OEL Visual Novels and the Gamble of Monetization

by eternal on February 9, 2010


I could call myself a fan of OEL visual novels. True, I have never played one that genuinely impressed me outside of the comedy/satire genre, and I’m naturally biased toward the medium considering my own endeavour in it, but it’s safe to say that there are a few pleasant creations out there. Ren’Py has been around since 2004, and a lot of amateur writers and artists have tried their hand at the tedious but ultimately rewarding task of creating a visual novel.

Considering that the community has an ever-growing archive of Ren’Py-created games, it would seem as though everything is in order. As a consumer, however, this might not be the case. As much as I hate to say this, some developers might be trying to step into the professional world a bit too soon.

Piracy aside, it’s reasonable to assume that people will pay for products that they deem worthy. If a product is not worthy of its asking price, it won’t be bought. Basic economics.

Following this logic, some recent releases imply that OEL VNs are indeed professional products. I don’t mean to single anyone out, but The Flower  Shop seemed like a fairly pleasant game when I first heard about it. The most fun part of Harvest Moon was getting married, so hey, why not just play a dating sim with farming elements in it? It sounds like fun, and it would be a great way to waste the time that I should be spending on fiction and blog posts.

Luckily for me, I won’t have to worry about that distraction, because the game costs $20. Now, I do realize that $20 isn’t very much; there’s no doubt that I’ve wasted that same amount on stupider things in the past. Still, let’s take a look at some older Japanese games to compare: Kanon‘s retail price is around $30, but it’s a decade old; Saya no Uta is much shorter and a bit newer, and it’s going for the same price; Umineko is a popular technically non-commercial VN with a retail price of $25; and Narcissu can be currently imported for a mere $21.

In other words, I could spend $20 on Fading Hearts, or, if I possessed the language skills, spend that same amount of money on the new Narcissu. Some OELs might be above average, but quite frankly, which do you think is the better deal?

[goto p]

To be fair, comparisons alone don’t make for much of an argument. It’s a fact that the creation of OEL VNs consumes a lot of time, and as Aorii pointed out to me on Twitter, the money might be a necessary incentive. I’ve always thought that Fading Hearts looked like a pretty good game, with detailed backgrounds and appealing character designs. The quality would have probably dropped if the group considered themselves to be a doujin circle rather than a company – but just as price comparisons make for an unfair judgment, the argument of time and incentive is flimsy and subjective. Yes, money helps create a better product – but so what? Tsukihime had photographic backgrounds, and look what happened to that.

At any rate, I don’t think that OELs should be monetized. This isn’t because it goes against the spirit of doujinshi or anything that idealistic: it’s simply because creating a commercial game pits you against the commercial market. I might eventually try one of the games mentioned in this post, but if I do, I won’t complement it and say “it was better than Katawa Shoujo” (which, at least for the moment, is free). Frankly, I doubt if any OEL VN currently in development has as much potential as KS, but that doesn’t matter because I’ll have to compare every nakige to Kanon and every school life galge to Shuffle and Da Capo.

In the off-chance that a commercial OEL VN is good enough to be worth the price, then go right ahead – every developer has the right to sell their game. However, it can be an extremely risky move for a group of amateurs to go the extra mile in production and create a great product only to narrow their audience by calling themselves pros.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

omo February 9, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Waaaaaiiitt a second.

There are a ton of games (doujin or otherwise) that cost money. I don’t see the big deal of pitting against the commercial market or anything. You really have to compare free games only with free games, in which case I think it isn’t particularly problematic.

Maybe you could just say $20 is a lot for a causal investment in a visual novel, which could be true; that’s your estimate. I think obviously if it is good, then people will buy it, as you said. Let’s just leave it to the point that if it doesn’t sell, it may be because it wasn’t good.


digitalboy February 9, 2010 at 5:36 pm

On the one hand, I will agree, I’d sooner buy a great Japanese visual novel for 20 bucks than an OEL one for twenty bucks.

However, if I already own a considerable about of Japanse visual novels, and don’t have a huge buy list and have, say 80 bucks on my person, I don’t think there’s much to stop me from buying an OEL game.


Aorii February 9, 2010 at 7:21 pm

I don’t think it’s a problem with monetizing as much as they need a better hang of the market. Selling their products is all and fine but— $20 is indeed kind of steep. Making visnovs online distributable combined with cheap costs (like $5) should be the method of getting a commercial OEL company off the ground, build experience, acquire feedback, cycle for a better product, etc…

I mean look @ the xbox gamedev community. Charging a buck a game and people will easily toss that in the funds just to take a shot. Of course a proper visnov takes far longer to create than most of those games, but OEL is still amateur and they really ought to know better than to play against pros.


emichan February 9, 2010 at 9:10 pm

$20 is a pretty standard price for downloadable PC games. No OELVN company has ever yet “gotten off the ground” selling $5 games, but they have done so selling $20 ones.

It’s very strange to see people say that developers who are making a full-time living as professionals selling games “ought to know better”. What are you basing this judgement on, exactly?


Aorii February 10, 2010 at 8:57 am

I’m no pro, but I once had my share of experience as student developer who worked on XNA games in the xbox console (and pygame/renpy for our OEL, interestingly), and our university student developer group had a lot of connections from game-industry alumni / corporate advisers that directed our dev/dist processes. Of course, none of us had to make a living off gamedev… my current job is also borderline gamedev, and that’s the direction I aim towards so I know quite a bit about the field. Combine this with the intermediate grade economics and basic business knowledge, well [shrug] it sure feels obvious—

I mean, look @ games like castlecrashers. Behemoth actually had some endorsements to start off with, yet for an intricately developed and well-acclaimed game it still costs only $15; that is a huge costs gap to most commercially developed games by major companies. Okay maybe 5 is too steep for OEL startups, but 20 for a game I’ve heard nothing spectacular about from a company I know nothing about in an industry still labeled as ‘amateur’ is definitely a ‘no’. They need to make the costs involved a ‘throwawayable amount’ to really get people willing to try.


emichan February 11, 2010 at 7:39 am

“I would not buy this game for $20” does not mean “No one would ever buy this game for $20” Would you buy Bejeweled for $20? I sure wouldn’t, but it made millions!

market price is different on different consoles – if they were selling english visual novels on xbox live arcade or iphone then yeah it would be best to make it really cheap to tempt people to give it a try. but at the same time selling an xbox retail game in a case with a price of $5 on it would make everyone run away in fear that it was Elf Bowling in there. setting prices way below market expectations tends to strengthen the impression that a game is amateur, throwaway, worthless.

cheap doesn’t always mean more sales, and it doesn’t always mean ENOUGH more sales to make up for the loss of income. financially you can be better off selling to fewer people at a higher price, as long as you can get enough customers.

it depends a lot on what you’re trying to achieve.


ETERNAL February 10, 2010 at 6:38 pm

@ Aorii: It’s hard to find a suitable price point, but yes, I don’t think that OELs have to be free. Since you’re using video games as an example, look at stuff like Braid: the game isn’t free, and it takes away $10-ish that I could spend toward Bioshock 2, but it’s such a spectacular experience that I don’t mind.

For what it’s worth, I would definitely pay for Kawata Shoujo, but that’s only because they’re pretty well known in the community and their product looks like it would be worth the $20 price tag.


Eternalsucks February 9, 2010 at 8:54 pm

One thing for you, mr. elitist.
I like japanese visual novels, I do. But I don’t generalize like you do.
Shuffle was one of the most terrible games out there. If you compare ANYTHING to it, story wise ANYTHING from evn scene is better.


ETERNAL February 10, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Then replace Shuffle with a generic eroge that you actually like. If not, click around on EGS until you find something that looks pretty, and replace it with that. Shuffle is an example.

I’m saying that if I have to pay for a generic OEL galge, it’d better be as good as a generic Japanese galge. This all has painfully little to do with generalizations.


emichan February 9, 2010 at 9:07 pm

At least one of the people you’re talking about is not an amateur “rushing into” being professional, but a full-time professional who’s been making a living at games for years.

It’s great that some people have the dedication, free time, and financial security to make great free projects.

But I think you’d look at me a bit funny if I said “I don’t think English-language fiction should ever be sold for money. It can’t compete with all the free fanfiction I can read online, and publishing a book for money means fewer people will read it.”

… or maybe you really do think that no one should ever be paid for their work, I don’t know. :)


ETERNAL February 10, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I’m sure you realized that there was something wrong with that comparison as you were typing it out. It’s more like writing a really really AMAZING fanfiction and trying to sell it for the same price as a professional, published novel. All of the hard work you put into writing the BEST FANFIC EVER won’t be put to its best use if you narrow your audience by selling it like that.

Incidentally, it’s great that some companies can make a significant profit through amateur game development, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re narrowing their audience. OEL manga has already been somewhat established in the English-speaking world, and series like Megatokyo are known by most anime fans. We don’t have an equivalent in the EVN scene. It’s nice to see someone making a living off of their games, and that might be all that some developers are aiming for, but that won’t push the whole scene forward. I’d be surprised if any group accomplishes something notable in the rest of anime fandom by selling a fairly standard visual novel, unless the game truly is good enough to compete with the best.


emichan February 11, 2010 at 7:22 am

It’s more like writing a really really AMAZING fanfiction and trying to sell it for the same price as a professional, published novel. All of the hard work you put into writing the BEST FANFIC EVER won’t be put to its best use if you narrow your audience by selling it like that.

The main difference between fanfiction and normal fiction has to do with legality. If you write something that’s legal to sell in the first place, it’s not a fanfic at all. And all your work that’s gone into writing the best book ever is wasted if you give it away free, go back to working at McDonald’s, and can never afford to write another.

I’d be surprised if any group accomplishes something notable in the rest of anime fandom by selling a fairly standard visual novel

You’re still using words like ‘amateur’ and ‘anime fandom’, while (partially) talking about professional game developers who are selling to the world in general. People who are not amateurs care a lot less about ‘accomplishing something notable in anime fandom’ and a lot more about ‘making a living’.

If your sole intention is to impress people at anime conventions, then sure, make a free game and an amv and give it away to people at anime conventions. But that’s an entirely different goal than running a business.

If your goal is to make a sustainable business, it’s more important that enough people pay for the game than that people at anime conventions think you’re cool. There are plenty of for-sale Japanese VNs that people at anime conventions don’t think are cool either, but I don’t think that’s making the developers lose any sleep.

Popularity, Artistic Masterpiece, and Sustainability are all different scales of success. There’s probably more I’m not thinking of. Something can be really popular but artistically meh and completely unsustainable from a business angle. Something can be artistically brilliant for the few that get it, but so hard to understand that it’s unable to be either popular or sustainable. And so on.


ETERNAL February 11, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Putting aside the fanfiction example, I get what you’re saying. The problem is that we’re using completely different scales. My mistake was that I assumed that the OEL scene was an offshoot of the rest of anime fandom and that most creations were not made in the hopes of generating a profit (most anime blogs don’t profit much from ads, fan translations are free, etc). From what you’re saying, some OEL developers are more like game developers than anime fans, meaning that they have a completely different set of priorities and probably a different market.

In that case, my only complaint is with the semantics of the term “EVN”. It’s a little confusing that the EVN community includes both fan work and commercial for-profit productions. I now understand the goals that some OEL developers have, but I’ll mentally file them under a different category because those goals are radically different from the goals of most communities of anime fans.


ETERNAL February 10, 2010 at 6:26 pm

@ Omo: That’s a reasonable way of putting it. My personal judgment is that most OELs won’t become as popular as they would if they were free, as a result of the market, quality, etc etc. Indeed, if it doesn’t sell well, it’s probably because most people didn’t see it as being worthy of the price tag.

@ digitalboy: It works out in practice, which is why I said that I might try the games mentioned at some point. I’m not completely ruling them out just because they’re not free. That said, to use a specific example, I’ve had my eyes on Fading Hearts for a while – and knowing me, I would have already played it, enjoyed it, and wrote a positive review if I didn’t have to think twice about obtaining it. Maybe I’ll play it in the summer; maybe the summer after. Maybe I’ll completely forget about it. That’s the gamble I’m talking about.


Samukun February 16, 2010 at 4:27 am

I’m not personally involved with the more recent commercial visual novel titles, but I don’t think there’s really been a large change in the number of developers who are working on originally commercial titles. There’s been a couple of commercial developers who have now left and new ones who have taken their place.

I do think commercial English visual novels are more noticeable now though because the ones released by Winter Wolves look pretty flashy. (although they generally do not really look like Japanese commercial visual novels, since the graphics have generally been slightly Westernized)

I have some skepticisms about Fading Hearts, just because the demo had a lot of problems…

Visual novels outside of Japan don’t really compare at all to visual novels inside Japan. In fact, Japanese people don’t even call them visual novels. XD It’s kind of complicating to explain, but it seems like visual novels (or galge, as more commonly referred to in Japan) are more of a fringe interest in Japan. It’s really the only format where moe dominates the various other genres and only a very tiny fraction of manga fans actually purchase and play them. However, the manga fanbase is so massive in Japan, including both male and female fans from between the ages of 6 to 80, that even a medium that appeals to 0.001% of those fans leads to enough galge to fill six or seven shelfs in a manga merchandise store.

However, outside of Japan, it’s a whole new game. There are just not enough manga fans for a large number of visual novels to really exist. I expect that in order for visual novels to really get off outside of Japan, they’ll probably have to lose their Japanese settings and characters and be about Western interests instead. (eg. maybe more like American films or books) Also, the very nature of the manga fandom is different in the West as well, since it primarily targets boys and girls between the ages of 14-25 and there’s only a handful of popular genres like shounen, moe, yaoi, shojo, and mecha. In Japan, I think shounen, shojo, and yaoi are the three most popular classes of works and all of them have sub-genres underneath them. About 5000 other genres also exist, one of which is the moe genre. (The moe genre really only dominates the galge scene and don’t figure that predominantly in either the anime or the manga scene, even though its influence has increased dramatically in the past few years.)


Lin West May 16, 2010 at 3:28 pm

When looking at the quality between OEL and Japanese products it comes down to this in every field: manga, doujinshi, anime, visual novels, and garage kits:

The Japanese can pour in money into their creation because they have a huger audience. They get the most talented people they can get, spend money on big names so the fans will be interested, and advertise the shit out of their product. It has to be professional quality to even think of surviving against the competition.

In America, anime isn’t as big of a deal, and the market isn’t as large. The people who are making anime themed products simply don’t have to money or resources to get that awesome illustrator, commission BGM from a musician, hire popular voice actors, get a motion graphics guy to work on an awesome opening trailer, maybe post links to it on different websites, or even have a producer! Generally its a team in the single digits that like anime and have a few creative talents. The usual suspects being: college kids and maybe the prodigious high schooler.

But as an artist myself it irks me that people think they can just take your work and expect nothing in return. Especially when things like visual novels take so much effort to create, especially when there’s only a few people working on huge projects like this. Art doesn’t make itself. What would be more understandable to me is if up and coming indie visual novel companies offered a few FULL free games, or good quality, then eventually sold some games for a profit, like $10 maye. To me $5 just seems like a slap in the face… like leaving a penny tip for a waitress.


lelangir October 3, 2010 at 7:00 pm

This is really really late but…you could pull a Radiohead or something.


Riceball Cantabile February 27, 2011 at 11:38 pm

I do have to agree on some points made here – that people would be more likely to spend money on an OEL VN from a professional studio that they already know and can rely on for good quality games, rather than a product from an amateur company they’ve never heard or seen anything about.

However, in defense of the particular game pointed out – Flower Shop’s creators have also put out a few other games that are free as well, so the quality of this particular game can be roughly ascertained in advance through previous works. There’s also another game they’re currently selling, Jinsei. They’ve included a free demo with this one, which I think is a smart move. If other game creators followed suit and put up a free demo for their game, everyone would be able to see it’s general quality beforehand, and hence people would be more likely to delve into their pockets to pay for the full package. If they deem the expense worth it, of course.

In short, in my personal opinion, Sakevisual’s doing alright in their approach for OEL’s. However, those debut amateur creators that are placing their works out there for money would be better advised to show at least a playable example of their work before expecting a big turnout in buyers.


ctrlaltlee October 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Economics 101: price as high as you think you can get away with. Its easy to lower prices, impossible to raise them. If the devs are happily releasing commercially, they don’t need to change anything.


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