I first crossed paths with Sonya Fungs years ago in discussing her game Skights. Since then, Ms. Fung has incorporated and launched CloudNovel: a cloud-based visual novel engine that requires no coding to complete a project. There are new projects on the way, including a remastered version of her first visual novel Cafe Rouge. However, I wanted to take some time to talk with her about her business and how she views the visual novel market. Enjoy!
VNs Now: Let’s start with your background. Who is Sonya Fung?
Sonya Fung: Hi, I’m a 26 six year old woman CEO who owns the website CloudNovel.net, it is an online platform where you can make and publish your own visual novels or other story based games without learning how to code. I graduated from Boston University from business school with a degree in entrepreneurship, in order to pursue my startup company CloudNovel.
VNs Now: What sparked your interest in business? Did you have a few lemonade stands as a kid?
Sonya: To be honest, as a girl, pursuing a career in business or tech wasn’t my thing. Tech is a masculine industry, and I wanted to become the next Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. I wanted to have a career in something more feminine. I never thought of myself as a businesswoman, but what made me go into entrepreneurship/business was my talent for math. I was good at all things numbers and math, even though I didn’t have an intuitive attraction towards it because let’s face it, numbers and competition is more of a boy thing. However, I was good at it, and when I found out that I could make it my own style, business in a feminine and girly way, I grew to love business and entrepreneurship because it turns out it CAN be feminine.
VNs Now: I find it interesting that you saw the corporate world in a masculine frame. Has your view changed since starting CloudNovel?
Sonya: I only started seeing the corporate world in a masculine frame because once people find out I’m a girl, not only that, a girl programmer CEO, their perception of me changes. Many investors I’ve talked to assume that my mentor calls the shots, when in fact, I’m the one who calls all the shots not him. They look at me and then Ryan and assume that because I’m a girl I’m meek quiet and shy, they don’t see my ruthless personality that Ryan only sees because he works together with me. People have also stated that for a girl, I’m kinda masculine, which is insulting, but I have to agree with them a little. I’m good at business because I’m good at making decisions that push my company forward, I know what has to be done.
VNs Now: How did you discover visual novels?
Sonya: I was OBSESSED with Otome games from Japan back in the 2000’s. Unfortunately, many of us know during that time there were no English translated Otome games. There were barely any in English, all of them were in Japanese. So, instead of trying to learn Japanese, I decided to make my own visual novel, and it went viral with 250,000 hits in less than a week of its release. I realized that we can make our own visual novels in the west without having to wait for those Japanese otome visual novels to be FINALLY translated and come over to the west.
VNs Now: I always find it interesting to talk to Otome fans. Can you tell us what titles stuck out to you when you were young and, really, what drew you to that subgenre in particular?
Sonya: Diabolik Lovers, Wand of Fortune, Will o’ The Wisp, and Heart no Kuni no Alice. One of the things that drew me in was the gorgeous art. The bachelors/love interests look beautiful, and they know exactly how to target a teenage girl audience and “capture our heart.”
VNs Now: In your opinion is a visual novel a game or a book/story?
Sonya: Honestly, building a VN engine, it is most definitely a game. I think this is where the question becomes what constitutes a game versus a piece of art. First, a game IS a piece of art, but it is only a game when the player has to interact with it and is programmed to produce results for the player that changes the story. I know that a lot of hard core gamers are going to say visual novels are not video games, but the fact that you MUST make choices within a game to change the story, in my mind, it is most definitely a game. I had program choices that the player picks that changes the story, whether it’s a variable, or something similar. Hard core gamers can argue what they want, yes visual novels requires very little game play, but because it IS requiring some interaction from the user, in my mind, it is a game.
VNs Now: I have to push back on you a little bit here because even outside of certain mobile apps, certain EVNs had have strong mainstream success. When you say you want to make VNs more popular in the West, how do you quantify that?
Sonya: In my opinion, the fact that most visual novel companies in japan are still hesitant on translating their Japanese games into English to go into the Western market, it’s still not main stream.
VNs Now: This week we saw the launch of a visual novel/bullet hell hybrid and historically EVNs have mixed different gameplay functions into their works from management sims to trading card mechanics. In your opinion, where is the line between a visual novel and your typical game?
Sonya: I’d say if 80% of the game content involves storytelling/visual novel scenes, it is a visual novel. Touhou has visual novel elements, but it is clearly a bullet/shooting game, 85-90% is bullet dodging and only 10-15% is visual novel cut scenes.
VNs Now: Let’s talk about your company. What was the spark that gave you the idea for CloudNovel?
Sonya: I wanted to make a visual novel engine that I would use. I came from a film industry background, being obsessed with Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, I wanted to make a visual novel without having to learn coding. Something that a film maker or animator would use. So that led me to making my first version of CloudNovel, Joilly.com, an engine that was based in Adobe Flash that had some GUI components that would let you create a visual novel game without coding. This didn’t work out because eventually flash died, so I had to start over with a new engine based in HTML5. That is the current CloudNovel.net website you see today.
VNs Now: What led to your decision to incorporate CloudNovel? Was it something that was always in the cards?
Sonya: I met Ryan my investor from Silicon Valley, he was a top executive from MySpace back when it was bigger than Facebook. Ryan is my investor and my mentor and he gave me business advice on running a startup and told me all the legalities of not splitting your personal finances and your business finances you could get in trouble with taxes and the government. So with his help, we incorporated CloudNovel as an LLC in Cincinnati Ohio.
VNs Now: We have a growing field of visual novel platforms developers can choose from. What defines your product and makes it unique in the current market?
Sonya: We are a truly non-coding engine. Except for a few html tags like bold and italicize, we allow flexibility that other visual novel engines/platforms don’t offer because offering a system that only lets you use a few tools, it opens up doors of infinite possibility. It’s a controlled system when we don’t allow our users to write code, but in this controlled system you RARELY have bugs in your games, and everything can be fixed visually with a click of a button. That’s why we call ourselves the most powerful AND easiest visual novel platform/engine out there.
VNs Now: Tell me about some of the challenges you’ve had running CloudNovel. How have you addressed these challenges?
Sonya: We are a startup so we are pretty nimble and small. We can move quickly compared to big corporate companies who have to go through their corporate system before they can make their move. However, because we are small, it’s hard to have momentum. We don’t have thousands of employees who could finish a big project like building a whole new game engine, we are just 1-2 people writing code. It’s scary when you think about it, I just remember that I can do things much faster than a big company so in those dire times I just say “I’ll churn out XXX features in 2 days and release updates to our products much faster” because big companies are so big, I always have to play catch up with them. In 2 months they can complete 3 big projects, while I have to work days and nights till 1-2 am to produce 3 big projects at the speed of a large corporate company. It’s because they have so many employees to work together, I have to figure out how to produce that amount of work with just 1-2 people at CloudNovel.
VNs Now: What is one game on CloudNovel you would suggest to anyone who hasn’t heard of your company?
Sonya: I would suggest Skights, it a visual novel I wrote myself and it’s one of the top most rated visual novels on CloudNovel. It’s an entertaining story with good writing, and has many fans who would say the same.
VNs Now What are some of your goals for your company? Should we expect CloudNovel on NASDAQ anytime soon?
Sonya: We’re looking towards crypto-currency with our points system, so that way you can create in app purchases in your CloudNovel game and make money from people spending points on your visual novel. How it’ll work is someone pays points to unlock a feature in your visual novel, you get the points deposited through your account, then you can exchange those points for real money into your Paypal account. Stripe is also a possibility, but I personally prefer Paypal at the moment.
VNs Now: What are your immediate goals for the engine itself? What can developers looking at the engine expect from CloudNovel?
Sonya: What immediate goals I need to get done is the pay to save a slot in a visual novel game feature. This is a feature that I will need for my visual novels in order for me to continue making the game while earning points from people purchasing save slots to save their games. Right now we don’t have crypto-currency in place so we cannot transfer the points into money, yet, however this will motivate the staff members at CloudNovel because we will be earning points.
VNs Now: In talking about crypto-currency, I have to assume you’re following the domestic and international market. I’d think that you are what many local and national political figures in America thinks of when they say ‘small businessperson’. How has what has happened in the world over the last few years affected your company and has that impacted your plans for the future?
Sonya: We focus on staying small and do things that are affordable and achievable. Crypto-currency is still on our horizon as this is essential in creating a game development economy within our community. Plus this will boost motivation for people to continue working on their games once they can money from in game purchases of their game. The world hasn’t affected us too much, we continue to grow at an exponential rate and as for plans for the future, this doesn’t impact our short term goals much.
VNs Now: Finally, you talk about your push to make visual novels more popular in the West. Can you go deeper into why?
Sonya: Visual novels should be popular in the West for a Western audience, and although many people say they never played a visual novel, mobile app games like Episode or Choices have already popularized visual novels in the West or choose your own adventure game genre. What we aim to do at CloudNovel is to eliminate coding entirely with our engine compared to the popular mobile app games Episode and Choices which can only be made my learning their scripting language. We have no scripting language at all. We also tend to see that many of the translated Japanese visual novel games don’t fit the culture of a Western audience. We aim to produce creators and stories who make stories for a Western audience whether that’d be children’s books or an Otome game for Western girls.
You can get more information on Cloudnovel’s main website. JP3: OUT.