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Will VNs bring about a revolution in social games? A look at Heaven Burns Red and Tribe Nine.



Welcome back to my blog.


You might have seen a few headlines about Heaven Burns Red and Tribe Nine, two upcoming mobile games from writers Maeda Jun and Kodaka Kazutaka.

These aren't just your average games. They're ambitious ventures that blur the line between visual novel and social (AKA gacha) game.

So I'm here today to talk about exactly why VNs fans should pay close attention to the potential of these two upcoming games, given both how unique their stories could turn out to be and  their implications for the VN industry as a whole.

As an important disclaimer, like almost all social games, these two titles will probably be a bad fit for anyone who has a predisposition to gambling addiction. If you think that label could apply to you, my recommendation is: don't even consider playing them (or any other social game). Just stick with VNs, and watch these games' stories on YouTube or elsewhere later.

The Worn Soil of the Visual Novel Industry, and Social Game Money Trees

There's no question that Japanese visual novels have declined relative to their peak. (International VNs are very much on the rise, but that's another subject, and they have yet to reach Japan's heights anyway.) The golden age is far behind us, and there are no more VNs that turn into famous multi-industry franchises. The otaku community as a whole has shifted its interest away from VNs and back to anime and manga, or onward to the likes of isekai novels, doujin eroge, and social games.

If you can't accept this and want to understand exactly when and why visual novels declined, check out this post's prequel, Notes on the past and hope of Japanese visual novels.

Back in the heyday of VNs, CEOs of eroge companies were buying sports cars, and there was no lack of investors. When the decline happened, there were a variety of causes/symptoms, but the one that produced the most tremors in the industry is that the cash flow dried up. Somebody moved Baba's cheese. So where did the cheese go, then?

The best answer is that it went to social games. In fact, the year that the sales decline of eroge leveled out (you might say that people finished evacuating) was the same year that there was a broad movement by the Japanese game industry to take their social games off of SNS and onto independent platforms like GREE to boost profits.

No social game born from a visual novel IP has drawn more attention than Fate/Grand Order. True, Fate was already a massive franchise even before FGO, and that certainly helped the game succeed financially. However, the all-time revenue from console Fate/stay night is infamously less than a week's worth for FGO. FSN sold less than a million copies on all platforms, but the same core Type-Moon artist, writer, and pair of composers have built the creative foundation of a mobile spin-off with more than a million active users, and vast revenue thanks to whales.

Bad Stories: An Inevitable Problem with Social Games?

Visual novels have a reputation for deep and powerful stories. Social games don't, despite the fact that they share so many elements with VNs: they often have an ADV presentation style that's similar to VNs, talents from the VN industry often work on them, the plot can end up quite lengthy and complicated just like VNs, the player meets hero(in)es and builds relationships with them like in VNs, and so on. Instead, what social games have a reputation for is waifus/husbandos and fanservice.

There's a reason for that reputation: developers' attitudes. As a genre, social games weren't developed with the goal of telling compelling stories; they were created in order to facilitate gameplay that leverages behavioral habits to encourage players' engagement and investment. And while the presence of VN-esque heroines can serve to boost players' engagement, lengthy VN-esque narratives are regarded by social game developers as an impediment to engagement, given the way consumers have trended away from VNs. As a result, social game scenarios are often short, and constrained by the gameplay's predetermined "plot" such as random monster attacks every 2 minutes. They even have silent protagonists, a convention that the story-driven JRPG and VN industries abandoned a long time ago.

The truth is, developers' disregard for scenario quality actually isn't new at all. Leaders in VN and eroge companies have always had a pattern of naively thinking that the artist is the person who matters most in a VN's development, and that the writer is the person who matters least. In the early days, they would even hire absolutely anyone to be an eroge scenario writer, because they just didn't care. So it's a problem that many decision-makers in these companies are actually idiots whose presence does the social game industry a disservice.

And so no, bad stories in social games aren't inevitable. In fact, many game development teams recognized their bad stories and belatedly tried to improve them. That's why you will often hear people say of social game stories "the later events at better" or "they didn't think it would be so popular early on..." Unfortunately, a bad story can't truly be fixed by additions to it; it should be at least rewritten, but that rarely happens. So what you have is an industry that's still full of bad stories, and producers who think that's perfectly natural.

The Ambition to Create Deep Stories in Social Games: Enter Key and Too Kyo

In December 2019, Key announced Heaven Burns Red. Key needs no introduction; their writer Maeda Jun's nakige Kanon was largely responsible for redefining VNs as emotional experiences in the first place. 1st beat was the last game he had direct involvement in. Pre-registrations are already open, and trailers and interviews have come out which show many indications that Heaven Burns Red has potential:

  • The protagonist actually speaks, and forms clear emotional connections with other characters. Without a real protagonist, a social game story's prospects are much lower, because players can't self-insert as well; they wonder why an epic plot revolves around a character who has the expressiveness of an emoticon set. This is one of the major complaints people have toward social games with relatively good stories like Fate/Grand Order.
  • Maeda Jun's humor is as spectacular as ever. Key's writer has once more created a world full of characters who are funny and distinct. Just a few lines spoken between them is enough to entertain or intrigue the player. Good comedy is one of the few things that can instantly grab a person and maintain their attention. Too few social games are actually fun to read early on.
  • Baba, someone whose vision of visual novels' potential aligns with what I've talked about, is fully behind this. Baba Takahiro, a smart businessman who founded and still leads Visual Arts, has shared his views with the world in interviews. He had Key partner with WFS, a competent and experienced developer which has created some of the more story-oriented social games, like Another Eden and Shoumetsu Toshi. He has a realistic awareness that VNs are no longer as popular as they once were, but at the same time, as recognizes and wishes to continue to leverage the potential of VN-style stories to let players form deep attachments to characters. HBR is just one of many projects Baba has approved in order to help Key and its talents adapt to industry trends.
  • You can count on there being nakige elements. This is clear from trailers, if it wasn't already clear from the fact that Baba will naturally leverage Maeda's talents. It's not like other social games haven't made many of their players cry before, via plot elements like tragic backstories and character deaths, but they don't be able to hold a candle to what Maeda can do.
  • The scale is broad, as you'd expect from a social game that's been taken so seriously by its developers. There are already character designs and concepts for 48 main characters, Maeda involved in all of them, beyond the 12 who have been introduced so far.
  • Even just as a social game, the production values and system look better than almost anything I've seen before. The 3D environments and models, special attack animations, character designs, music, and voice acting are all impressive.

If you want more of a sense of what Heaven Burns Red is like, I recommend watching the first and second trailers.

In February 2020, Too Kyo and Akatsuki announced a new social game called Tribe Nine. (For those who don't know, Too Kyo is a collaborative indie company established in 2017 which employs a number of creative talents, such as writer Kodaka Kazutaka the rest of the Danganronpa team, Zero Escape's writer Uchikoshi Koutarou, and Root Double's writer Nakazawa Takumi. They all left their former companies.) Anyway, at the time Tribe Nine was announced, it was a teaser that most people didn't pay much attention to. But in fact, half a year later, Too Kyo secretly went from an LLC to a corporation. Then earlier this year, they put out a call to recruit a number of new writers. While the scale of the changes at Too Kyo isn't clear yet, Nakazawa and Kodaka have described the company's atmosphere as intensely busy and full of enthusiasm.

  • The game's storytelling approach comes from Kodaka. Like Baba, he has strong views about the potential of emotionally moving stories to redefine our expectations for game narratives, and he has enough ambition for 3 Babas.
  • The scenario size is already more than the original Danganronpa's, and they plan for it to be more than double that before the game's release. Not that they will release it all at once. Danganronpa was easily a medium-sized VN. Having twice that written before release is unprecedented for a social game. For comparison's sake, the entirety of FGO's Arc 1 (through Solomon) is just comparable to a medium-sized VN that's on the long size, 750K characters.
  • Great value is placed in the writers for Tribe Nine. Look at what I just said about the scenario size; the implication is that Too Kyo will output maybe half a million characters in just the next few months. While it's too early to make any definitive judgments, the implication from recruitment notices and Kodaka's comments about them is that Too Kyo's new writers have been directly enabled to create the kind of stories they want to tell, that they can be passionate about, and fit those stories into the world of Tribe Nine's Neo Tokyo.

Both Heaven Burns Red and Tribe Nine are mobile games, with no PC ports or localizations announced yet. But it's clear that both Key and Too Kyo want to release their works in the West, and I believe that WFS (partnered with Key for HBR) is particularly equipped to make that happen, since they also localized Another Eden. Historically, every Too Kyo project has also seen localization, even simultaneously.

Conclusion: Exploration and Wandering in Search of Forgotten Beauty and Prestige

Social games are one of the most lucrative genres of video games in existence, thanks largely to whales' wallets, but also due to their popularity among ordinary people. Yet ironically, they are the subject of constant ridicule, and not just for their gambling elements. Even the most popular ones are often criticized as having generic, snoozefest stories and vapid, grindy gameplay.

But if you look closely, there's a subset of fans who actually rave positively about social games' stories. Stories that are objectively "okay" at best, even if you don't factor in the bad gameplay that accompanies them. And the reason they do that is actually the same reason people might also praise the potential for lengthy VNs to immerse players: the more time players spend with characters, the more they become attached to them.

When you wake up every day and tap on an app icon and see your waifu say hello on your home screen, take her into battle constantly, watch as new side episodes and versions and skins of her are released multiple times a year, browse tons of fan art, and so on... you become attached to that character, and all her idiosyncrasies. So even if some new event's plot that involves her is bland by any objective measure, it's still directly about someone you're fond of, who you just love to see talk and act--so you enjoy it. Consider a certain tiny dragon who's a generic JRPG mascot character with the catchphrase "I'm not a lizard" voiced by Kugimiya Rie, and who has zero character depth or character development ever... After you've watched 100+ short slice-of-life scenes involving him over the course of 2+ years, he feels like an old friend with a bit of a silly personality, it comforts your heart a little to just be around him, and you'll even create memes about his love of apples to share on Reddit or Discord. That's what it's often like to become a fan of these games, as a cognitive process.

Long-lived social games are, inherently, epics. They are expansive worlds with vast casts of characters, explored over the course of months and years. And yet, they're even more than that. They're epics where the gameplay is designed to make us feel emotionally engaged with their world, in spite of their poorly written and ambiguously connected stories which only have a few occasional good scenes.

If social games that follow these two upcoming games' example were to become the norm, I believe we'd have a chance to see a game that is simultaneously objectively great--at the very least, one tier below VNs' top tier--and epic in scale, and viscerally engaging. That kind of intensively integrated experience, which simmers alongside one's daily life, is something that I hope to one day get a taste of.

But in the meantime, I will have to wait for these creators' attempts to pan out--for them to crack the code that will successfully fuse the charm of both social games and VNs. And so my eyes are on Heaven Burns Red and Tribe Nine.

Misc. Reference

It occurred to me that I didn't link to many sources for much of the info I have, so to help remedy that a bit, I've edited in this section to add a few links.

https://news.denfaminicogamer.jp/interview/210930f Tribe Nine, Denfaminico Gamer interview with Kodaka
https://voice.aktsk.jp/6773/ Tribe Nine, Akatsuki's interview with their producer Yamaguchi
https://twitter.com/kaibutsukantoku/status/1444452237108039682 Tribe Nine translated info from above 2 articles
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNQNZiy7K2I Tribe Nine game promo movie (no gameplay shown)
https://www.reddit.com/r/gachagaming/comments/poc3oo/what_we_know_about_heaven_burns_red_so_far/ HBR, good summary of info
https://www.reddit.com/r/grandorder/comments/k31fxx/jp_script_size_by_singularity/ Source for FGO numbers

Edited by MayoeruHitori


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I appreciate the lengthy post, as well the the other one you linked to. They were interesting reads, and more than anything it's always nice to see people that take an active interest in the future of visual novels. That said, I don't see social games as offering any kind of salvation to the limbo VNs have found themselves in. And it has little to do with the people making them, but rather what they are at their essence. They exist for only one reason, to suck away as much money from players as possible and to get you addicted. It's very much money first, art second. And while this is the general rule for all artistic mediums, the individual works of art that stand out as great, often are lead by those insane people who are motivated by the opposite, art first and money second.  

Now this is where my point of view radically deviates from most, so I don't expect many to agree with me. What interests me about VNs, is the artistic medium itself. What can be done with it, and how it can express themes, stories, and philosophies uniquely from other mediums. In that sense, even if VNs became massively popular. If the only things we are getting are commercial titles that appeal to the lowest common denominator (like typical Hollywood movies), I really don't care for the medium to succeed. Often when an industry is relatively new and going through it's boom period, people are more willing to fund experimental works; which is where the creative and imo interesting stuff comes from. And perhaps it's my own biases of what I've seen social games as up to this point, but I have a really hard time picturing anything deep and interesting coming out of a genre that is just glorified gambling.

One of your key arguments is that these upcoming social games will have massive scripts. That's great for people who are addicted, but that is no guarantee of quality for people with critical eyes. "Bigger is not always better", and "quality over quantity" exist as phrases for a reason. 

Regardless, this is just my two cents. And I'm what is known as a bit of a curmudgeon. And despite my cynicism, I really meant what I said in the beginning. Above all else, it's nice to see that there are people who still care about the future of VNs. So long as there are people who still care, the medium still has life in it.   

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Thanks! It's cool to hear that you found my posts interesting. Your views make sense, and I'm broadly aligned with them, except maybe in what I choose to emphasize.

I respect your cynicism toward social games, and even toward these two social games. TBF, we don't have any clear info about them yet. And my views are that VNs could improve social games, rather than the other way around, so this subject isn't immediately relevant to pure VN fans. Even then, I only put the chance of "revolution" at like... 20%? I'd say it's 60% that people look back at these games a couple years from now and say "oh yeah, that was a weird and cool design decision! too bad nobody played these games and they were shut down months later" and 20% that the producers just cut out what make these 2 games unique in beta tests to try to salvage the low-attention-span player base. So the prospect of an "intensely integrated experience" I mentioned is just a far-off possibility with that first 20% chance as a precondition.

When it comes to labors of love versus profit-oriented works, I find it hard to draw the line between them sometimes, but agree that uninspired writers produce poor works. Tribe Nine is a bit of an unknown, with the way Kodaka described their writers as having the freedom to create stories in any genre they want, yet they still take place in a very specific "extreme baseball" setting that Too Kyo came up with, so Kodaka's supervision counts for a lot... and HBR in particular feels less inspired that I'd like, but Maeda has been mostly out of inspiration for a while now anyway, and at least his humor and eloquence of prose is extremely consistent.

I agree that the medium of VNs (particularly eroge and doujinshi, but I don't want to slight CERO-regulated works) will always be suitable for works that are idiosyncratic and push the boundaries of creative expression. Especially DLsite VNs which aren't directly subject to Sofurin's behind-the-scenes regulation. Web novels (some of the Chinese and Korean ones are excellent too) and doujin RPGs are also powerful avenues for unrestrained creative expression. But due to the way VN engines fuse audiovisual elements and literature in a scaleable way, I still consider VNs the most ideally expressive medium. I'm like you in that I'd also not want to see VNs become lucrative again, if it meant that the already shrunken market for niche/inspired works disappeared completely. (I have no words for people who unironically say they think ero "holds back" VNs; with current economic forces in the industry, it's the opposite if anything. In the first place, the VN industry has enough room for both kinds; it's not a zero-sum game.) Honestly though, I don't expect that social games having better stories will directly impact the market for that, or drain much talent from the VN industry that hasn't already been drained. I know that Kodaka is someone who always seeks new challenges for himself, and Tribe Nine is just another one of them. In the end, I'm just guessing though.

It's not so much about bigger being better for script size, as the bigger the script size, the less likely they've constrained themselves by social game standards. Even early FGO's story, before Nasu reformed it, consisted mostly of 30-second ADV segments separated by dialogue-less battles. Later on, FGO (and other story-oriented social games) ditched this "constant battles" requirement, and had more consecutive ADV segments. That's what made early arcs of FGO expand from around 2K lines for the entire arc, to several times that. Even then, something like Babylonia is still just 7K lines for a plot that deserves much more than that and feels awkward when adapted into a 2-cour anime, so there is still a gap before it in any way resembles a VN story-wise. So yeah, when I heard that Tribe Nine's script size would be so huge before it's even launched, and in the absence of indications that they'll have multiple monthly events, I just hope that this means each event or main story arc within the game is slowed down to a literary pace that's at least comparable to Danganronpa. But the proof is in the pudding, so I'll be playing these games myself to find out.

Again, it's fantastic to have such thoughtful feedback on this post; I absolutely appreciate it. Oh, and you didn't particularly come off as a curmudgeon to me.

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Apologies for a delayed reply, I forgot that Fuwanovel won't notify you of comments made on blogs. Jun Maeda (and KEY in general) is an interesting example to bring up because on the one hand his VNs continually seem to sell very well, on the other hand I think he's exhausted his inspiration. Personally I think it was somewhere around Little Busters! where inspiration was lost (and Solidbatman's review of it basically confirmed my opinion). Using Little Busters! as an example, it isn't so much that it's bad, so much as it feels mediocre coming off of it's older sisters like Clannad, Planatarian, Air, Kanon, etc. Or maybe after reading 3+ KEY VNs you begin to tire of their formula, at least I did. Yet Regardless, KEY looks like the only major VN company that is still profitable, and able to release big budget VNs with a crowd of fans waiting in anticipation. An enviable situation to be in, although on the other hand they have built their own prison in the sense that many of KEY's fans expect the KEY formula, which imo has stagnated them creatively. Most other companies however, are pretty much forced to follow trends and/or release Ero-centric VNs to stay above water. 

For me what really baffles me, is why have VNs declined in popularity? There is so much power to the medium, being able to tell stories and have visuals and audio season the writing. It's a medium that magically touched me years ago, and I anticipated that as the medium got more well known, more people would fall in love with that magic. Indeed VNs are more known about than they were 10 years ago when I first got into them, yet they are still pretty niche. I thought that the popularity of DDLC and social games like FGO might draw more people into the broader VN circle, but they didn't get as many people into the medium as I hoped.  

Regarding everything else you said, I think we see eye to eye and I'm in agreement with your views. And thanks, this exchange has been a pleasure on my part as well.  

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Key's history is a deep topic. That review of Little Busters is on point. Even before Little Busters, Clannad's After Story route was criticized by some for being too similar to YU-NO. When I watched one HBR trailer in slow motion, I could even see which character is the first to be sacrificed by Maeda... and it's the type of character he often chooses. He's actually self-aware that his ideas aren't all fresh: the story concept for Summer Pockets came from him, but he had hesitated to put it forward because he said it felt derivative of his earlier works. Still, Key wanted to use it, and SP sold well anyway. I liked SP too; a story doesn't need to be completely original to be enjoyed, and if HBR ends up anywhere near SP's level that would still put it in a league of its own among social games. Above all, Maeda still has strengths as a comedy writer and as a character writer; Kyousuke from Little Busters and Kanade from Angel Beats in particular are timeless fan favorites.

At the core, I guess VNs inherit the advantages and disadvantages of books. Most people just don't want to read books, unless there is something abnormally good there which they can't find elsewhere, or everyone around them is reading a particular book too, like Harry Potter (or Kanon, Tsukihime, Ever17). They prefer movie (or anime) adaptations of books. The English-based VN community never had a bubble, and so like you said, relatively speaking it's done well for itself in recent years, with DDLC even on Famitsu's cover the other day. But in contrast, the Japanese VN industry is expected to financially sustain a good number of companies that aren't just indies and localizers, and sales aren't what they used to be...

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