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.
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.
Many of you already know it but the Traumendes Madchen team entered Ludum Dare again this weekend. The April session was our 2nd and everything went very differently from the last time. I think I’ll make a post-mortem pretty soon to explain all that.
In the meantime, enjoy Wounded by Words, the resulting fruit of that labour. Due to the time limitation, the current build is still missing some scenes (and there are a lot of typos that we’ll be fixing soon) so you can follow our itchio account to be notified when a new build is up. Or take a look at our social network profiles where we’ll relay the news ;).
Check out the game here : http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/ludum-dare-30/?action=preview&uid=39080
It’s been two weeks since the competion, now is the time to sit down and think about what I’ve learned from the experience called Ludum Dare so far. Quite a lot, to be honest…
Before the war
To really understand our experience, you have to know where we come from, and, unless you’ve just run into us, you must already know that our lovely unpronounceable team is specialized in creating story-focused games. We’ve been making visual novel for some months now and I’d say we’re starting to get a hold of it. Since I’ve always wanted to add gameplay to make our works more interactive, I thought Ludum Dare would be a good opportunity to do so. The goal was clear : we had to make a game.
But, of course, jumping from mostly linear visual novel to full fledged game in a few days wouldn’t be that easy. So we decided to make a warmup game to practice. Soon, I had some assets to create a tiny prototype. The only thing missing was the code. Being a writer and a manager above all else, I was only able to code simple things and I had never done jumpscares before. So I needed the programmer. And he was so late to help me, I barely had any sleep the night before the launch. But we did it, we finished the prototype (with less features than I intended but, well, it was for practice purpose after all). Then the real deal started.
An incomplete idea : Escape paradise
I’m the kind of person who sucks at improvising. When I write something, I need time to think about the story I’m going to make so that everything fall into place. It could take weeks or months depending on the plot. So, I can’t just enter a gam jam like « YOLO, no preparation whatsoever », I have to at least have some kind of trail. And, luckily, I had an idea about what to do for the contest : a short horror story with some point & click elements. There would be this character trapped in a beautiful garden and he would have to escape but doing so would only uncover terrible things. It was a simple idea that needed work but I thought the theme would help me expand it. The first thing I noticed when I woke up early that Saturday is that the theme was way too vague for my taste. « Connected Worlds » didn’t hold much potential for me. I went with the « life and death » approach but wasn’t really satisfied with the result.
You must have noticed by now that I’m used to write games that lean solely on plot. Plot that sometimes has shock value (like what I did with Ambre) or is built to make people think (like Being Beauteous). But Garden of Oblivion wasn’t leaning on plot like my other projects, it didn’t even need a strong plot. It was relying on the mood, on the gameplay and eventually on the litterary references I put everywhere. Plus, I was too busy managing the artists and trying to code to be able to focus on writing a decent story. So I couldn’t really find a way to expand my idea like I wanted to, making the main character suffer a bit from this issue.
The main character : never say reven
Usually I tend to be very specific when I ask one of my artists to draw me an important character. Here I didn’t know what I wanted and I didn’t really cared. It could be a man or a woman, white or black, I didn’t mind one bit. I intended to ask Melow to be the character artist but she was a bit sick and couldn’t really work that much. Morsy offered to draw the MC instead because she was interested. Thing is Melow tends to draw cute girls whereas Morsy tends to draw alternative characters, so that little choice completely changed the way the character was brought to life. She was happy to experiment new things and asked me about the gender of that protagonist. Since I didn’t care and had trouble answering properly, she offered me to make the MC gender-neutral. And so, Reven was born without a gender, because we felt it was not a key element to the story (making writing a bit more difficult actually but it was interesting). Since I suck at finding names and I don’t like normal ones, I called Reven like that because it was « never » in reverse. Yeah.
I was happy with my new designed character but that didn’t help one bit finding how to go into its backstory in depth (like, the reason Reven was send to Eden in the first place is briefly touched upon but not developped). So I didn’t, even though I really wanted to, due to the lack of time. Because of that, Reven is not that much of a well-rounded character, not as deep a others I wrote, and that still bothers me.
Puppies make everything better !
To make a perfect purgatory for our poor Reven, I wanted cute animals to keep the character some company. I asked Melow to draw them inspired by some of the real life plushes I have (hey, stuffed animals are great gifts). Finding names was once again tricky so I went with whatever popped on my mind. Hence the duck being called « Duck McDuck » (I suck at names, remember), the otter « Lotte » and the fox « Fox-tan » (Firefox reference, I guess). The rabbit was more difficult, I racked my brains and decided « Humpty » fitted (he has a big head, he looks like an egg-man to me). Giving them personnality went quite easily. I’m just a bit dispointed we didn’t have the time to make their sprites change expressions outside of dialogues. Another time, maybe.
The turning point or « What went horribly wrong »
Hopefully the artists were really motivated and they worked really hard throughout the weekend. One was kinda sick but managed to do some drawings nonetheless, one was staying at my house and hardly took any break and the other stayed late at night to finish as much as she could. The first day was kinda misleading because I had time to tweet a lot, to show people some screenshots, everything seemed to go alright and all. It was definitely the best day for me and I enjoyed the full community experience. But I hadn’t made much progress on the script and was behind schedule, which was an alarming sign. I had to work really hard the other days to make up for it. Thing is, while the graphists were advancing well, Roganis, our musician, wasn’t getting anywhere because of a huge block. He did what he could though and managed to produce some tracks for the game (you can listen to the unused track in the trailer video BTW). But, well, otherwise, everything was going well, right ?
Not really. The biggest problem was that the code was way too complex for me to handle alone. So I couldn’t even start to write all the little interactions I wanted to make or even ensure we had something playable. I was worried sick because in two days, the programmer almost hadn’t showed up. When he finally helped me a bit, there were TONS and TONS of bugs to fix…and he only came the last night to do so. I was on the verge of giving up. He wanted to try his best though, so while the others had finished and gone to their well-deserved rest, we stayed together to finish the game. But we were lacking time so much we could barely add the gameplay part. So the entry we submitted that night at the last minute was a linear story whithout any polish and full of bugs. Like a story-less visual novel. The empty shell of a game, if you will.
Making a half-game really frustrated me. After a day of rest, to sleep a bit, I took the following day with the programmer to fix some of the major bugs (turned out game wasn’t beatable). And I worked hard later that week to finally add what I wanted, while asking him for some help. It took us three more days at a normal pace.
Garden of horror
When I thought of making an horror game within 72h, I knew we had to work hard on the backgrounds to offer many variations, including creepy ones. Noone could have pulled it better than Orties since she loves scary things so much. The last version of the garden is especially…lovely. It looked like one of Saya no Uta’s. But, we couldn’t make the animated bits right away, since I needed my programmer for that, so the glowing and moving part are only in the post-jam version. As well as the jumpscares actually. I fiddled with some sound effects and animations to make those. I feel the game wouldn’t have much sense without them. An horror game without jumpscares is just too sad. Say hello to the scarecrow !
Puzzles, puzzles, puzzles everywhere !
Surprisingly, we had fun with making the puzzles. Morsy had difficulties to understand what I wanted at first but she managed to make really pretty drawings. I only asked for simple ones but I can’t complain when I see how the knife and axe ones turned out. Even the extra puzzle looked great. Coding them wasn’t too difficult either, so the main task was really more about making the interactions on the background.
And then, there was the riddle… I was planning all along to insert one into the game but in the haste I had to come up with something real quick and we couldn’t ask someone to test the result for us. So, in a predictable way, many players complained that the clues weren’t clear and that they had no idea how to pass it, showing us how important it is to ask someone to play your game beforehand X).
So, what can I learn from this mess ? To begin with, it was obvious that our first time adding gameplay would be painful, and it has been. We learned the hard way that making a game isn’t just putting some assets together, you have to test the game over and over again to correct bugs and make it work for real. What seems like a short and innocent bit of gamedev actually takes you A LOT of time. But it’s that testing phase that makes the game feel alive. But the experience has been enriching and I think we’re now more ready to add gameplay in our stories. Maybe for another edition of Ludum Dare ? Who knows…
Those among you who’re following us on social networks (especially Twitter) already saw this but the Traumendes Madchen team entered Ludum Dare for the first time last week ! It was a very stressful and interesting experience but we’re gonna go into more details in an upcoming post-mortem. For the moment, enjoy our little game : Garden of Oblivion.
Since Ludum Dare has a 72h time limitation, needless to say we had troubles finishing our entry on time, hence many many bugs. So we took some days to make a polished version. You can grab it on itch.io for free but if you liked it, you can also give us a little tip to support future releases !
Once we’re not busy anymore with the Ludum Dare judging, we’ll finally be able to release the third episode of Milk (finished since June for those who bought it at Japan Expo !) and provide the new download link for our Nanoreno 2014 game (we’ll try to correct it a bit while we’re at it).