Category Archives: game design

Doing sequels is a good or bad idea?

First of all, a small announcement: like all years I’m doing a Summer Sale! Here are the links:

https://itch.io/s/11532/summer-sale-older-games 75% off for older games
https://itch.io/s/11536/summer-sale-newer-games 50% off for games released in last 2 years

Back to the post topic: as you know I’m working right now on Planet Stronghold 2, a sci-fi RPG sequel of my first RPG released back in 2011 (you can see a video showing some alpha gameplay above). I often asked myself if doing sequels is a good or bad thing, and this is my experience so far.

Why is a good thing

The most obvious thing is, if your first game did well and got a following, it’s worth doing it just because people who liked the first game, would probably like the second too, as long as the gameplay/story remains more or less the same.

I did this with Heileen (3 games) and Bionic Heart. For Heileen, it worked more or less well. The games are different (also because they were made over the course of several years and the last one wasn’t written by me directly) but the setting and main characters are the same.

For Bionic Heart instead, it didn’t work as well because while the setting is obviously the same (sci-fi) the general mood of the game is different. The first game had more humor and insisted more on the robotic-love fetish, while the second had more sci-fi elements and mature settings (murder, mass murder, grim/dark world, etc).

Of course it’s not a strict rule that you MUST make all games in a series using exactly the same mood/setting/characters/whatever but personally I believe it’s probably better.

Oh, and don’t make the mistake to plan a series without knowing before if your first title (basically the idea, a sort of equivalent of the “pilot” episode of tv series) will be liked by enough people. I did this back in 2010 with Vera Blanc:Β  I started working on the second episode even before the first was out, and the first sold terribly but I was already halfway through the second that I just had to finish it even if as you can imagine my motivations were zero…

Why is a bad thing

Apart the case above (doing a sequel without knowing how the first title does) there are also other problems. First of all, if you have a game with romances, or tough choices, what happens? do you let player choose at the beginning of the new game who they romanced and what choices they made? if you allow this, you already know that writing the story is going to be a pain. Both in Heileen and Bionic Heart I just picked a “canon ending” and no romance would continue. I was smart.

For Planet Stronghold 2 and Loren 2 instead the plan is to let the player decide the starting romance/events. For example in PS2 you can choose if you sided with Rebels or The Empire, and the story will be different based on this choice (not completely different but many scenes will change).

So this already increases production costs and potential headaches by a LOT!

But it’s not just that. There’s also players’ expectations. For PS2, I am confident enough I can do a good job since the first game is really old, done in times where my English was much worse than it is now (I will use an editor of course) and I didn’t know well what my players wanted. But in any case, when people play a game and they like it, they build a sort of fondess to its memory. You forget about all the problems a game had and you only remember the best things. I know this happened to me with the old games I played when was younger. Then recently I tried to replay some of those games (back to C64 and Amiga times) and… they were unplayable! I wouldn’t even bother playing them for more than 5 minutes now! Still, I remember about those times with great pleasure.

All this rambling to say that probably for Loren 2, no matter if I’ll do a good job with it (I don’t know yet, but I’ll try my best as always) it’s completely sure that a big amount of people who played the original won’t like it, saying various things like “it’s not bad, but the original…” or “I liked the first one better…” and so on. This is basically inevitable. It’s a no-win situation πŸ˜›

Conclusions

Even if in certain cases doing sequels is a good thing, personally I’m almost sure that I’ll never make a sequel to a game anymore. Especially reusing same characters, and especially RPGs.

Doing other games in the same world/setting/lore? Sure, why not! That’s what I already did with my various fantasy games set in Aravorn. Doing cameos is also fun. But full sequels to existing games… no, because the cons greatly outweight the pros.

The ‘vocal minority’, feature creep and keeping yourself sane

One of the many custom screens I added to Cursed Lands. Feature creep? yup

I always wanted to write a blog post about the topics in the title, so here I am. First let’s start with a premise: what makes a successful game? of course gameplay, art, music, etc. But if we want to analyze a game’s success there’s a simple formula: a popular/successful game is a game that matches tastes of as much people as possible.

I think the above statement is inconfutable: the more people like game X, the more copies will sell and more successful will be. Then of course if the company doing it spent too much time, or money, it could still be a financial failure for them, but it still would be a popular game.

OK now that this is clear, what is the so called ‘vocal minority’ and how can impact the development of a game? Nowadays is very common to have an open development, with alpha/beta demos, early access, etc. Almost everyone is doing it now, but the same principle works even if you’re doing a closed beta with only 20-30 testers.

Now let’s say that the 10% of your fans/betatesters want desperatelyΒ feature A. They’ll start posting in forums, sending you emails, and so on. It’s like if they’re fans of a soccer team. “Really, you should implement feature A because the game will be SOOO much better!”. In some cases, they even know it will be easy, even if maybe they have no programming skills whatsoever “I could program it myself in an afternoon”. And so on, even with veiled threats “If you don’t implement feature A I’ll ask for a refund!” or “your game won’t sell a copy!” etc πŸ™‚

If you’re a developer, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with all this, and if you’re a player or an user, trust me, this really happens (but probably you saw such posts too).

Note that I’m using a fun tone while writing this, but for the person on the other side, the developer, the situation is often dramatic: maybe they invested a lot of money, mortgaged their home, or simply spent already so many hours on their game. But for the player of course this doesn’t matter (it shouldn’t, since they’re judging the game and not how much the developer worked on it or how much money they spent).

Anyway, what happens now? The developer can either follow the suggestion, think about it, or refuse to implement the new feature. As you can imagine the last option will result in an uproar in forums and some insults to the developer. But even if developer agrees to do it, is in all cases a good choice? No, it depends.

Back to the starting point: if the feature A that the 10% of people want is something that once implemented even the remaining 90% will like (the so called “silent majority”) then, all good! But what if the new change is disliked or even worse, hated by the other 90% or part of it?

That’s the big issue that developers have to face on a daily basis. In some cases the suggested changes are obviously a good idea. In others, devs have no clue themselves: is making the RPG more complex a good thing or not? Is using randomized items a nice feature? better turn based or real-time? etc etc.

There is no clear answer in some cases. It’s a bit random, really. Unless your game is selling so well that you can afford to do changes on a new beta, gather new feedback and just in case revert to previous version, then it’s a minefield. You could implement the feature and risk losing players, or you could gain more fans. But in most cases developers aren’t sure themselves about what is going to happen, while one thing is sure: adding the new feature will cost time and money.

The devs are the only ones to know well how much time and money they’ve already spent, how much money and physical/mental energies have left. And they must not fall into the famous “feature creep” for which they keep adding feature after feature, thinking to make the game better, when maybe that’s not always the case. Or simply, it’s not worth all the extra time/money spent to add the features.

In summary, I’m not writing this blog to say that players’ suggestions are bad. I have added a lot of nice features in my RPGs exactly thanks to players’ feedback. What I’m saying is that as developer you need to learn when to say ‘no’. When you have no more money to spend. When you have no more time or energies (because adding a feature when you’re burned out it’s not a good idea, trust me). When to say “OK, I know I could probably keep working on this game for years, but I must release it now.”

And as player, you need to understand that (in most cases at least) when a developer tells you “sorry but can’t do this”, it’s not because he’s a bastard, he’s lazy, or he necessarily disagrees with your idea: it’s very likely for the reasons stated above.

I’ll end with an analogy because many players find odd that someone would want to stop working on a game, adding new features they suggest because it will likely make the game better. To make a comparison with a game developer, imagine if one day the boss at your daily job calls you and tells you that you should stay in office doing overtime every day for the next month. At the end of that month, and only at the end, you might get paid for the overtime, or not. You don’t know before, but the boss still asks you to do it, insisting saying that “yes, maybe I’ll pay you more”. What would you do?

Now maybe you understand why, sometimes, us developer don’t add all the new features you request, especially if they require a lot of time/money to implement them πŸ™‚

Amber’s Magic Shop postmortem

The light/dark system was one of the most appreciated innovations of Amber’s VN part

First of all, the usual Steam Summer Sale has started and my games are on sale with discounts from 30% to 50%. You can check them out here.

What I learned from making Amber’s Magic Shop

About two months have passed since Amber’s Magic Shop was officially out. The game performed well, as expected, however I want to talk about a specific topic in this post-mortem: the gameplay.

Reading reviews on Steam it’s always enlightening. Apart the usual joke reviews like “Sadly, no.” and a thumb down (ROFL that one was epic) in general you get a good idea why people liked your game or not.

Now in this case, reviews can basically be divided in two: those who played the game mainly for the story, and those who approached the game more for the crafting/sim gameplay. The first group has mostly positive reviews, the second mostly negative πŸ˜€

First of all, I think it was obvious that I wasn’t so arrogant to think to be able to make a game as good as the Atelier series! Fun fact: I started this game, back in 2011, because I noticed that on PC it was missing a crafting/dating sim game like one those.Β  Then, had the usual issues with writers and the game got GREATLY delayed. By Murphy’s law, exactly 2-3 months before Amber was ready, finally the Atelier series appeared on Steam! Perfect timing as always, right? πŸ˜‰

But apart this “bad luck”, my goal was to make a more casual/accessible crafting sim. I was the first to admit that I wasn’t satisfied with the gameplay, and that in future games I will think carefully before adding gameplay.

Of course, don’t get me wrong, there are people who played/liked it. Just last week an user in forums reached level 30… so clearly played the crafting sim a lot! πŸ™‚

Sometimes, less is better

Sometimes even just a map, and story that changes based on the order in which you do things, it’s enough to make a game fun (from Bionic Heart)

I came to this consideration: sometimes, doing less is not necessarily worse, more like the opposite. In future games, either I’ll be very confident about the gameplay I’m going to add to the game or … I wouldn’t even add it! It’s better to have a “plain dating sim” (it’s not a bad thing, really) than spend 3-4 months extra on something that: people who are playing the game only for the story won’t even touch, people who were interested in the gameplay mostly won’t appreciate/like because it’s not “good enough”.

At that point would be better to save my time, and release the game faster and maybe if possible at cheaper price, no? since after all I didn’t have to spend all the time/money to design/code/build a gameplay part.

I still want to have gameplay though

At the times of making it, Spirited Heart gameplay was very complex for a Ren’Py game. Luckily now it’s much easier to do sim games!

When I first started, I always wanted to have a story mixed with gameplay whenever possible. Sometimes the result was good, other times less. But while I want to offer a “VN Mode” for all future games, one of my goals will still be to try to provide some interesting gameplay as well.

Another conclusion I came to recently (not related to Amber but in general), is that unless the writer knows very well the gaming world (and luckily a few of my writers are also players), giving them too much freedom doesn’t always work well. It’s better if I write my own games and then ask an editor to do some heavy editing to turn my mediocre English into a decent prose πŸ˜‰

I believe that this way the end result will be better, with the story more integrated into gameplay (because I can code while I write the story). Also, since I would be writing my own games, once the story is done the only delay would be due to the editing, but luckily that’s a quicker process (the editor doesn’t need to come up with the story, the characters or think how to write a sentence so that makes sense in the gameplay context etc etc).

This is something I want to try too, but of course once I have finished all the current games in progress, and are really many: including the unannounced ones, I have 14 games in progress! Time to trim that number down I think πŸ™‚

Never Forget Me beta + Future romance games

luis

First of all Public Service Announcement: my upcoming otome game “Never Forget Me” is now in beta. The only thing missing is the official game main menu and the theme song. Everything else is there and should be working!

For more info, check the forums: http://www.winterwolves.net/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=3937

Expected final release should be end of month or November at the latest, depending how testing goes (however being a visual novel/dating sim, most of the mistakes could be typos or other minor stuff!).

And now I wanted to talk about a topic I find interesting to me:

Romance in future games

After Heirs & Graces release on Steam, there was an interesting discussion in the community forums. To be honest, I expected a much worse reaction, considering the game topic (yaoi/gay only dating sim). I just deleted a couple of obvious stupid threads but not much.

Anyway, here’s what I’m going to do in future games, regarding the romances.

Finding an audience

The most important thing for an indie dev, is finding the audience, the niche. Either you try to make a game in a popular genre (platformer?) but in that case you have to compete against many top indies (and the chances of succeeding are small) or you can try to cater to a smaller but loyal audience. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.

The question is: there’s a gay/yaoi audience on Steam? probably, but it’s very small. It’s not just Steam though: I sell the games directly, but also on mobile. The result though, is thatΒ  Heirs & Graces did much worse than, for example, C14 Dating, on all platforms.

So if I had to make games for an audience, I would stop making BxB games completely. BUT! There’s a big but πŸ™‚ What is my goal? I think everyone should ask themselves what is their goal in life. I did it when I went indie. Originally, I wanted to make simulations and RPGs. Recently, I still want to make RPGs but also make experiments and story-based games. And regarding the stories, my goal is:

“I want as much people as possible to read my stories”

Yes, as simple as it is, that is my goal. Not because I’m arrogant and I think my stories (and those of my writers) are good or better than anyone else (they’re good though!). But simply because I want everyone to read them.

Now in the case of Heirs & Graces, I think it has one of the most beautiful stories of all my games. The father/son relationship, the fun and sad moments, etc. Not just my opinion, but basically of everyone who played the game. And here’s the problem: many people didn’t play the game because is yaoi only. And they missed a great story. This is bad, but honestly I knew it, it was inevitable, as much as some people wouldn’t play a yuri only game, etc.

What is the solution then? Well, the most obvious solution is to make games in which you can play as male/female, and have all kind of romances! On the other hand, doing such games takes a lot more time, as you can imagine. Also, usually you can’t offer 8+ romances (since you need to write them from the male/female point of view! it’s a LOT of work) and then you have complaints like with SOTW, in which people say that the game could have been better than Loren, but because of the few romances, it isn’t πŸ™

Are they to blame either? No. I can understand that as male straight player, perhaps Krimm is not my kind of romance. Or as female player, I could find Jariel just too “nice” (the DLC changes things quite a lot though!). There’s no one to blame, really.

Finding a compromise

So as author I need to ask myself what is the best thing to do. As you can imagine it’s not like I can do all games with male/female main character AND 4+ romances each gender. Then we have situations like Loren 2, Roger Steel or Undead Lily where the game isn’t ready yet after 3+ years! Doh, insanely huge games takes a lot more time to make! Who would have guessed! haha

However, I think perhaps the best way is to try, whenever possible, to have a male/female main character and at least 2 romances for each gender. Sure, there won’t be as many romances as if the game was otome or yaoi or yuri only, but at least this way there are moreΒ  chances that everyone can read my stories. My main goal.

If someone thinks that having maybe only 2 romanceable characters/combos is too few for a full price game, well they can always wait and buy the game discounted later. But at least they will read the story, as long as there’s at least one romance they’re interested in πŸ™‚

Of course, I have a lot of games I started years ago (some even in 2011… ahem) so for those, they could still be yuri only, no straight male romance, etc. Nothing can be done about this, except finish them as they were originally planned.

But for future games, especially bigger ones, that’s what I’ll try to do πŸ™‚

Size does it matter!

tofuyawn
In the picture above, my cat Tofu is exhausted by the heat

Regarding the blog post title, I am not referring to what you think! I am talking of course about a game’s size πŸ˜‰

From time to time, I get asked the usual question “when game XYZ will be out”. It’s because of that if I made a thread in my forums where I TRY (more or less sucessfully!) to keep track of the status of my various projects: http://winterwolves.net/viewtopic.php?f=33&t=3128

The main thing is, that I think I went a bit overboard with some projects. I won’t make names, but projects which have over 6 love interests… and maybe aren’t even normal dating sim, but RPGs!

I often ask for advice and feedback from users. Many times, it is very useful. Sometimes, not. A classic situation is this: I announce a new game, and a list of romances. Inevitably, someone is unhappy and writes the infamous “aww why I can’t romance character X!? sigh sob”. And too many times I changed my plan, to make everyone’s happy. But it was a bad move πŸ™‚

Of course, it’s all my fault. It’s not like the users know what’s behind making a game or anything. They just look at what they will get, and of course they want more, or they want what they like (a specific character, a romance combo, etc).

Anyway, the thing is simple: you can’t think to have a game of over 100,000 words, or with a crazy amount of romances (8 characters or more) and hope to have it done in a year or so. I mean, it’s possible: look at PSCD! Writer made everything in about a year, over 200k words, 16 romances. Or Queen Of Thieves, under 6 months to write 150k words and 12 romances. But those are exceptions, not the rule πŸ™‚

For example, Roommates took about 2 years to write (2 playable characters and 6 romances), Heirs & Graces too (4 romanceable characters, all yaoi), and so on. It’s very rare that a complex game is written in around a year.

The process itself

I’ll try to explain how it works, “behind the scenes”:

  1. I want to write game XYZ. Sometimes I post in forums/social media, other times people come to me with ideas, etc. Anyway, decision is made to start working on game XYZ.
  2. unless the idea was submitted by a writer, I need to look at the various writers submissions/portfolios before deciding who will write it. Once I decide, I can do on step 3.
  3. writer starts to write game XYZ
  4. writer sends me updates as he/she writes. I read it and give feedback. Usually, all it’s OK though
  5. if all goes well: repeat steps 3-4 until the game script it’s done. Might take a long time, since writing is not like coding, you need to gather inspiration, etc. But usually it’s done.
  6. if something goes wrong: here comes the troubles! It can be any reason. Health issues, daily job, etc. Anything, but there’s something that prevents writer from going on. In this case, I need to repeat step 2, until I find a suitable replacement writer.

Step 6 though can be much harder than it seems. Maybe the new writer is OK with what the other/previous writer did. Or maybe not, so he/she wants to rewrite it from scratch, because is faster, or because the style is too different, etc.

We all know the infamous legend of THE CURSED GAME (which shall not be named). In practice, for that game I repeated the first 4 steps, and then the 6th, for THREE TIMES already. For three times the story was started and then abandoned. And the new writer(s) decided to start from scratch every time… And if steps 1-4 could take 3-4 months each, you can see how it’s easy to “waste” already one year, without making any real progress!

What’s the solution?

Recently I started to think about a way to avoid this. Because it’s becoming a real problem, especially for some bigger games. And I think I got a possible solution: go back to make storyboards myself.

In the past, I used to spend quite some time making a sort of storyboard/draft of the story. In practice a sort of guideline of what happens in each scene. They would look something like this (remember this is my bad writing!):

##SCENE 02 ##
#Time: morning, ice cream shop. Amy is helping Lawrence since she can’t find inspiration to write poetry, besides today seems a very busy day. They’re working, when a customer behaves badly. It can be anything, either he refuses to pay pretending the ice cream is bad, or something else. Should be a petty excuse for not paying. Amy starts arguing with him saying that he must pay, when the man wants to leave, and pushes Amy out of the way. She almost falls down, and is furious. Lawrence runs there, and apologizes for Amy’s behavior and tells the guy that he can go now. The man leaves with a grin.
#CHOICES

Β (yes it’s an excerpt from Never Forget Me storyboard!).

With a clear storyboard, detailing what happens in each scene, even if I have to switch/replace the writer mid way, it should be possible to keep what has been already written, maybe just review the texts, but not discard everything and start from scratch like happened too many times in the past!

I’ll need to spend a bit of my time doing this (Never Forget Me storyboard took me about a month to make) but probably in the long run it will save me a lot of time!

Of course, even using this system, if a game has a lot of romances or two playable genders, it will still take a lot of time to make. There’s no shortcut to write a long AND good story πŸ™‚