Why making RPGs is harder than you might think

First of all, an update – ToA: An Elven Marriage beta could be out this Fall, September or October (much depends on editor right now).

A preview of the game theme song

I’ve been working on this RPG since past year, taking frequent breaks. It’s taking me so long due to my eye issues (now solved in one eye, but likely will need to do surgery on the other as well) and to avoid burn-out. But also because, making RPGs is very very very hard.

Personal quests design and coding

Just an example, I decided to have even in this game the personal quests. Personal quests are optional quests you can do, for each character in your party. In this case, since the party is made of six people, the personal quests are five (I’m excluding the protagonist).

Each quest consist on a unique storyline, takes into account success/fail (you can fail them and still go on with the story) and offers a custom battle and custom item reward (or in Lydia’s case, a custom new book with alchemy recipes).

Now you can clearly understand how much work is that. Think about the scene, write it (2-3k words of length), design new enemies, design the item reward, balance it, etc. All of this for something that’s also completely optional. In the same amount of time, I could surely have written 20,000 words for a “regular” VN!!!

You can easily see that doing a RPGs is much more complex than a simple VN (if you want to do it properly and not just reuse assets, enemies, items, etc). And you can also see why after I make this game, I’ll need to see how it goes before doing more RPGs.

Doing indie RPGs is no longer viable?

a screenshot of Planet Stronghold 2 exploration map

Already after Planet Stronghold 2, which is the most long, and complex game I’ve ever made (easily offering 50h of gameplay) I had my doubts if it was a good move or not to keep going with the RPGs. I decided to do this one because I love doing RPGs and also, because this one is fantasy, vs Planet Stronghold 2 that was sci-fi.

But if even this one will give me disappointing result in sales, then I’ll definitely need to stop and think. I was doing RPGs in the past because each one would earn me from x5 times to x10 times a normal VN. In recent times however, this has changed, especially considering the time spent vs revenues. How? Let me explain.

It’s all about the return of investment (or time)

I’ve already talked about this in the past, but I want to repeat it: even Planet Stronghold 2 sold x3-x4 the amont of a normal VN like the ones I released after (TFTU series, At Your Feet, Volleyball Heaven, etc). So it’s not like the game did badly, not at all. The problem is that took me 1 year full-time to make since I had to do everything myself (design, writing, coding).

For An Elven Marriage I wanted to do it faster, and I tried, but just the design part already took me 4-5 months, and even on the writing side I’m already past 185k words (editing might make it closer to 200k)! Differently from Planet Stronghold 2 though, this time I had Kickstarter funds which will help to recover some of the money and time already invested.

I don’t remember if I already explained this, but for each game I try to keep track of expenses, and the development time (in months, I’m not too accurate). Then, I divide the earnings by the months, getting a sort of “virtual salary”, basically how much I earned each month making that game.

Of course, the longer the development time and the bigger the expenses, the harder is to have a good virtual salary. For example, a simple game like At Your Feet has a higher virtual salary than Planet Stronghold 2… I think I said all lol!

Plan for the future RPGs

Anyway, too early to talk about this. And in any case, don’t worry – I still plan to do all the four Elenor/Saren spin-offs, worse case, they’ll just be simpler VN, or I’ll come up with some other gameplay idea but that’s not as complex as doing a party-based RPG like the one I’m currently doing (an idea could be doing a RPG in which you control just one character and not a party, that would simplify things a lot already I think).

Are there any “real indies” left?

Before getting into this blog post topic, I want to thank everyone who supported my Kickstarter campaign for ToA: An Elven Marriage. If you haven’t and are just waiting for the game to come out on Steam, please wishlist it now!

I know this is a provoking title, but listen to my reasoning first! The term indie means independent. When first started doing this, was also called “Shareware games” back in 2003-04.

TV Station Manager, a game I made back in 2007. I was still using 800×600 resolution!

Back then, you’d make your own game for a few months, release it on some websites, and see if people liked it or not. You had full control over your creative vision.

But things have changed a lot in the last 20 years, from 2003 to 2023. I have many friends in this industry and I know some insider stories. Nowadays, most indie teams create prototypes or “vertical slices” of their games, showing different gameplay elements and stages, and then pitch them to publishers. If a publisher is interested, they fund the development, and there are different types of deals, from upfront payments to milestones and so on.

The details of the deals vary, but that’s not my main point. My main point is that without a publisher’s support, many of those indie teams wouldn’t make their games.

How is this different from being a hired developer? Sure, there is still some degree of independence, but not much. And it’s not just your idea anymore, but also the publisher’s money and influence. Sometimes, publishers even ask for changes in gameplay, characters, art-style, etc.

How is this “artistic”? It seems more like working for someone else to me, someone who can also stop funding you, cancel your project or interfere with your vision (I’ve heard many horror stories about that).

If you consider that, on average, 9 out of 10 indie games on Steam top10 ranking are published by a publisher, you realize how little “independence” is left. Not much, in my opinion.

I’m not saying this business model is bad, obviously it works. Many of those teams are making much more money than I do doing this. And in a way, I do something similar with my crowdfunding campaigns, where I present my idea for a new game to an audience and see if they think it’s worth making. But it’s mostly my fans who support me, and I still have a lot of freedom in making it (how else could I come up with a game like “At Your Feet”??? LOL).

despite what you might think, this game has some nice romantic scenes and varied love interests

In conclusion, I’m just wondering if you can still call yourself indie in this scenario, and if this was a real progress or a regression. In 2003-04 we got rid of the middle-men. Now, 20 years later, they are back. For now I’m still indie, and I hope to stay that way until I retire.

Half-year point of situation

Sometimes when I’m about halfway through a year, like now, I make a sort of “point of the situation”. This is one of those times! I know it’s not the first Friday of the month, but I wanted to write this post now because there are only 48 hours left until the An Elven Marriage Kickstarter campaign ends! Unfortunately, I couldn’t make a fancy cinematic trailer, so I made a simple one where I explain some of the cool features of the game.

The most interesting surprise so far is the “fashion designer” reward (by which you can design your custom outfit for Elenor or Saren). At first, Elenor was leading with 4 against 2, but guess what? Saren is catching up and now it’s a close race with 6 against 5! We have 8 spots available for this reward (both for Elenor and Saren), so don’t miss out!

If you haven’t already you can take a look at the Kickstarter page now!

And now back to this blog topic, but first, a short reminder that all my games are on sale both on itchio: https://winter-wolves.itch.io/ and on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/pub/winterwolves , so if you want to complete the collection or you’re thinking about trying one, now it’s a good moment to do it!

This year’s goals

My goals this year were to finish The Beastmaster Princess (and I did, this Spring), then ToA: An Elven Marriage (Kickstarter is about to end and I’ll be working hard on this one from now on) and I also said that maybe if I had some free time, I’d also try releasing a shorter game, Black Mirror-style (and I did, that game was Save The World).

So you might think that I’m at good point. And well, I am! But in today’s competitive market, you must never rest for a moment. And in the little free time I have, I’m taking the opportunity to plan the next and last Tales From The Under-Realm, which I’ll likely call it “Lilith”, the name of the half-demoness protagonist.

The next Tales From The Under-Realm game

I don’t want to tease too much, also because right now I’m only brainstorming the story. I think it will be the most dark of all my games with… some really terrible stuff happening. But also with possible good endings. This time won’t be a murder mystery, but more like a journey together. Beside Lilith and Evelyn (one of the two love interests) there’ll also be another cute lady, a disciple of Irijo, sort of fallen paladin. There’ll be references to the first game, Hazel and of course to the second (Evelyn was one of the main characters of that game).

I am also planning it in a way that will be possible to have a very detailed threesome story (will probably be a stretch goal). So not something added later but one of the main plot arcs.

Anyway, it’s still very early stages but hope this answers the questions of some people who wondered if I was going to make another game in this series. The answer is yes, of course not this year, but it will happen.

ToA: An Elven Marriage plan

Back to my next big RPG in the works: I don’t have a fixed deadline in mind, but since the editor just sent me the first part of the story fully edited (about 20% of total script) I believe I could have a beta version already this Fall, and my goal would be to finish it this year.

I might delay the Steam release to early next year because you know, there’s the “cursed period” from November to December, in which 150 million games come out so I’d probably avoid that. But aside this, you should definitely be able to play the full game this year or max early next year!

Once this is out, I’ll need a bit of time to recharge but I plan to do the next one in a reasonable amount of time. My ideal goal would be to have the other three remaining spin-off games out every 2 years, which means: Reign of War 2025, Reign of Peace 2027 and Witches Of Unforgiving Swamp 2029… really far away I know, maybe if some of those games won’t be full RPG it could happen sooner, but I need to be careful to not get burned out!

That’s all for now, and thank you for your support!

Save the World is out, and next Kickstarter

My new sci-fi visual novel about aliens, “eating the rich”, and other social themes, Save the World, is now out both on itchio and Steam.

Itchio https://winter-wolves.itch.io/save-the-world

Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/2280370/Save_The_World/

Overall I’m happy how it was received all things considered. It has some very divisive themes (eat the rich, aliens, veganism, etc) and I was sure that it could have been a disaster. Well, it wasn’t, so yay!

If you’re looking for a story very different from anything I’ve done in the past, you should check it out.

Time to roleplay!

And now, back to ToA: An Elven Marriage! That will be the next Kickstarter, live shortly, just waiting to see if I can get a proper trailer video done in time. I’ve been working on it already, but that happens with all my games, that’s why I’m able to finish all the Kickstarted games way before the deadline.

Considering the general collapse of Steam sales, having some KS funds would help me greatly, and let me expand the game with more scenes, quests, items, etc. Make the RPG and story parts bigger.

I also have in mind some interesting stretch goals and reward tiers, including the possibility to design your custom outfit for either Elenor or Saren! So stay tuned!

The Kickstarter will be live in the next few days, meanwhile you can bookmark it here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/winterwolves/tales-of-aravorn-an-elven-marriage

I’ll probably do another extra blog post later this month with some more info about this game even if I’ve already talked about it in several past blog posts.

The end of adult games?

Lately, I have noticed some signs of a potential crackdown on adult games in various online stores. The most recent example is itchio de-listing from search results adult games (or even developers) from their platform. As far as I understand, this means that you can still sell through itchio, but customers can only access your games from external sources (like your own website).

update: Speaking with some devs, seems like itchio delisted adult games from collections when their devs set to 0% the itchio’s cut, which is really understandable. Also, shame on those devs! Itchio desevers some money for their good service!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. In the last few months I’ve heard a lot of stories:

  • the company porting my VN to consoles explicitly said that they don’t allow adult stuff anymore, but not just that. Even small nudity is not allowed, or (depending on the platform) even underwear or revealing outfits…!
  • I know at least three devs (won’t name them but maybe you know them already since are mutual followers on Twitter) who had their games outright REJECTED by Steam. Not even launching! For different reasons, but all tied to the adult content present in them
  • payment processors like Paypal or Stripe never liked adult stuff even before, but seems like they’re becoming even more strict. As you can imagine this has a big impact on selling online

You probably get the idea. Those who have been following me for a long time, since my first VN Heileen in 2008, know very well that adult stuff is not my main focus. I added it to my games in the last few years because many fans requested it, and because realistically games with adult content sell better.

The picture above is from Loren – my first game to have actual nudity. This is the “censored” version of Chambara’s romance scene. Even fully dressed I don’t think the scene loses appeal..

But I always made it optional in my games. I always offered a “clean” or better “mild / non explicit” version of my games, because I know that not everyone enjoys that kind of content.

To be fair, with the exception of a few games (At Your Feet, TFTU series, The Beastmaster Princess) my games never had very explicit stuff going on. But you know how it is, it’s easy to generalize and then someone just having sexy outfits and some tasteful erotica scenes is compared to people doing extreme porn stuff, even if it’s like comparing apple with oranges…

Personally, if I’ll be forced to stop doing adult games, it won’t affect me much because even in my most silly games like At Your Feet, I always put a lot of emphasis on story, character growth, intriguing themes. The sexual element was just an extra thing, not the main point of the story, or at least it could be completely cut out and the games wouldn’t lose all their charm.

I think for now I’m going to leave the already released games as they are and wait to see how things unfold. But for future games I believe I’ll have to say goodbye to erotic stuff. There will be sexy outfits and romance, flirting and sexual jokes (I hope our supreme rulers will still allow us to do that!!!) but I’ll steer clear of anything too risky.

Because in case you don’t remember, just 4-5 years ago Google decided to ban my entire developer account on Android, making me lose a small but decent income stream, because of this very reason. Of course I’m sorry for people who like that kind of content, but if the same thing happened again with itchio or Steam, it would be the end for me.

I am not sure how developers doing full porn stuff can keep doing it, seems so risky right now!