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How to Start Making Visual Novels

Update 2019: Tweaked this some here and there to update it for 2019. Hope you enjoy!

Gonna start a series of irregularly-posted editorials where I talk about different subjects that I’m familiar with and give some advice from my own experience, whether they’re about visual novels, RPG maker, art, etc. I wanted to start off with how to make a VN development team, but I figured I needed to start with the basics first- how do you even start making visual novels in the first place?

Get Familiar With: Your Terms
So, you wanna make a visual novel, so you’ll probably end up interacting with the community. Here’s a list of terms to know if you’re new to the VN community like I was when I started developing:

EVN / OELVN – stands for English Visual Novel and Original English Language Visual Novel. Two terms used for describing Western VNs, although EVN is used more frequently nowadays. JVN likewise means Japanese Visual Novel.

Sprite – the individual character art that changes expressions. Commonly confused with CGs.

CGs – although it typically stands for Computer Generated, CGs in VNs typically means the cutscene art where no sprites are shown. CGs are usually reserved for special scenes, and are the type of artwork you’d see in a CG Gallery.

Otome / Otoge – roughly translates to “maiden’s love” and is used to describe games with a female demographic, usually dating sims which feature males as the love interests and a female protagonist.

Nakige – a crying game, i.e. a game that is meant to make you cry. Do not get this confused with nukige for reasons listed below.

Eroge – an erotic game. If a game has sex scenes in it, it’s an eroge. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a nukige.

Nukige – a hentai or eroge, but one meant solely for showing off sex scenes, i.e. a porn game. If you take out the sex scenes in a game and nothing makes sense, it’s probably a nukige.

Kamige – a term used jokingly that literally means “God-game”. It’s used to describe games that top-tier and virtually perfect.

Get Familiar With: Your Engines
With any game development, you have different engines at your disposal- some free, some more expensive, some good, some bad. When making VNs, there are several engines to chose from with varying degrees of popularity and features. I have personally only used Ren’Py, Twine, and CloudNovel.

Ren’Py
Your main EVN-making engine. It’s highly used, and for good reason: it’s free, it’s constantly updated, it has a very active community and lots of (somewhat old, somewhat helpful) documentation. It’s the one I personally use and recommend as I feel it’s easy to learn while also allowing the user a lot of room for customization.

VN Maker
This engine is newer and as such it comes with bugs and some issues. It’s from Degica, the same publishers as the RPG Maker series- because of this, you can use RPGM assets in VNM. VNM is $60, but is typically on sale and comes with a lot of stock assets from backgrounds to sprites to music. It uses a drag and drop system and some way to code instead- while I don’t have personal experience with it, I have heard that it still has bugs in it and Degica isn’t the fastest at answering emails- as always, try to figure out what you’re looking for in an engine before committing to one.

TyranoBuilder
Another popular EVN-developing engine- it’s used by a good amount of developers with varying degrees of reviews. Some people think the engine works fine, others have used it and prefer Ren’Py. There are a good amount of differences between the two, the main being that Ren’Py will always be free and TyranoBuilder costs $15. This is a GUI-based software online, so it can be quicker for those who can’t script but in the long run it’s more efficient to learn scripting engines.

Twine
Want to make a simple visual novel but don’t care about complicated things like save states or settings? Twine is for you. It’s simple to use but can create amazing stories. Alternatively, you can also use it for planning stories or doing outlines on it. Twine can be used in browser or can be downloaded.

CloudNovel
Like Twine, CloudNovel is an online tool for making visual novel. They have a good amount of ready-to-use assets for your VN, so it’s a good option if you don’t have any art and can’t get any. However, the system isn’t meant for super long stories, so porting over any text of great length along with changing sprites can be very tedious, as it’s a GUI-based “software” online.

(I’m not including Novelty on this list as development on it has halted)

This list is of the major VN engines out there, but there are certainly more engines that can be used to make VNs such as RPG Maker, Unity, GameMaker, and more. When picking an engine, try to figure out what you need- are you just trying to get practice and want to hit the ground running without getting custom assets? If so, then something like CloudNovel could be a good fit. Do you want some custom assets but want premade things such as backgrounds and such and are willing to pay some money to get a lot of premade assets? Then VN Maker might be for you. Want an engine that’s constantly being updated with a big community? Ren’Py is a good choice.

​Get Familiar With: Your Structure / Needs
Alrighty, so you got an engine downloaded and you have an idea for a killer story that’s going to be the next kamige. …Now what? Well, let’s start by going over assets you’ll need to make the visual novel.

  1. Character Sprites – every character is going to need a talking sprite so we can see what they look like, unless you’re going for a chat room-like system. Sprites have multiple expressions- I typically make a default set of 8 expressions per sprite (4 talking, 4 non-talking), but I have seen some EVNs use upwards of 50+ expressions per sprite (aka per character).
  2. Backgrounds – where does your game take place? Surely it’s not set in some dark void for the whole game. Show us where the VN is set! Some EVNs can make do with only a handful, but as a rule of thumb any more than 40 backgrounds is pushing it, even for a 10+ hour long VN.
  3. Story – every VN needs a good story. Some EVNs have only 1,000 words while others have upwards of 100,000. Just don’t try to overstay your welcome.
  4. Programming – the VN must come together somehow! Someone has got to put all the above together.
  5. Music (optional) – I listed this under optional as, to make a bare-bones VN, you don’t technically need music, although, please, put some music in.
  6. CGs (optional) – CGs are more optional than music- if your game doesn’t have music in it then it can be looked down upon, but some EVNs can make do without CGs.

Additional stuff includes sound effects, GUI, custom screens (music/CG galleries), voice acting, and more. For any type of development you want to focus on making a minimum viable product, i.e. the smallest working prototype of your game that you can as fast as you can, and then refine and polish that by adding in extra details like fixing art, adding sound effects, reworking parts, and more.

Get Familiar With: Your Websites
But wait you say, I can do none of those things, I’m just an idea guy! If that’s the case, then you have 3 choices: find people willing to work for free, pay people, or learn how to do something. If you decide to go the route of forming a team, then your best option is to go to the Lemma Soft Forums, the main EVN forums on the web. There you can recruit members to your amazing brand new team, see other VNs in development, and even post about your own. I’ll make another editorial soon about ways to establish a development team and keep the ball rolling.

Aside from LSF, the other main EVN website is Fuwanovel. It has a much smaller community, but is still a website dedicated to VNs nonetheless. There is also the /r/visualnovels subreddit, but it focuses more on releases rather than EVN development.

Get Familiar With: Publishing
Great, you’ve finished your game in record time, and you’re ready to show it to the world after weeks of rewriting, debugging, getting feedback from playtesters, and more. …Or you’ve just finished the last line of code and you’re ready to shove it out the door. Either works. I won’t get into too many details on publishing to say, Steam, as that’s a whole other beast, but I will talk about your options as a broke EVN developer. You could always upload it to Google Drive or somewhere, make a blog post or a thread in the Completed Games section on LSF, and link it there to be done with it. Or, you can upload it to Itch.io or Game Jolt to reach a bigger audience.

​Itch.io focuses on any type of indie game and even indie game creation, hosting things from game jam entries, VR games, and even game engines. However, although you have a lot of freedom with what you upload to Itch.io, so does everyone else. It’s very easy for your game to be lost in the sea of other titles being uploaded every second.
Game Jolt, on the other hand, focuses more on browser games, but download-only titles are accepted as well. The VN market on Game Jolt is vastly different from Itch.io, in that Itch.io has a VN market! On Itch.io, you’ll find a lot of popular EVN titles, most of which are free, but on Game Jolt almost all you’ll find are VNs with sprites made from dress-up maker games. So, don’t get too disappointed if your download-only VN only gets an abysmal 12 views on Game Jolt (but keep in mind that browser games do exceptionally better on any game website than download-only games).

There are other newer sites in the making such as Epic Games Store, Discord, and Kartridge, but I’ll talk about those in more detail later.

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