The creation of Chronotopia: making the sprites

(We’re funded at 75% and Chronotopia has been greenlit! There’s only 3 days to raise funds and make this project a reality so it’s now or never to support us!)

After PyriteKite/Kat, it’s Anako‘s turn to talk about her work. And she has quite a lot since she’s doing both the sprites and the event CG! I highly suggest checking out her DeviantArt account or following her on Facebook/Tumblr because she posts very pretty things~

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The creation of Chronotopia: background art

(We’re 60% funded! That’s one step closer to our dream but there’s still a long way to go so keep on supporting us on Kickstarter and Greenlight!)

After writing two articles on Chronotopia‘s story (namely the concept and the characters), I’m making way for PyriteKite/Kat to explain her part of the work: backgrounds art. She’s very talented so check out her DeviantArt account~

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* Note: I use Adobe Photoshop CS6 for creating backgrounds and take about a week to complete one depending on complexity.

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Before making your big visual novel: Learn to make yourself useful

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.

Chronotopia sneak peek4

While I’m at it, here are some news about Chronotopia: Anako is making researches for the fairy character ~

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Tutorial: How to do a cloud animation with RenPy

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

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So you wanna make an Android port of your visual novel?

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!

Ambre MM Android

It makes you proud to see your game working on a phone *__*

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.

RenPy Launcher
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.

Acces API

I couldn’t change the language setting on my Google Play account so you’ll have to bear with my French screenshots <_<

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.

Projets GPAt this point, you should be able to create projects and generate a key for each one (don’t lose it!).

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.

Clefs RenpyYou’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.

RenPy Launcher2One 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.

Google Store• 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?

Ergonomics issues
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.

Finger issue

As you can admire, thanks to Keul’s finger, it’s difficult to click with the original GUI…

• 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!

To conclude
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.

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Screenshot of the Android version: look at the new quickmenu on the right =’)

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.

My experience as a marginalized dev: trying not to self-censor

Recently, Heiden, another game developper, asked me on Twitter if I could write about where I’m taking my inspiration from and what my motivations are. It’s a bit complicated in my case but the question is interesting enough for me to try to answer!

Inspiration: a joyful patchwork

First of all, depending of the projects, I can tap into extremely diverse source, often seemingly incompatible: classic literature classique, fairy tales, cartoons, comics, movies, videogames, anime, visual novel, mythology, etc. I’ve already mentionned some of them but here’s a more exhaustive list.

For Being Beauteous, I based the story on Disney version, especially the love song part, thinking up how the romance between the protagonists coul work without its main catalyst. Also, what’s after the usual “happy end”, how their relation can grow, what happens when they’re becoming old. I mostly applied my way of thinking to a version I didn’t particularly like. To be honest, BB is at least my 2nd or 3rd Cinderella rewriting. The other big idea I have in mind for years now implies a narcoleptic Cinderella. Also, BB is mainly born at  a time where I was discovering those kind of feelings: you can hardly pull more romantic from me and the result is still bittersweet =’).

Jaquette AmbreAmbre is my short project with the most diverse influences: as mentionned in my post-mortem, I drew a bit on World War Z by Max Brooks (the little girl who survived the zombie apocalypse chapter), the song Moment 4 Life by Nicki Minaj that illustrated the Cinderella symdrom perfectly, but also in a  news item novelized by a french lawyer.

Strangely enough, I took inspiration from a romantic comedy film I only knew because of posters on the walls of stations back when I had to take the train in 2012. It tells the story of a happy couple wrecked when the woman suddenly lose her memory in an accident, only knowing what happened before meeting her husband. And I simply asked myself what would happen if my partner had to face the same problem. Since I’ve seen a lot in my life, the answer varied depending of the memory loss and my attitude was radically different. For examle, at some point in my life, I was obsessed by being normal and I tried to kill who I was to fulfill the expectations people had for me. I suffered a lot because of those attempts and it left a mark on who I became. During that dark phase, I especially tried to find bearings and ended up copying popular media (TV, cinema, radio, magazine for women) in order to know how to behave. Looking back, the result was totally ridiculous and clumsy but I was really, genuinely, trying to match what people wanted me to be. I don’t wish anybody to experience that… Hence, Ambre can be considered a fiction of what I could have become if I didn’t cracked under the pressure and decided to follow my own path.

Inspired by real facts :p

As for How visual novel changed my life, there’s not inspiration insofar as it’s a revised collage of real IRC discussions ;). One could consider the whole team wrote this one!

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Concept art depicting The Metamorphosis by Kafka (@Eolyus)

The original idea behind Garden of Oblivion was to create some kind of written Yume Nikki (a great experimental game) with some point & click elements. Sadly, the concept never went past that. Besides, you could consider the story-related parts are also based on my personal experience: wanting to withdraw in an imaginary world, feeling like you’re not fitting in, being unable to take decisions, etc. Incidentally, the talking animals many people said were reminiscent of Dreaming Mary are nearly all stuffed animals I own and that embody my childhood.

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Concept art of Hassan (@Kinect)

Wounded by Words is more complicated because everything is “real”. I did base some parts on testimonies to depict Gabriel and Hassan (as I don’t master viewpoints like those) but overall, every character has the same problem, and that’s something I recently faced: the difficulty to keep going forward when you don’t belong to the dominant viewpoint. As a young woman dealing with a disability, I often struggle to do the same things as others and I’m still poorly perceived in my own family. It’s a very complicated and disheartening feeling I wanted to share. Incidentally, Dave is only here to embody the external and hurtful view the other character have to deal with daily. He’s based on my previous internship tutor and several members of my family. Mostly my father. Sorry if you’re reading me, dad, but you’re really like that and it’s insufferable…

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This is not a harem…

Milk~La légende des étoiles being a huge project, my influences are even more diverse depending of the segments. The whole “harem” thingy is of course based of charage/moege and I wanted to readapt them completely in my style because I’m displeased with the current state of those games. In my vision, the main character is only a catalyst, the heroines are the ones who get the spotlight, especially their psychological development. Incidentally, each heroine is inspired by a fragment of my own personality, just like the protagonist. Hence I was really inspired by the visual novel Yume Miru Kusuri. What’s ironic is that, when I wrote Milk, it was kind of a fiction about what could happen if I were to fall in love. And I know myself so well, some parts of the story did actually happen to me later…

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Extract of the Crossing Horizons artbook (@Orties)

The segment devoted to Khzi was originally a big joke based on the most stereotyped things in adventure novels and fantasy. I tried to make fun of that and took the absurd as far as I could. Khzi herself was supposed to be a super serious and classy killer (because I like the strong independant woman type) but I ended up making her completely unpredictable, a bit like Yumiko in the anime Read or Die. The super serious and classy killer hence became Freyja.

The “Légende des étoiles” part, yet to be released, is inspired by the comic book Thorgal, Ulysses 31, and mythology in general.

 

Inspiration : another perception of the world

In general, I have a complicated relationship with writing insofar as I don’t have an author I’m a fan of, I really tap into everything I integrated with time. Even stranger, I can sometimes dip into things I don’t know directly: I really like accumulating knowledge about many things, so I can know works indirectly without having read or seen them. I can even get inspired only by what I think the work is about (often to get disapointed when I get to read/see it for real).

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Current Chapter menu in Milk~La légende des étoiles

I work on the assumption that it’s impossible in the 21st Century to think up of raw material: everything has been done by someone else before. So, for me, writing is a kind of alchemic process: I’m mixing many different influences and add my personal touch to come up with something. And I think creativity resides in that mixing of influences. For example, the Cinderella story has been done many times before, but it’s what I can add that makes a new version possibly interesting. It’s not the idea but the execution and the way you put a bit of yourself in it!

Considering that fact, I’m relying a lot on the meeting between those influences and the way I see the world. Since my way of thinking is kinda unique, I feel like I can write about anything only by taking over the material.

 

Motivation : message in a bottle

I read a lot when I was younger but I never really found a work that was like me. To begin with, as a woman, it’s not always easy to get properly depicted insofar as most classic and recent books only deals with male preoccupations or show stereotyped female preoccupations (shoes, shopping and prince charming, yay). And as an autist, my way of thinking is never depicted anywhere, making me feel unconcerned by most current cultural productions. Fortunately, there are hidden gems that are really worth discovering but let’s say I’m not as favored as others, who will find what they’re looking for more easily. You have to search very hard to find an autistic protagonist in a story non-related to explaining autism. Let’s be clear, it doesn’t mean interesting neurotypical stories don’t exist, only that my tastes are not the majority. That’s why I’m interested in indies: I hope to find with them more diversity than anywhere else.

Quite frankly, what motivates me to write is to try to make stories that I will like. Since I struggle to find things like me, I decided to make them. If my works manage to satisfy my peculiar expectations, I’m quite happy, and it would make me happier if others could share that vision. It would mean I’m not really the only one to think that way and that I could be useful one way or another. I guess it’s just as if I was sending a message in a bottle: I transmit a part of myself in my games in the hope that maybe, someone, somewhere, will come across it and share my vision, find some interest in it.

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Screenshot of Milk Episode 5, under developement

I don’t know what other developers are trying to do when they start to make games but, for me, everything echoes back to my disability: it’s at the same time my inspiration, what drives me to write, my curse and my gift. I wouldn’t want to fight as much if I didn’t have a different voice to make people hear, but I wouldn’t be struggling so much if I didn’t have a different voice in the first place. I’d like people who have a difference to be able to access as much content they’d likely enjoy as the others do. If child/teenage Helia is able to find what she likes, then I would have accomplished my mission. The road is still long before then ;).

Thoughts about Dischan, the gamedev paradox and Kickstarters

A few days ago, Dischan has announced that they will cancel the full-time developement of the Dysfunctional Systems serie.

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.

Dischan1

@DischanMedia

 

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.

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@DischanMedia

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!

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@DischanMedia

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.

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@DischanMedia

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…

cradle_song

@DischanMedia

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…

dysfunctional_system

@DischanMedia

 

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.