What I’ve learnt while making Visual Novels

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I’ve been working on visual novels to varying degrees for around 4 years now I believe, so I thought it might be interesting to do a blog post about the types of things I have learnt over the years, about visual novels, about creating and about myself.

Everyone’s experiences are going to be different, that is a given. What I learnt and what I did is most likely going to be totally different from what another person has done and that’s fine! What I’m going to write here should be taken with a pinch of salt and shouldn’t be taken as a blanket statement for all devs. I come from a bit of a skewed perspective as it is.

So on with the story! I will try to be light hearted, with a dash a jaded cynicism just to offset the sweetness. I’ve had a great time making visual novels, they have made me grow as an artist in many ways. I have had a lot of joy in that creation process and the exposure to the readers. And there is always a thorny side where you get the scars that make you even better.

JUST DO IT
When I first started I had no freaking clue what I was doing. I liked some visual novel type games I had played, and I loved stories and art. That was about it. I didn’t know how to make a sprite, I didn’t know how to draw backgrounds, I didn’t know how to work with a writer or a team. Nadda. And it didn’t go well. But you know what, I think that is fine. My first steps were hilariously clumsy and in truth the project I joined fell over, but I learnt from it and more importantly I took the first steps in actually engaging with the community. While the project was dead, I didn’t leave. I was still intrigued and enthused to try my hand again. I still had very little clue about what I was doing, but I knew more than when I started. Eventually I volunteered for a Nanoreno project and that became the first thing released with my work in it.

START SMALL
Ah, sage advice. Now at least half of you are going to ignore, or have already ignored, that advice. So be it. Starting small is definitely a good idea and I definitely recommend something like Nanoreno where the deadlines can help focus you and help control your choice of assets and length. But a lot of you are too excited or too in love to wait even a moment longer to create your grand masterpiece and frankly you need more advice then the smart people who started small. And I’m kind of in that group as well with a project that has been going on for over 3 years.

My advice here if you have started big is to be ruthless about your content. Strangle feature creep with a rage of a blocked writer. Cut everything that is not crucial. You can add stuff later when everything else is done. Dream as big as you like, but when it actually comes to writing out your to-do-list do so with a focus on reality and life and how much time something will actually take to do. Be REALISTIC! You are not a god nor a machine. If you think you can resist having fun for 3 years good luck with that.

I think it’s also good to know when to call it quits. Sometimes it is better to let a project sink to save your sanity. When that point is will differ for everyone, but be honest with yourself as quickly as possible, and be honest to those around you. I’m very much for preservation and getting stuff done through willpower, but it isn’t worth it if it makes you hate what you are doing. People have abandoned projects long before you. Pretty much everyone who has been around for a while has left some things unfinished because they had to. It’s just apart of the process and it’s better to let go of something that isn’t working so you can grab ahold of something that will. Just be truthful about it and face the lessons that come with it.

WIN THE BATTLES TO WIN THE WAR
Rome wasn’t built in a day and if you are making it decent length, neither will your visual novel. Some people can expend a great deal of time on their visual novels and for some it’s a professional job. But for a lot of other people it will be something you do around the rest of your life, whether that be school, jobs or god forbid a social life. That means that you will be forced to do things bit by bit, in which case it is crucial that you don’t put things off until you ‘have time’. You will never ‘have time’. You just have to do what you can when you can. Try to do a bit everyday, even if it’s only a bit. These things are usually a bit of a marathon so dedication and commitment will go further than most things.

EXPECT FOR YOUR WORK TO BE DISLIKED AND IGNORED
I feel like this is a bit depressing, but it is a fact of reality. No matter how hard you work, no matter how much you think you deserve attention, there will always be the risk people won’t like what you do, or worse, will ignore what you did. The first pieces I did for a visual novel were largely ignored and in some cases torn apart. It’s something you need to expect at the end of the day and it’s apart of being a creative person. You can’t control what other people do. It’s just you that you have to decide for. So make sure that you are aware of what could happen at the end of the long slog. Will you be okay with that? If it’s any consolation, attention isn’t everything. It is nice, but it is also fleeting and often extremely stressful, especially with people’s expectations or demands. It’s probably best to do what you believe in and anything on top of that is a bonus.

TEAMWORK
Other people will, without a doubt, be the hardest thing you will have to work with while making a visual novel. If you are working alone this is obviously not a problem but a lot of visual novels come about with teamwork. Even commissioning people doesn’t negate this problem since the people you are hiring are indeed human and not robots and thus a whole hoard of problems can come up.

People are complicated. Every nuance of emotion and motivation you have? Other people have too. Except in billions of different ways in an infinite amount of directions. This can be further complicated by contrasting morals, ethics and personalities. Getting a number of strong personalities together can be asking for trouble sometimes. I have a strong personality and I’ve only gotten worse over the years so I’m definitely not easy to work with. As such I have to be careful with who I team up with lest it all leads to us butting heads over something stupid.

My advice here is to understand both who you are teaming up with and for what. Short projects can be a fantastic way to feel each other out and see if you are actually compatible. If at the end of the project you aren’t nothing is really lost and a lot is gained in experience. I’ve never been fond of those projects that just take anyone since it’s usually a sign of trouble ahead. The people you work with can make or break the very existence of your project so take the time to pick carefully. Team up with people that equal your skill and motivation, that respect you and whom you respect. Having those points in common can help everyone stay on the same page.

LEARN AND EXPERIMENT
There isn’t a better way to learn how to do something other than just doing it. After a while you will get used to it and it will stop being so scary. You just have to make sure you take that first step that is required and then keeping making the steps to move you forward. It’s perfectly okay to make bad things on your way to making good things. Please, please, please don’t be worried about that. Everyone ever has had to start somewhere and letting that fear beat you certainly won’t make you any better at what you want to do.

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has ever tried”
Stephen McCranie

The other key to learning is experimentation. Experimentation has taught me… I can’t even describe how much it has taught me. Just walking into something and going ‘Okay, I’m going to try this technique or skill’ and just giving it a shot will do you miraculous good. The way it opens up your perspective, the way it increases your knowledge as it links with other things you already know, the way it forces you to think and observe. It can take you miles in terms of improvement, trust me. When I started I vaguely knew how to make digital art. Kind of. Since then I’ve learnt how to make sprites, backgrounds, CGs. I’ve learnt better anatomy, character design, freaking perspective, more dynamic scenes, patience, critical thinking. I am, without a doubt, a better artist now then I was before and it’s all because I just tried to do something that I had no idea how to do.

Finally, remember that you will ALWAYS be learning something new. There is always something to discover, something to test or try. So don’t wait for the moment you are ‘good enough’. Trust that everything is simply a progression forward and that waiting will only cause you to stagnant and miss out on creating what you really want to create.

LOSS OF INTEREST AND PROCRASTINATION
There isn’t really a miracle cure for this and it will likely be something you will have to fight at some stage. Especially if game making is your hobby, the pain of forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do can be a real turn off. If making visual novels is something you really want to do, there will undoubtedly be points where you have to push through with sheer willpower. Some tips that I have found useful are:

  • Starting is the hard bit. Once you actually start it often becomes a lot easier to keep going. Doing small things like turning your computer on and opening the file you need to work on can be enough to push you into starting and getting the flow going.
  • Surround yourself with people that are also doing things. If all the people you are talking to are having fun and playing games, do you really think you will want to be doing work? Having people with the same interests who you can show your stuff to can do great things for your motivation. I have some Skype chats with other devs where we catch up and sometimes work in sprints and report back with what we have done.
  • Make sure it’s something you care about (or it’s actually something you are getting paid for). The difference between your heart being in a project and it not can drastically change how you see the work. Sometimes it can help to remind yourself why you loved a project in the first place if you are feeling a little lack lustre. Remind yourself of the characters and stories that made you care.
  • And other obvious ones like making sure to break down your tasks and having easily defined and meet goals.

NOT ALL OPINIONS ARE EQUAL
Feedback is an important part of making anything really, especially if you are planning to go commercial. It can give you a perspective different then your own, it can point out problems and flaws, it can help you gauge interest and help you construct your plans. It is important not to reject feedback just to save your ego or because you feel threatened. That tends to come with practice and gets easier as you go along.

What it isn’t however is the be all and end all of everything. You owe it to yourself and your work to honestly listen and weigh the feedback you get but by golly you don’t actually have to do anything about it. If you honestly disagree then you are allowed to thank the person and then promptly not do anything. Having opinions is easy, everyone has opinions. They are not godly for it. Just because someone suggests that you should be able to romance that one character that showed up for two seconds or someone thinks your released game is utter rubbish doesn’t mean they are actually right. If you can be wrong then so can they and as the creator it is your ultimate prerogative to ignore them if you don’t think it’s in your game’s best interest. By all means, listen to the feedback and be grateful to the people that take the time to say it. But make sure you put it through a filter that checks how useful it actually is to you. Some people are just not in your target audience or they might not have your best interests in mind. You don’t have to listen to everybody.

CARE LESS
I’ve become more jaded as time goes on and while it has downsides in terms of loss of motivation and excitement, it also has the positive benefit that I give so much less of a flying fruitcake about some things. Someone saying something I disagree with? Eh. Something not perfect in an image? Eh. Someone not liking a game I made? Eh. These things outside of yourself can add a lot of stress and pressure that you don’t really need and they are things you can’t control. People are going to have their opinions, you are still in the process of learning and not everyone is going to like you or what you do. You don’t have to care about it, and personally I have found it freeing to just let the bloody stuff go and embrace what I can do and what I can control. Over the years I’ve become stronger and more sure about what I want. I don’t have the time to worry about small things when I could be doing things I’m interested in and that bring me happiness. Take a big breathe, let is go and care less. And let’s be honest do you actually know of anything that everyone liked universally?

That is pretty much the extent of what I can think to write. There is of course other important pieces of advice but I think they are said often enough. Make sure you communicate with your team regularly, make lists of things you need to do, always back up your work!!!

If you have any pieces of advice you have learnt over your time deving feel free to add in the comments! Share the love that is experience. Until next time~

Comments

  1. Lots of cool advice in here. Most of them I already suspected but it’s nice to have them confirmed from someone who’s a few hoops ahead of me.

    • Thank you :) Yeah, I don’t think there is anything too ground breaking in there, especially if you have been around the block a couple times. Glad to hear you liked it though!

  2. Hi Auro,

    I am very appreciative of what you have written here, much of it is very important and I thank you for the time you have taken to do it. I have an issue though and it may simply be that you wrote this hastily. Your use of “then” instead of “than” frustrates me only due the fact that you write visual novel’s. This is common mistake and I truly hope that this is not taken in offense as it not intended to offend but to inform. For example, “It can give you a perspective different then your own”. In this example you should have used “than” not “then”. I am not here to be a grammar nazi, it is only to make sure that when writing visual novel’s that this used correctly. I have seen many that still make this mistake when writing visual novel’s and that is not to say that I am perfect because I am definitely not. I hope that this is not taken in offense but simply as another important part of writing Visual Novel’s.

    Regards,

    Jules

    • Hey :) I’m pretty aware I make this mistake fairly often, though I try not to it slips through sometimes. I have issues with some of the English fundamentals unfortunately. However, I am not a writer XD I’m not the one actually writing out the text for the visual novels, that would be Lore and she is far better at it than I am. I just draw the pretty pictures, so I can assure you our visual novels are safe from my poor grammar!

  3. thanks for listing your experiences. I’ve only begun dabbling in Ren’Py and haven’t really decided on what to make, or if I want to seriously make anything in the future. Some of these tips remind me of how it is working on pretty much any project that isn’t professional. heh. free time. what a laugh that is. : p

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