I recently came across an article that claimed that English visual novel had reached a peak since mid 2017 and were now entering a new era, thanks to increasing popularity and developers eager to push the boundaries of the medium. Well, I hate to be that person but as someone who has been in the community long enough to remember its short history, I have to say that this couldn’t possibly be farther from the truth. Let me take you a few years back and I think you’ll understand!
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.