Although both visual novels (VNs) and dating sims have been gaining popularity in western markets, many people still don't know exactly what they are or, more likely, have the wrong idea about them.
Visual novels are a graphic novel of sorts and a story with optional paths the reader can follow. Dating sims are very similar in that the reader chooses from on-screen options but the purpose is to develop skills and personal relationships with in-game characters. These games can have rather complex paths with multiple endings.
To be clear, they originated in Japan and, while many visual novels or dating sims are erotic (or at least sexy) in nature, it's not true that all dating sims have erotic content.
It's really a shame that people automatically label these games as "adult only" because, in many cases, is not true. In the case of indie developers, few include racy themes or art as they are often trying to appeal a more family-friendly audience.
While it certainly helps - especially for gameplay - it's really not necessary to play original Japanese visual novels or dating sims.
For example, I've produced several visual novels and dating sims. Some have been quite successful even though I have not played many Japanese games.
Instead, having very good writing skills is far more important for both visual novels and dating sims (although a bit more important for the visual novels).
Writing skills also means coming up with original plot ideas and carefully planning each path. These games are very similar in structure to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books where the plot changes and follows a different path based on the reader's choices.
Bionic Heart was perhaps the most complex visual novel I've made so far (and the only one to be featured in some popular Japanese websites). I did everything with a spreadsheet program but there are also other useful "mind-mapping" programs including FreeMind. It's not always necessary to use them - especially with good tools like Ren'Py available - but they can help.
For dating sims, the best way is to split the story into scenes. Those games usually have several characters that you can date and, through gameplay, you advance every subplot scene by scene.
Both visual novels and dating sims usually have a "Gallery Screen" where you can replay previous scenes which are typically still images. Usually the endings all feature a beautiful art moment but you can also use it for other particularly important points of the story.
Those games are also famous for having many endings. In fact, the more the better because it is normal to replay a game several times to unlock them all. It's a lot like achievements in other genres.
You have a great idea for a story and all of your characters are fleshed out so now it is time to make the game.
There are many free visual novel tools but, if you want to have flexibility and power of coding your custom stuff, there is simply nothing as good as Ren'Py. That tool combines the powerful Python language with a full set of commands that lets you easily create a visual novel or dating sim. Learn to use it well enough and you can also create a visual novel role-playing hybrid much like my RPGs Loren The Amazon Princess
As you might imagine, visual novels include a lot of art. I'd dare to say that, for a commercial product, the art is as least as important as the writing, if not more.
Unfortunately this means that, if you're on a tight budget, it may be hard to create a visually appealing game. That does not mean, however, that you need to have countless images.
My first visual novel, Heileen, was made of 15 different painted backgrounds and 16 characters, each one with different outfits and expressions. That is the shortest and smallest VN I've made. Some of my upcoming games have 20 characters, each one with 5-6 expressions, animated eye, animated lips and three or four different outfits along with animated backgrounds.
In terms of the art style, it does seem that manga is the dominant art style for VNs. As for theme/setting, anything goes: from dark sci-fi to cyberpunk, from historical to light comedy, like my latest dating sim "Roommates".
I won’t go into too much detail for the standard usual development process, so here's the quick rundown: Test the game, test it again, ask other people's opinion, polish it and test it again.
Once you have a decent product, it's time to sell it.
When people ask me for advice, I always tell them there is not a single, universal, valid answer. There are several ways to sell your VN or dating sim (or games in general) and I know people who are successfully making a living using very different methods.
Here are my top suggestions.
The basic idea here is first to gain popularity and a following through a few decent free VNs or dating sims and then try to sell new games to your fans. This is a good choice if you're just starting and don't have much money. Good examples are Sakevisual which released a very popular otome dating sim called RE:Alistair and later went commercial making more games, even on Steam.
~ Use Portals
Nowadays getting on big portals like Steam is much easier than in the past. Indeed, I still remember when I put my games on Greenlight back in 2013, and a lot of users were complaining, saying that Steam was no place for visual novels. Now, there are a LOT of visual novels on Steam, showing that there's surely a market for those kind of games even in the west.
~ Direct Sales
Put it on your site and sell it. All games on my site are sold mostly directly. Even if your direct sales usually can't compete with Steam, you keep 90% of the profit (depends on the vendor you use to sell them) and you can also affiliate the game.
~ Online, Social and Mobile Devices
Another big advantage of using Ren'Py is that now it can export the games both to Google Play, Amazon and iOS. Mobile sales aren't going to make you rich, but are a nice extra, especially once you start to have several sites and you can do cross-selling. An important thing is to stick with a "high price", which for mobile is considered anything above $0.99! My VN sells for $4.99 and up.
Rather than focusing a game for a year or longer, I try to release two or three games a year. There is no valid rule here: I know other developers that prefer to take it slower, even 1 year or more to make a game, polishing it a lot. I think it's a matter of personal preferences, since from my experience, while longer/bigger title generally make more revenues, not necessarily make the highest ROI (revenues per time spent on it).
One thing I learned when doing dating sims, is that you must not over complicate things. If you add too much detail, make the UI crowded (full of options, typical of strategy games) or if you don't include a good tutorial, you're going to target the wrong market. Dating sim players don't want a complex strategy game or simulation. For example, my game Spirited Heart, has a very simple interface. There may be a lot of options - several jobs, increase your skills, six datable characters, a marriage option, a calendar system with holidays, three different races and more – but this light strategy blends very well with the various scenes of the romance subplots.
I really believe the trick is to balance the gameplay with the scene frequency to keep the player motivated to play and maintain interest in the story.
The demand for VNs and dating sims is growing every day and so are the number of people making them.
My final word of advice: Making visual novels and dating sim style games really are works of love and passion. Don't underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to write a good story, create good gameplay and develop interesting characters.
If you approach it only from a commercial point of view, thinking to make some "quick cash", you may be disappointed by the results.
Celso Riva is an indie game developer that runs the Winter Wolves website. He has been designing and developing games for almost 10 years and has done everything including gameplay design, writing, coding and marketing. In late 2008 he embraced the manga art style and the visual novel and dating sim genres, becoming a point of reference in the English visual novel market with 8 titles released so far and many more in the works including visual novels, dating sims and J-RPG. You can follow him on Twitter or read his blog to learn more.