Game Dev Theory

Understanding Innovation: Your Visual Novel Idea Isn’t as Groundbreaking as you Think It Is. I’m So Sorry, Dude.

Between being a developer, player, and reviewer, I’m all over new visual novel Kickstarters and games in development. I love reading writeups from new developers and those just entering the visual novel space from a different genre to see where their head is at. The most interesting trend I see in some of these pre and in-progress development blogs are developers who are bound and determined to redefine the medium or make a “visual novel unlike any other.”

Which is commendable.

Then I actually see how they intend to go about this and it strikes me as a plan that doesn’t take into account the full breadth and depth of the medium as it stands. That they’re coming into the development process with a very narrow pre-conceived notion of what a visual novel is and does and has. Sometimes, I see a Kickstarter description that makes me wonder if the developer has ever actually played a visual novel before deciding to make one.

Innovation in a medium is great. It infuses new blood and keeps things nice and spicy. But what does that actually look like in an effective way?

Actually Know What’s Going On in Your Medium (and What Isn’t)

I was skimming through a blog post of a certain developer after playing their game (that doesn’t seem to be posted anymore, so pardon as I attempt to paraphrase from memory). Their thesis was basically “how to improve visual novels.” They had a lot of typical critiques and came in, generally, with good-faith arguments. They weren’t saying anything I hadn’t heard before in other forums. Then they lamented that visual novels primarily concerned themselves with high schoolers and coming of age and things of that nature. And, initially, there’s a lot to be said about whether that’s an hundred percent accurate statement. Even referencing just Japanese games (which the community unfortunately often uses as the standard), lists of the consistently most popular games show a fair amount of thematic diversity. At the same time, those lists are culled from maybe a decade of games, and I can see feeling like every new game coming out is the same thing over and over again if we get stuck in a trend. So, from a very hyperbolic perspective, okay, sure, they get that one.

But then they list a series of themes and formats that they think would suit a visual novel. And I’m scanning it and all I can think is…I’ve played these games. I’ve worked on these games. Recently. Yeah, nothing that was a one-to-one comparison, but there are absolutely a number of games that deal in similar themes or casts or settings that this developer was using as an example of “games they wished existed.” I could list them off the top of my head, at the time.

If the conversation had been about how marketing favors a certain style over others and the more nuanced and experimental games can get lost in the shuffle, then yeah. We talk about that kind of thing all the time in developer circles. But to completely disregard that these games even exist strikes as a lack of real research into what the medium actually has to offer its consumers.

And that’s something I honestly see way too much of. A new developer who comes in with a very narrow notion of the medium based on their experience in a very niche community or on what’s been marketed to them. All concerns, but not an accurate reflection of the entire shape of the market. The frustration at seeing this also comes from how often English language developers find themselves in direct comparison to and in competition with Japanese language games, the communities around them, and how those communities help shape the perception of the medium from an outside perspective.

It can already be difficult to convince a new, potential initiate that, no, your game isn’t an anime porn game because of the already established associations. When a fellow developer falls into the exact same trap, it feels like it’s just going to have to stay an insurmountable difficulty.

If you do properly dig into what a medium can offer, what it doesn’t have obviously starts coming into sharper focus. Generally speaking, whatever this lack happens to be is probably for a reason. It’s extremely unlikely no one has ever tried Thing before. But maybe Thing doesn’t add enough value for the cost and difficulty of implementing it. Or it’s out of fashion. Or players tend to not like it. Or it just straight up doesn’t sell. So it’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t do Thing. There very easily could be a way you approach it that catches just right, and Thing suddenly becomes extremely popular. The idea is to simply be pragmatic about your statistical likelihood for success if your entire pitch hinges on “like Thing, but different somehow.”

Understand Why People Play What They’re Playing

One of the most egregious examples of the above in visual novels involves experimental mechanics. There have been so many times that I’ve been reading a pitch or having a conversation or in a group chat where a new developer is describing this complex exploration and point and click system they’re looking to incorporate into their visual novel. And I’m like…that’s an adventure game. What you’re describing…is an adventure game. Just…call it an adventure game. And yeah, they’re cousins, but they’re described as distinct styles of game for a reason.

Visual novel players have certain expectations. Some are fluid and easy to play around with, some you can defy triumphantly to great critical acclaim, and some could be real deal breakers for hardcore fans of the medium. And that’s not always easy to know without market research, beta testing, and risk-reward management. There’s always debate around how and if you should add mini-games, for example. Some visual novel players find them incredibly intrusive. Some like them. Some don’t mind them. Some just prefer they not gate the story. Any time you include a mini-game, you have to be smart about how you implement it and take all these factors into consideration.

It’s also important to note that a player did not choose to play an FPS or a turn-based strategy or even Sudoku. They chose a visual novel, and there’s going to be a reason for that. They may not be a “gamer” in the traditional sense, and they see visual novels purely as interactive fiction. They could be playing on a laptop or phone. Maybe they’re just not in the mindset of engaging with complex strategies. These are all circumstances where mechanically complex gameplay or expansive interfaces might be unwelcome and will cause a player to pass over your game.

Not that you can’t incorporate some of these things into your visual novel design. I’ve played, made, and enjoyed games with seek-and-find, inventory systems, stat raising, turn-based combat, and social RPG elements. At the same time there’s a line you have to walk between creating a novel interactive experience that might court a broader audience and alienating the already existing player base. If you throw in a couple of match-3 segments I might be like “Okay cool. That’s fun, I guess. I like match-3.” If I’m having to work through increasingly difficult puzzles just to get to the next segment of story, I’m going to wonder why you didn’t just full on make and market it as a match-3 game with branching narrative instead of a “visual novel.”

Recognize That Some Things Stick Around Because They Work

A lot of this “I’m going to change everything” I’ve also seen trickle into the formatting of visual novels. Where things are arranged on screen and how you interact with it. I’ve seen the question raised of why is it always text box on bottom, sprites, then a background. Why can’t it be something else?

The thing is developers play with text and art presentation all the time. It’s another one of those hyperbolic claims that stems from having a narrow exposure before jumping in as a developer. That’s not to say that the text-on-bottom with sprites approach isn’t widespread in visual novels. It’s popular in a lot of games in a bunch of different genres and styles. Because it’s an extremely effective methodology of conveying narration and dialogue. It does its job well, so why shouldn’t developers keep coming back to it if it makes design sense to do so?

This is the same reason that certain themes and aesthetics remain pervasive. Yeah, visual novels are romance heavy. A lot are about teenagers in school. A lot of modern young adult fiction is about plucky young women defying the dystopian future government. A lot of FPSs use terrorists and Nazis as their enemy mobs. Some things just kind of fit together well and mesh with the players in that demographic. That doesn’t mean these things are intrinsic to the medium, it’s just supply and demand.

There’s a level of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” involved. So if you notice a strong trend in format or theme for visual novels, the first thought shouldn’t be that developers are lazy or haven’t thought of another idea. Rather, it should be that there’s probably a reason that this trend persists. Understanding that is going to help you marry your innovative ideas with already proven concepts. That’s going to give you more sticking power than haphazardly throwing a bunch of new stuff together with no cohesion. Truly morphing a medium and redefining it into something new is an iterative process undertaken by multiple groups of creators building on the success of those before them.

Find Freedom Outside the Labels

Ultimately, I would hope anyone coming in with an attitude of “I’m going to change everything” is doing so because they want to play a game that they feel doesn’t exist, so they’re making it. If you’re coming in to be some kind of contrarian and you just want to “shake things up” just for the sake of it, it’s really obvious and incredibly inauthentic.

Labels are for marketing and sorting purposes, not infallible diagnostic criteria. You can come to the community with a highly hyrbridized game and use “visual novel” as part of its descriptor (as long as that’s appropriate) and players will understand that there’s a range of possible expectations. They’ll make their own decisions. You don’t have to demand the medium changes or for other developers to drastically alter their own process just so your game “fits” better. It’s either going to fit in, it’s not going to fit in, or the community’s not going to care what you’ve called it because, practically, no one really thinks about it.

Because, in the end, no matter what you end up labeling it, your game has to speak for itself. If you just tell me your game is full of revolutionary development ideas, I’m going to ask you to put up or shut up. If your game is going to end up being genre redefining on its own, you’re very likely not going to know ahead of time and you shouldn’t have to tell me even if you do. It’ll be evident in its impact. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by setting up these huge expectations for your project that you can’t guarantee you’re going to meet.

Because the funny thing about art is that you really have very limited control over it once it’s out in the world. It could be a wild success. Or it could flop. It could be hailed as groundbreaking or it could end up being just another step in a long line to something new and phenomenal ten years down the line that none of us saw coming. But you can make something you’re proud of. You can do the work. And it’ll be what it’ll be.

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