAuth client and a service account (see the API Access menu above) and for this, you’ll have to retrieve the SHA-1 certificate footprint. Which turned out to be quite a headache for me. I searched through the web how to get this from the android.keystore file generated by RenPy at the start of the operation, but in vain, nothing I tried worked. In desperation, I turned to Keul who suggested I download the HashCheck Shell. extension.Thanks to that tip, I only had to open the properties of the file to retrieve the SHA-1. I have no idea if iI did it the way it was intended to or not but configuring that account was annoying as hell. I rarely saw more uselessly complicated and it made me realize how life was easy with the community around RenPy: there’s always someone with an advice or a guide T_T.
RenPy takes care of everything…almost
Back with RenPy, you have to put the key in your game. Following the advices of Sleepy Agents I found on the net, I copypasted mine in the options.rpy file.
You’ll also need another sequence of numbers, and once again you can’t find an easy generator to do that for you, so you’ll have to take care of it yourself (or use the simple but risky sequence that the RenPy guide is showing you as an exemple). Once those two lines are added to your code, you will finally be able to make a build.
One last word concerning the configuration: RenPy will ask you if you want expansions for your Android port (depending of the size of the file). You will actually need both versions: the 1st one will allow you to install the game on any Android device to quietly go through your testing phase, whereas the 2nd one is crucial if you want to put the game on Google Play. The limit being of 50MB, it’s nearly impossible to have a smaller file, even with a short project.
Configuration of a Google Play store page
Let’s work on the basis that you want to put your game on Google Play, here are some tips that, I hope, will help you.
• To begin with, you need to upload your APK file. I suggest you do so by directly assigning it to the Alpha track, otherwise Google Play won’t allow you to upload an expansion file (thankfully, you’re still able to modify that anytime).
• When filling the description page of your project, you will quickly realize you have to be concise. Be careful, Google Play will try several time to encourage you to use the translation service. It may sounds harmless but those services are not free and you will soon be asked to pay an amount that isn’t that small! Unless you have money to spend, I’d advise you to do the translation yourself or just pass.
• The questionnaire you have to fill to get a rating really isn’t adapted when it comes to visual novel. And it isn’t always clear on top of that. It’s quite difficult to get what each option really means. Like this, the confusion caused me to get a 18+ rating with Garden of Oblivion on my first try because I didn’t know the difference between “far” and “close” portrayal of violence. Pay attention and don’t hesitate to fill the form again to compare the results!
• In order to sell a game, you have to use a Merchant account and for that, you’re asked informations about your company. If you don’t upgrade to Merchant account, your games will have to be free.
With all that, your app should be ready to be published. But before clicking on that fateful button, you really should make a small verification: is your game adapted to Android?
In order to make you think a bit, here’s a sequence of issues I got when I asked Keul to test the games on his phone for me.
• Most quickmenu (you know, the navigation buttons above the textbox or below in NVL mode) were way too small. So I needed to turn some pictures into text in order to increase their sizes as I wanted (it was the case with Ambre) but also increase the space between each button.
• Needless to say the font in general had to be increased as much as possible as well to allow some reading comfort.
• It got more complicated when the games were using lots of pictures. HVNCML, especially, took me a whole afternoon to get fixed; I had to increase the background picture to put bigger buttons and space them out, which lead to text collisions since the text was scrolling under that picture. Same with the PM system. Only after many tests was I able to balance everything.
• Just as bothersome, Garden of Oblivions icons were too small and too close to each other, which meant I had to increase them and adjust their positions. Another problem: the button that should be used to make the pause menu with all the options appear was, according to Keul, not really used by people anymore. So he advised me to add a quickmenu and I had to create new buttons inspired by the existing GUI and place them accordingly. For exemple, I had to keep an eye on whether the quickmenu was running over the sprites (it was the case with the rabbit). I also had to hide that quickmenu during the puzzle phases in order not to bother the player.
• Since you can only play a game in fullscreen on Android, the Fullscreen/Window button in the Options menu became completely useless! However I decided to keep it because I didn’t want to make a hole X).
Anyway, if you don’t have to remake entirely your visual novel for an Android port, you will still need to adjust the GUI!
Here you are, finally ready to publish your app! You still need to wait for Google Play validation (it can take a couple of hours) and your game will be available. You suffered but it was for a good cause! Fortunately for you, I’m here to tell you all I did wrong so that you’ll suffer less than I did =’D.
Don’t forget that HVNCML will be released wednesday and GoO the week after that! If you have some time, try out our Android ports and tell us what you think about it, it’ll make me happy :3.
I’ve talked a bit about it to the people I had the chance to meet at Japan Expo but here’s a more formal announcement: the Träumendes Mädchen team will most likely not entering Ludum Dare again, nor similar game jam. Here’s why.
Searching and finding yourself
To those who didn’t know it yet, a game jam is a gathering where devs try to make a gae frm scratch in record time. This type of contest is now super popular and there’s more and more game jam organized each year, so much that it can be really confusing sometimes. The main appeal of a game jam is that it’s a really favourable setting for creation. There are various scenarios:
- If you’ve just begun to create something, finishing a short project is really helping to gain experience. That’s why it’s the first advice ever given to novice: starting small to get the hang of it.
- If you’re lacking knowledge in a certain domain and wish to get better at it. Life can be pretty eventful, so you may not have the time or the motivation for it, unless there’s a good motivation.
- If you’re struggling with deadlines. Getting surrounded by devs like you, living the exact same thing at the exact same time, is pretty stimulating, and even more when you’re supporting each other. So it’s perfect for people who are good at throwing ideas but can’t get to make them.
- If you need to relax between two big projects. Yes, it can happen! Even after years of experience, a highly qualified dev can be fed up with endless projects and just like to work on something « simple ».
For a long, long time, our team did match with one of these scenarios : thus Being Beauteous had a symbolic meaning because it was our first finished project, and our following games were all ideas I wanted to try out. But it’s not really the case now. It’s important to experiment things in order to find your identity but I think I’m slowly coming to find and answer and game jams don’t really help me anymore. Well, it’s a reason but not the most important one.
The Novel and The Game
What really justify my choice is the conditions around Ludum Dare and some other game jam: they’re not adapted to story-focused games. At all. For a start, because if the length of the contest.
You asked for a challenge?
People tend to forget it but a visual novel needs a lot of time to be made. With the reflexion needed to write a story, but also to make all the assets. Of course, a VN doesn’t ask as much time and skills in programmation as more classic games but, in return, the experience is incredibly static. The player cannot move freely, there’s no gameplay mechanic, only text to read with some illustrations that lightly change. And sometimes choices. So, the dev often has to multipy the number of illustrations (sprites expressions, backgrounds, event CG, light animations) to try to break this impression. A small VN that doesn’t need much assets (at random, taking place behind closed doors) is already asking a lot of illustrations. And they’re HD ones (you can’t cheat a little as with pixel art) ! Let’s say it’s a miracle we finished all our projects with a deadline that tight!
Making the impossible
Besides, let’s not forget the key element of a visual novel is the story. Some kind of games can cheat, gamble on the atmosphere or the gameplay, and it’s no big deal. As an interactive book, a visual novel just cannot give it a miss. Except that a story, even a really short one, can’t be written as fast as some might think. It depends on the author of course, but in my case I have a really slow maturation process. It can take me months to pile up elements before being able to mentally bring the puzzle together. Once the image is clear in my head, I can writte pretty fast. The problem is that game jam tend to bypass my maturation process since everything has to be done RIGHT NOW. I might have an idea but I don’t have the time to really develop it and I find myself having to make it before it’s even ready. You can see that with Garden of Oblivion since this game doesn’t really have a story. Since it’s an hybrid with point & click elements, it’s still possible to rely on the atmosphere but there’s no strong plot (even though it’s supposed to be my forte, or at lest my aspiration). It’s also the case with Wounded by Words. This game drove me into a corner: I spend a whole three days furiously writing. The idea in my head was incomplete, which put me in troubles several times. It might sound stupid to you, like a writer’s complain, but it’s really frustrating for me to be unable to be satisfied with my work.
Inspiration doesn’t come to you that easily
Beyond the deadline, what’s really discouraging me with Ludum Dare now is the theme. During each edition, the participants make suggestions and vote for their favourite. After rounds of voting, the officiel theme is announced and open the contest. However, this theme is almost never adapted to the making of a story-centric game. Most of the time, the theme is suggesting a gameplay mechanic. Unconventional Weapon, the latest, inspired devs to make funny games with the most over the top weapon conceivable. Entire Game on One Screen, the previous one, was encouraging devs to use wisely the background limitations. Connected Worlds did let a little more freedom to devs but it was still stronly pointing at the gameplay possibilities around “links”. I stop here, I think you got what I’m trying to say. It’s difficult to think of a plot with so little food for thought…
« Real » games and the others
It’s even more difficult as the Ludum Dare community still struggle to open to novelty. Each and every time I voted on Twine or RenPy games, I came across THAT comment, the one that says “It’s not a real game, it sucks”. Might explain why so few women enter… And if you’re here to try to get some visibility, tough luck: there are big favourites who enter each time, and they kinda monopolize press coverage because journalist almost only bother to try their games. Not very interesting if you’re one of the others.
All these elements make so that I don’t see myself joining Ludum Dare or a similar game jam again:there are too many constraints and too little fun. Maybe it’s also that I don’t have anything to prove myself. Anyway, if I really have to do it again, it will be with good old Nanoreno (Lemmasoft’s contest) or with a game jam that is explicitely suited to story-focused games. Won’t be right way! Of course, I don’t prevent anyone from trying the experience, even though I’d still advice visual novel developpers to go with Nanoreno. The only problem is that there’s only one per year ;).
Check out the game here : http://ludumdare.com/compo/ludum-dare-32/?action=preview&uid=39080
Since it’s been two weeks since the competion, now would be a good time to reflect on what we’ve done for Ludum Dare 32. It was our second time as a team…and everything went differently!
Preparation, what preparation?
I wanted to take some time to calm down and think before the competition, in order to be ready for whatever may come. I tried to make a bit of research on various subjects I wanted to talk about in a future game but, honestly, the period before the actual game jam was hectic! Not only was I lacking time due to the (very) late release of Milk Episode 4, but my team was completely freewheeling. One or two days before the launch, I still didn’t know which artist was available and which was not… So yeah, I was relieved to get a full team on time.
Conventional rules for unconventional games
As I said before, I’m the kind of person who sucks at improvising: I need time to think about a story before actually writing it. The announcement of the theme was a bit of a shock. I knew « Unconventional Weapons » was popular but I really hoped for Companion to overtake it. That Saturday morning, in front of my cup of coffee, I felt powerless. Unconventional Weapons is a nice theme for non-narrative games, it sure encourages people to make funny concepts (and we all know that’s what people like the most about game jam entries), but it’s a disaster for a narrative game! I saw a Twine dev on Twitter giving up because of that. And afterwards, I realized with disapointment there were fewer visual novel than what we had for Ludum Dare 30. I think it’s not far-fetched to say most RenPy dev, either were too tired after Nanoreno (another game jam that had taken place a month before), either felt as uninspired as I was. Anyway, I was on the verge of giving up when my teammates urged me to find some motivation back. It took me an hour to get out of my lethargy befire I decided to go all out. As such, I chose the « Words as Weapons » approach. I also used some ideas I had for a while to make a visual novel that would recquire of me to go out of my comfort zone and add choices to my work. Let’s see how we did!
What went right
I never saw my artists that fired up in my entire time as a dev! In the matter of two days, three quarters of the art was done. Three quarters! And I thought I was asking a lot from them, Laniessa even told me it would be a bit too much when I told her the amount of work needed. Everything was finished way before the end of the third day and I had actually trouble keeping up with the artists to give them directions. Orties and Kinect sure makes a dangerous pair! Roganis too seemed inspired since he composed the whole soundtrack in the matter of two days…and he was partying right in the middle of the contest! Are those people even human? How cant hey be so efficient 0__o?
Code was surprinsingly a piece of cake too. I had actually been practicing for some days in order to know how to use « affection points » and trigger the various endings. Since I’ve learned so much from Garden of Oblivion, our previous LD game, implanting the interactive adventure game system was easy and I knew what I had to do. I’ve learned a lot from Milk Episode 4 too as I made the little animations by myself. The only thing I didn’t have the time to learn beforehand was the blinking animations and I really wanted to add it. It took me between one and two hours before actually understanding how I should do it and I only had to ask Keul for a little help with the optimisation. Since he was there as a backup, it was pretty simple to get organized: I only had to ask him for the difficult elements I couldn’t do due to lack of skill/time.
As for the writing, I didn’t feel comfortable obviously, since English isn’t my native language, but it went better than expected. I read into that fact as the result of my recent practice: since I’m writing on my devblog in English now, I’m starting to get the hold of it. It wasn’t the case back in August. I wasn’t inspired by the theme per se, but I really wanted to tell that story and my reseach did come in handy, since I didn’t have to check for the smallest fact.
What went wrong
Err, nothing? No, really, nothing actually went « wrong » 0_o. I couldn’t finish the story on time (nor proofread it) but it wasn’t because of bad management: I was glued in front of my computer during the whole contest, writing and coding like crazy. True, I could have woken up a bit earlier, but I really felt too tired for that (I didn’t have time to rest for days even before the start of the competition, after all). No, I really think I just saw too big. The story needed more time to be developed and I just didn’t have enough in three days. Planning different endings was a bad idea for a game jam, since it only added me more work, but i twas the core of the visual novel,it couldn’t be removed.
Ok, maybe I should have put our previous game release on hold to be able to rest properly but it was out of the question: I just couldn’t afford to fall behind schedule =’). Or post-dare fatigue maybe? I’ve been a vegetable for a couple of days because I badly needed some rest. But it took me less than a week to get back on my feet. And I still had time to try some other entries and release the updated version of the game with fixed typos and new content (Dave and Hassan routes).
Sooooo…it was super difficult and challenging for me, yet it didn’t went wrong.
As I mentionned above, there is a new build available fixing most of the problems/missing things. I’m still not completely satisfied because I couldn’t polish the story as well as I wanted, so I very likely will try to make another update later on. But, hey, you know how I am: I’m never satisfied with my work anyway X’).
I think it’s the best looking game we’ve released so far and one of the more optmistic given my tendancy to make my characters suffer horrible things (still not joyous though !). I’m also quite proud to be able to create a diverse cast for a change and it plays a big part in the story. For now most feedbacks I got were rather encouraging…I hope you’ll all enjoy Wounded by Words :3.
Today, I want to come back to the differents projects the team made in order to comment our progression.
Indeed, even if things are slowly changing with the increase of early access games, one often only get a hold of a game through its finale version, in other words, it’s most complete and most accomplished version. An average player may get under the impression that the differents pieces are coming together thanks to some kind of evolution stone to change into a piece of art. Reality is less glamorous but way more reassuring : creating is something you have to learn. The bad news is that it involves a lot of work, the good news is that anyone can try it out. And the Träumendes Mädchen team is no exception, especially me who has the job of being the “leader”. It’s been almost three years now and I’ve learned so much thanks to my teammates, particularly with programming. So I want to draw up some kind of report.
June 2012 : Being Beauteous
Back then, the team had already gathered around Milk and we floundered so hard. I was aware we were jumping the gun when we started with a project this big and I really wanted to make up for that with something short. The first version of Being Beauteous was born like that and we planned to make it during some French contest that happened in a small convention. Even if it didn’t looked much, BB hold a special place in my heart because it was our first completed project. It was really simple (text and some CGs) but we did have troubles during the competition because of the GUI. So it’s only with the 2nd version (the first available one actually) that we managed to fix those bugs. Also, we slowly realized that having a translation was really important to share our works to folks around the world.
What I learned : to finish a project, to make a bug-less GUI, to understand the importance of an English translation.
February 2013 : 1st Episode of Milk
The deliivery of Milk’s 1st Espidode was a real ordeal because it took us like a whole year to see the end of the tunnel. It must be said that there was a lot of content to deal with for such a young team and I immediately understood that we couldn’t go on like that. After all, we were supposed to release the whole game in a row after that! I realized it was impossible and change the plan to an episodic publication. Hence why the demo became “1st episode”. It was also a chance to get to know Renpy a bit better (choosing a custom font, juggle with all the numerous sprites and numerous expressions). Milk’s presentation was really simple and we made a lot of mistakes but I think it was a prerequisite for what came after. Most of the mistakes were corrected (the GUI) or are pending for correction since then (*cough* the scenario). It should be noted that we released the visual novel both in French and English at that time, not without pain.
What I learned : to write a visual novel, to finish a bigger project (without dying), to draw a GUI, to make a siultaneous translation, to manage sprites and expressions.
April 2013 : Ambre
Once Milk’s Episode was behind us, I had to tackle Nanoreno! It wasn’t a technical challenge (because the story was linear) but it sure was a litterary one. Granted the deadline was a pretty difficult thing to handle too but I planned the game not to need too much assets. But really, my personal challenge was to write a short story that would inlude some kind of memorable ending, something striking. Even thought the result wasn’t perfect, I’m relatively proud of the outcome, I think the intended result is here. Ambre was also a good chance to make progress on GUI and animation. We included some light animation for the first time with the petals on the main scene and we tried something with the leafs on the city background. Some elements you would find again in the next release.
What I learned : to write a visual novel while paying attention to the assets needed, to finish a project quickly, to write a story with a memorable ending, to join an event.
March 2014 : 2nd Episode of Milk
We took almost a year on this one again but it was mostly because of the turn-over inside the team. This second episode was mostly a validation of what we made with the first one. Indeed, many project don’t get past the demo stade, so releasing a new part of the story was a symbolic move. We wanted to show we were still game and that we wouldn’t give up so easily. We took that opportunity to change the GUI (and it was way more difficult than you would imagine!) and include animated backgrounds for the first time. Well, there are only 2 or 3 of them but it was a way to slowly get accustomed to the process.
What I learned : to carry on an under way project, to include animated backgrounds, to renew a team.
April 2014 : HVNCML
Once again, I wanted to tackle Nanoreno, and once again Milk’s production was late. In 2013 we managed to finish two weeks before the beginning of the contest, this time we finished in the middle of it! Under these circumstances, it was rather difficult to deliver. HVNCML was born a whole week after the deadline. I didn’t write any postmortem because the whole game can be considered one (with a comic point of view). Back then, it was our first technical challenge because I only wanted to try my hand at a IRC-line GUI and didn’t have much planned to use it afterwards. Well, you can consider that making some part of your life public was also a challenge. In a way…it is. This little visual novel was supposed to be a funny extra to the fans that were wondering what we were doing everyday and how our meetings looked like. Yet several people who didn’t know us played it too. It was kind of embarrasing, a bit like getting naked in front of strangers. The whole approach does suppose some trust with the audience.
What I learned : to juggle between several projects at the same time, to try an IRC-like GUI, to reveal my stupidity to the world.
July 2014/September 2014 : 3rd Episode of Milk
Milk’s third episode is really seen as an exception among our works because it’s the only damn game that went “easily”. Meaning that we didn’t enconter any particular issue (except a small false note with the translation that wasn’t immediately ready). If anything could happen like that, visual novel dev would be so easy XD. It’s all the more surprising considering we had a lot of pressure due to the fact we promised this part would be ready for Japan Expo, a French convention. The third episode also marked the spread of backgrounds animation.
What I learned : to meet a non-negotiable deadline, to spread backgrounds animation, to release a game in a relaxed way.
August 2014 : Garden of Oblivion
In the same vein as HVNCML, Garden of Oblivion was planned as a technical challenge: I wanted to put tradionnal visual novel aside to include some point & click elements instead. With an incredibly stressful deadline (Nanoreno is a stroll in a park in omparison). If the graphic part was irreproachable, the coding part was rather…wild. The first version we returned didn’t match my expectations at all and we had to add a whole week of work to get to the result with the second version. The other challenge was for me to write directly in English with the bare minimum of preparation to fit the gamejam spirit. And I’m reserved about the final result, I could have done better. At least, I managed to include more diversity among the characters. The fact remains that the community experience was on par! Ludum Dare really is a big gathering of people and that forms bonds. If you wanna know more, read the postmortem I made right after the competition.
What I learned : to write directly in English, to jon a bigger event, to learn programming in the field, to make an hybrid VN/P&C, to discover the joy of polishing, to include a bit more diversity in a cast.
Spring 2015 (?) : 4th Episode of Milk
Milk’s forth episode isn’t out yet but I feel I learned so much already. I think it’s starting from this point that I really felt confortable with RenPy. To the point that I now like to rummage through the script to improve what I can improve. It wouldn’t have happened without slowly getting familiar with the engine, project after project, and the help of Keul. The direct consequence is that this episode is full of small alterations: adjusting the brightness of sprites during night scenes, adjusting the height of non-human sprites, adjusting the font to be more readable, adjusting some transitions to be more dynamic, adjusting sound effect to fit the mood better, light animations on the illustrations. Currently, that’s the work I’m the most proud about and I hope those little things will make the read more interesting, even if they’re not that useful. I also started asking the artists to try different presentation styles (object on top of the background, insert chibi, CG cut in half, CG with many variations).
What I learned : to have a good command of RenPy, to use all my time doing alterations nobody will ever notice, to use sound effects effectively, to experiment different presentations.
April 2015 (?) : Ludum Dare 2
Since we’re planning to enter Ludum Dare again, this part will mostly be anticipation considering we didn’t even begin the project! My main goal is to break the linearity of all our projects so far. Making choices is quite a complex thing to incorporate into a story and as a litterary person, I have trouble with that and I need to learn to write differently. It’s pretty ambitious considering the short deadline but I’ll try to stick to that goal, even if it means releasing a polished version later on. The other goal is to go out of my comfort zone with writing and talk about what I want to talk in a more…frontal manner. Indeed, many of my works address our relation to the norm and try to challenge that notion but it’s mostly told in a tacit fashion. I want to go further and stop censoring myself so much. In this perspective, I want to stage characters different from usual, under-represented ones. Like disable people. Furthermore, I plan to rest on what I learned with all the projects we made up until this point to make a game that’ll make me proud. We’ll see if we’ll manage.
What I want to learn : to make th most of what I learned so far, to write an actual interactive visual novel with branching, to make diversity an essential component of the cast, to prevent myself from self-censorship, to master Renpy enough to not have a hard time…to make a good game?
This little overview shows that an individual (just like a team) need time to gain self-confidence and skills. Time to make mistakes, time to correct the mistakes, time to get numerous habits, time to be able to experiment and choose what one wants to do and how. I couldn’t imagine planning the Ludum Dare project years ago, I wouldn’t have felt able to! With this approach in mind (though iterations), the advices from the pros take on their full meaning: always try to make short projects before even tackling the “game of your dreams”.
Everyone need its own pace to learn but nobody can make miracles without any experience whatsoever. The issues of some visual novel Kickstarter are really enlightening in this respect: almost all the projects made by beginners (such as the ones who bragged about the campaign being their first visual novel) are currently running into difficulties and are having troubles keeping their promises. Likewise, the Katawa Shoujo spiritual heirs have disappeared and the few survivors are stuck on demo phase.
Moral : Don’t jump the gun, start small. Wait until you feel ready before shifting up a gear, it can only do you good ;).
If you’re not familiar with Dischan, here’s a brief explanation of why this is kind of an important news: firstly they were around since 2009, were working on highly anticipated projects, made a name, got a lot of press coverage, won the support of both the overall demanding Visual Novel community and the Visual Novel hobbyists community (sadly, many VN fans don’t like that much the hobbyists because the quality of their works is, well, non-professional), inspired many creators along the way and finally run a successful Kickstarter funded at 67, 450$ CAD (since the Sekai Project wasn’t really around at that time, their campaign was quite an achievement for Visual Novel in general).
In short, they were big. Everyone knew Dischan. Which is why their latest announcement shocked many people. I’m not here to judge or shame anyone, but as a member of a small hobbyist team who followed their progress since 2011 or something like that (yeah, we weren’t even officially a team back then…man, time sure flies), I have many things to say about what Dischan faced. And I think the biggest problem at hand is simply the gamedev paradox. Since I just made that one up, let me explain what I mean.
The creation laws (aka common sense)
When you start making games (be it a visual novel or just a plain gameplay-centric game), the first tip you always get from more experimented developers is to start small. Indeed creation is way more complex than people think, it’s not magical, you gotta work A LOT. And no amount of theorical research will make you learn and improve like the experience you get in the field. In short, you will make mistakes, it’s unavoidable, so better make them really fast and in the most painless way possible.
With visual novel, it’s a bit tricky since on the surface they look way easier than other types of games. And in some ways, it is true. A visual novel doesn’t require that much programming skills thanks to Ren’Py, so it’s easier to code. But, here’s the catch: a gameplay-focused game will always be more dynamical than a visual novel. It’s meant that way. So, in order to compensate, you’ll have to produce more art assets (sprites, backgrounds, event CG, and so on). And the big difficulty, as a new creator, is to avoid like the plague giving the artists on your team too much workload. Even if they’re paid, they’re gonna lose interest over time (or life can happen, you never know), so if your project has a big scope, you’re pretty much doomed to fail. Even if you have motivation and dedication. That’s the harsh truth of visual novel development. So, you HAVE to start small in order to finish your projects.
On a side note, many people don’t even consider visual novel as games so they don’t read gamedev tips or Gamasutra articles thinking it doesn’t concern them, which is sad because it’s super useful!
The marketing laws (aka AHAHAHAHAH)
So, we just said you had to focus on visual novel that have a small scale in order to be able to finish them and gain experience, right? Well, just forget what you just learned, because marketing doesn’t work that way!
The first marketing tip you always get is to show your project as soon as possible (even when it’s not ready). Also, polishing. Show the most polished shiniest prettiest stuff as you can. Thing is, hobbyists can rarely afford to get an artist good enough to show off a game with impressive art. That’s what being a hobbyist means. With the indie market being completely swamped by games to the point where getting visibility is now a real crucifixion, you better have pretty screenshots if you were planning to get a bit of attention! Wait, what do you say? Everyone wants attention because you’re kinda creating stuff so that some people can enjoy them? Yep, you see where I’m going… With so many pretty games around, it’s difficult to be distinguished. The best way to have people talk about your game is usually to have an interesting story and a stunning art direction. Then you may get press coverage, reviews and all. Doesn’t mean you’re gonna get rich but it’s always nice.
Since visual novel don’t have that much gameplay, you may also want to make an hybrid to get attention from a bigger audience. Like adding RPG mechanics. Or just adding as much choices as possible in order to offer a truly interactive experience. That will cost you even more efforts and work, of course.
But then, let’s face it, there is another thing you can do to make people hyped about your upcoming visual novel: selling them dreams. A small scale visual novel with a cool story does sound nice but it’s not « shiny » enough for marketing. No, you’ll want to promise a big scale game with tons of features (we call that “feature creep” BTW). Like: Impressive amount of choices that have an influence on the story! RPG mechanics ! Full voice acting! 10 love interests! Animated opening! Original theme songs! Sex scenes (
I’m still not sure on why VN fans are so keen on wanting H-scene…)! An hidden route with a catgirl ( Same here, I don’t see the appeal)! QTE (wait, NO)! It’s especially true if you’re running a crowdfunding campaign, you have to create hype in order to get money. But then most of the money will be spend on the hyped features so it’s kind of a vicious cycle. Anyway, let’s go back on the Dischan story…
Ambition, a double-edged sword
See, Dischan has always been a very ambitious team, their goal was to produce high quality content in order to show demanding people that indie VN could look great and professionnal. Their projects were all dreams-sellers, if I can say so. So it’s not a surprise to see their ambition turned out to be double-edged : without that, they’d never have been able to get so much press coverage and visibility so fast. But if they didn’t have so much ambition, they would never have burned that fast too. People are only looking at the surface, which is highly polished visuals, and not at the management hell that was behind. I can only imagine the burden to have that much responsability and pressure when you’re actually not that experimented…
Fittingly, all the visual novel Dischan managed to finish were mostly small projects. Like Cradle Song introduction, Dysfunctional Systems introduction (for me, Ep1 is a long intro to a bigger story) and a Nanoreno game made in a month, Juniper’s Knot. And all the visual novel they cancelled were big scale projects that turned out to be way too ambitious like the full Cradle Song and the Dysfunctional Systems serie as a whole. So, even though they were a big name in the VN community, the team wasn’t in my opinion ready to go all out like they did with the crowdfunding campaign. For me, the big mistake Dischan did was to listen to their fans when they said they should try Kickstarter to get another chance at a time where Dischan has the honesty to announce many members of the team left, that they were broke and that they wanted to cancel the full-time developement of the Dysfunctional Systems series as a result. Kickstarter is a very useful tool but a very dangerous one too!
Kickstarter is a useful but dangerous tool
Which brings us to the next point of my rant: new teams kickstarting their first projects. It has nothing to do with Dischan in particular but several people got worried about the future of kickstarted visual novel upon learning one of the biggest got cancelled. It’s a pretty natural reaction but I don’t think it’ll have any kind of effect. The Kickstarter honeymoon is over since a while now and I think people are way more cautious when pledging. It’s a real investment and a bet: you won’t always got what you hoped for but without your funding it wouldn’t happen anyway. Failed Kickstarters are sadly a good opportunity for other devs to learn what went wrong and try not to reproduce the same mistakes. I’m sure many early VN crowdfunding campaigns are currently going to hell without anyone noticing. Especially the people who thought kickstarting their first project was a good idea. I’ve checked many (look at that useful chart for more informations) because I was curious about their progress and I saw many updates about the departure of artists, management issues and sometimes even total mutism. Those may got cancelled too, and I think it’s bound to happen, especially because some team leaders are gonna get burned out very badly due to pressure. In short: crowdfunding can be a great tool but you have to know what you got yourself into, otherwise you may ended up crushed by the high responsabilities that come in the package. Not everyone can handle it. I think Dischan was actually pretty honest about that fact and that may have saved them from an agonizing death of years of trying to finish the game in vain while losing their sanity in the process. So maybe it’s better that way? Who knows…
Conclusion n°1: while Dischan was the more visible indie team making visual novel, they’re not the only ones who got caught into the gamedev paradox. Wanting to get visibility, many creators jump the gun and got burned in the process. It’s always been that way for visual novel, but whereas those projects would have just peacefully disappeared some years ago, the use of Kickstarter adds money into the equation and just makes the fall public and more impressive. Let it be a lesson for all of us: We all need ambition but trying to go too fast will make you fall. Just as with the Icarus myth, we shouldn’t get too close to the sun…
Conclusion n°2: gamedev is hard, don’t underestimate it. And yes, it includes visual novel too.
Following our 2014 report, which says we did LOTS of stuff, the Träumendes Mädchen team won’t stop just now. So what do we plan to do in 2015?
(To celebrate the end of the year, here are some fanarts!)
To begin with, slow down a bit X). I think it isn’t healthy to produce four games a year, not only does it lead to irrealistic expectations, but it also push the teammates to exhaust themselves. We can hardly beat 2014 record in terms of productivity anyway and I don’t want anyone to drown in a coffe’s cup (would be a fitting death but no).
We’re going to stay with basis : our top priority is to finish Milk Episode 4 first. If the work with sprites and chibis is almost done and I’m hoping we’ll be able to finish the CGs real soon (why did I write action scenes again?), I’m worried about the backgrounds. Indeed artists who can handle BGs aren’t legion and we’re missing the colouring phase. Would be galling to get stuck now so I’m hoping luck will smile at us once again ! Episode 4 should be ready in 2015, what remains unknown is when. Will it be at the beginning or at the end of the year…
That being said, I still want to make another short project in the following months. In fact, a specific idea haunts me (writing a story with lots of choices…moral choices) and I really want to make it. So I’m wondering about dragging the whole team with me to enter next Ludum Dare. Needless to say that if we enter a game jam in April, we won’t be doing Nanoreno in March. To be continued…
Some of you may be wondering if we gonna take part in next Japan Expo convention. Well, the answer will depend on you! Since we’re a team of hobbyists, we don’t have a big budget and we’re paying transports/accomodation cost out of our own pocket. We’re enthusiasts and we want to be sure we’re going to make you happy. So I gonna circulate a survey to know if some people are interested in last time hard copies (if we need to reprint some) and if some people are interested in new goodies. Depending on what answers we got (as well as the numbers of answers we got), we’ll be able to see more clearly into it. Of course, most international people won’t be able to attend a French convention, but please do let a comment (here or through social networks) if you’re interested in mail-order. I can’t garantee anything for now but we might be able to open an online store in the future.
Beyond Japan Expo, I think it’s reasonable to make progress with Milk Episode 5. I really hope this part will be available before the end of the year because it’s urgent to finish the common route once and for all. Or else we’ll still be making the rest 10 years from now and that doesn’t sound that tempting to me =(.
2015 will be more relaxed…maybe?
To conclude, 2015 should be less hectic than 2014…should be. Because, as I said, we’re not immune to surprises ~ You know me, I can’t stop myself.