Thank you for taking the time to write this! :^)
two years since... a postmortem/q&a
it turns out that today (2019/10/18) marks exactly two years since i released Magical Witch Bell and Her Non-Magical Friends, my first visual novel on itch.io. i had previously released a couple of very small browser-only games before, but Magical Witch Bell was my first 'longer' game - i say longer, but it still only takes about 30 minutes for one playthrough.
i wanted to take the opportunity to talk a bit about what i've done in these two years and what it's like being a very very small game dev (i don't even like using the title 'game dev' for myself because i feel like it doesn't really fit me, that i'm unqualified) in a rather niche genre - that is, cute & lgbt+friendly games.
before i get into it, here's a very quick and honest explanation about who i am. i'm kc, an ace/aro game dev working on small games (mostly visual novels). i've lived in a bunch of different places in my life but currently i'm based in tokyo. i have a day job in the game industry which is what makes it possible for me to make all the small games i do - i would absolutely not be able to make these games without my day job, because the money i make from my games (all pwyw on itch.io and free on android/steam) is not enough to actually make a living, but that's something i'm ok with, because i like the freedom of being able to just make stuff and release it into the world without actually having to rely on that as my only source of income. i don't have to worry about whether the content of my game is too political or shy from topics because i think it might scare some people away.
a little postmortem
since joining itch.io, i have had...
- 16 releases (7 visual novels, 2 adventure games, 6 very small games, 1 tool) on
- 4 main platforms (pc, linux, mac, android) for
- 3 game stores (itch.io, google play, steam) in a total of
- 12 different languages (english, 日本語, deutsch, ελληνικά, español, français, português, tiếng việt, 한국어, русский, bahasa indonesia, 正體中文)
my most popular game is one night, hot springs, a visual novel about a trans woman going to the hot springs. it is also the only game i released on steam. (i talk more about why i don't think steam is worth it for me as somebody who only makes free games later in response to a question.)
when i released my first game, i didn't think that people would actually play it - and it's still always such a pleasant surprise to me when i get comments from people saying they liked my games. it's still very weird to think about how there are people i might never have the chance to meet in person more than halfway across the globe who haved played my game - thank you, to all of you.
since i almost exclusively make games with queer content, it means so much to me that people do play the games because it also just makes me feel a whole lot less alone. i'm out to very few people in real life (my workplace and most of my family know nothing about my game dev activities and i plan on keeping it that way), so having people send me private messages about how they really relate to a character for example helps me remember that there are people like me all around the world, and that's a really big reason for why i make games and continue to make games.
the way i describe my own games is 'cute and lgbt+friendly', precisely because i've found that this is the sort of media i myself want to see but don't see enough of. i've had a lot of experiences playing a game and enjoying it only to suddenly run into something that is homophobic, transphobic, &c. and then it just completely throws me out of the game. then there'll be games that are marketed as having gay or trans characters only for these characters to die or suffer or just have a generally bad time. i want to make games that will never do that - games that people can feel safe playing and come out at the end thinking it was a nice cosy time. (i hope that i've been successful!) since this sort of game doesn't really exist in the AAA market it made me think that maybe it was just me... maybe nobody wants games like these... but the responses i've had to my games encourage me to keep making more.
it is now two years after, but i'm still really proud of what i did with Magical Witch Bell. the game is very simple and short, but i told the story i wanted to, and i hope that people have enjoyed it and will continue to enjoy it. making the game taught me a lot about solo game dev and about what it's possible for me to do mostly by myself (and also when i should rely on other people), so i thought i'd go into that a little here.
for all of my games, this is what i do by myself:
re: programming, i rely a lot on googling stuff when there is something i want to do but can't figure out. i would be nothing without the power of google and everyone who is kind enough to share their knowledge on stackoverflow and other dev fora.
for everything else, i do stuff by myself because i am very bad at sharing control of a project, and i feel it's just faster to do stuff on my own because then i can always change whatever i want or make decisions without having to consult someone else. however, this really limits the scope of what i can do - i can only make games that are within my own capability to make, and i don't really have much programming or art or dev background, to be honest. with every game i make i learn new things, but i also learn about a lot of things that i can't do but wish i can.
this is what i rely on other people for:
- music & sfx
re: music, while i wish i could compose more of my own tracks (and i have done so for some of my games) it takes me a lot of time, and i don't know very much about composition. because i usually make stuff for game jams, i just don't have the time to do everything plus the music at my current skill level, so i rely on other people for this, or use royalty-free music. i have a list of composers that one day i would like to ask to compose music for my games if i had enough money, but right now it's definitely out of my budget. for sfx i pretty much exclusively use royalty-free files i find online.
re: testing, i think it's really important to get other people's eyes on what you make because it's very easy to miss issues when you yourself are the tester. i do of course test the game myself too, but i find having other people look at it gives a really good perspective. for example, in one night, hot springs, originally i had two bad ends, with the first bad end being if you refused to go to the hot springs at all - but one of my testers mentioned to me that he felt choosing not to go was a valid choice since it was a very difficult choice for the character, and it didn't feel good to be 'punished' for it by getting a 'bad end', and when i thought about it, he was completely right. i ended up changing that to a 'normal end' instead, but it was a perspective i would have completely missed if i didn't have another pair of eyes on my game before release.
laying it out like this, it might seem like a lot for one person to do - but if you keep the scope of the game down, it is very doable! so i hope that seeing it explained like this might encourage more people to think about what they themselves are capable of, and what sort of games they could make.
before making my first game, i didn't really know much about programming or art (though i have had experience writing (a lot of fanfic...)), so it was a lot of googling how to write code, looking at online tutorials, trying to draw stuff and erasing it over and over again... but i think i've really grown a lot overall dev-wise in these past two years, and that's only because i got off my bum and actually released games...
and i think you could all do it too!
i asked people for some questions they wanted answered - i'm going to try to be in-depth, but if there's anything that isn't covered, feel free to ask in a comment or message me and i'll try to expand more. i've separated the questions into sections of a sort to make things easier to follow too.
me, a game dev...
What prompted you to start making games?
i've always entertained the idea of making a game, but it always seemed too difficult... but then i stumbled upon itch.io and found so many different people making all kinds of games. for me, seeing game jams with very different levels of 'finished' for games really lowered the hurdle for me, because then it felt like even if my game wasn't completely 'polished' it would still be ok to release it into the world... so i just tried making a game and got into it! i've also just found that a lot of games i wish existed just don't exist, so i have to make them myself... (if people would make more games with good ace/aro content i would be so happy...)
How you feel like you've improved since your first VN?
Magical Witch Bell is my first visual novel on itch.io, and the most recent is A TAVERN FOR TEA. i think what i've improved most on is coding. for my visual novels i use the open-source engine ren'py, which is very robust. for Magical Witch Bell, i only used the most basic functions, so the in-game menu doesn't change the default one much - just switches a few graphics. over these two years i've learnt a lot more about coding in general so i've been able to do more exciting things, like a mechanic in A TAVERN FOR TEA that plays around with differences throughout multiple playthroughs, as well as Caption Tool, a tool i created for ren'py which allows for easy implementation of accessibility functions like captions into the default ren'py template.
How does it feel two years later working on games?
honestly i kind of intended Magical Witch Bell to be a one-off thing - but after making one game i just really wanted to make more. i don't know how long i'll continue doing this, but it's my plan to continue making games at least for the near future. i don't feel like things have changed that much in the two years though, since the process of releasing a game still makes me get really anxious (because i think either nobody will play the game or people will play the game but they will absolutely hate it). that said, it makes me really happy when people write reviews or send comments to me about the games, so despite the terrible anxiety i get about releases, i still want to keep going.
What new projects will you be working on in the next several months (including the final installment of the one night, hot springs trilogy)?
i don't actually usually plan my games that far in advance! once i think of an idea, i start working on it right away usually, so i don't know what i'll be working on several months from now. (the incubation period for most of my game ideas is very short.) i can tell you though that i am currently working on a visual novel that i want to release for yuri jam. for one night, hot springs, i didn't plan a sequel originally either - i just made last day of spring because the coming of the new era gave me an idea for a game.
i do plan on working on more analogue games in the future though, since i am currently in a board game circle called yuzu labo. i'll be releasing a card game called 弱虫ダンジョン (scaredy cat dungeon) at game market in tokyo next month!
how i make games
Your games are very inspiring to me. How do you come up with your story concepts?
How did you came up with the idea for the VN?
since i usually make games for jams, i look at the theme of a jam and think, what sort of game do i want to play that has this kind of theme? does it exist yet? can i make it?
the 'can i make it' is a very big point for me, since i'm just a solo dev and there's a lot of stuff that is just completely out of my scope. if i can't make something, i'll think about whether i can make the scope smaller, but if i can't, i just shelve it into my 'ideas' folder and move onto another idea.
for example, for Magical Witch Bell, i looked at my earliest notes and they basically just say 'PHOENIX WRIGHT??? WITH GAY GIRLS + MAGIC' - and obviously a phoenix wright game is completely out of a scope for a solo dev doing a game jam... but i worked on the story from there, thinking of what parts of phoenix wright i wanted to include. the game ended up being a very simple 'mystery' where you are a witch going around trying to figure out who is causing trouble around town.
What is your main source of inspiration? Where this be art style influence, how you determine the game play before structuring your project and composition of your soundtracks? (and thank you a million for making these wonderful games, I'll try to continue supporting you on patreon as long as I can!)
i talked about how i come up with story concepts above, but for art style, to be honest... mostly it's just 'what am i capable of drawing?' because i do all the art myself and i actually find drawing really difficult. i usually try to go for a soft and round style, because that's something i personally like, but actually, i usually decide on art style before really doing much of the script, since the art style can influence how i want the story to go.
for my visual novels there isn't usually very much gameplay to speak of, but if there is some gameplay i want to implement, i always make sure i can actually do it first. in A HERO AND A GARDEN, i have a clicker game element where you have to click berries, and since it was the first time i had tried to make something like it, i wasn't sure i actually could... so i made a demo of the clicker game first, before anything else in the game.
i usually decide on what to do for music after i have most of the script done, and the soundtrack overall is usually based on the 'theme' of the game. as an example, for one night, hot springs, i wanted music that would make you think of a ryokan (relaxing, slow, sounds of water), and i gave an in-progress build of the game to max.ine, who did the soundtrack with me, so that she could get the feeling of the game.
happy anniversary! aa this is kinda a basic question but can you give a summary of the steps in your process? how do you take an idea and execute it efficiently? thank you and i love your work!
What is your process for designing a visual novel?
when developing a visual novel, i usually just start with a very vague idea and work from there. the process is usually like so:
- rework idea so it's actually within possible scope
- main character sketches
- write script & draw art as it becomes necessary (+ programming any mini-games if they exist)
- write/commission/find music that fits
- gui edits! (this is usually low priority for me...)
- play through to see if stuff needs to be changed
- make fixes as necessary
at step 1., i really don't usually have a firm idea at all... usually i get more of an idea of what i want to do once i have the main character sketches done, because i find seeing what a character looks like helps me decide how they would act in the story.
i don't actually do any real 'plot planning' either - i usually just jot down ideas in the script as TODO comments as i go and slot them in if i like them, tossing them if i don't. often i won't even know how i want the ending to go until i've actually written it in the script. i know some people like to plot everything out, but i find that really stifling for myself, and i enjoy just writing and letting the characters take me where they want to.
as an example, for one night, hot springs, the idea i started with was just to make a game where a trans woman goes to the hot springs and gets to go into the hot springs she wants to and has a good time. (you can read more about the catalyst for the game in this interview i did with Nadia at Timber Owls.) then i designed haru's character, and i thought about how to make it so that she could go to the hot springs. i didn't think she'd be able to just go on her own without encouragement, so i created the characters manami and erika to help her. then i just wrote the script from there.
re: step 4, i like to draw the assets as they become necessary in the script, so i don't end up making extra art that i don't have to. i'm very slow with making art since it's really not my forte, so i want to avoid making assets that i won't actually need when i could have been using the time to work on other stuff. i mostly stick with flat colours and fixed width lines because it's something i know i am capable of doing in a shorter amount of time than it would take me to do more detailed art. (art is actually one of the things i have a really big complex about since i'm not very confident in it, but i have to do my own art because i don't actually have the budget to ask other people to work on art for me. i hope that in the future i can make games with more detailed art!)
the most important thing for me is to actually get a game released, and making the game in this process, where i can see the game slowly coming together with script and art being added in step by step, is the best way for me to keep myself motivated.
public reception &c.
Would you call your games successful? Why or why not?
i wouldn't consider my games successful in the traditional sense, since i'm not actually really making any money off of them, but i consider them a success personally every time i get a comment from somebody telling me that the games i made mean something to them. even if i don't reply to every comment on itch.io or twitter, i read every single one, and they all mean a lot to me and encourage me to make more games.
(as a note, i don't read all the reviews on steam or android, because even though most of them are genuine reviews of the game content, sometimes there are reviews that are bigoted/have slurs/&c. and it's not worth the mental toll for me to read them. i find that on steam and android, i get a lot more reviews that seem to view me as this Big Game Publisher that's trying to push a narrative or something or trick people out of their money (even though all my games are free). while i responded to these reviews at first, i've found that it wasn't worth the effort.)
i also really appreciate everyone who chooses to pay for my games even though they are free and everyone who has supported me on ko-fi or patreon, because i put in a lot of time and work to make these games - i think i probably would have stopped making games a long time ago if i hadn't had that support, because unfortunately we are in a society where people generally just can't live without money. (just going to take a moment here to say that if we had universal basic income it would make things much better for artists and art in general because people wouldn't have to choose between making art and making enough money for rent.)
one night, hot springs seemed to get a very positive reception on Steam, so I was wondering why you haven't released any of your other games there. This isn't meant to be accusatory or anything, I love your work and you should put it on whatever platforms you're comfortable with! I'm just curious about your experience and if there was excessive trolling/harassment going on or if you have other reasons, and if you have any advice for other queer indie devs thinking about dealing with Steam. Thanks!
i honestly don't think steam is worth it for somebody like me who only makes free games. while steam has a lot of downloads (44031 as of just now), it costs 100 USD to release a game on steam direct. sure, you apparently get that payment back if you make 1000 USD, but for a free game, that's not likely to happen. i have a dlc artbook being sold for 3 USD on steam, but i have not made enough money to get the 100 USD back (and since steam only allows payment by bank transfer to japan, every time they actually do send a payment, i lose a whole chunk of it anyway to bank transfer fees...)
yes, overall the reception has been positive, but it still sucks getting reviews about how i'm making 'sjw propaganda' or reviews that just have slurs or other transphobic content. if you look at the steam page now, steam has actually already removed some of the more offensive reviews, so the ones that are left are the ones that steam has looked at and thought, oh, these are valid reviews that are ok to leave up.
then there's the fact that steam gave one night, hot springs 'Profile Features Limited' because it thinks it isn't a 'real' game, so the achievements don't count for players and it can't be used to customize steam community profiles. and despite the achievements not even counting anyway, i still got a number of users sending me very angry messages demanding refunds for a free game when the achievements weren't working after an update.
to compare, on itch.io, i have had 21916 downloads for one night, hot springs, but the total of slurs/weird accusations in reviews? a grand total of none!
steam has been for me just a lot more work and a lot more mental stress with what feels like very little actual value to me. especially since i don't actually do this for my main job or anything, i don't feel like the effort releasing on a platform that a) doesn't actually seem to want to support my games and b) has an audience with people who actively vitriolic towards my games is in anyway worth it.
however - my situation is different from somebody who is making a paid game and needs the revenue. i've had double the downloads on steam vs itch.io and it's obvious that steam still has a much bigger market than itch.io does. i think though that if you are considering releasing a game with queer content on steam, it's worth knowing in advance that there are definitely trolls on the platform and the customers i think are in general just more demanding than on itch.io.
advice (i hope this helps)
A bit of a dumb question, and one that probably doesn't have an impressive answer. But as someone starting out making free games myself, I don't have a following and my games don't get much of anybody viewing them, and nobody commenting or rating them. And I was wondering how do you deal with that? I know it's normal and I shouldn't read too much into it, but it can still discourage me often.
this isn't a dumb question at all and it's something i really struggled with (and still struggle with honestly) because it really sucks when you make something and put it out in the world but nobody looks at it. it's really discouraging!
i think for me what helped most at the beginning is participating in game jams, because usually other participants will be interested in looking at the other jam submissions too. most of my games are made for jams, and i know i always look through the submissions after i'm finished to see if there are any games i want to play, because if i'm submitting a game for a themed jam, it's usually because i myself am interested in the theme.
for promotion and stuff, i don't really have anything i do actively besides twitter. (i've heard that instagram is good for gamedev as well, but since i don't have instagram, i don't know...) i don't know if this will help, but this is my 'formula' for posting release tweets:
- always have an image or screenshot
- have a short summary of the game
- link to the game!
- use hashtags if relevant
i usually post at night before i sleep, but that's more so that i can just go to bed right away without worrying about if people are looking at the tweet or not... then i retweet once in the morning for people who might have missed it.
as well, for itch.io, make sure to have relevant tags on your game! a lot of my hits on itch.io come from very specific tags. looking at the past 30 days, the most hits i got from a site outside of my own sites (npckc.itch.io/npckc.site) are from the following tags:
so for itch.io, you can see that users are definitely browsing the tags and genres they're interested in to find stuff. (the reason gay is higher than lgbt here is probably because i just released A TAVERN FOR TEA last month for yaoi game jam.)
also, if your games fit a certain niche, it could be worthwhile to directly reach out to people in that niche. i'm on a couple of discord servers for queer game dev and when i post a new game, i usually post in those servers as well - it can be good for feedback too.
as a note for everyone who plays games on platforms with review/rating systems (and for myself too because sometimes i forget) - it doesn't take a lot of time to leave a review but it makes a huge difference for devs, so please do try to remember to review/rate the games you play! on itch.io, you can actually see a list of stuff you've interacted with but haven't rated yet on the Projects to rate & review page.
I love your games and you’ve seriously inspired me so much to start making some of my own! However, I have a lot of difficultly finishing things and I easily get bored of projects. Could you give me some tips on how to see a project all the way through to completion?
i like setting little deadlines for myself. i find it very hard to finish stuff if i can't see it coming together, so i need to pat myself on the back a lot even for doing small things, like "nice! you finished this script section today!" or "good job! you fixed up the option menu ui!" if i think of a project as this huge project with a lot left to do, it's very daunting and discouraging, but if i break it up into a lot of little tasks, then it's much easier for me to just finish one little task at a time and that slowly brings me to completing the project!
however, i think sometimes people try to do too much too soon and being faced with stuff they're incapable of doing makes them end up not finishing the project because it was just too big in the first place, so...
What tips you would give to other devs starting in the field? And possibly the brand/image/community you've grown since then
start small! sometimes i think it can seem really overwhelming when you just start off because everything seems a bit too hard. the first game i released on itch.io was a very small bitsy game called you have to go to work. it's very short (probably less than 5 minutes to play through?) and all you do is go to work and go home, but i'm still very proud of it, and releasing this game on itch.io made me realise that it was possible for me to actually release games into the world and have people play them. this very small first game definitely encouraged me to try making bigger games like my visual novels.
one of the biggest hurdles in game dev i think is actually releasing a game, so if you've released anything - even if it's just a very short very small game - then you are already far ahead of anybody who isn't, and it makes releasing more games much easier too. you get a lot of people who will say they want to make a game but never do anything more than tinker around a bit with code, and i think that's a waste. if you really want to do something, do it! use bitsy or twine or a unity tutorial - anything that gets you to actually make a game from start to finish - and release it into the world.
re: brand/image/community, none of it is anything i actively worked on creating, to be honest. i don't like the idea of indie devs as some kind of auteur or brand because mostly we're just... people? i'm just one person working really hard to make games and hoping desperately that people will play them and care for the characters as much as i do. for me i just always want to be honest about how i present myself online - i'm not some game-making machine who just posts cute content for people to look at.
i always feel a bit uncomfortable when i see people kind of selling themselves as brands because i don't like that kind of cult of personality thing, and i think doing that sort of thing in general just makes it very hard for people to distinguish between private and public spheres - they themselves become the product they're making, and that's something i definitely want to avoid for myself.
however, i know that my games do have a certain image since i always have a similar theme throughout them. all of my games are cute and lgbt+friendly. if you play any of my games, you usually know what sort of thing you will get. as a user it's nice to know what to expect - and i know some people who enjoy the games i make that are set in 'real' settings don't like the games i make set in fantasy settings. that said though... i don't think catering to players is healthy. (i'm saying this as someone who makes free games - not as somebody who needs people to buy their games to make a living.) i only make games because i think it's fun, so the moment i start feeling like i have to make a certain type of content because a player wants it, it'll be stifling for me and i will probably stop making games. i'm really happy that there is a small group of people who will play my games anyway even though i only make the content that i myself want to make.
i hope that maybe some of this info can be helpful to people who are considering making games themselves, and that it might also give people a different perspective about small devs making free games like me.
if you'd like to see some of what i've talked about in this long post, my games are available right here at npckc.itch.io - if you want a sneak peek at stuff that's still in the works, i post progress logs and early releases of my games on patreon.