Skip to content
Published April 23, 2020

I had a talk recently with a friend of mine who, due to just about all of us being stuck at home during this pandemic, expressed interest in developing a visual novel. My friend didn’t know who I was as I don’t exactly broadcast my hobbies outside of reading, cigars and golf. I did ask them some basic questions though just to see how far my friend was along in their development path. I was told that the plot was ‘basically written’, they were looking for someone to do the art for them for free as well as programming, and they didn’t know yet whether or not they were going to sell it; although my friend did mention that development kits for Switch were expensive, so if anything was crowdfunded it would be that.

My friend was mildly shocked that I ended the conversation there. No, I didn’t ask any details about the plot. I didn’t care about the artwork or the engine they were attempting to use (but, for the record they didn’t know) and I simply wished them luck from there. I doubt the conversation will come up again, frankly.

My friend is one of many who have looked up into the stars at one point or another and think that developing a visual novel is easy. And if this was 2010 or 2012, that type of ignorance could be forgiven. However, with so many vaporware titles, aborted kickstarters and outright collapses of talented developers and development groups, that type of ignorance can no longer stand. Today, I am here to roll back as much of it as I can not to discourage VN development, but to give new developers the best chance they can have of shipping a product. So,If you just want to put together a fun visual novel to past the time while you are sheltered in place and have no intention of selling it or crowdfunding it, this article is not for you.

For those who are, sit down. We need to talk.

The best way to explain my concerns is to go through JP’s Checklist For Commercial VN Development. This is where I think everyone should start before creating a visual novel but, at the very least, it’s my mental checklist before throwing support behind any visual novel project. This isn’t something one can or should half-ass. Ideally, everything on the checklist would get crossed out BEFORE you even start writing the game. As is, if a new developer considers the following at any point of wanting to develop a visual novel, I think the process would go much smoother:

  • Is this game Commercial?
  • Have you finished your Project Outline?
  • How many Presentation Assets am I going to use?
  • Who is the audience for this game?
  • What platform best fits the audience for this game?
  • Is there anything I need to copyright/trademark for future use?
  • Has everyone working on the development team signed a contract?
  • How much time am I willing to personally put in a day to complete this game?
  • What does the development cycle look like?
  • How will I be promoting this game?

Now, I think this list is fairly self-explanatory. However, I am here to ensure there is as little confusion about my suggestions as possible. So, let’s break down each item one-by-one to ensure everyone gets the point:

  • Is this game Commercial?

This is simple enough: are you planning to sell this game? My tried and true rule is that if you are planning to make a commercial visual novel, you need to consider yourself a business at that point and act accordingly. That means budgets, contracts, paying whoever comes onto the team to help you, etc. You can be more relaxed if you choose to make a free project, but you want a level of uniformity for commercial to ensure your project ships.

  • Have I finished my Project Outline?

Simply put, that outline will have the basic plot structure of the game, the planned word count, and how many characters there are going to be. It should also include a definition of success. This seems counter-productive, but think about it this way. Every game, even games you play alone, have an goal you have to reach. For a commercial project, you should have an idea of how many units you want to move going in and the price those units will have to be in order to cover the cost of production (naturally).

I will admit that I am not a math person by nature. However, Inc. does have math people and they also have a great article about pricing your products. You can check that out here.

  • How many Presentation Assets am I going to use?

The Presentation of a visual novel consists of all of the artwork (Character Sprites, Event CGs, Insert Art, Background Art and any Animations), the Soundtrack and any Voice Over work. You need to know exactly how many assets you are going to need to the digit.

  • Who is the audience for this game?

Who do you think is going to play this game? It still shocks me that people will spend hundreds of hours developing a game and have no thought towards who is actually going to play it. A good thing to keep in mind is that a lot of anime and manga that makes it to the West are marketed towards teenagers and children. So, if you’re making a visual novel inspired by…..what’s a popular anime these days?

Demon Slayer will work for this example. I have never seen an episode of it in my life, so I can only go by the metrics.

Okay, so you’re planning a visual novel inspired by Demon Slayer. It’s based on a Weekly Shonen Jump series, so the core audience is teenage boys 12-18. Now, this is where things get crazy, but trust me on this one. Even in the age of YouTube and Twitch, many teenagers do not have an income independent of their parents. SO, IF YOU ARE PLANNING A COMMERCIAL TITLE WITH A TEENAGE AUDIENCE IN MIND, YOU MIGHT WANT TO REMEMBER THAT.

That will be an entire feature one of these days. We really need to talk that one through.

  • What platform best fits the audience for this game?

This one is a basic demographics question. Let’s take put Demon Slayer to the side and say you want to reach an audience of women aged 18-25. They will have independent and disposable income, so you won’t have to worry about payment. HOWEVER, you do have to worry about them seeing your game so they will play it. Gamers who buy an entire platform just to play a handful of titles are in the deep minority of the market. Most will just have two platforms for games (PC and Phone, Console and PC, etc) and will use them explicitly to play the type of games they enjoy. For the previously stated demographic, you will be looking primarily (not generally, but yes primarily) at the mobile market: Android and iPhone. Are you prepared to enter that market? What are the costs of operating in the Google and Apple App stores? You should ask these questions now.

  • Is there anything I need to copyright/trademark for future use?

Every studio should have a core series that can be relied on to generate revenue.That doesn’t mean you don’t have other projects, but when you’re working on your dream stuff, you need to still make money. Talk all you want about Electronic Arts, but FIFA and Madden has keep their bottom line flush for over a decade. Same for GTA and Rockstar, Mario and Nintendo; you get the point. If you are planning to do an episodic series, you may want to consider legally protecting your work. One of the most common lawsuits in the United States are people suing major studios such as Paramount, Fox and Disney over IPs. Let’s say you develop a series that gains moderate acclaim and is regularly assured to bring in between $10,000 and $20,000 with a new release. If there are six to seven commercial launches for that franchise, the entries by themselves next you almost six figures. At that point, you’ve open yourself up to something frivolous just by existing.

The unfortunate reality is that the American justice system currently has no qualms about someone filing suit to earn a payday. Certain legal protections are high on the front end, but it can save your behind in the back end. It isn’t going to be for everyone, but depending on what you want to do with your project, looking into copyrights and trademarks is a responsible step to take.

  • Has everyone working on the development team signed a contract?

Do I really even need to explain this one? Is there anyone in the Year of Our Lord Twenty-Twenty STILL not working under contract? Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a b-?

Look, this is the easiest thing you can to do protect yourself. ]Even if someone has agreed to work with you for free, GET IT IN WRITING. It is a sign of mutual respect to ask the people working alongside you to sign a contract: not an insult. The basic contract will cover the terms of the agreement; the details of the job, if and how much you have mutually agreed to work for, as well as the time period of the contract and the regional laws that will enforce it. You can find basic contract templates anywhere, but there are also legal professionals and law students where you live that have no problem giving you basic advice: most without a charge.

One could make the argument that this list is mostly subjective and that would be fair. This part though? This isn’t. If you are putting together a commercial project, everyone you bring on your team needs to have a signed contract with you. End of story.

  • How much time am I willing to put in a day to complete this game?

There are two ways to approach any given commercial project. One is as a hobbyist and the other is as a job. As as a hobbyist, it can make the process relaxing and fun in the beginning to not have a set structure. In nearly every case though, it becomes frustrating; leading to quick burnout. Why? Because hobbies are usually your personal antidote to the stressors of life. When your try to treat your project like a hobby, the brain subconsciously revolts against attempts to get it done efficiently. Why? Because once that project is gone, where will it get its stress relief? It’s no one’s fault, but if you truly want to launch a commercial title, it can’t just be your hobby with a price tag on the end.

Instead, you have to treat it like a job. The great thing is that since you’re acting as both employer and employee, you can negotiate with yourself on the amount of time and work you put into your project, as well as how to compensate yourself for your time. This comic* breaks it down it a bit better for the artistically minded among us, but the point is not to be a tyrant to yourself. You have to negotiate and the only way to do that is to have a set schedule  of how much time you want to put into your work. It can be thirty minutes or six hours, but plan accordingly.

*You can read the full comic by Ira here.

  • What does the development cycle look like?

Piggybacking on the previous point, it’s time to start putting realistic time frames on visual novel development. Yes, there are amazing developers and teams who can conceive, develop and launch a title in a literal weekend. For most, though, the minimum for a halfway decent visual novel is thirty to sixty days. The more thought you put into your project, the longer the development will go. Ultimately, if you are looking to create a commercial visual novel with the bells and whistles associated with the subgenre (custom artwork, original soundtrack, voice acting, etc), then we are talking about a development cycle that can take years.

My best estimation based on observation is that a solid commercial visual novel can take between three to five years to develop. This gives you as a developer room to breathe. Instead of trying to cram the cycle into a handful of months, you can and should map out time to finish the script, bring in the people you need to add what you want, and raise whatever funds you need. It will also help you plan on what you as a developer need to being doing to keep your own lights on and food on your table. Even if your teammates are working for free, you will still need a source of income if only to ensure development continues without serious interruption.

  • How will I be promoting this game?

Again, in this world this is key. Your game getting feature on a website or a YouTube or Twitch stream is not a marketing. It is also not a guarantee of support. You need a strategy of how you’re going to role out your project and build interesting around it. At bare minimum, you need your own channel on YouTube or Twitch. This will allow you to make videos and streams promoting the project. Most people get exciting for something the developer themselves are clearly excited for and having fun with. From there, the best way to plan a marketing strategy is to look at how people sell products to your intended audience before looking for an exact platform to use for marketing.

This is an interesting concept for my generation because so much of what is advertised to us is done through the lens of nostalgia. However, observing and learning from advertising beyond that is important. Arcade Spirits did a great job of advertising their project in its initial launch. Spike Chunsoft are also masters of this particular craft for this particular subgenre. It’s a good thing to know, is all I’m saying.

One thing you might want to consider is making your plans around the time you will be launching the project to the time you plan to do a sale. Every project goes on sale eventually and usually at launch for an immediate spike. It’s the nature of business. However, you shouldn’t indulge a sale of your game in the hope of moving units. If the demand isn’t high at the original price you ask for your project, it isn’t going to improve by lowering it.

So, I would advise you shoot for six to eight months between launching your project and putting it on its first big sale.That means that your advertising push, whatever it may be, needs to be at its peak in those first six months. Run your ads, accept any interviews, reach your audience. Plan your path accordingly and your commercial project will meet your expectations: whatever they may be. Good luck to you all.

JP3: OUT.