I think one of the most interesting conversations the EVN community can have right now is how to quantify commercial growth and success. Considering that only a few years ago, all of this was purely a hobby, it is understandable that a potential ‘corporate’ side to English Visual Novel is a non-starter to a lot of developers. However, the fact of the matter is that there are groups making decent money through EVNs right now and for those who are interested in going commercial, trying to force the entire genre to stay ‘just a hobby’ for everyone interested in it is, at best, a disservice.
So, we’re going to have to try and analyze the business side of English Visual Novels as it is coming together in front of our eyes. An excellent case study for this happened this week as Date Nighto and HamletMachine released Starfighter: Eclipse. Eclipse is a spinoff of the very popular yaoi webcomic ‘Starfighter’. It is not a comic for everyone, which inevitably means it will not be an EVN for everyone. However, it had a large enough audience to net $143,183 for its Kickstarter campaign: more than double the $70,000 it was hoping to raise. That would seem to be the end of the story and most commentators would just slap them on the back and assume profitable. However, as I hinted at in the New Release bit this week, a successful Kickstarter campaign does not denote commercial success. In fact, that is why we’re here today.
Now, I’m just going to admit right off the bat that a lot of this is estimation. Since Date Nighto owns the engine and the site it’s downloaded on, we would need their cooperation to answer a lot of the questions I’ll be putting forward. But, there are certain things that can be gleaned through hypothesis, observation and logic: hence the Scientific Method. But first, let’s properly ask the major question: can Starfighter Eclipse actually make a profit? And before fans of the webcomic get on my case because I just don’t understand how awesome Starfighter is and I’m just being an ass; hear me out first. THEN you can call me an ass.
There are two ways to look at Kickstarter: as revenue or as an expense. I look at Kickstarter and see as a way to manage expenses: you put your estimated budget up for sale essentially, with the hope that other people are willing to cover it for you so that there will be no outstanding debts to obstruct your revenue stream. Of course, that hasn’t stopped some game developers, especially EVN developers, from looking at Kickstarter like an ATM. However, since it’s gotten popular, the consequences of looking at Kickstarter like a revenue stream is starting to become clearer as people get burned over projects that never see the light of day thanks to an inability to manage other people’s money OR just being a flat-out asshole.
But I digress.
My point is Kickstarter is ultimately an expense, not revenue. But what does that mean in the big picture for Date Nighto? Does anyone remember what the basic tier of the Starfighter Eclipse Kickstarter was? To quote them, ‘Access to the Starfighter visual novel game, what this is all about!’ By making the game itself the basic reward for donating, everyone who donated was ensured a code at the very least. So, now their main source of revenue has been converted to an expense and Date Nighto spent their first launch day ever giving over a hundred thousand dollars worth of games codes away for free.
Well JP, as you pointed out they raised well over what they asked for! I’m sure HamletMachine and the DN team were smart enough to save the extra money! Before that response comes in, there is one more thing about the Kickstarter campaign you should know: the game itself wasn’t the only reward. This will require a bit of detail and, luckily, I came prepared for just such an occasion! TO THE PIE CHART!
Here you see each donor tier of the Starfighter Kickstarter along with our estimates of what each of them raised financially based on available data. As you can see, the sixty, ninety and one hundred and fifty dollar tiers take up more than fifty percent of this chart and, combined, it can be argued that this group of people responsible for making the Kickstarter a success. Their rewards are a bit different though as they included physical prizes. The prizes varied in number, but they included exclusive physical copies of the comic book with a special foil cover, t-shirts, and prints with the remaining prizes to be digital. This is something that carried over for all backers over sixty dollars, by the way.
So, if we just looked as the logistics of the physical prizes then you realize that over eight hundred people will have to be shipped some sort of physical reward for their contribution. These are items that have to be created, then mass produced and shipped…last I check none of that was free. Presumably all of this has been taken care of and, now that the game is out, the final logistical details are taking place as we speak. I’m not questioning whether or not it’ll be done. I’m saying that whatever was left of the Kickstarter after what went to development was used had to go to this end and whatever fees and taxes comes with shipping merchandise not just in America, but also Internationally.
This decreases what could have been saved from the Kickstarter funds: further clarifying that money as expense. So, based on what was promised and the estimated cost to make the game itself along with good old fashioned American logic, whatever is left from that Kickstarter could probably be piled up high enough to be taller than a Shih Tzu. I’m exaggerating there, but chances are what is left isn’t the Money Bin they started off with. This means that the actual profitability of Starfighter Eclipse is vital to ensure the stability of Date Nighto if not HamletMachine as well.However, to date the only audience I have seen this game marketed to is the same audience who donated to the Kickstarter: current fans of the Starfighter comic. Did I say ‘Oops’ already? Yeah, I thought I did.
Well JP! I’m sure they will find curious VN players who will be interested in the artwork if nothing else and check the game out! That is a probability, however that chance would increase if it was on a platform that was popularly known. Currently that is Steam and Itch.io for the EVN community. Date Nighto is an exclusive service so the only way you’re going to get pay to give it a chance is if you direct them to the site itself. It isn’t a hard mountain to climb, but this particular challenge would only interest those who are familiar with the product. So either they are already fans of the comic (and may have already donated to the Kickstarter) or you have to MAKE them fans of the comic to ensure they’ll put money down on the game. However, I don’t know how many people will try Eclipse just because they see it on a brand new VN site: not for that asking price.
This brings us full circle: the profitability of Starfighter Eclipse. Ultimately, this is all estimate and hypothesis based on how everyone involved have structured the development of this particular game. However, based on that same structure and the logical courses of action, there are a few ways I can figure this particular EVN could be considered a financial success. The first is that the team controlled every penny of their Kickstarter budget, cut where they had to cut and managed things so well that there is still a surplus of cash left. This isn’t what usually happens in these situations, but it can happen. The second way is that Date Nighto and HamletMachine reach beyond their tapped audience and market the game to people who would be interested in the game and have never heard of the webcomic.
This is far more like and it’ll be interesting to see how that particular audience materialize. The point of this commentary is that profitability becomes muddy when you mix revenue and expense streams; making the act of actually making money harder than it needs to be. The truth is that unless Date Nighto releases the sales figures, their final tally will forever be a mystery. However, the data in front of me tells me they still have a lot of work to do if they expect to actually make money from this game. But you, yes you, need not make the same mistakes that they did as you ponder how to commercialize your EVN.
There are two things we should all take away from this little tale. The first is that at no time and under no circumstances should you tie Kickstarter success with the success of your project. If people believe in your idea enough to help you back its development, then hallelujah. But, at the end of the day, they are not customers: they are charitable givers. What they give you isn’t revenue. It’s budgeted money that was spent the minute they wired it to you. You’ll still need to actually sell the game at some point, so it’s probably not a good idea to give your work away to your most likely customers. Keep everything separate and never forget what the money you get from crowd-funding is there for: otherwise you’ll be surprised how fast thousands of dollars can be spent.
The second take away is that if you plan on putting a price tag on your EVN, you need a long-term plan for it. One day I’ll get it on Steam! isn’t a plan. People liked -insert popular other genre here- so they’ll buy my game! isn’t a plan. And by ‘long-term’, I mean at least six months to get maximum coverage and sales out of your work. If you do not know how you’re going to reach people other than you putting it out there and seeing how it goes, you shouldn’t be surprised when no one knows what you’ve done. This type of planning will also help you better plan your finances as well since you’ll know how much time after developmental will be needed to reach whatever your individual goals you have for you work.
This is going to be hard for most, because from my experience watching English Visual Novels in development, the majority of all time and energy is spent is completing a game. Gather all of the assets, ensuring the writing is on point and coding a visual novel is a pain in the ass, I’m sure. However, you have to balance that drive with the more tedious administrative office work if you want to stick a price tag on it: there’s simply no way around it. Plan everything. Plan everything again. Once you’ve got it down, go over it one more time. Be sure you know inside and out how you want to position your work once you’re done, because if you don’t all of the long nights, aching fingers, headaches and sweat needed to make your commercial EVN plus fifty cents wouldn’t get you a cup of coffee.
That said, I do wish the Date Nighto team luck and I would be highly interested to see how close my hypotheses to the facts. Maybe one day they’ll be happy to share and we can all learn from what they did right and what they did wrong. Until then, JP3: OUT.