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There are way too few visual novels with actual gameplay


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On 4/29/2020 at 9:42 AM, zhair said:

I realize that VNs are pretty much novels with pretty pictures, music and (sometimes) voice acting, but I don't understand why almost none of them incorporate more actual video game elements.

I was just thinking about the VNs I've played, and the one's that became popular. And I can't think of a single one besides Steins;Gate, Hatoful Boyfriend and Doki Doki that didn't have some actual gameplay. The latter two of course for a very different reason than just being good visual novels.

I know I'm stretching it with some of these, but as far as I can tell the most popular ones are Phoenix Wright, Zero Escape, Danganronpa, Professor Layton. Maybe Corpse Party, Ghost Trick and AI: The Somnium Files. Not all of these might qualify as VNs to some of you, but to me they do. The first four are actually so popular that people who know absolutely nothing about visual novels have heard about them. I know I have, and I loved every second. Then I went on to find similar games... and nothing.

It seems like these are all the good visual novels with gameplay that even exist. And I don't understand why. It seems so obvious to me that, in order to reach mass appeal you combine visual novels with interesting gameplay. Everything else just gets lost in a pile of the other thousands of VNs nobody outside of a very niche audience cares about.
 

Well, I see where you're coming from, but consider that in Japan most VNs are eroge for which the main selling point is the combination of compelling stories and sexual content... And they sell well enough through those two features. VNs with significant gameplay are kind of their own, much more mainstream market and that's fine.

That is, if we're talking about adventure game-style gameplay. There's a shitton of VNs that implement RPG and Strategy game mechanics – fairly few get translated to English, but Rance games, Eiyuu Senki, Evenicle and Venus Blood -Frontier- are notable examples of gameplay eroge. You also have a decent number VNs with raising sim and dating sim elements, like Littlewitch Romanesque or Gaokao.Love.100Days. Obviously, there was in the past a huge market for heavily gameplay oriented dating/raising sims in Japan – I honestly have no idea how much alive it is nowadays.

To be honest, though, I went into VNs exactly to escape from gameplay, which in narrative games can often just become pointless padding distracting from the parts I actually care about. Of course, that doesn't have to be the case if the gameplay is well implemented and I'm sure it can make stuff more appealing to an average gamer, but I'd hate for gameplay elements to be shoved everywhere just for that reason. And if that means VNs are cursed to stay obscure forever? I can live with that.

Edited by Mr Poltroon
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Gameplay elements are a lot harder to design and test and get working.  That means they cost a lot more money.  These games are made on shoestring budgets.  There are companies that specialize in 'gameplay titles' out there.  And most of the time, those titles are not known for having a strong story.

In other words, it's pouring a lot more dev resources into something that's not the core selling point of your game (which is, pretty much like you said, a novel with added production value).

These guys make money by being happy to be the niche players.  Or to put it another way - your point is essentially the same reasoning publishers use when they say 'Graft a multiplayer mode onto game X!  Just freaking do it, we don't even care if it makes sense, gamers like it!'  Sometimes that works out (Mass Effect 3) and other times, not so much (Resident Evil 3).

These companies are like Atlus (well, before Sega bought them).  They know how to survive in a low-volume market.  If they wanted to make mass-market-appeal games, they'd be making a different kind of game entirely.  Not every game has to be mass market.

If you want to know 'why aren't there more releases in English', here's your problem.  There are a decent number of games.  Heck, there's some you haven't even listed (like Koihime Musou, or Aselia the Eternal, or - and I'm being serious here - Persona 4 Arena).  I've been around since the early 2000's, and I converted into a paying customer when I found out a VN was lucky to sell a few hundred copies.  The numbers I hear nowadays are they're lucky to sell two thousand.  These games are absolutely popular enough already in English.  Just not with people who actually pay.

I'll put it this way:  The raw untranslated script for SKM is about 6 megabytes.  Rounded down to 5 to account for repeated text and punctuation, etc - at 5 cents per character (very low end of the going rate) and 2 bytes per character that's $250K.  How many copies do you need to sell to make that back at $40?  6250.  Then there's licensing fees, and we know that MangaGamer said 'if the original KM doesn't sell 2000 copies, we can't pay for the voice so we'll have to remove it'.  There's more voice, so bump that up a little.

You're probably looking at 8500-9000 copies just to break even.  And now you know why MangaGamer hasn't done it.  They can't pay the translator a decent rate.  They'd have to find someone willing to be significantly underpaid.

But suppose for a minute Koihime had sold - instead of the probably 2500-3500 copies it likely sold (it sold > 2K, they added the voices back) - 6 or 7 times that number.  Then licensing the sequel would be a no-brainer.  It would have been out years ago, probably.  Furthermore, every game that was remotely worth releasing would be getting licensed and released.

It's the same story with other text-heavy Japanese products.  RPGs were a niche product.  Every time an RPG was released in English, the company releasing it was taking a risk.  And then FF7 came out, and it was one of the first videogames to do cinematic awesome cutscenes well, and it was absolutely in the right place at the right time to do gangbusters.  Prior to FF7, RPGs had been building in popularity slowly, but post-FF7, an audience was there and realized 'maybe I should pay more attention, this looks nifty'.  Post-FF7, most major JRPGs got translated (but not all).   The same thing happened again a few years later, when the quirky-and-cutesy-Japanesey style games caught on.  First was Disgaea, which was an amazing game and sold out instantly and Atlus reprinted it and then NIS (the makers) founded NIS America, which has gone on to do very well.  Then Recettear sold hundreds of thousands of copies on Steam, proving to everyone 'no really, people will buy the weeb shit'.

VNs don't need to be made into something they're not in order to start selling.  In fact I'd wager they're already starting to sell.  Look at the huge uptick in otome releases, and console releases.

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1 hour ago, Plk_Lesiak said:

To be honest, though, I went into VNs exactly to escape from gameplay, which in narrative games can often just become pointless padding distracting from the parts I actually care about.

I completely agree. The reason I got into VNs in the first place was because I was looking for a more story-focused experience. If I wanted gameplay, I'd just go play one of the many regular video games in my backlog, but I've found myself less and less inclined to do so these last few years.

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There are a number of companies that specialize in gameplay hybrids or have at least one series of such games.

Eushully (variations on rpg, strategy, and srpg systems with alchemy sometimes thrown in)

SofthouseChara (involved, unique game systems)

Xuse Honjouzou (Aselia series)

Eternal (the Yumina series)

Ninetail/Dualtail (Venus Blood, various dungeon crawlers)

Giga (Baldr series under Team Baldrhead)

Alice Soft (various games and series)

Astronauts (various rpgs, dungeon crawlers, and tower defense under a subsidiary)

Generally speaking, it takes a great deal more money and personnel to make gameplay hybrids, so companies pretty much have no choice but to specialize in such games if they do make them at all.   Programming staff capable of creating credible gameplay systems generally demand more money than the guys who use existing engines to make visual novels work (most companies use a pre-existing engine rather than a proprietary one), and so a single failure can often sink a company outright.  You'll notice that you'll see almost no companies less than five years old even trying to make such VNs in Japan... well there is a good reason for that.  The initial investment is just too large.

Think about it... just to make a decent game that doesn't look like it came straight out of RPGmaker or a mobile app can eat up millions here.  A VN using a pre-existing engine can get in under a hundred thousand (charage) if they don't ask for too much.  The only reason most VN companies stay afloat at all is because they sell merchandise or do everything they can to cut costs while inflating the price of the games.

Edit: Incidentally, the best old-fashioned JRPG I've played in the last fifteen years (not replayed, but actually played for the first time) was Ikusa Megami Zero, a hybrid by Eushully.  So I'm not a hater, lol.

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4 hours ago, Nandemonai said:

I'll put it this way:  The raw untranslated script for SKM is about 6 megabytes.  Rounded down to 5 to account for repeated text and punctuation, etc - at 5 cents per character (very low end of the going rate) and 2 bytes per character that's $250K.  How many copies do you need to sell to make that back at $40?  6250.  Then there's licensing fees, and we know that MangaGamer said 'if the original KM doesn't sell 2000 copies, we can't pay for the voice so we'll have to remove it'.  There's more voice, so bump that up a little.

This is extremely inaccurate. If 5 cents per moji was standard in VN translations you’d hear a lot less complaints about bad pay, lol. NDAs are a thing, so I can’t mention specifics, but uh, think like... a lot less than that. If you want the low end think a LOT lower than that. 

Like, jesus, where did that number even come from. I want in on that shit. :nokia:

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Luckily I have no NDAs binding me, so I can post various VN TL rates I may or may not have been told about:

First of all we have Arunaru when quitting MG who says the max rate at MG is now 1.75 cents per moji. I've heard 1 cent per moji quoted a lot as the lowest MG rate, but it's possiblE they've went up to 1.25 or something. https://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1sr1tu4. I believe editing rates are generally ~1/4 of tl rates at MG while they might be 1/2 at other companies, but this might have changed.

Sol Press pays 1 cent per moji as far as I know. If you ever needed another reason not to work for them...

JAST is afaik at least 2 but might be 3. Could go to 4?

Frontwing used to pay a whopping 6 afaik, but I'm not sure if this is still true.

Sekai is 2 or 3 I believe. Again, could go to 4? —but you'd be working for sekai project.

I don't think any vn tl company bar frontwing pays 5 cents or above on any kind of regular basis. Maybe Aksys? not sure. I think Aksys has unusually high editor pay to go with their "have translators translate literally (badly) and punch it up later" approach where they expect semi-heroic editor efforts. But I haven't heard a number for Aksys I don't think.

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Making a game is a lot of work (talking many months), RPG's are super time consuming even relative to other genres. Also, adding gameplay can clash or dilute the narrative.

Why are LN's doing so well? Because the production costs are so little compared to VN's and games, making it easy to break even and cover flops.

Edited by Chronopolis
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4 hours ago, Dergonu said:

This is extremely inaccurate. If 5 cents per moji was standard in VN translations you’d hear a lot less complaints about bad pay, lol. NDAs are a thing, so I can’t mention specifics, but uh, think like... a lot less than that. If you want the low end think a LOT lower than that. 

Like, jesus, where did that number even come from. I want in on that shit. :nokia:

That was the number I got when I googled the going rate in general.  I know the rate for VNs was much lower, but wasn't sure how much I could share.  I mean, just because I'm not under NDA doesn't mean people on the grapevine I've been talking to aren't.  Then I remember this:

This confirms the 1-1.5 cents per character figure.

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I won't answer your question because it has already been answered.

Just gonna ramble for a bit...

I wish there were more visual novels with gameplay that are translated, but they are a niche of a niche, so I understand why there aren't many.

I enjoy small gameplay elements such as in VA11 HALL-A where you make a drink and talk to people. The "mini-game" doesn't distract you too much.

I'm not necessarily looking for RPGs because most of the time I don't have patience for them. I do like them, but it really depends on my mood. My best friend is an RPG fanatic though.

For some reason, the VNs with gameplay always involve strategy/tactics, and I was never good with that.

I remember trying out Kamidori Alchemy Meister years ago, but I didn't stick with it, and I don't remember anything about it. I'll probably give it a try again one day.

Littlewitch Romanesque seems to have interesting gameplay.

I wish dating sims had more to do other than raise stats.

I kinda liked LovePlus, but the characters lacked depth and since there was next to no storyline, after I conquered my favourite girl I stopped playing because there was no point.

I also really want an adventure game with a good story and choices that matter. Something like "Always Sometimes Monsters" but better.

The Legend of Heroes is an RPG series with a crapload of text. Maybe you'd like that.

Edited by supercar
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As a side note, proportionately more gameplay VNs have some sort of translation (even if it is only machine) than any other type of VN, considering their relative rarity.  This is because it is far easier to get into VNs through some type of gameplay than to just start reading them (in other words, it is easier to corrupt people using gameplay VNs at first, lol).  

Incidentally, dating sims universally have horrible storytelling and characterization, so I don't recommend them.  Even a basic moege generally has better characters than a dating sim.

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17 hours ago, Clephas said:

Eushully (variations on rpg, strategy, and srpg systems with alchemy sometimes thrown in)

Sadly Eushully titles are only translated by fans since Eushully themselves refuse to bring their visual novels over to the west for whatever reason even though I'm pretty sure they'd do pretty good over here since they make really good hybrid visual novels.  For the ones I've played the story and gameplay elements are great imho.

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Shit, everyone else here said it better than I could. But, fuck, I am going to put my two cents here anyway.

Personally, I just don't want gameplay mechanics. I will give you example of why I think they kinda suck in visual novels.

In analogue, a hate story. There is gameplay, but the gameplay itself is just trash. It's a annoying hacking scene that takes you out of the narrative.

It just interrupts the flow of story, and for what, interactivity? It's a problematic scene, because it's the only scene that has gameplay and there's no gameplay loop.

Games need to have a core gameplay loop with winning and losing. Visual Novels typically don't need to that. In fact, I am of the opinion that it's detrimental in most cases like analogue. 

Hell, even JVNs like Kara No Shoujo tried to be gamey and it did not work because it was too difficult, good luck getting through some of the endings without a walkthrough.

Visual novels today, mostly JVNs evolve out of dating sims. That's why they keep the character route, thing we are used to.

 

As others have noted, and as a EVN developer, gameplay mechanics are hard to make because you have test, debug, over and over again. While instead you can be doing other things like scripting and GUI design etc. If you want a visual novel to be more interactive, there's plenty as others have said, but honestly. I am glad it's not the norm. For some reason, a lot people nowadays think we need to make a VN that's more interactive because that's "fun". Even though, most of the interactivity boils down to boring mechcanics that exist just to piss off readers at worst.

gameplay as narrative is really hard to develop, and frankly in all my years as a VN reader, I haven't seen a single VN pull this off. The best VNs I ever read, never bothered with gameplay in the first place.

The ones that do aren't really known for having amazing gameplay either. Honestly, I much rather learn cool scripting effects from JVNs like Dies Irae and Tokyo Babel than to try to create gameplay. I see myself as a VN developer in my heart, not a game developer. The two may overlap, but I am not here to blur the lines. My position is definitive, I just don't see visual novels as games. If I did, they would be some of the lamest games I ever played. I see them as novels, more specifically visual novels. They shouldn't have to adhere to the standards of what games ought to be or even try to.

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While I generally agree with you, I thought the analogue gameplay was nicely inserted and fun, not to mention thematically appropriate and immersive as you play an investigator and there's data to be found with the commands. However, I'm used to using command line interfaces, which I imagine is a rare quality these days.

Personally I'd like to extend your sentiment even further though. A lot of visual novels created EVN wise are (at least in marketing) incredibly and unhealthily obsessed with frequent choices (when they're not kinetic... but I'm fine with that extreme, so whatever). I don't think they ever really deliver on the freedom they pretend to be giving, and even if they did I'd rather not have to replay a zillion times to see the full text. Especially if there's no flowchart to use as a guide. I'd rather people focus on making good stories than providing unneeded agency.

On a vaguely related note, Shinsetsu Mahou Shoujo is p good gameplay hybrid w

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From a ideal standpoint, the moment you mix gamplay and narrative, one of the two has to give way.

For VN's generally you want to prioritize the story and do everything so that the gameplay doesn't interfere with the narrative. (Actually I thought of mahou shoujo too, lol@Zakamutt). My gripe is that games in general have too many levels, and nothing sucks more than unneccesary levels also killing the story pacing. Just do battles, and if there are too few add extra levels on the side.

If you prioritize gameplay, you now have the freedom to cater the story and pacing to what works best for the gameplay. You can't do this if you already have a plot planned out.

Edited by Chronopolis
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1 hour ago, Zakamutt said:

While I generally agree with you, I thought the analogue gameplay was nicely inserted and fun, not to mention thematically appropriate and immersive as you play an investigator and there's data to be found with the commands. However, I'm used to using command line interfaces, which I imagine is a rare quality these days.

Yeah, I kind of wanted to say the same. While I think the gameplay part is a bit confusing and I had no patience to deal with it without a guide, it's very thematic and in-line with the overall mode of storytelling (that is, OS simulator). It's one of the few methods of really integrating the UI/gameplay elements and story in a believable fashion.

1 hour ago, Zakamutt said:

Personally I'd like to extend your sentiment even further though. A lot of visual novels created EVN wise are (at least in marketing) incredibly and unhealthily obsessed with frequent choices (when they're not kinetic... but I'm fine with that extreme, so whatever). I don't think they ever really deliver on the freedom they pretend to be giving, and even if they did I'd rather not have to replay a zillion times to see the full text. Especially if there's no flowchart to use as a guide. I'd rather people focus on making good stories than providing unneeded agency.

I generally think that majority of VN devs only include choices because they think they need to or that it's the best way of introducing route variety, but without really thinking what they want to say with those mechanics. It's not only the massive choice mazes that are cursed, I've also played enough VNs with just a couple of them that still manage to confuse the reader on what they should do to get the desired outcome. I guess I can't blame the devs too much, because I've seen idiots complaining about the kinetic novels they've stumbled upon and how they "aren't even games" all the time, but still, choices shouldn't be mandatory. They don't even help immersion if they aren't about something meaningful.

28 minutes ago, Chronopolis said:

My gripe is that games in general have too many levels, and nothing sucks more than unneccesary levels also killing the story pacing. Just do battles, and if there are too few add extra levels on the side.

If you prioritize gameplay, you now have the freedom to cater the story and pacing to what works best for the gameplay. You can't do this if you already have a plot planned out.

I think there are ways of telling the story through gameplay, without sacrificing one for the other. Total Biscuit liked to point to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as a game where the two are perfectly linked together, which made it one of his favourite games of all times. I like to point out to Freespace 2, a space combat sim. While it had occasional cutscenes, its story was in 90% told through what was happening in the missions (often with very cinematic moments, but ones that didn't take control away from you or unreasonably slowed down the pacing) and very thematic briefing screens. There was very, very little dissonance between the narrative and gameplay and pretty much every mission added something interesting to the story. The problems with VNs is... They're interactive novels. When you arbitrally couple them with another video game genre, you can hardly achieve this level of cohesion.

BTW, I think most RPGs suck at this (and maybe JRPGs in particular), as the gamey mechanics barely ever go in line with the world the game tries to portray. Venus Blood -Frontier- lately reminded me of that pretty heavily when after my OP army steamrolled a major opponent it transitioned into a cutscene showing a desperate struggle that Loki only survived thanks to his schemes... There's just so little connection between what you do in the gameplay parts and what you read about.

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8 hours ago, Plk_Lesiak said:

I think there are ways of telling the story through gameplay, without sacrificing one for the other. Total Biscuit liked to point to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as a game where the two are perfectly linked together, which made it one of his favourite games of all times. I like to point out to Freespace 2, a space combat sim. While it had occasional cutscenes, its story was in 90% told through what was happening in the missions (often with very cinematic moments, but ones that didn't take control away from you or unreasonably slowed down the pacing) and very thematic briefing screens. There was very, very little dissonance between the narrative and gameplay and pretty much every mission added something interesting to the story. The problems with VNs is... They're interactive novels. When you arbitrally couple them with another video game genre, you can hardly achieve this level of cohesion.

Yep, there are smart/clever ways to mix the two (Freespace 2 was great) But they are the exception. In Freespace I imagine they had to consider what type of scenes they could portray within the gameplay. Using missions + briefings is a great gameplay+narrative link. For a good hybrid, you generally want to include meaningful dialogue during gameplay, and you also need to work to un-ambiguously frame the gameplay within the narrative (know what exactly happened in story terms).

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