February started and I knew I wanted to do NaNoRenO again. Last year we did Alice in Stardom which turned out great, so I wanted to do something even bigger. In order to do that, I knew we’d have to do a lot of preplanning. Foleso and I went back and forth for a week or two on ideas and ended up on “the MC finds an online group of college kids doing risky things” with drama as a main genre.
I spent a few days working on and off on the application form (via Google forms) and by mid February we were ready. I wanted people to join the project for 2 main reasons (aside to create a cool new game):
- Have a game on Steam to add to their portfolio
- Learn along the way
For most of the main positions of course we needed people who were already experienced, but for roles like marketing I was more than willing to teach complete newbies.
In mid February we opened up applications. Foleso and I posted them just about anywhere we could- VN developer / art / other developers discords, Amino groups, Twitter, etc. I expected maybe 40, 50 total. What we got was anywhere from 10-1 a day for the next few weeks. Even just a couple days before March started we kept getting more in so I had to close it.
Once some of the submissions came in, we quickly brought on two people who applied- Tabby and Violora. Tabby is a friend who has a lot of experience writing and has written VNs before, and Violora is and long time friend who worked on Alice in Stardom and Paths Taken. With a key writer and artist picked, we got to work.
I drafted up guidelines for different roles (namely overall, artists, and marketers) while Tabby worked on the outline and bios. The four of us spent several days going over all the applications (before February was over- we weren’t expecting so many!) and decided on our picks. I was originally going to message most everyone I could and tell them if they were picked or not- once we passed 60 applications that was no longer feasible.
We brought on artists first in mid February, as they were the biggest group. I “overhired” artists- we brought on more than we needed. I did this because I’ve seen a lot of projects (and dealt with it last year) where people ghost or have to leave. We made sure we had backups for the backups this year.
Now, this isn’t to say we brought on the 10+ artists without any specific jobs- most were assigned concept & promo art, but several were given specific jobs on the spot. We had an issue with the concept & promo art due to me being in a hurry to bring them on and not fully explaining the role- most people weren’t expecting to work on concept & promo art with others. More preplanning needed next year!
After the artists we brought on writers, musicians, and programmers going into late February. I had only 2 people apply for the marketing position via the Google form, so I tried bringing them both on. 1 joined and then left a few days later out of the blue. The other never responded. This was a problem.
I’m big into marketing but I can’t aid in all of the projects that ask me for help. So, I wanted to use the marketing role on this project as a way to teach others VN marketing- I could teach them what I know and we can work together to find out more about the audience for this project. I made a quick tweet asking for people to join the marketing role as a learning role.
Want to learn basic visual novel / general game dev marketing in March? We’re still accepting people who want to learn marketing and work on our #NaNoRenO #otome project! #vndev— Mikomi ✨ (@MikomiKisomi) February 23, 2020
DM me here or on Discord (Miko# 9009) if interested! pic.twitter.com/m3henPL7Qp
I had several people- around 8 or so- interested in this. After talking to them all, some stopped replying, and I ended up bringing on 5 or so. …We will get to that number later.
Note: team member numbers won’t be concrete for most of this! We had several people dropping out, ghosting, coming on the project, etc.
Everything else was going pretty good- the outlines had been started (as per NaNoRenO rules, you can start concepting as long as it’s not stuff actually used ingame like sprite sketches). We still couldn’t decide on a title, and wouldn’t be able to for a while.
Days Right Before March
We had to cut some stuff out. I really wanted it to be a dating sim where you pick your gender, but we decided that wasn’t too feasible and should focus on just female Alex.
Aside from that, most of the other areas were getting ready. The writers were anticipating their routes and the artists were waiting on us to decide on concept art. We had some issues with Finn’s design (he was described as a goth boy so we were thinking emo while a lot of the artists were thinking literal vampire, whoops!) but we got it all figured out soon into March. (I type this here as we did most of the character concepts in February)
I made every area (artists, writers, musicians, programmers, and marketers) a separate channel weeks ago, though everyone could see each channel. The artists by then had become acquainted with each other (at least, the ones who were talking), while some of the other areas were slower to start, namely marketing.
First Week of March
Things were going pretty good from the standpoint of most of the areas! The route outlines were going strong, the artists had all started in their individual areas, and one of the musicians had a piece ready in a few days. The majority of artists were promo artists, and had each been assigned a piece to draw. For example, I assigned one person to draw just Alex, another person to draw Alex and Finn together, etc. All of the artists were free to draw more promo art as long as they finished their assignment.
YuukiPudding, our sprite artist, quickly sketched these beautiful sketches of the characters.
The programmers for the most part were waiting, but the GUI was started pretty quickly. The only area at this point that was having problems was the marketing group.
As I said previously, I had to open up applications for the marketing team via DMs rather than the form as very few people applied via the form. Once NaNo started, some people, despite being pinged, didn’t respond. I gave several multiple chances, but in the future I think it’s best to let people go sooner. I was too confused by the lack of responses from a majority of the team to adequately teach the people who actually did respond- I had planned for one thing and found myself in a completely different situation!
Next time around (if we do NaNo again) we’ll have a slightly more indepth signup form. That way, we’ll know more about the people who’ll be on the project and how they work. We all work differently and working in groups is a compromise- we have to meet in the middle of our workstyles. I’ll also try something different with the marketing team… Maybe discussing basics of marketing with examples and then assignments? I wasn’t able to discuss much this time around due to it feeling like I was sending a textwall, but I should still try more to teach the people who stick around something.
Second Week of March
Note: I apologize if some of this is inaccurate- the entire time was a blur, especially going forward.
By the second week, CGs had started (as they couldn’t start before the outline was at least somewhat finalized) and the sprites were almost finished. Several of the backgrounds were drafted and some were lined. The main menu piece was drafted.
We also had our first few promo art pieces turned in, such as MustacheSkulls’s cute rooftop piece!
Finn is our main love interest who’s a bit on the soft side. He has a sweet letter for you tonight if you accept it!— Crystal Game Works @ Enamored Risks RELEASED ✨ (@CrystalGameWork) March 12, 2020
💌Sign up now! https://t.co/l6Moc5RqdS#otome | #visualnovel | #nanoreno2020 | #indiegame pic.twitter.com/epcW5DrRSQ
As you can see in the tweet, we also started sending out cute letters from the love interests! These were short letters written by the respective route writers and sent to newsletter subscribers as if they were Alex, the main character. I think they came out great, though I wish I could have drawn chibis for all of them.
Our first major drop happened this week. Without contacting anyone, the lead musician ghosted. As with all the positions I had backup plans for ghosting, but it was still a sign of things to come, along with world happenings…
Third Week of March
I went on Spring Break to a small, quiet beach. It started on the 20th- I only remember this because I was sitting on campus sending out an email about the release for Without a Voice and then ran to my car to drive home. I digress.
I had my laptop with me so I was still in full directing capacity. The fact that it was spring break is only important because that’s when COVID-19 broke out in the US.
In just a matter of days, the virus spread across the US and I lost my job, had to move to entirely online classes, moved back in with my parents, and all of the events I was planning for my final college year were canceled. But, there were several team members who were affected much worse.
I don’t know how badly the team was affected by the virus. Several people ended up ghosting- leaving without a message or goodbye. Several people left the project and told me it was specifically because of the virus. Several people told me they had to leave the project and I didn’t ask why. If I had to put an estimate on people I know who were very negatively affected (despite all of us most likely being affected to some degree), it would be upwards of 5+. If I had to put an estimate on people I believe were very negatively affected, I would say 10+. It definitely took a toll on our members, some more than others, but I hope it didn’t show in the final product.
At this point, we were behind. This is clear in hindsight but wasn’t so much at the time. The writing was behind schedule and subsequently the CGs were delayed, the backgrounds were taking longer than anticipated and we had a few toss ups on who would color them as we had to change things around, and by this point 2 of our 3 musicians had left. Suffice to say, reality was hitting hard.
Fourth Week of March
We got an extension. NaNoRenO is a month long jam set during March for the entirety of March. However, due to the virus, the jam was extended (now called NaNoRenO+) to April 14th. Had it not been for the extension, I don’t know if we would have finished it in time! It definitely would have been much more stressful and required lots of cuts without the extension.
Due to the extension, we slowed down some. The members were able to take a breather and we adjusted the deadlines. Around this time I had to check up on the promo artists to see how that was going. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t checking up on them before- several didn’t need checking up on as they were active in the server, but we did have some who weren’t active so I had to send them a small reminder. This is just a note of something that happened- I think when you have 20+ members on a team it’s nigh impossible to have them all be actively talking and posting messages.
It was hard to do any directing at this point, though most of it was just making decisions rather than commanding anyone. I was heavily in a fog, which stayed for the entirety of the project- I believe I still am in a fog (it’s currently the end of April). However, the team still marched on. People did the work they were assigned and any other work that needed to be done. Still, I should have checked in with people more, to make sure the workloads we decided on pre-worldwide crisis was still doable in post-worldwide crisis.
First Week of April
Our original due date had come and passed, and I now realized we were never going to make that original date anyway. This isn’t necessarily because people weren’t doing the work, but rather a combination of not triple checking as the days went on that the deadline was still doable and also the scope expanding. I was not fully in charge of writing as we had a writing director- I’m not good at editing as I’m a “yes woman”, so I let the people who signed up for writing focus on it. In hindsight, I don’t fully know how I would have gone about overseeing the writing without being “overbearing” or end up editing it alongside the editors, but I do think aiding in the writing some more would have helped meet some of the deadlines better and ease stress. Again, this isn’t because the writers (who are all very talented and put a lot of effort into the project!) couldn’t meet their deadlines, but rather because sometimes you need an outside person to say “hey, let’s trim this down to make it more manageable”. I hope I’m making sense!
Art-wise, the sprites had long been completed and the backgrounds were still being worked on. Akua, our CG artist, was working on the first CGs for each route (the crazy woman decided to do 3 CGs for fole’s NaNoRenO entry, Demon Kiss, and 6 CGs for Enamored Risks!) and soon started on the final kiss CGs for each route.
Music-wise, nothing. We only had 1 musician left and they were unable to work due to life conflicts.
Programming-wise, the GUI was getting the final polishes (before I touched it) and a couple of the other programmers were scripting early scenes on the routes.
Marketing-wise, it was quite clear that my plans for teaching people marketing didn’t pan out. It was hard to get ahold of some of them, even when pinged and messaged multiple times. I’ve been told that very few people are quite as passionate about marketing as I am… how is it not fun to discover the right marketing mix that connects the project you’ve lovingly made with the right demographic that would love it?! Okay, maybe a lot of it is tedious… Still, I’m unsure even now what I’ll change about the marketing team next year (if we have one) other than longer applications and more tasks set in stone where if they’re not completed then the person is given a warning and then kicked from the team.
By this time historically (yay, we get to be a part of history…) most states in the USA had declared a stay at home emergency which shut down a lot of businesses for a time, though this order was on a state-to-state business (as I’m writing this, the governor for Mississippi has already lifted the “””strict””” stay at home order and replaced it with a “safe” stay at home order which allows retailers to open at limited capacity, despite the number of cases in the state rising daily, while some other states are still on an actually strict stay at home order). For some of our members this meant more time to work on the project. But as I said before, for several more it meant a more strenuous time.
One thing I forgot to mention- the marketing team had brought some of the team members from other sections to work on devlogs about their process on the project. For instance, NiAsobu, our lead background designer / line artist, wrote a very detailed devlog on how she goes about creating the backgrounds for Enamored Risks.
These devlogs were posted on the Crystal Game Works blog, and can be seen here.
Second Week of April
NaNoRenO was coming to an end exceedingly fast. I was still mainly working with the marketing and programming teams while also getting things ready on the publishing end, so my work was exponentially ramping up while most everyone was finishing the sprint. Again, I was not able to check up on other members in other sections as much as I should have, and I fear that led to some stress that could have been alleviated had I been aware.
The last of the art was finished- Akua turned in the last CG, Paxton’s kiss CG, and the last of the backgrounds was finally colored. I received more promo art (up until the last day) and was able to include it in the first version of the game.
The writing took longer than expected, and we ended up scripting the last of it just a few hours before the deadline. I ended up scripting probably 4+ scenes myself. I’m still grateful to everyone who stayed up that night with me to make sure it released in a playable state!
Post Release (After April 14th)
We released it on Itch.io about 5 minutes before the deadline. After that, we took a day off (read: everyone took a day off and I tried to too but I got a few bug reports that were completely cosmetic and could have waited but nagged at my head so I fixed them), and returned back to work over the next few days. This included edits, bug fixes, adding some more promo art, etc.
I also continued to work on publishing it to Steam- namely, getting the files ready as the review times were longer due to work from home (due to COVID-19). There wasn’t very much to do for this until the build was deemed “ready” by us (that is, we were done editing it for the most part), so I mostly worked on the mobile port. The GUI had to be redone some (namely from a programming standpoint) to make it ready for mobile- while Ren’Py now comes with a default mobile GUI, plugging in our custom one wasn’t going to cut it. Long story short, I moved some things around and made things bigger to be easier to navigate.
By the end of the week, I submitted the builds to Steam & Google Play. They were approved the following week.
I’ve had enough time to talk about and reflect on what could have been done better, so I’ll use this wrap up to give some reflections for others to learn from.
1) Plan For Everything…
Plan ahead like you’re going on a year long trip. Make plans for if people quit the project, for people to ghost the project, for deadlines to not be met, etc. You’ll never know what will happen before you start.
2) …But You Can’t Plan For Everything.
There will inevitably be things you cannot plan for. I along with so many others would have never imagined the effects the COVID-19 virus has had on the world. I couldn’t have predicted having to move out of my apartment. You’re not supposed to try to predict everything that will go wrong- instead, make blanket plans for what you’ll do.
What will you do if your lead artist quits? For us, we had other artists on standby in case one of the “main” artists quit. What will happen to the project if the files get corrupted? Make backups of the files or host them somewhere like Google Drive or GitHub. Put them on a cloud where multiple people can access them and there’s some version control.
3) Never Be Afraid of Scope
I’ve talked about it so many times before, and I’ll say it again. Scope creep is one of the biggest killers of projects. We had to scale the scope down several times in several different ways. Even the more “small” choices, such as making Alex female rather than letting the player pick from a feminine Alex and a masculine Alex, can help a project move along- this change meant one less sprite for YuukiPudding, no CG changes for Akua, and no possible continuity errors in writing.
These last two months have been quite literally history-making. I’m still in awe we were able to finish the game regardless and extremely thankful (and indebted) to everyone who worked on the project. I’m not good with expressing emotions or praise most of the time, but it really does mean a lot to me.
Next year, I want do these things differently:
- Longer, more thorough application
- More preplanning so people fully know what to expect
- Weekly meetings with everyone / each group
I’m not a big fan of weekly meetings with volunteer groups- I’ll attend weekly meetings, but I’ve seen volunteer meetings go awry before. Constantly pushing back meetings because people can’t agree on a time/day to meet, no one making compromises, no one setting a date in stone- I digress. To make it easier I’ll have text chat meetings per group. These will be to get up to speed with them and to make sure there’s no road bumps.
I always have a policy of “if something comes up, tell me asap, I won’t be mad” but that doesn’t always work in practice as people get too nervous or scared to have to tell you bad news. I still don’t know how to combat this issue.
All in all, finishing a game is life-changing, though typically you don’t expect life itself to change in the meantime. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who came together to work on the project. If the stars align, next year we’ll try it again with a new team (unless some want to come back) to make some brand new again.