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Published March 11, 2015

Moving forward, VNs Now will be taking the business side of this particular genre/medium a bit more seriously. I’ve spent several months last year trying to bring more transparency to the EVNs that have been put on public crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. This year, I will be broadening that particular area as well as we try to pierce the heaviest veil surrounding this particular corner of gaming: sales and downloads.

For most of its existence as a genre, the health of the EVN community had been judged by two things: whether or not groups or individuals completed a project and the quality of said project on release. While this is a great measure of personal and collective growth, it is a poor indicator for a market. And, whether people like it or not, visual novels are now a market in the West just the same as their independent and AAA siblings. My friend and the Queen’s Favorite Son Chris Tenarium had long discussion last year on whether or not 2014 was a bad year for visual novels. The entire discussion revolved around our opinion on the quality of the games released, when the question we should have both asked at the time dealt in hard numbers.

To date, only Winter Wolves and Moacube have been willing to share that particular data. To the best of my knowledge, Steam doesn’t give the data to anyone but the publishers of the games and where other sales platforms such as Desura, Micro BMT, Itch.io and Gumroad stand on it all is currently unknown at this time. So, for us, the question becomes how? How do you study hidden data? Luckily for us, at least when it comes to Steam, the website Ars Technica asked themselves the same questions. Their solution was an algorithm that creates a sample of several hundred thousand members of Steam to estimate game downloads, hours played, etc. Using this algorithm, Ars Technica developed a list of the four-hundred most downloaded games on Steam of 2014. On that list were several visual novels and this brings us here today.

I encourage everyone to read both the introduction to Ars Technica’s algorithm here as well as the full article on their four hundred game list and methodology here to better understand their report. This type of work always as an error percentage attached to it, but the larger picture isn’t whether or not they are exactly right. The larger picture is, if Ars Technica is in a comfortable margin of error, what does their data say about the visual novel genre? (Well, at least on Steam anyway.)

For the benefit of this discussion, I am only listing the games and the number of ‘owners’ since it refers to an actual transaction while ‘players’ in the data is a statistic to a particular game’s popularity. Although, we will analyze the disparity between ownership and actual popularity in another forum. Ars Technica ranked their list by the most players, so please keep that in mind in reading both of our lists. There were also games including on Ars Technica’s list that I am not including here because their status as a ‘visual novel’ is more grey than black and white and I wanted as narrow of a focus here as possible. With that said, here are the visual novels in Ars Technica’s data listed by the numbers of estimated owners:

  1. Everlasting Summer – 288,063
  2. Depression Quest – 168,375
  3. Hatoful Boyfriend – 138,960
  4. Narcissu 1st and 2nd – 113,602
  5. Sakura Spirit – 113,264
  6. Go! Go! Nippon! My First Trip to Japan – 95,007
  7. Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius – 76,073
  8. Rising Angels: Reborn – 75,059
  9. Nekopara Vol. 1 – 41,925

Now, to a certain degree a lot on this list is surprising. The first deals with a title I have beaten into a bloody mass of broken bones for nearly a year now: Sakura Spirit. Seeing as downloads equals purchases here, we can infer that means that indeed Sakura Spirit was the bestselling English Visual Novel on Steam released in 2014. However, it was not the bestseller of the visual novel medium overall as that title firmly belongs to Hatoful Boyfriend.

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This can be tied directly to a wide public interest and built-in fandom for Hatoful Boyfriend and the promise of it being brought to the West. This should give Sekai Project some hope as they gear up for the release of the massively popular Clannad’s release in the near future. If you want to just talk about strict sales, however, without the built-in audience of Clannad or the side show appeal Sakura Spirit provided for many Internet critics, the group still has no clear financial engine outside of Kickstarter.

Remember that Narcissu, Sunrider and Rising Angels were all released Free-To-Play. The only other commercial game in the Sekai Project portfolio that breaks the list is Nekopara Volume 1.  And with its ownership under 50,000, it could almost be considered negligible. The biggest upside to Sekai Project’s business model is that they shouldn’t have many expenses thanks to partnerships with Western EVN developers and the overwhelming response to Kickstarters for their translated titles. However, unless they are dipping into the Kickstarter funds to use as overall revenue for their operations, their actual profit margins are most likely low.

Clannad will, without a doubt, sell well once it is released onto Steam. But after Clannad, what will Sekai Project do? The Grisaia Trilogy will come at some point, as well as the next chapters to the Fault Milestone and World End Economica series. Sekai is also investing heavy interest in niche games similar to Nekopara such as Hitomebore and Kokonoe Kokoro, however whether or not the much-needed, fully invested audience will be there for those games like they will be for Clannad remains to be seen.

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The second deals with the Free-To-Play model. Several of the most owned VNs all didn’t cost a dime and got their audience via word of mouth. This is especially true for the top two titles: Everlasting Summer and Depression Quest. Depression Quest is the work of Zoe Quinn who spent most of the last year in the middle of a crap storm that would’ve torn apart a small European country. I hope Quinn doesn’t have to go through any of that again, but considering Depression Quest was originally used as a target for Gamergate, it stands to reason many people who played the game in 2014 heard about it from that and either wanted to support Quinn or see what the big deal is.

As for Everlasting Summer, that remains the biggest question mark on the list. Everlasting Summer is a Russian project translated to English and brought to the West in the last year. The only immediate point of attraction is its excellent presentation. However, if you dig slightly beneath that you’ll find an interesting comparison between Everlasting Summer and another cult VN classic: Katawa Shoujo.

Both games took five years to make: KS from 2007 to 2012 and ES from 2008 to 2013. Both games had their start on image boards: KS on 4chan and ES on iichan (a Russian version of 4chan). And both games were inspired by Japanese romance games, which means they are both heavily invested in teenage melodrama. To the best of my understanding, from their both games branch out but the significance here is the continued influence of Katawa Shoujo nearly three years after its initial release.

I often joke about my reputation as an enemy of romantic games: especially otome. But, there is something of an appetite still there based on these numbers. It is definitely conditional though; as there is no telling how well Everlasting Summer would have done if it had a price tag on it. However, the game is a high enough quality to legitimately compete with the commercial titles on Steam and win. This is something that should be kept in mind as EVN developers march onto Steam with their lovey-dovey games in tow and are keeping note of their potential competition.

These are the numbers as they stand right now. If any publisher or developer wishes to present their own download and/or sales data, feel free to email me at jp@vnsow.com and I will be happy to work with you in using that information to create our own metrics and help continue the growth of the EVN community. This has been JP3 reporting for VNN.

Much thanks to Kyle Orland and Ars Technica for their diligent work on researching and collecting this data.

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